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The Rob Manfred Conundrum

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Rob Manfred is the perfect embodiment of sports in 2020.

There has never been a time in American professional sports when the intent of owners and league executives is more clear. Similar to the office of President in the minds of some men, sports are an incredible avenue to generate profit. Team owners laugh and scoff at the idea of winning championships. Their grins spread from ear to ear at the thought of the earnings their shiny toys generate. These are savvy businessmen who largely view the franchises we love as nothing more than an additional stream of income. And despite being totally unable to increase the popularity and relevance of his sport, Rob Manfred makes his bosses very happy. He has secured lucrative TV and licensing deals among other revenue-producing ventures. In some ways, Manfred’s reign is a rousing success.

Life would be great if all of our jobs were that simple. We make our bosses happy and sometimes we reap the rewards (at least during “normal” times). The issue for Manfred is his responsibility extends beyond making money hand over fist for billionaires. The commissioner is the steward of competitive integrity for the league. In order for business to maintain public trust, he or she needs to ensure that the product on the field is fair. The Apple Watch offense, the Houston Astros’ scandal, and the Boston Red Sox sign-stealing scheme are clear demonstrations that Major League Baseball has a cheating problem. The league is like the Ashton Kutcher of pro sports. The foundational integrity of the game is at stake. And yet, Manfred is seemingly content with doing the absolute least to protect it.

It is hard to imagine someone dropping the ball in two significant investigations. At the very least, the first probe should have been a roadmap for the second one. Instead, the Boston “punishment” is impressively weaker than the Houston punishment. In fact, the details of the Red Sox investigation slightly suggest the players were in some way victims of the cheating scheme. This is a quote from Manfred’s statement:

I feel bound by the agreement not to impose discipline on Red Sox players who testified truthfully in this matter. Even if I were not so bound, I do not believe that the Red Sox players who suspected that Watkins used game feeds to decode sign sequences should be held responsible for his conduct. Watkins knew of the rules and was responsible for not utilizing the replay system to decode sign sequences. Some players may have suspected that Watkins was using the replay system improperly, but they did not know that with certainty. Others had no idea how Watkins obtained the sign information. 

Rob Manfred

In Rob Manfred’s absurdist world, the video replay system operator is a bigger culprit than the players on the field. The idea that some players “suspected” Watkins was up to something but didn’t know for sure is laughable. Was Watkins simply a connoisseur of sign stealing? Was he building up his resume to be the future manager or general manager of the Houston Astros? Are we really to believe the video replay system operator wasn’t in partnership with at least one Red Sox player in a sign-stealing scheme? As my grandmother likes to say, I was born at night, but not last night.

The commissioner can’t help but view his decisions through the lens of labor. I’ve said this in a previous column, but it bears repeating. Manfred will do everything he can to limit the leverage of the players union. He granted the Astros and Red Sox players immunity in exchange for open testimony so the Players Association didn’t have a rallying cry for future collective bargaining. Despite their collective public denouncement of the Astros cheating scheme, there is no way the players would accept the precedent of historical player suspensions. It wouldn’t bode well for the future of their union members. As it currently stands, the owners are in the driver’s seat when it comes to CBA negotiations. The union has weak leadership. Manfred doesn’t want to give the players a lifeline. The rationale makes total sense, but it comes at the cost of the game he leads.

All of this begs the question, what are Rob Manfred’s intentions? Is he just an extension of the owners’ desire to cash in on the game? Does he genuinely care about the health of the sport? Is he at all interested in moving the game forward? It is becoming painfully obvious that Rob Manfred lacks vision. The obsession with pitch clocks, mound visits, and three batter minimums is nothing more than window dressing for an utter lack of progressive thinking to make the game better.

Under Manfred’s watch, we’re experiencing the major league version of corporate profit margins, downsizing, and lack of awareness. We’re witnessing a broken free agent and arbitration system. Minor League baseball will soon lose multiple affiliations. The amateur draft, under the guise of the coronavirus pandemic, will almost certainly cut down its rounds in the years to come. The sport has yet to make inroads in black communities and it severely lacks mainstream stars.

And yet, financially the game has never been healthier. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the revenues were pouring in. The business side of baseball is booming. The bottom line is a great smokescreen for a stagnant game. The frustrating part is a lot of us know it’s stagnant, but we keep coming back for more.

And that is what makes Rob Manfred great at his job. He can feign being tough on baseball crime knowing that baseball fans will really be the judge and jury for teams like the Astros and Red Sox. He just needs to do the bare minimum because he knows the fans will do a lot of the heavy work. Fans will continue to watch on tv and pay for tickets. We’ll keep buying apparel. Some will keep creating gifs for social media consumption so MLB doesn’t have to spend more money on marketing. And others will write blog posts complaining about the commissioner’s unimpressive performance. All the while, Manfred continues to make his bosses happy.

Rob Manfred is the perfect embodiment of sports in 2020.

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Spring Training News & Notes: Gerrit Cole Speaks, Astros Press Conference, & More

We’re entering the initial stages of a routine for the 2020 season. Aaron Boone had his first press conference of the year yesterday. We’re seeing amazing cell phone video of pitchers’ first bullpens. And we’re beginning to get our first public comments of the year from the players. We’re a little more than a week away from our first game. This is all exciting. Let’s get to the notes of the day.

1. Gerrit Cole Continues To Win The Press Conference: Gerrit Cole is an incredibly engaging player. Beyond having the privilege of watching him pitch every five days, we will bear witness to his impressive insight on the craft of pitching. We caught a glimpse of it after his victory in the Game 3 ALCS, but nobody in Yankeeland really cared about that at the time. Cole’s first press conference as the official ace of the Yankees was a brief masterclass. Here is Gerrit talking about the importance of a catcher’s set up in regards to the strike zone:

As knowledgeable baseball fans, we understand the general concept of a catcher setting up to aid the pitcher in executing a pitch. Most of us understand this as a technique to throw a strike. In the video above, Cole emphasizes the importance of intent rather than a pure result. Pitching is a complicated process. In its simplest form, a pitcher’s objective is to get a hitter out. This is much easier said than done. It demands a high level of execution and intelligence to keep a lineup down. Cole combines both and the result is one of the best in the business. It’s really cool to hear him break down some of the processes.

Cole was innings away from winning a World Series last year with that team from Texas. The Nationals came back in Game 7 to win the title. Gerrit was left sitting in the bullpen as his fellow pitchers blew the game. Jack Curry of the Yes Network asked Cole about his feelings regarding the pressure of playing for a title with the Yankees:

This dude is the perfect fit for this team. We knew that before he signed. It was obvious in his introductory press conference. The more I hear him embrace the Yankees’ edict my excitement increases exponentially. It aligns perfectly with his makeup as a competitor. This is going to be really fun.

Cole was asked about the Astros sign-stealing scandal. He said that he didn’t have any knowledge of what was going on. This response was expected. We won’t ever get to the bottom of this scandal. One of the reasons for that is in our next note.

2. A Comical Display of PR Malpractice: The Astros held a press conference this morning to address the sign-stealing scandal and it did not go well. Jim Crane, manager Dusty Baker, Jose Altuvé and Alex Bregman were in attendance. Crane took center stage in this theater of absurdity. Here is the first ridiculous statement from Houston’s owner:

This is a sterling display of privilege. Crane defiantly dismisses facts here. He fired his wildly successful general manager and manager precisely because they permitted a scheme that directly impacted games. Two other men lost their jobs for the same offense. Crane knows all of this and still chose to exhibit smug defiance. The best part of this exchange is a few moments after saying the sign-stealing didn’t impact the game; Crane denied saying that the sign-stealing didn’t impact the game. This is truly incredible nonsense.

This sham of a press conference lies at the feet of Commissioner Rob Manfred. He didn’t punish the players out of fear of the MLBPA. He went out of his way to praise Crane’s run as an owner. This is just really bad stuff all the way around.

The comedy didn’t stop with this quote though. Marly Rivera of ESPN asked Crane directly how does sign-stealing not affect competition and if he truly believes that why were the Astros apologizing. Crane’s response was “we’re apologizing because we broke the rules.” Rivera followed up:

Oof.

3. Astros Players Attempt to Apologize: After Altuvé and Bregman read prepared statements masquerading as genuine apologies; multiple Astros’ players spoke to the media about the scandal:

Everyone reading this can feel free to arrive at their own conclusions.

4. The Big Stache: Following the tradition set by Don Mattingly, Jason Giambi, Brendan Ryan, and Alvaro Espinoza, James Paxton arrived at camp with an impressive mustache. Here it is in all of its glory:

I like the look. There is a little more intimidation with Paxton now. Hopefully, he keeps it following his return from back surgery. The big lefty does believe a May return is possible. The team is being more conservative with their timeline and anticipate a June return. The important thing is Paxton being at full health and ready for a long run into October. The rotation is more than equipped to handle the loss of Paxton for the first few months of the season.

Rob Manfred And The Deterrent That Isn’t

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.

Yu Darvish and Accepting Failure

Yu know it. (MLB Gifs)

If you’ve seen a lick of baseball news this week, you’ve certainly heard about the sign-stealing allegations against the Houston Astros.

To sum it up, the Astros are accused by both one of their former players and opposing pitchers of using a video camera to steal signs, then relay those signs by banging on trash cans. All of this allegedly occurred during the 2017 regular season, though we don’t know if it extended into the postseason or into the subsequent pair of seasons.

Immediately, you might think, “They’re not the only ones doing this. They’re just the ones that got caught.” That’s likely true, but also beside the point. The Red Sox and Yankees were each punished after Boston’s Apple Watch incident in 2017 and New York’s own questions involving their bullpen phone. The Brewers and Rangers have also been accused.

Yet it appears to the Astros may have both been more sophisticated and more willing to break the rules and norms. It might ultimately be unfair to punish them if many teams are doing the same, but this is something Major League Baseball ultimately wants to eliminate, particularly as technology only gets more sophisticated.

Over the course of the last three years, the Astros were not only successful but historically so. They struck out less than any other team and posted offensive numbers far above league averages in ways not seen in decades. Their individual players became household names and took home prestigious awards.

And, of course, they won the 2017 World Series while coming darn close to taking the 2019 crown as well. In both of those seasons, they beat the Yankees in the ALCS. To clinch the 2017 title, they beat the Dodgers, a 104-win team that ran through the National League.

Now there’s a cloud over all of their success. That’s what cheating allegations do. It still hangs above the Patriots’ dominance of the 21st Century after they were implicated in Gates of the Spy and Deflate variety. Even though it wasn’t about cheating, Saints fans are still in an uproar over a missed call in last year’s NFC title game. When a championship is seemingly stolen from you by artificial means, it’s infuriating on another level than an average loss.

If anyone has a gripe with the Astros, particularly the 2017 edition, it’s Yu Darvish. His reputation was sullied in the Fall Classic that year as the Astros tagged him for nine runs across just 3 1/3 innings in two starts, including the decisive Game 7. After striking out 14 batters in two prior postseason starts, he failed to fan one batter in the World Series.

At the time, the Astros intimated that Darvish was tipping his pitches. Now, there’s speculation that Houston was instead stealing his signs and gaining an unfair advantage that swung the series. If the veteran hurler wanted to cry foul and blame the Astros’ supposed cheating for his lack of success, he’d have plenty of justification. However, Darvish refrained from doing so when speaking about the issue with the Los Angeles Times.

“I feel that if I absolve myself and say it was the Astros’ fault I was bad in Game 7, in the World Series, I can’t develop as a person,” Darvish told Dylan Hernandez. “In life, I think huge failures are extremely important. I’ve had a few up to this point. The World Series was one of them. I think it will remain a point of reference for me. I’ve already learned a lot from it. So regarding that, I can’t view myself charitably. I think I have to continue to accept the results.”

Darvish’s sentiment here is remarkably healthy and potentially instructive for Yankees fans. Losing to Houston in 2017 and ’19 remains painful and won’t be undone, no matter what MLB’s investigation of the Astros uncovers. While the Yankees went 1-6 in Houston over those two postseasons, they scored just three runs in four games during the first ALCS, which can’t be blamed on signs. Suing the Astros won’t bring you any happiness.

We’ll never know what affect the alleged sign-stealing had on the past three seasons in baseball. That’s life, unfortunately. You can play with what-ifs and if-onlys forever and you still return to the same reality, the one with events in the same exact order. (I’m also a hypocrite: I’m going to have a post examing the 2010 postseason next week.)

Instead, we should take a page from Darvish, learn from our failures, even if they aren’t entirely ours. Personally, I’ll never forget running for a position at my college newspaper and losing. I dwelt upon that and blamed everyone but myself for months, wallowing in perceived slights. Moving past it and looking inward was the only way I could learn and gain anything positive from the admittedly bitter experience.

As for the Yankees, it’s hard to not to develop hatred towards an opponent that not only beat you but may have cheated you. However, New York has to plan how to improve its 2020 roster regardless and find a way to get over the hump. Living in 2017 and studying videotape for bangs of a makeshift drum won’t get the Yankees a title. You can feel however you want about Houston, and 2017/2019 won’t become positive memories any time soon, but the Yankees’ role in that drama is over, and Yu Darvish has the right of it.

The Offseason Can Wait One More Day

Juan Soto: Hold My Bat. (Screenshot)

The Yankees took the Astros nearly to the brink. The Nationals are taking things one step further.

For the fourth time since 2014, we get a Game 7 in the World Series. Regardless of the participants, that’s tremendous. After the Nats were 15 outs from elimination Tuesday night, it’s that much sweeter.

What a game Tuesday was. For as snore-worthy the first five games were at times, Game 6 didn’t lack for drama. Alex Bregman and Juan Soto’s dueling bat carries. The Eaton and Soto homers to vault Washington ahead of Verlander and Houston. Whatever that was with the interference call in the seventh inning before Anthony Rendon homered.

The manager of the winning team got ejected!

So the season comes down to Game 7. Dare I say it, the Nationals should be favored. They have Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson ready to go while Houston has Zack Greinke, a tired Gerrit Cole and their bullpen. Still, picking against Houston might be a fool’s errand.

You might be thinking, “This should be the Yankees.” You wouldn’t be wrong. They had their chances to beat Houston — holding them to .179/.281/.318 batting line and fewer home runs in the six-game series — but they came up short. That loss is going to sting for a while, whether or not the Astros win the title.

If you haven’t been watching this World Series for that reason, it’s time to put that to the side. Game 7 doesn’t have to be about hate-watching the Astros. Instead, you can take joy in the marvelous run the Nationals are on. Watch Scherzer give his all after enduring “ungodly pain” in his neck just a couple of days ago and flash his ungodly intense stare towards the batter’s box. Appreciate Zack Greinke’s super-slow-mo curveball.

Oh, and Soto. Has there been a more fun player to watch this postseason (non-Yankee edition)? He’s only 21, in case you missed it.

Soto has a chance to become the youngest World Series MVP ever if the Nationals claim the series and Stephen Strasburg didn’t clinch it last night. Both Soto and Strasburg deserve it for clutch hitting and pitching, respectively, throughout the run, from the Wild Card Game to NLDS Game 5 to Tuesday. I’m dying to see Soto come up with another dinger in Game 7. He seems made for those moments.

Even if you hate both teams, tonight is the last baseball for a while. There are Yankees Classics to take you through February, but the live games are what it’s all about, even if weird umpire calls and the wrong team reign. The offseason can wait for one more day.

Enjoy Game 7. And Go Nats.

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