For all the fuss, righteous and otherwise, over what Rob Manfred could do to clean up Major League Baseball’s biggest mess in more than a decade, I can condense it to two simple steps, both eminently within his control as commissioner:
1. Vacate the Astros’ 2017 title.
Oh, still want to keep reading?
All right, then, but I’ll warn that all else is detail. Because there’s no other way out. Not that I can see. Not for Manfred, and not for the diminished-by-the-day national pastime.
This cheating scandal isn’t like other cheating scandals.
Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and so many others cheated the game individually and, heinous as that’ll always be, there’s never been an institutional connection made. Meaning the steroids were never attached to a team or teams as having implemented or organized the process for the purpose of attaining team success. They might have turned the other way, but they didn’t implement or organize.
Pete Rose cheated in his own right by breaking baseball’s most visible rule barrier — gambling, including on his own team. But again, no team, not the Reds or any other, was implicated.
Really, one has to wind a century back to the 1919 Black Sox for the most recent comparable, and even that doesn’t apply all that much. Shoeless Joe Jackson and the gang threw games for money. Their gain was financial, but their loss was … well, their loss. The win went to the Reds, and it did so without any stain from the Cincinnati perspective.
The Astros’ act, as far was we know — and bear in mind, we undoubtedly should know more than we do — is wholly without precedent in baseball.
This commissioner, whose cluelessness on everything baseball has been splattered all across the sport’s scope in recent days, didn’t understand this, didn’t appreciate it and didn’t come close to reacting appropriately to it. Instead, Manfred’s main mission, it’s now clear, was — and remains — to find a way to bury all of this as soon as possible.
What he should’ve done:
• Way back when he warned GMs and team execs about electronic sign-stealing more than a year ago, well before any journalists did his exposing for him, that’s when a real investigation should’ve been launched. No team, no GM, no exec, no player required any memo to know that electronic sign-stealing was and is illegal. Everyone knew that. Once he heard what everyone had already been discussing, mostly about the Astros, there should’ve been authoritative action.
• Once the Astros were busted publicly, Manfred should’ve, once again, conducted a real investigation. And by real, I’m twice now referring to applying any means necessary to gain the truth. That still hasn’t happened in this scenario. If one parses Manfred’s answers to reporters’ questions of late, it’s obvious that his investigation consisted of nothing more than interviewing Houston players and other team officials. Where their stories intersected, he found truth. Where they didn’t, he doubted.
That’s not an investigation. That’s a lawyer covering tracks.
• Players never should’ve been granted immunity. In turn, the union never should’ve been approached. Neither was necessary. He’s the bleeping commissioner of baseball, and the famous ‘best interests of baseball’ clause allows him unparalleled power to take unilateral action in exactly this kind of instance.
My God, the only reason the commissioner’s role was created — the historic hiring of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis in 1920 — was to rescue baseball from the Black Sox!
And the only reason the ‘best interests’ power was given was to prevent another such scandal!
Here it is! This was it!
• The 2017 World Series should’ve been vacated, the same for any related pennants. No flags should’ve remained flying at Minute Maid Park for years in which the Astros were deemed to have cheated in a playoff. This is snap-of-a-finger stuff for a baseball commissioner.
• Everyone from Jim Crane on down to the lowest-level subordinates who were knowledgeable or participants or, worse, arranged the cheating should’ve been punished commensurate to their involvement. Including if they’d moved on to other teams or other roles, notably ringleader Carlos Beltran.
And the worst of them should’ve been punished at no less a level than Rose. Meaning banned until reinstated.
Think all of that would’ve addressed this?
Yeah, I’m guessing so.
But again, that’s not the commissioner baseball’s got. It’s got Manfred. Who, when facing reporters this week in North Gate, Fla., cynically shrugged off the potential significance of stripping the Astros of their World Series trophy by referring to it as “a piece of metal.”
That prompted howls from all over the sports world, including this elegant rebuttal from Teresa Varley, a longtime employee at the Steelers’ offices:
I would never call these babies ‘a piece of metal.’ They are family. pic.twitter.com/7ib5cPICqr
— Teresa Varley (@Teresa_Varley) February 19, 2020
At that same press session, one in which Manfred should’ve realized he’s already clinging to his reputation by his fingernails, he maintained the presence of mind to take a shot at the Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond, whose recent work exposed that Manfred knows much more than what he’s made public.
Our Alex Stumpf covered that press session, and this was Alex’s description of Manfred addressing Diamond:
“You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part,” Manfred said to Diamond with more than a hint of contempt.
Actually, Mr. Commissioner, that is nice reporting. It’s the best kind of reporting, the kind that exposes vital truth in a nation where a free press remains a founding principle. First freaking amendment and all that.
Manfred went on to apologize for the ‘piece of metal’ stupidity, but only after 24 full hours of excoriating criticism.
He’s through. He’s got no way to climb back.
This won’t be a case where, like the equally spineless Roger Goodell, he gets away with burning the Patriots’ tapes. Or he waits until we all forget seeing Ray Rice punching his fiancee in that elevator. The Astros’ case is already exposed far more than the Patriots’ ever will be — most unfortunately — and the reaction within baseball, including from the players themselves to what went on in Houston is far more vocal than anything we’ve seen … wow, anywhere.
Seriously, try to envision the scene in which Manfred has to walk into the winning clubhouse this fall to present that ‘piece of metal.’ It’ll transform what should be an unbridled celebration into a joke. Imagine further if it’s the Dodgers or Yankees — and I sure wouldn’t bet against either — and he’ll be utterly radioactive.
Yep. As promised, no other way out:
1. Vacate the Astros’ 2017 title.
• Not sure how I wrote all that up there without once mentioning that Manfred and Frank Coonelly are best buds and that. At one time, both were seen as potential successors to Bud Selig. And so help me, I could picture Coonelly behaving exactly as Manfred has in this situation. Right down to the ridiculous, tone-deaf public statements.
I respect the legal profession, but lawyers don’t seek solutions as much as they seek loopholes or escapes. That’s what’s at hand here when what’s really needed is leadership.
• I also waited this long to mention Joe Musgrove and Colin Moran, the Pirates’ lone connection to the 2017 Astros. Musgrove was a bullpen guy still finding his way in the bigs that year, and he’s spoken about this, to his credit, never turning away. He’s further made known that he used his World Series winnings to buy his parents a car. Moran logged seven whole games in Houston that summer, none in the playoffs.
Really not much to see on the Pittsburgh front. Just didn’t want to omit.
• It’s been uplifting beyond words to see some of the game’s best and brightest pipe up. That never happens in baseball. Just never.
When it’s Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge, respected but reserved vets like Nick Markakis — who powerfully stood in front of cameras and microphones at the Braves’ camp to say the Astros’ cheaters deserve ‘a beating‘ — that’s a message no one can or should ignore.
Including the owners who employ Manfred at their pleasure.
Here’s Markakis, if you missed it:
nick markakis on #Astros scandal “what they did was bullshit” he also added”every single guy over there deserves a beating” and “the commissioner completely handled it the wrong way. the way he handled the situation he should be embarassed of himself.” pic.twitter.com/XqttlTAjmt
— Alex Glaze (@Alex_Glaze) February 18, 2020
Nice to have the players on the right side of history this time.
• I dare say a lot of people in and around baseball are benefiting from the painful reminder that cheating is cheating. That includes my fellow Hall of Fame voters, too many of whom have succumbed in recent years to the weird sentiment that somehow cheating should be excluded from the Hall’s character clause.
Just like no one can ever name the Dodgers the 2017 champions, Hank Aaron can never reclaim the home run title Bonds robbed by cheating. But that doesn’t mean the Astros or Bonds deserve any recognition, much less the sport’s highest honor.
• I don’t doubt other teams cheated similarly. As I’ve written, the Pirates privately complained to me for years of such concerns upon visiting Miller Park, maybe justified, maybe paranoia. But that doesn’t justify the Astros’ actions. Lance Armstrong’s crime wasn’t that he got caught in a cycling world littered with cheating but rather, that he cheated in the first place.
• Speaking of Armstrong, if anyone wants to know how to deal with this, check the list of Tour de France winners right here. All seven of his victories, from 1999-2005, are shown with a slash through his name.
Don’t leave it blank. That’s permanent embarrassment. Ideal.
• Big ups here to MLB Network. For an entity that’s established owned and operated by MLB, their coverage of this has been both relentless and ruthless. Can’t say I saw that coming.
• Baseball, maybe more than any North American sport, even hockey, has always had a players-will-police-this mentality. As such, pitches will be hurled at Houston hitters. Won’t be every game. Won’t be every opponent. But the Astros will lead the majors in HBPs, in charged mounds, the whole deal.
That’s too bad. No sarcasm.
No one should be getting hurt, much less all the other negative attention these events will receive, because a commissioner was afraid to lead.
• There’s another victim in this, and it feels right to mention this, too: The people and fans of Houston don’t deserve this. They didn’t cheat. They didn’t know. They just cheered their franchise to its first championship, and they did so, if one recalls, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, when that whole portion of Texas needed a pick-me-up.
— Houston Astros (@astros) February 14, 2020
I was in Houston last March for the Pirates’ two exhibitions at Minute Maid. I spoke with people who beamed with pride about 2017 and what it still meant to the community.
Stripping a title away stinks for them. But it also stinks for the fans, the families and friends of individual cheaters who lose their Olympic medals and other awards. There’s always collateral damage.
• A final call here, boomeranging back to the beginning: Manfred needs to resign.
The commissioner of a sport is entrusted with the stewardship of that sport. Manfred’s held the job for only four years, and he’s now, formally, a failure. Faith’s been lost in him, by baseball’s participants and by the public, and I don’t think either’s an overstatement. As such, he’s arguably the worst possible person to have in that job when baseball needs more than ever to dig new roots, to discover new dynamism all over the United States.
And this is purely from the Pittsburgh perspective, but I don’t want a commissioner with so little courage, so little conviction presiding over the pending labor agreement. Not that I’m naively expecting a salary cap or anything that awesome, but it’s fair to anticipate owners and the union carving out a system that better ensures a more even distribution of the billions of dollars collected each year.
Does anyone really want this guy seated at that table?
• Some folks, including apparently Manfred himself, think this will fade over time. Ask old Shoeless Joe how that goes.
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