Last November I finished my Homeplate entry summarizing the 2019 season and looking forward to 2020 with these thoughts:
“I will also have to deal with the troubling news coming out of the MLB office about the way the Astros may have played the game, this year and in years past. Say it ain’t so, Jeff and A.J.? The ‘Hot Stove’ may have a new meaning this year.”
I made four mistakes in these three sentences. In the first I used the conditional term “may”, and it is now confirmed that there has indeed been a serious problem with the way the Astros have played the game. Secondly, I directed my question to the GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, paraphrasing the famous plea of Chicago Daily News reporter Charley Owens to Shoeless Joe Jackson concerning the Black Sox Scandal of 1919-1920. I should have, like Owens, addressed the Astros players directly, as it is now clear that they were the main actors in this immorality play. The Commissioner’s report states that the sign-stealing scheme was “player-driven and player-executed”, with the exception of bench coach Alex Cora (more about him below).
Thirdly, I should have made my question an imperative command, as Owens likely intended, but one demanding an admission rather than a denial. I have now concluded that the only proper response by the players and the club to the discovery of this scheme, and the only one that could have saved them from this catastrophe, would have been to own it from the beginning. Alas, I didn’t admonish them to do that, and of course they have not done so.
In the five weeks that have passed since the Commissioner’s report was released, Luhnow, Hinch, Cora and Carlos Beltran have all been fired from their MLB jobs. Luhnow and Hinch have been suspended for a year from obtaining new employment in MLB, and Manfred has yet to rule on Cora’s and Beltran’s future in the game. The whistle-blower who leaked the story, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, reports that he has received death threats, as do several of the Astros players. Indeed, the Astros players claim that even their kids have been threatened.
As shocking as those external reactions may be, perhaps the biggest shock of all is that the top players inside MLB have been the most vocal in criticizing the Astros players and even Commissioner Manfred.
Let’s face it, when even Mr. Lunch Pail Good Guy “Idontwanttobethefaceofbaseball” Mike Trout trashes you, you must be among the lowest scum on earth. And when your team nickname is so tainted it is banned from being used in Little Leagues, can the Astros players and franchise ever recover?
As an Astros fan and a student of baseball history, it is not much consolation to recall that there is still a MLB team with the nickname “White Sox.” Even if the Houston franchise continues as is, which it most likely will, the derisive term “Asterisks” may become as familiar in baseball lore as “Black Sox.” The weak (some might say, infuriating) effort of the Astros players and organization to “apologize” for their behavior has only made things worse, further undermining this already preposterous statement in the Commissioner’s report:
“Many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules. Players stated that if Manager A.J. Hinch had told them to stop engaging in the conduct, they would have immediately stopped.”
For what it is worth, Hinch says that he did try to stop the behavior (not hard enough, obviously), but do professional athletes really need an authority figure to enforce the rules and instill a sense of morality? Do they have no self-control or personal accountability? Apparently not. Nor have they shown any remorse if the public statements made by present Astros players is indicative. And this lack of sincerity, or even smugness, has more than anything kept this story alive. And it did not have to be like this.
What a different situation we would have today if the players and Astros owner, Jim Crane, would simply have come out on January 13 and said this:
“It IS so! We did it, and we are really sorry. We apologize collectively and individually and wish that we could take back what we did. Although we don’t think it had a deciding impact on the games we won, we know it was wrong. Therefore, the players involved are voluntarily contributing 50% of their post-season earnings, and the club is contributing another 50%, to be distributed to the charities of the Indians, Yankees and Dodgers choices.
We acknowledge that our 2017 title is tainted and we are determined to come back to the field in 2020 to play the game fairly and to strive to show the world that we are true champions in life – willing to admit when we are wrong, take our punishment and make amends. Again, we acknowledge that our actions were wrong and we ask for your forgiveness, not for our sake but for our families and, most importantly, our fans.”
I honestly believe such an approach could have stopped this debacle almost in its tracks. Alas, the actual reaction has been about as opposite from that approach as possible, and has added fuel to the fire. Accordingly, and despite the passage of forty-five days and the commencement of Spring Training games, the rage shows no signs of cooling. Just Google “Astros” right now and you will see what I mean, if you have not already gotten the message from my links above.
The other players continue to criticize Commissioner Manfred as much as they do the Astros players. The fans and, of course, the pitchers, are just beginning to get their chance to weigh in as the games begin. Dusty Baker has pleaded for Astros batter protection from the Commissioner, and the Astros game-day operations personnel (or, more likely their superiors) have decided to violate the fans’ First Amendment rights by confiscating signs that speak truth. One minor league team is even planning to mock the Astros by giving away talking trash cans. (Ok, a couple more links…)
I heard an unofficial report that trash can lids are banned from FITTEAM Ballpark, the site of the Astros’ and Nationals’ Spring Training camps. I’m guessing that neither signs nor trash can lids will be prohibited at parks around the league once the season begins. And if the MLB Commissioner were to make such a blanket prohibition it would likely make matters worse for him and for MLB as a whole. And frankly, I think things are going to get worse for MLB, anyway, but ironically that may be the best thing that could happen to the Astros.
There is a related unresolved issue here that could have even greater repercussions around the league and perhaps take some of the heat, or at least the spotlight, off of the Astros. That issue, of course, is the on-going investigation into more sign-stealing by the Boston Red Sox. In his report on the Astros, Commissioner Manfred only named two individuals – then Astros bench-coach Cora, and then Astros reserve player Beltran. As to Cora, the report contained this ominous “unfinished business” statement:
“Cora was involved in developing both the 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 DOI completes its investigation of the allegations that the Red Sox engaged in impermissible electronic sign stealing in 2018 while Cora was the manager.”
Cora, as I noted above, has already lost his job as manager of the Red Sox. It is, to me, inconceivable that he will not receive at least a one-year suspension from MLB as did Hinch, and he is likely to receive a much harsher punishment as the ring-leader and repeat offender in a second organization, the Red Sox. Assuming the offenses in Fenway are confirmed (and who can believe now that they did not occur?), it is not hard to envision Cora being handed a spot on MLB’s infamous “permanently ineligible” list. Move over, Peter Edward Rose?
Yet, even bigger news than this possible punishment of Cora is that which may befall the Boston Red Sox. This entire saga began with the Boston team when the Yankees accused them of using technology to steal signs in 2017, while Cora was also committing such sins with the Astros. Commissioner Manfred stated this at the outset of his report on the Astros:
“In August 2017, the Boston Red Sox were caught transmitting sign information from their replay review room to individuals in the dugout wearing smart watches. The incident received significant media attention, and I issued a press release on September 15, 2017 announcing the fine of the Red Sox (and a fine of the New York Yankees for improperly using the replay review room phone)…. Following the issuance of the press release announcing the results of the Red Sox investigation, I issued a memorandum that same day to all Clubs reiterating the rules regarding the use of electronic equipment to steal signs, and putting all Clubs on notice that future violations would be taken extremely seriously by my office.”
The Commissioner’s memo significantly clarified what is and what is not acceptable in this new technological age concerning the age-old endeavor of sign-stealing. The fact that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow failed to even forward the memo to Hinch or hold a clubhouse meeting about it factored heavily in the Commissioner’s punishment of the Houston organization:
“Regardless of the level of Luhnow’s actual knowledge, the Astros’ violation of rules in 2017 and 2018 is attributable, in my view, to a failure by the leaders of the baseball operations department and the Field Manager to adequately manage the employees under their supervision, to establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behavior as soon as it occurred.”
If the new allegations against Boston are confirmed, this sentiment should be doubly applicable to that organization. Indeed, one could wonder whether the Red Sox management sought out Cora for their manager because of his sign-stealing prowess! Cora himself seemed to refer cavalierly to the practice, suggesting on international television that he either shared the skills with, or learned them, from Carlos Beltran.
This clip alone should take the focus off of the Astros solely and expand it to at least BOS and NYY. (Note the reference to a fine the Yankees received in 2017. Should they be under investigation as a repeat offender based on Cora’s insinuation about Beltran?) These suspicions should cause everyone to acknowledge that there is a larger issue at play here.
The Boston organization, at least, should be in line for an even greater penalty than the Astros, again assuming that the new allegations are proven. The delay by the Commissioner’s office in making a final report, causing the process to linger into the Spring Training season, is not good for them or for MLB. Moreover, the delay certainly isn’t good for the Astros, as it leaves them to take all of the storm of criticism for now. Manfred and his staff should do everything in their power to bring the Red Sox investigation and punishment phases to a conclusion before the season actually starts.
This is not to diminish the culpability of the Astros in any respect, but it could add some needed context. The “everybody does it” defense is alive and well, although I do not subscribe to it as an ultimate resolution of the matter. Manfred must, however, fashion his response to the results of the Red Sox investigation in the context of the punishment he assessed against Houston. Does that mean, then, that no Red Sox player has anything to worry about? (Except public opinion, of course, and this is New England, after all, so now worries there.) It seems to me that Manfred has precluded his ability to punish any players with the deal he made with the Astros. He may not have offered such immunity to the Boston players, but that it seems highly unlikely to me. How could he punish players on one team and not on another?
Assuming the players are immune, what should the institutional punishment be for a recidivist organization? Assess double the Astros’ fine, increasing it to $10 million? Remove twice the draft picks taken from the Astros, thus eliminating BOS’s 1st and 2nd round picks for the next four years? Actually forfeiting the 2018 World Series championship? Many fans want the title forfeiture punishment inflicted on the Astros, so wouldn’t Boston be even more deserving?
Since Manfred concluded that he could not make such a ruling in the Astros’ case, I assume, like foregoing player punishment, he will not void the Red Sox title. However, perhaps he could borrow a remedy from the NCAA and prospectively ban the Red Sox from post-season play for a year or even two. Unlike with most NCAA punishments, the Boston players culpable for the infractions are mostly still around to suffer some of the punishment. Did Manfred think about this option when he considered punishment for the Astros? If he could not bring himself to overrule the historical outcome on the field, why not take away the opportunity for a title in the future? If he did that to the Red Sox, could he adequately defend himself against criticism that the Astros should have received the same treatment? Could he even reopen the Astros case because of the pressure from other MLB players? Again, the players are the ones keeping up the pressure on Manfred. What a different world we have here from the PED years when the players remained silent and the MLBPA stonewalled any investigation.
So, much today remains open to debate, and so much pressure builds on the Commissioner, which brings me back to my third sentence from November 15. I was again wrong to use the conditional “may” when suggesting that the ‘Hot Stove’ may have a new meaning. This off- season the ‘hot stove’ has been use for frying the Astros rather than cooking up a new roster that could win a World Series. It has also been more like a crucible for Rob Manfred.
As I discussed in my 2018 year-end post, Fields of Change, the Commissioner was in an extremely difficult position even before this most recent scandal struck on his watch. https://babesbaseball.wordpress.com/2018/12/31/fields-of-change-2019/. Even though it had three more years to run, the MLBPA was already gearing up to fight the owners over the terms of a new Basic Agreement at the end of 2021. I suggested that Manfred would be the key player in that negotiation, and that he had his work cut out for him as the players association had grown critical of the owners and of Manfred. Not long after that column the owners and the MLBPA made the surprising announcement that they were going to open the collective bargaining early, two years early, which signaled clearly that both sides understand this will be a long and difficult negotiation. Apparently, it started off exactly that way, with Commissioner Manfred stating a very hard line on behalf of the owners, which no doubt caused the players’ representatives to push back just as hard, which in my mind ties that conflict to the sign-stealing scandal.
The Commissioner’s stature among the players is now further diminished, and may diminish still more depending on the resolution of the Red Sox investigation. This is likely to complicate the negotiating process for Mr. Manfred and the owners. Further, the criticism leveled by top players in the league at the Astros players, who themselves are some of the top players in the league, may cause the MLBPA to fracture and likewise complicate the bargaining for the players. When you have two wounded sides in a negotiation one of two things can occur: either a) the weakness of both sides leads to a quick settlement as each side seeks to avoid a collapse of its position internally, or b) one or both sides holds out for the collapse of the other party, sensing an opportunity to gain a major victory in the negotiations. Given that the MLBPA had already begun to prepare for a work stoppage even before the bargaining was commenced, it seems unlikely that even internal bickering will change their resolve. If the negotiations do not produce a new agreement on time, and the players do not agree to work without a contract, then the owners are likely to lock the players out of Spring Training in February, 2022, a date at which Luhnow and Hinch, and perhaps Cora and Beltran, would be eligible to return to MLB positions (an interesting sideshow, to be sure).
So, it is quite the fine mess the players and the owners and the Commissioner have gotten themselves into. Many of the elements of the conflict were present before Mike Fiers revealed the Astros’ secret to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic on November 12, 2019, but that conversation brought them all into brighter focus and into an extremely fragile alignment. It would be ironic, indeed, if the ultimate consequence of the Astros’ scheme, and their failure to genuinely repent of it or be fairly punished for it, were to be an ugly labor dispute and the protracted cessation of games, something we have not seen since 1994-95, and we all remember what happened then.
My first thought when news of the Commissioner’s report on the Astros’ conduct broke was that once again life had reaffirmed my theology. The Biblical passage, “there is no one righteous, not even one; no one seeks for good,” came to mind immediately. (Psalm 14:1; Romans 3:10). Despite the high outward “likeability” of the Astros players such as Altuve, Springer, Bregman, Reddick and others, the truth was that on the inside they were just as fallen as the rest of us, willing to do what they knew was wrong in order to obtain fame and fortune – not the original sin, but certainly not an original story.
Then I thought about unconditional forgiveness and the redemption that comes with confession and repentance, and I waited for the players and the organization to follow the Biblical example (which, whether you are religious or not, you have to admit was the smart way to go, and it would likely be recommended by any PR expert in the country except for the one that the Astros hired). Well, I’m still waiting forty-five days later for this right and proper response, and while I wait I can’t help but think again of the 1919 Black Sox.
© JSR – 2020