WEST PALM BEACH, Fla — Major League Baseball’s Spring Training begins this weekend and the baseball world is talking not about the defending World Series Champion Washington Nationals but the former Champions* on the defensive, the Houston Astros.
A brief timeline of the scandal and the aftermath:
September 15, 2017 — The Boston Red Sox had been caught using a scheme involving an Apple Watch to relay opponent’s signals to their players real time. The team was fined but players escaped discipline in this case too. A memo was subsequently sent out to every team around the league laying out the MLB’s stance on the use of electronic devices to steal signs and that any future perpetrators would face discipline. This now infamous memo included the line “Finally, each Club’s General Manager and Field Manager will be held accountable for ensuring that the rules outlined in this memorandum are followed by players and Club personnel.” This put the onus on management to alert it’s players that they would face punishment if they were caught doing exactly what the Astros did. Allegedly, the Astros players were never directly notified of this memo by management.
October 2017 — The Houston Astros used a scheme involving banging on a trashcan to relay to their hitters what pitch was coming on their way to a 3-1 ALDS series victory over the Red Sox, a 4-3 ALCS series victory over the Yankees and a 4-3 World Series victory over the Dodgers. They were a combined 8-1 at home that postseason with their sole home loss coming in Game 4 of the World Series. In contrast, they were 3-6 on the road including 0-3 at Yankee Stadium. Circumstantial evidence, yes, but with what we know now, incredibly damning evidence of their cheating. Many players home/road splits are pretty damning too, i.e. Astros catcher Brian McCann who hit .300 at home that postseason and .052 on the road.
November 2019 — Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers blows the whistle on the Astros 2017 cheating method, forcing Manfred to launch an investigation into an issue that 10-12 other Major League teams had already contacted his office about. Fiers won the World Series with Houston in his third and final season there. He has since drawn both praise for blowing the whistle on the cheating and ire for not doing so when he was on the team and benefitting from it. This ethical question of if conscientious objection to cheating is the same as cheating will become a running theme, as some coaches and players were later found to have frowned upon the scheme but not done anything to really stop it.
January 13-14, 2020 –MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred tells the 29 other MLB owners/teams about his investigation’s findings and the impending punishments, or lack thereof. The teams are also told they cannot comment on the findings or the punishments. Very dictatorial of you, Rob…nice.
Morning of January 14, 2020 — Manfred announces that his investigation found the Astros had used artificial intelligence to steal opposing teams’ signs in at least 2017 and 2018. The franchise was docked 1st and 2nd round picks in 2020 and 2021. They were also fined $5 million (the maximum amount allowed under the current MLB Constitution) while their General Manager Jeffrey Luhnow and Manager AJ Hinch were both suspended for a year. Both Luhnow and Hinch were almost immediately fired by Astros owner Jim Crane. No players suspended or handed any kind of punishment.
Afternoon of January 14, 2020 — Alex Cora, former Astros bench coach and the man pegged as the ring leader of sign stealing scheme, fired as manager of Red Sox, with investigation looming over Boston. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2018 allegedly using the same or a similar sign stealing scheme…still no Astros players penalized in their own “player driven” scheme.
January 16, 2020 — Carlos Beltran, the only player named in the report specifically, resigns as manager of New York Mets before even managing a Spring Training game. He would likely have not faced suspension as MLB issued no punishment to players, but he felt it was the right thing to resign.
Also January 16, 2020 — Jose Altuve claims accusations of him wearing a “buzzer” in 2019 were false, says the reason he didn’t want his jersey ripped off after walkoff homer against Aroldis Chapman and the Yankees was because he was “too shy” and his “wife would get upset”. These responses came in an interview immediately after the home run, Altuve asked to have Ken Rosenthal’s question about not wanting his jersey ripped off repeated and he also gave two non-mutually exclusive responses. Both of these are tell tale signs of lying. The man also posts numerous shirtless pics on Instagram and has had his jersey ripped off on multiple occasions.
January 25, 2020 — Astros ace Justin Verlander accepts Cy Young Award at Baseball Writers Association of America banquet and makes a tone deaf joke about how the Astros are “technologically and analytically advanced” than other teams. Less than two weeks after the MLB announced their findings that the Astros engaged in an AI-fueled, player driven cheating scheme, this guy has the cojones to joke about it? Sounds really contrite and remorseful, especially considering how vocal and angry Verlander has been about other teams stealing signs in the past.
February 13, 2020 — Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve give scripted “apologies” at Spring Training that lacked sincerity and contrition. Both apologies sounded scripted and disingenuous. Jim Crane also issued a statement in which he claimed the scheme “did not impact the game” and went on to add “We had a good team, we won the World Series and we’ll leave it at that.” This seems to be a line that the rest of the team picked up on at the “good meeting” they had that was referenced by Altuve in his statement and one that shortstop Carlos Correa would seem to parrot a few days later.
February 14, 2020 — Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodger and 2019 NL MVP, publicly calls out Astros. Bellinger calls Houston’s apologies “weak” and says “Altuve stole an MVP from [Aaron] Judge in ’17” as well how “everyone knows the stole the ring from us (the Dodgers) also in ’17. He did not hold back in his nearly 10 minutes talking about it.
February 15, 2020 — Carlos Correa, Astros shortstop and fellow unpunished cheater, defends Altuve and slams Bellinger in a interview with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, saying the 2019 MVP should “shut the &%$# up.” Correa also attacks Bellinger’s “reading comprehension” claiming that the Commisioner’s reports states there was only wrongdoing in 2017, not ’18 and ’19. When Rosenthal corrects him real timethat the report hand in fact mentioned cheating in 2018, Correa tries to walk back his statements by saying that the trash can scheme was only in 2017. Despite the fact that he admitted to cheating in 2017, he went on to say the Astros won the World Series that year “fair and square.” Yet another act in this theater of the absurd. Maybe it’s Correa who has a problem with reading comprehension since he doesn’t seem to know the meaning of “fair and square.”
Correa also added another excuse for Altuve not wanting his jersey ripped off following his walkoff against Chapman. According to Correa, there were two reasons. “So, one, he didn’t want to take his shirt off because his wife had told my wife earlier in the year for me to not to do that. So he was telling me not to do it. And, number two, he had an unfinished tattoo that looked kinda bad, that he didn’t want people to see and people to talk about. That was the reason.” So the “shy” excuse has gone the way of the dodo, but the jealous wife routine remains to go along with the new ” bad tattoo” excuse.
According to ESPN MLB Insider Jeff Passan, Altuve “walked by a group of reporters, took his shirt off, turned around bare-chested, grabbed another shirt and put it on Monday morning (February 17). Passan verified there was in fact a tattoo on his left collarbone but said “not sure if it was bad or not.” The tattoo says “Melanie” his 3-year old daughter’s name, next to a pink heart. New rumors are now surfacing that Altuve got the tattoo over the weekend in an effort to, to borrow a legal term, fabricate evidence, which would be a new wrinkle to the story indeed. The plot thickens…
Also February 15, 2020 — Dusty Baker, new Astros manager (and ironically former Nationals manager) begs Major League Baseball to protect his players from expected retaliation for their cheating. He would also like Major League Baseball to stop other teams and players from commenting on his team’s cheating. The new skipper said “It’s not good for the game, it’s not good for kids to see it. Stop the comments and also stop something before it happens.” Dusty Baker took on a tough job with all this baggage and and it’s understandable to want to protect his players, but he has to know he looks like a schmuck asking for sympathy and for teams to stop commenting on the Astros cheating. If he thinks the comments are not good for the kids to see, what does he think the cheating and the lack of punishment looks like to those same kids? No one should actively try and physically harm any other player but to further protect these cheaters is more dereliction of duty on Manfred’s part.
February 16, 2020 — Rob Manfred is interviewed about the scandal and his handling by ESPN’s Karl Ravech. When asked about the lack of player punishment, Manfred said “I understand people’s desire to have the players pay a price for what went on here [and] I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have paid a price. To think they’re skipping down the road into spring training, happy, that’s just a mischaracterization of where we are. Having said that, the desire to have actual discipline imposed on them, I understand it and in a perfect world it would have happened.”
Translation: If you don’t think the players are being punished, then look how bad they FEEL. Their feelings are hurt everyday with how they are being treated for enacting one of the most blatant cheating scandals in the history of baseball so believe me they ARE being punished. In a perfect world, they would have been actually punished but this is a world where I don’t want Jim Crane to lose anymore money and we would like this to go away, please.
When asked about stripping the Astros of their 2017 World Series he sai it was “something that we talked about and analyzed extensively [but] it has never happened in baseball.” He went on to say “I am a big believer in precedent happens and when you deviate from that, you have to have a very good reason.” He also added “The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act. People will always know that something was different about the 2017 season.”
That’s right, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball referred to the trophy awarded to the World Series Champions as “a piece of metal.” That probably won’t sit well with a lot of players and already, Monday, Dodgers’ third baseman Justin Turner, who was on the ’17 squad that was robbed of that “piece of metal” lashed out. Turner said ” I don’t know if the commissioner has ever won anything in his life. Maybe he hasn’t, but the reason every guy’s in this room, the reason every guy is working out all offseason, and showing up to camp early and putting in all the time and effort is specifically for that trophy, which, by the way, is called the commissioner’s trophy.” The third basemen went on to say “for him to devalue it the way he did [Sunday] just tells me how out of touch he is with the players in this game. At this point the only thing devaluing the trophy is that it says ‘commissioner’ on it.”
Manfred is correct, stripping a title has never happened before in baseball. Do you know what else has never happened before in baseball?
What we were told: Astros set up a monitor between dugout and clubhouse to watch a camera feed & relay signs
What we know: they had a monitor in that spot, that they broke down and took away as soon as games ended. A banging sound paterns perfectly with off-speed pitches. pic.twitter.com/ssXd85ezQ4
— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) November 17, 2019
Wouldn’t this be the “very good reason” Manfred seeks for setting a new precedent? The Commissioner seems to feel that because there is no precedent for dealing with the most blatant, machine aided example of cheating in the history of baseball, maybe, of sports, he is simply going to do absolutely nothing. Speaking of precedents, there is still the issue of the ongoing investigation into the 2018 Boston Red Sox but with this Astros precedent, it doesn’t seem like much more can be levied onto Boston, except that maybe they were explicitly told they couldn’t use electronics to steal signs? If so, will Manfred still be too scared of the Players Association to levy any suspension to the Red Sox players involved? If he does suspend any Boston players, what will the backlash be to them actually getting a penalty when the fact will remain that the Astros got away with cheating? Could this be part of why Boston was so eager to trade away superstar outfielder Mookie Betts?
There is any number of things that Manfred could have laid down as punishment, ranging from total ban from the sports a la Pete Rose to suspensions like PED users served to the one year suspensions their manager and General Manager received and everything in between. However, most everyone would agree that the players receiving absolutely zero punishment is not one of the things on that list yet that is exactly what they received. A slap on the wrist would have been more punishment, instead Manfred is treating them like heroes for admitting they cheated.
Manfred contends that he ultimately decided on not punishing the players because any suspension would have most likely resulted in the MLB Players’ Association filing grievances because they were allegedly not informed by Jeffrey Luhnow about the 2017 memorandum that Major League Baseball sent to all the GMs around the league. “[Luhnow and Hinch] just didn’t do it…so we knew if we had disciplined the players, in all likelihood we were going to have grievances and grievances that we were going to lose on the basis that we never properly informed them of the rules. Given those two things, I knew where, or I’m certain where the responsibilities should lay in the first instance and given the fact we didn’t think we could make discipline stick with the players, we made the decision we made.” The Astros players got to use the Dave Chapelle defense.
(“Killing Them Softly (2000) Courtesy of Home Box Office)
“I didn’t know I couldn’t do that.”
Ignorance is not an excuse. These players got off with nothing because an adult didn’t tell them, other grown adults, that the use of electronic equipment to steal another team’s signs is not ok. No punishment was handed down because Manfred didn’t think he could win a grievance filed by the Players Association? He assumed they would file a grievance and want to deal with all of the bad publicity that came along with that? They would want to deal with the backlash from nearly 1,200 of they own members over protecting the 40 members that messed with the legitimacy of the game they all play? Wouldn’t it make more sense to take the calculated risk of them actually filing the grievance and making them earn their money as a trade union rather than just caving to what you think they are going to do? The attitude of refusing to even try and fight for the integrity of the game because you might face pushback is pure insanity and for Manfred to get away with it with no reprecussions from the 29 other owners not named Jim Crane is unacceptable.
Manfred went on to say “Having said that, I understand the reaction. The players, some of them in a more articulate way than others, admitted they did the wrong thing. And I understand that people want to see them punished for that, and in a perfect world, they would have been punished.” Again, he controls if Major League Baseball is a “perfect world” in this situation and he has chosen to do nothing and hope it all goes away. Manfred said he does not absolve the players of their guilt but Luhnow and Hinch failed to fulfill their duty to inform their players. Maybe that is why the other 29 teams did not do this sort of thing, because their GMs made sure they knew that CHEATING IS WRONG. Oh, if only Luhnow, Hinch or someone, anyone, had told these grown men not the cheat, we wouldn’t be in this situation.
Everyday, as hitters report to Spring Training, more and more high profile players are speaking out against the Commissioner’s ruling and lack of punishment. Even Mr. Nice Guy Mike Trout, Angels superstar centerfielder and arguably the face of baseball has spoken out about the scandal calling it “sad for baseball.” He went on to say “It’s tough. They cheated. I don’t agree with the punishments, the players not getting anything. It was a player-driven thing. It sucks, too, because guys’ careers have been affected, a lot of people lost jobs. It was tough.” Imagine a player of Trout’s ability having the same advantage the Astros enjoyed. When asked about that, the 28-year old added “Me going up to the plate knowing what was coming — it would be pretty fun up there.”
Trout has never faced Houston in the postseason, but his Angels are also in the AL West and, with the uneven schedule, play Houston 18 or so games a year. Trout has never noticed any trash can banging in his 55-career games at Minute Maid Park in Houston but quipped he “noticed the banging on the bat” adding “it just feels like they weren’t missing pitches.” Trout called for harsher punishment for the players in question and if Manfred was smart he would do the only thing he can if he wants any hope of the nearly 1,200 other Major Leaguers not on the Astros, or the public, to move past this.
For his horrendous handling of this scandal, at a minimum, Rob Manfred should be fired. His job is to look out for the integrity and best interests of Major League baseball and all of its 30 teams, not just Jim Crane and the Houston Astros, and his actions amount to dereliction of duty.
Here’s an idea: Suspend the players involved for the 2020 season. For the sake of maintaining the quality of play in the league, and the AL West specifically, allow the Astros to keep those players spots open on the 25 man roster and sign free agents or call up players to fill out their roster and keep it competitive. However, make them pay the suspended players’ salaries into the MLB pension fund or some other charity, possibly a combination of both. Next, ban Houston from making the playoffs for at least five years. Finally, keep any player involved with this scandal from ever being eligible for the Hall of Fame. The players connected to the steroid era of baseball have, for all intents and purposes, had this done to them and that was an issue that was rampant throughout the sport, not just on one team. Many players have also served suspensions for PED use, regardless of if they admitted to it or not. These penalties may sound harsh, but you have to come down hard if you want to make the juice not worth the squeeze. These players cheated to gain an unfair advantage over the rest of the league and then, because of a loophole due to managerial negligence, they get off scot free, and the world is supposed to accept it as good? Does that seem any less harsh to the other 29 franchises in Major League Baseball?
After Pete Rose was caught betting on his Cincinnati Reds, then-Commissioner A. Bartlett “Bart” Giamatti, came down hard on him, banning him from baseball for life, to send the message that players and managers betting on baseball would not be tolerated. Going back even further, after the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, then-Commissioner Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis came down incredibly hard on the members of the 1919 White Sox, banning the infamous “Eight Men Out” from baseball for life, to make a point that fixing games would not be tolerated. Manfred is doing the exact opposite of these men…He is, in essence, the Anti-Giamatti, the Anti-Landis: Robert “Crater” Manfred, so to speak. Imagine if Landis had said publicly “the White Sox players copped to everything and promised to never do it again so I will not be punishing them at all.” This is unequivocally what Manfred did and he has proven he is not fit to be commissioner of one of the biggest sports leagues in the world. It’s interesting that a man so caught up on precedents seems to have ignored two of the biggest precedents in his own sport’s history.
As this story continues to unfold, one thing is for certain, it is going to get worse before it gets better. For the Astros, for Rob Manfred and for Major League Baseball as a whole. With the continued criticism from their fellow players, as well as the receptions they will receive from the fans on the road, the Astros may well end up wishing they had been punished. Probably not though, because they all seem to feel like they did nothing wrong and the baseball world should just get over it. As one Astros player at Spring Training this week asked “When is it going to end?” From the looks of it, the answer to this narcissistic and tone deaf question is unknown, but what is known is that the Astros and Rob Manfred would like you to just forget about it.