NEW YORK, N.Y.- After months of in-depth investigative work that involved dozens of interviews and thousands of reviewed emails, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred finally had enough information to levy what he hopes to be a punishment so harsh that organizations will consider cheating with the use technology to never be worth it. Manfred punished the most egregious offender, the Houston Astros, by suspending general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for a full season, stripping the Astros of their first and second round picks in both the 2020 and 2021 MLB Draft and slapping the organization with a $5 million dollar fine, the highest amount possible allowed the MLB constitution. The punishments were further enforced by Astros owner Jim Crane, who subsequently fired both Luhnow and Hinch after the suspensions were announced.
MLB is in the middle of picking up all of the pieces after yet another scandal has rocked their sport. This is the biggest scandal since the steroid era because not only did the 2017 World Series champions get busted for illegally using a video feed to decode signs and relay them in real time to the batter by banging a trash can, the 2018 champion Boston Red Sox were also recently busted for using the video room, designed to help with manager challenges and batters reviewing pitcher tendencies, to decode catcher signs and relay those signs to runners on base who then translated those signals to the batter. Two out of the last three champions now have stains on their trophy and Manfred had to make sure nothing like this happens again.
While we are still awaiting the investigation into the Red Sox to conclude, the biggest question regarding the punishment of the Astros centered around whether the sanctions were harsh enough. No players were suspended despite Manfred stating most of these sign-stealing schemes were devised and executed by the players. Manfred explains why he decided to punish only those in charge and not the players:
“Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical. It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability. It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other Clubs.”
There are a few reasons why I have no problem with the players skirting the blame. One is that in order to get to the bottom of this scandal and find out the real details, he needed honest testimony. I doubt many if any players would fully admit their role or explain the full scope of the scheme if those details would lead to their own punishment. By granting players immunity, Manfred and his investigators were able to get the full scoop of who was involved and how long the cheating continued for.
The biggest reason why I liked the idea to solely punish those in the front office is because cheating using technology is more than just a Houston Astros problem. This is a baseball problem. As Ken Rosenthal wrote in his initial article detailing the sign-stealing antics by the Astros, this extends far beyond just the 2017 World Series champions.
“Electronic sign stealing is not a single-team issue,” Rosenthal wrote. “Still, the commissioner’s office hears complaints about many different organizations.”
That was backed up by Tom Verducci’s latest article, who spoke with two sources familiar with the investigation who said that Astros personnel told MLB investigators that there were eight other teams that used technology in some fashion to cheat either in 2017 or 2018.
This sign-stealing scandal, while headlined by the Astros, includes much more than just them, which is why it’s nearly impossible for Major League Baseball to track down every player involved and dole out a punishment. Cheating has always been pervasive throughout baseball, which is why the commissioner had to strike down hard to ensure his sport would veer back to its righteous ways.
Punishing those who had chances to stop these acts from happening was the most efficient way to send a message and finally show that gaining an illegal edge aided by technology will not be tolerated in the game, which is something up to this point that was just words more than anything else.
I look at these suspensions as a long term play by the commissioner in an attempt to place responsibility on the entire organization, starting from the owner down. By forcing general managers, managers, executives and owners to be responsible for player behavior, there is less of a willingness to break the rules because now jobs and reputations are on the line. These kind of stakes were never created before by baseball, who mostly turned a blind eye or delivered a slap on the wrist for any wrongdoing in the past.
With the floor of punishment being a year-long suspension and a possible firing, why would any general manager or manager risk their livelihood at a chance to win a championship? I understand winning is the sole focus and motivation, but I have a hard time seeing an executive allowing his players to cheat to win a championship only to get caught and have their legacy ruined. While fans can say they would do whatever it takes to win a championship, it’s no longer lucrative for those inside the game to risk their place in the sport just to have a chance to win it all.
For the commissioner’s office, disciplining the Astros is just the first step. Parameters have to put in place to ensure that the crime is not worth the time. While the precedent has been set for those in the front office, a message also has to be sent to the players. Players have always tried to gain an edge, whether that be through corked bats, steroid, pine tar, etc. While no players faced the wrath this time around, Manfred needs to erect a set of guidelines and harsh punishments for players caught cheating by use of technology. Whether it’s mirroring the steroid suspension model or creating an even harsher penalty for offenders, there has to be no doubt that this behavior will be tolerated ever again.
For Manfred, his work is just beginning. I applaud his loud first step of coming down harshly on the Astros, but more has to come. After all, he does have to look in the mirror and remember how the sport got to this place. The commissioner has sat on the sidelines, allowing the cheating to fester for years. Now it’s time for the New York native to step up to the plate with the sanctity of baseball desperately needing him to come through. Down 0-2 in the count, Manfred is finally taking his swing.