MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred Is the Other Big Loser in the Astros Scandal

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 18, 2020

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 10: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the 2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on December 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

More than a month has passed since Major League Baseball punished the Houston Astros for their sign-stealing scheme, yet the scandal is refusing to blow over.

You know who isn't helping? MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

The pressure was on Manfred to ease tensions in the wake of the Astros' tone-deaf apologies on Thursday and Cody Bellinger and Carlos Correa's exchange of barbs on Friday and Saturday. The commish attempted to do so Sunday in an interview with ESPN's Karl Ravech and in a press conference with other reporters, including MLB.com's Richard Justice.

Manfred answered questions ranging from why Astros players escaped punishment and why Houston's 2017 World Series championship wasn't vacated to why he's confident that the team was cheating only in 2017 and 2018—both in the regular season and postseason of the formerand not in 2019.

In other words, the very questions that were on the minds of, oh, everyone. It's too bad, then, that Manfred's answers answers were mostly unsatisfying or unconvincing.

Take, for starters, why he declined to penalize Astros players despite hitting the organization with a $5 million fine and forfeited draft picks, while also banning general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch (both of whom the Astros later fired) for one year. 

Unrest about this is only growing as more and more players report to spring training. Even normally milquetoast Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout sounded off Monday:

Manfred told Ravech that "in a perfect world," Astros players indeed would have been punished for their role in the team's sign-stealing scheme, which involved using a video replay monitor to decode signs and subsequently communicate upcoming pitches with bangs on a trash can in the dugout.

However, he also indicated it's good enough that they're being pummeled in the court of public opinion.

"I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have paid a price," Manfred told Ravech. "To think they're skipping down the road into spring training, happy, that's just a mischaracterization of where we are."

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Manfred also noted (h/t Mike Axisa of CBSSports.com) that he had to grant Astros players immunity to get their testimonies. He likewise clarified to Ravech that the buck stopped with Luhnow for failing to drive home the gravity of the warning against electronic sign-stealing that MLB sent out in September 2017.

But while these are fair points, they also clash with Manfred's initial emphasis that the Astros' sign-stealing scheme was "player-driven." If he didn't want them to be perceived as the main villains of this scandal, he shouldn't have been so eager to put devil horns on them in the first place.

This is especially true in light of what Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal reported about how Houston's sign-stealing operation actually originated in Houston's front office, and that Manfred found out about it. But rather than attempt to explain why he glossed over that in his official findings, Manfred instead chided Diamond for reporting it.

In any case, the full scope of the Astros' wrongdoing is clearer now than it was in January. That makes it fair game to ask why the league declined to vacate their victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. 

As Manfred told Ravech, he concluded that such an extreme measure was a bridge too far:

"It has never happened in baseball. I am a believer in the idea that precedent happens and when you deviate from that, you have to have a very good reason. The report gave people a transparent account of what went on. We put people in position to make their own judgments about the behavior that went on. That certainly has happened over the last month."

He also added: "The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act."

Unsurprisingly, Manfred's diminishing of the Commissioner's Trophy down to "a piece of metal" isn't going over well. Take it from Dodgers star Justin Turner, via Jorge Castillo of the Los Angeles Times:

Regarding Manfred's hangup on the lack of precedent for stripping a team of a World Series title, Turner had more pointed words for Andy McCullough of The Athletic: "There's no precedent because no one's ever done [what the Astros did] before. He just set a soft precedent for how to handle this situation."

Manfred's allusion to the unofficial asterisk that's now on Astros' 2017 title has merit. But judging from the anger emanating from Turner, Yu Darvish (here) and many more players (here) from across MLB, Manfred apparently underestimated how well an official rebuke of Houston's ill-begotten championship would have been received.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 01:  Yu Darvish #21 of the Los Angeles Dodgers reacts after George Springer #4 of the Houston Astros hit a two-run home run during the second inning in game seven of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on November 1, 2017 in
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Can Manfred at least reassure everyone that the Astros weren't still cheating en route to their 107 wins and American League pennant in 2019, perhaps via electronic buzzers hidden under their uniforms?

According to Justice, the commissioner noted that the witnesses the league interviewed were "equally consistent in [their] denials" of such allegations. Had he left it at that, well, so be it.

Instead, he went on to do some curious mental gymnastics:

"I think in my own mind, it was hard for me to figure out why they would tell us, given that they were immune, why they would be truthful, admit they did the wrong thing in '17, admit they did the wrong thing in '18 and then lie about what was going in '19. Now, can I tell you that I'm 100 percent sure about that? You're never 100 percent sure in any of these things, but that was my best judgment."

Let this be a lesson for how not to squash a conspiracy theory.

All Manfred had to do was stand by his investigation and emphasize that there isn't any real evidence that the Astros weren't on the level in 2019. Instead, he effectively permitted everyone to keep speculating.

Per Jack Curry of the YES Network, New York Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres is already on it:

To give credit where it's due, Manfred did have solid answers for other questions. Though Mike Clevinger (here) and Ross Stripling (here) may not want to hear it, he rightfully said that retaliatory beanballs for Astros hitters "will not be tolerated," per Justice. He also said there will be "really serious restrictions" on players' access to video equipment during games.

But if they weren't already there before, cracks in Manfred's handling of and messaging about the Astros scandal definitely appeared Sunday. And since it's now too late for him to salvage either, this particular test of his leadership belongs in the file marked "Bungled."

So it goes for Manfred as he embarks on his sixth year as MLB commissioner.

Though MLB is raking in revenue, it's also mired in a nasty spat with Minor League Baseball and is possibly headed for a work stoppage in 2021. In addition to cheating scandals, the league's on-field woes also include inconsistent performance on the part of the baseball itself. Oh, and the league's proposal for playoff expansion has been widely panned.

Manfred's best hope of scoring political points in the near future hinges on his nearly finished investigation into sign-stealing allegations against the Boston Red Sox. For both MLB's sake and his own, he may deem it necessary for their punishment to exceed their crimes.

For the moment, however, he's making it hard to think that baseball is in good hands.

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