Good Signs: Rob Manfred’s Handling of the Astros

“I think Pandora’s box has been opened, and misery loves company..”

– Karl Ravech

… Don’t make me agree with the Ravi-Train. The thing is though, he’s right. Just as everyone was saying their fond farewells to a decade of baseball that seemed to right the ship a bit, after the turbulent 90’s and 2000’s, the Houston Astros decide to uncork a bottle of scandal and spray it all over everyone in sight. Thanks to a technologically driven sign stealing system, we now have, in many peoples minds, a tainted World Series.

And, well… they’re right.

I’m not going to debate whether or not the system worked. There’s simply no way to tell definitively that players knowing what pitch was coming actually gave them a competitive edge, and depending on your source, you can get a wildly broad range of answers.

What I’d like to point out, is the commendable work of commissioner Rob Manfred in navigating the minefield that the Astros had laid for him. I’ve often been very critical of the current commish, accusing him of being obtuse, irrational, and a poor steward of the games overall image, so trust me, this wasn’t my first instinct. Credit where it’s due though, and it is due in this particular case.

He Set a Realistic Precedent

The fact is, this type of behavior is just an extreme example of a fairly standard practice. There’s a lot of verifiable information out there that says most, if not every MLB team is trying to grab the catchers signs. It’s one of those “frowned upon, but not illegal” things. Where the Astros actually ran afoul was the extremes that they took it to, and how they utilized technology to extract this information. Manfred knew two things when he levied one year suspensions on AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnlow:

  1. There WILL be others
  2. Make THE OWNERS run them out of the game, not him.

This thought process was only further validated when Houston ownership fired Hinch and Luhnlow roughly 90 minutes after Manfred’s announcement, and Alex Cora (bench coach for the Astros and alleged architect of the sign stealing system) resigned under pressure. The Mets are currently wrestling with what to do with their new Manager, Carlos Beltran, who was a player on that now infamous Astros team. In a brilliant political move, he brought the offenders to the town square, and left the owners to drop the axe. Now it’s up to the teams to decide, if after a year, they’re willing to take on AJ Hinch, now an enabler of cheating, and all the negative PR that’s going to come with a guy who was (until this point) one of the most respected managers, and most beloved people in the game today. You could say the same about Alex Cora and Beltran. Likable, easy going, well respected individuals that have the prowess and knowledge to help teams, blacklisted by the owners, not the commish.

He Kept the Players Out of It

OK, I acknowledge this wasn’t the most satisfying move, but it was absolutely the smartest. The fact is, the players were the actual perpetrators in this scheme, and they deserve some kind of recourse. They, in a sense, got away with it, and their manager(s) paid the price.

That being said, this was the most interesting part of what Manfred did here. For a guy that i’ve accused of having no foresight, he really thought this one through. He didn’t punish the players, because he needs the players. If this continues to spiral out of control, and more and more teams get caught up in accusations of cheating (however valid they are, or where they fall on the “spectrum”), the game will need to recover from this. A players strike would make that awfully difficult right?

As already tense CBA negotations continue careening towards the expiration of the current deal (in 2021), Manfred is squaring up against the strongest union in the sports world, and players have already hinted that a strike could be on the table. Those fans that were kids through the strike of 1994 are older now, and most of them of ticket-buying age. They remember the anger and disdain for both sides that oozed from that conflict, and the lasting damage that it left. This isn’t the time to go head up with the MLBPA, especially with (as I alluded to earlier) a pit that we may not have found the bottom yet. Doing so could not only cast a bad look upon the game itself, but would give the players enough ammunition to strike when the new CBA expires. Baseball is fighting for market share in an overcrowded entertainment landscape, and this is simply not the time to make that sort of statement. He did the players a solid, and offered managements heads on a pike for the fans.

He’s Not going to Abdicate Titles

Despite some silliness from the Los Angeles city council, that idea was dispatched without much second thought because… well, it’s dumb. If that’s the case, go back and re-write the 1919 World Series history, break apart the Braves consecutive title runs (they were trailing the Expos when the players strike ended the 1994 season), and go back and take away all of Barry Bonds’s MVP awards. Baseball isn’t the NCAA.

The fact is, there’s a LOT to not like about Manfred’s time overseeing the game of baseball, trust me. I get it. This, however, you have to admit, he got it right.

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