MLB's Ruling on Cheating Scandal Leaves Astros Reeling, Alex Cora on Thin Ice

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJanuary 13, 2020

Jeff Luhnow, the now-ex-general manager of the Houston Astros.
Jeff Luhnow, the now-ex-general manager of the Houston Astros.Associated Press

Faced with the defining moment of his tenure amid one of the most important moments in MLB history, Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday swung for the fences and sent the Houston Astros into orbit.

No further trash cans were damaged in the process, but the stiff punishment should be enough to encourage 29 other clubs to now view digital thievery much the same way they view the inside of a dumpster.

The long-anticipated reckoning for the Astros regarding their systemic digital cheating and stunning disobedience of a 2017 Manfred directive came swiftly and strongly.

Houston was hit with a $5 million fine (the maximum allowed under the major league constitution), one-year suspensions for both general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager AJ Hinch, the forfeitures of both first- and second-round picks in 2020 and 2021 and the placement onto baseball's ineligible list of former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman.

Then, furthering what will be recorded as one of the game's most extraordinary days, Houston owner Jim Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch on the spot.

Quick, bloodless and staggering, all of it.

Bottom line is, it was imperative that MLB hit the Astros hard because all this, at heart, is an integrity-of-the-game issue. It's the entire reason Manfred's office exists. The commissioner's office was created in 1920 in direct response to the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the fixing of a World Series. The lords of the game knew that if fans do not feel like what they're watching is believable and true, then the game eventually will wither and die.

A century later, that still stands. Talk to the Los Angeles Dodgers and their fans about integrity and the believability, in hindsight, of portions of their World Series losses in 2017 (to the Astros) and 2018 (to the Boston Red Sox). As this fast-moving scandal, fueled by veteran pitcher and whistleblower Mike Fiers, devoured the winter and the investigation went deeper, action was required.

So Manfred's choice was easy, and it really wasn't even a choice: Go light, try to smooth things over with the Astros and then sit back and listen to the eye-rolls across the game as everybody else figures the coast is clear for them to fire up more cheating computers and monitors...or make damn sure you make your best point possible so the rest of the cheaters and would-be rule-breakers in the game stand down.

And on the off chance the message still isn't fully realized, stay tuned: MLB's parallel investigation of the Red Sox is underway, and included in Manfred's ruling Monday was an ominous warning for Sox manager Alex Cora, who was an Astros coach in 2017:

"Cora was involved in developing both the [trash-can] banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs. Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players' conduct. I will withhold determining the appropriate level of discipline for Cora until after the [Department of Investigations] completes its investigation of the allegations that the Red Sox engaged in impermissible electronic sign stealing in 2018 while Cora was the manager."

Measure that next to the findings against Hinch, whom the report says "neither devised the banging scheme nor participated in it. Hinch told my investigators that he did not support his players decoding signs using the monitor installed near the dugout and banging the trash can, and he believed that the conduct was both wrong and distracting. Hinch attempted to signal his disapproval of the scheme by physically damaging the monitor on two occasions, necessitating its replacement. However, Hinch admits he did not stop it and he did not notify players or Cora that he disapproved of it."

That, and Hinch still is on ice for a year, the longest managerial suspension since Pete Rose was permanently barred from baseball in 1989.

Astros manager AJ Hinch was suspended for the 2020 season by Major League Baseball on Monday before being fired by Houston owner Jim Crane soon after.
Astros manager AJ Hinch was suspended for the 2020 season by Major League Baseball on Monday before being fired by Houston owner Jim Crane soon after.David Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Multiple industry sources told B/R on Monday that they expect Cora's suspension to be longer than Hinch's, and there is an expectation that Cora, like Hinch, very well might be whacked. Hey, the Astros set the precedent.

There will be a hard-core group of fans—say, especially, those of the Dodgers, Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and AL West teams, clubs Houston laid waste to these past few seasonsthat think the Astros got off easy. There always is.

But, on that point, a couple of things.

The $5 million fine not only is the maximum allowed under the major league constitution, but the constitution was also just rewritten and ratified, and the new version went into effect Jan. 1. As recently as December, the most a club could be fined was $2 million. Consequently, by definition, this was the largest fine ever absorbed by an organization.

The stripped draft picks in 2020 and 2021 are significant. Those are what grabbed the attention, as much as anything else, of several baseball operations folks throughout the game Monday. Houston bragged hard under Luhnow about its singular genius in stripping down to its studs and rebuilding with draft picks, but good luck doing anything close in the near future.

And as for the idea that the Astros players themselves escaped punishment, what Manfred clearly was leaning into was what the NCAA refers to as "lack of institutional control." Plus, any punishment of players almost certainly would result in grievances filed on their behalf by the players' union, which would have further extended the scandal, easily into the 2020 season. By taking this route, it is over and done with before spring training and the new season.

"I will not assess discipline against individual Astros players," Manfred wrote in his statement. "I made the decision in September 2017 that I would hold a Club's General Manager and Field Manager accountable for misconduct of this kind, and I will not depart from that decision."

Leadership is critical to the game's integrity: Not always does cheating start at the top, but it can and should be stopped by those at the top. Luhnow denied knowledge of the sign-stealing and trash-can-banging schemes all the way through the investigation despite "both documentary and testimonial evidence that indicates Luhnow had some knowledge of those efforts, but he did not give it much attention." Sounds like the textbook definition of someone striving for plausible deniability.

Speaking shortly after MLB's discipline was issued, Crane explained his firing of Luhnow and Hinch by saying, "I have higher standards for the city and the franchise."

He would not admit, however, that Houston's 2017 World Series title is tainted.

"Absolutely not," Crane said.

Which begs the question that if the Astros were not seeking to gain a competitive advantage, then why did they even concoct this scheme?

Of course their World Series title is tainted.

But at this point, it's all about changing the course of the future, not the past. We all watched the University of Louisville beat Michigan in the 2012-13 NCAA men's basketball championship, and then two Februaries ago, the NCAA stripped Louisville of its title in the wake of the Rick Pitino scandal. Ridiculous. There would be little satisfaction today if MLB suddenly took Houston's '17 title and pretended it didn't happen.

In a B/R digital thievery story published as the playoffs began in October, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, responding to a question regarding whether he saw things during the '17 World Series that made him suspicious, paused for several seconds.

"I think," he finally said, "the Astros did everything they possibly could to give themselves the best chance for success."

Red Sox manager Alex Cora, whom Major League Baseball stated was involved with the Astros' cheating scheme when he was a bench coach for Houston in 2017, is expected to face a suspension possibly longer than what Hinch received Monday.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora, whom Major League Baseball stated was involved with the Astros' cheating scheme when he was a bench coach for Houston in 2017, is expected to face a suspension possibly longer than what Hinch received Monday.Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Thing is, earlier that season, the Red Sox were busted for using an Apple watch in the dugout during a game with the Yankees, and on Sept. 15 of that summer, Manfred sent a strong memorandum to all 30 clubs spelling out some penalties for digital cheating.

From Monday's report: "Notwithstanding the publicity surrounding the Red Sox incident, and the September 15th memorandum that I sent to all Clubs, the Astros continued to both utilize the replay review room and the monitor located next to the dugout to decode signs for the remainder of the regular season and throughout the Postseason."

With these sanctions, which fall in line with the warnings Manfred issued all the owners at their recent meetings, the message should be very clear to the Astros and to all other clubs: Society and the game may be knee-deep into the digital age, but everyone must play by the same rules. The Astros just learned that. The Red Sox may be next.

   

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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