NORTH PORT, Fla. – On a warm and breezy evening, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred stood at a podium perched atop the Atlanta Braves’ gleaming, new spring-training facility and stated what, in a typical year, would be the obvious.
“We will,” Manfred told an eager throng of news media, “play baseball this year.”
Forgive the commish for stating the obvious. It’s been one week since spring-training camps opened, yet the game remains consumed by the electronic sign-stealing scandal that tainted the Houston Astros’ 2017 World Series title and truncated – possibly ended – the careers of four accomplished baseball officials.
Sunday, Manfred admitted it will be impossible to put the Astros’ misdeeds to bed – the club’s numerous public relations missteps helped ensure that – and aimed to clarify or contextualize the biggest scandal this game has seen since at least the steroids era and perhaps further back.
‘Got to be a tough spot’:Ex-Astros pitcher Will Harris finds himself in strange situation with Nationals
Trevor Bauer rips Astros for scheme:‘They are hypocrites, they are cheaters’
So, first in a 45-minute ESPN interview and then in an annually scheduled session with reporters in Florida for spring training, Manfred tried lurching the game toward closure, announcing a series of soon-to-be-implemented measures to safeguard the game from technology-driven cheating, while knowing he has no control over where this news cycle is going.
Not when All-Stars and MVPs are sniping at each other daily, from the Dodgers’ Camelback Ranch facility in Phoenix to the compound the Astros and reigning champion Washington Nationals share in West Palm Beach, where on Sunday veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki admitted to reporters he was getting too old for this.
Not when the Boston Red Sox still await punishment for their own sign-stealing scandal that encompassed the 2018 season.
And not when hundreds of players and thousands of fans remain highly unsatisfied that Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve and George Springer and Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick will play this 2020 season unpunished, their 2017 championship rings safely stored away and the 2017 World Series trophy firmly in the grasp of owner Jim Crane, whose greatest accomplishment since that season appears to be tossing gasoline on public-relations fires.
Suspensions? No. Manfred, instead, wants fans to believe that a collective walk of shame throughout the 2020 season will suffice as punishment.
“The one thing I do take issue with,” Manfred said, “is the notion anyone in the Houston organization escaped punishment.
“It is rare you have punishment you will live with for the rest of your life.”
Yet how tangible can that punishment be when remorse, particularly within the Astros clubhouse, is on a sliding scale?
And while Altuve has said the lack of evidence in Manfred’s eight-page report that he wore an electronic buzzer during this past season – including his much-discussed pennant-winning walk-off home run that has turned into baseball’s version of the Zapruder Film – the commissioner acknowledged he has been disappointed that Altuve can’t offer a simple “No,” in response to those inquiries.
Even as he admitted MLB’s investigators have nothing on the buzzer front.
“The players were candid about violating the rules in 2017 and 2018,” says Manfred, “and equally consistent in the denials about this buzzer allegation.
“Can I tell you I’m 100% sure? I can never be 100% sure.”
Meanwhile, two Astros baseball operations employees who played a role in the sign-stealing system – one of which developed a system known as “Codebreaker” to help steal opponent signs – remain employed by the team. Manfred noted again that the yearlong suspensions of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow – both subsequently fired – and dismissals of Red Sox manager Alex Cora and Mets manager Carlos Beltran were “a pretty serious deterrent” for potential rules breakers.
Yet Tom Koch-Weser and Derek Vigoa both remain Astros employees, Manfred once again referring to them as “relatively junior employees” and leaving their future in the Astros’ hands.
“Jim Crane was very clear to me,” new Astros GM James Click said Sunday after Manfred’s address, “that we’re going to fix this. And that’s my job, to move this organization forward and make sure this kind of stuff never happens again. And that’s what we’re committed to.”
Yet, as detailed by the Wall Street Journal, Koch-Weser and Vigoa’s actions were communicated to the Astros in early January. If a club wants to eradicate a culture of cheating, would that not include ridding the organization of remaining cheats?
“I’d like to think,” Click said, “that people can learn, that with better leadership, they can be valuable employees. At the same time, I’m not naïve. There will be absolutely no tolerance for that kind of behavior in the Houston Astros organization ever again.”
Sounds like a no.
For MLB’s part, Manfred said Sunday the league will soon, pending union negotiations, implement “serious restrictions on player and player personnel to have video access in game,” this after the video room was exploited by the Red Sox and Astros in recent seasons. And that they will monitor conversations on bullpen telephones.
He also warned teams that seeking vigilante justice against the Astros will also be met with discipline.
“I hope I made it extremely clear that retaliation will not be tolerated,” says Manfred. “It is dangerous and it is not helpful to the current situation.”
That, too, could open up another area of player and perhaps fan frustration: That those seeking a pound of flesh within the traditional realm of baseball’s white lines will receive more punishment than the many Astros whose craven actions tainted a championship.
Tight spot, eh?
“They had an obligation to play by the rules, and they didn’t do it,” Manfred said of the Astros. “I understand when people say the players should have been punished because they did not do the right thing.
“If I was in a world where I could have found all the facts without granting immunity, I would have done that.”
But baseball is far from perfect, a fact driven home a little too harshly as winter refuses to yield to another spring.