Rob Manfred missed the mark.
The punishment levied against the Houston Astros management is both historic and significant. It is a sentence that many believe is deserving and will serve as a deterrent for future behavior. Except it very well may not be a deterrent because the main culprits, the Houston Astros players, are walking away scot-free. It is hard to curtail crime when the ones who actively break the rules are immune from the consequences. If anything, Rob Manfred’s investigation tells players that you can continue to undermine the integrity of the game because management is the only entity potentially exposed to repercussions.
To be clear, I’m all for gaining competitive advantages within the rules. If a catcher can’t put signs down well enough to hide them from a runner on first, so be it. When a runner on second base can relay signs to a hitter, that is on the pitcher and catcher. If a team can identify a tell in a pitcher’s set up, then the pitcher deserves his fate. However, manipulating available technology and building a communication system through that technology is clearly crossing the line.
The commissioner’s ruling is an important one for institutional checks and balances. It was a clear statement that franchises have to regulate organizational behavior. What it did not do was directly address the act of illegal sign stealing in baseball. The Astros were seemingly punished for allowing the stealing to continue. They were not punished for it happening in the first place. The commissioner took the weakest route possible to give the illusion that he is protecting the game’s integrity.
We need to address the elephant in the room. Manfred granted players immunity (prior to the launch of the investigation) in exchange for honest testimonies for one reason. He didn’t want a fight with the MLBPA. The commissioner did not want to allow the players’ union to have a rallying point in their CBA discussions. Manfred is well aware that he is in a strong position at the bargaining table so weakening that position doesn’t make much sense. Even if it comes at the cost of the sport he represents.
It would’ve been in the best interest of baseball if Manfred invited a fight. Did the Astros players really have that much leverage when clear visual evidence was being revealed on social media every day? Outside of Astros fans, were there people denying what their eyes and ears were telling them? It is really difficult to impose a deterrent to a clear problem in the game when the main perpetrators are immediately protected from punishment. What exactly is the end goal when the threat of consequences is removed from the equation?
Then again, why would any of this ultimately matter to Manfred? He comes out looking like the good guy. He can give the appearance of being really tough on crime. The media can focus on managers and general managers getting fired while completely forgetting about the ones who executed and benefitted from the rule breaking.
These decisions also create a tenuous “adult vs kids” scenario where management is supposed to be the grown ups and the players are the adorable toddlers just being kids by harmlessly drawing pictures on white walls with permanent markers. It is a dangerous and undermining dynamic to create. The players know exactly what they’re doing. They’re going to challenge the limits whenever they can to gain an advantage. This adult vs kids dynamic is even more ridiculous when you consider one of the scheme’s masterminds was a 38-year-old player on his last legs and considered a savant in the industry.
This is not to say Luhnow, Hinch, and Cora don’t deserve their punishments. They absolutely do. You can make the case that their penalties aren’t harsh enough (at least for Luhnow and Hinch). If MLB came down with a John Coppolella-level sentence it would be deserving. It is also laughable that Jim Crane was not only protected in Manfred’s statement but praised for being a good owner. This is the same tone deaf attitude that allows the offenders on the field to get a hall pass. It also keeps the commissioner in the good graces of the almighty owners.
The players needed to be severely punished in this case. A precedent should have been set. The idea that MLB investigators wouldn’t be able to determine which players participated in the scheme is absurd. Lucas Apostoleris was able to hop on YouTube and provide us our first visual evidence of the cheating occurring in real time. Jomboy was able to expand on this and provide more evidence. We can both see and hear the precise moments when the scheme was taking place. We can see when hitters are laying off nasty pitches.
A simple Google search reveals at least some of the players involved. There is no public evidence of AJ Hinch destroying two monitors. Yet there is clear evidence of Evan Gattis and George Springer using the scheme to aid their at-bats. How can Manfred honestly tell the public he couldn’t identify the players who took part when we can see it for ourselves? The decision to grant immunity was strictly a matter of the commissioner not having the fortitude to fight a union that is desperately looking to pick one.
In the context of labor climate and negotiations, this decision makes total sense. The problem is we can’t entirely view this sport through that prism despite MLB being a multi-billion dollar private corporation. MLB is also in the business of competitive integrity. The sport loves to get on its high horse when it comes to steroids and tradition. It loves to remind you of the heroes of yesteryear. When it comes to punishing the cheaters of today MLB decided to cower. The Astros punishment is not truly a deterrent to future sign stealing. It is a relative slap on the wrist that lets players know that you can get away with a lot if you just tell MLB what they want to hear.