“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, he’s right. Just as everyone gave their fond farewells to a decade of baseball that seemed to right the ship after the turbulent ’90s and 2000s, the Houston Astros decided 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 people’s 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 the coming pitch actually gave them a competitive edge. And depending on the source, you can get a wildly broad range of answers.
What I’d like to point out, instead, is commissioner Rob Manfred’s commendable navigation of the minefield that the Astros 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 game’s 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 behavior is just an extreme example of a fairly standard practice. Verifiable information out there tells us that most, if not all MLB teams, are trying to grab catchers’ signs. It’s one of those “frowned upon but not illegal” things. Where the Astros actually ran afoul was the extreme they took it to, and how they utilized technology to extract the information. Manfred knew two things when he levied one-year suspensions on AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow:
- There will be others
- Make the owners run them out of the game, not me
This thought process was further validated when Houston’s ownership fired Hinch and Luhnlow roughly 90 minutes after Manfred’s announcement, and Alex Cora (Astros bench coach 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 Beltrán, 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 Hinch, with all of his negative PR. He was previously one of the most respected managers, and one of the most beloved people, in the game, but he’s now known as an enabler of cheating. You could say the same about Cora and Beltrán: likable, easy going, well-respected individuals who have the prowess and knowledge to help teams. And they’ll potentially be 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 perpetrators in this scheme, and they deserve some kind of penance. They got away with it, in a sense, and their managers paid the price.
That said, what Manfred did was interesting. For a guy I’ve accused of lacking 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 teams get caught up in accusations of cheating (however valid, and however they fall on the “spectrum”), the game will need to recover. A players’ strike would make that awfully difficult, right?
As already tense CBA negotations careen toward the 2021 expiration of the current deal, 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. Fans who were kids through the strike of 1994 are older now, and most of them are ticket-buying age. They remember the anger and disdain for both sides that oozed from that conflict, and the damage that it left. This isn’t the time to go heads up with the MLBPA, especially with a pit that we’ve yet to find the bottom of. Doing so would not only give the game itself a bad look, but would give players 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 management heads-on-pikes for the fans.
He’s not going to Abdicate Titles
Despite some silliness from the Los Angeles city council, that idea was summarily dispatched because . . . well, it’s dumb. If that’s the case, go back and rewrite the 1919 World Series history, break apart the Braves’s 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. You have to admit, however: he got this right.