NEW YORK, N.Y.- In most cases, the cover-up is worse than the crime. In the case of Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred’s discussion about the Houston Astros cheating scandal, the explanation was worse than the punishment. Manfred amazingly has upset basically everyone involved in the sport of baseball despite issuing a punishment almost as severe as he possibly could have issued given the circumstances he was working with. The punishments, including a season-long suspension of both general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch on top of a five million dollar fine and the forfeiture of first and second round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, weren’t a slap on the wrist. But his reasoning for these punishments in the numerous times he’s spoken since have only infuriated players and fans while minimizing the actual punishments.
The commissioner spoke two separate times last Sunday, and it had the feel that he was working crisis management exclusively for the scorned Astros franchise instead of siding with the other 29 organizations who are distraught, frustrated and angered by the cheating the 2017 World Series champions committed. When the punishments were first released in January, it felt that Major League Baseball had levied a punishment about as harsh as possible considering the circumstances. Yet the more Manfred speaks, the less significant the punishments seem.
Both gaffes occurred when Manfred was talking with ESPN’s Karl Ravech, as the first foot-in-mouth moment came when he was asked why the Astros players weren’t suspended for cheating. He could have justified his decision to not punish the players involved by citing the immunity he granted in favor of getting to the bottom of the entire scheme. Instead, Manfred’s explanation was that the public’s outrage was enough of a punishment.
“I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have paid a price,” Manfred said. “To think they’re skipping down the road into spring training, happy, that’s just a mischaracterization of where we are.”
This is where the disconnect comes in. Thinking that public displeasure towards the Astros is enough of a punishment is just not being in tune with reality. People want accountability. People want the players involved to be held responsible. Hearing a few extra boos or questions about the cheating won’t satisfy a majority of those passionate about the sport, but Manfred is forgetting he didn’t have many options to begin with.
The tough part for the commissioner’s office in conducting this investigation was that they were left with two options, neither of which would have satisfied everyone. Their first option was to do what they did, which was grant players immunity from punishment in return for honest and truthful testimony about when the cheating occurred, how it was executed and who participated. Giving the players a get out of jail free card was the only way to truly get to the bottom of how the entire scheme operated, which in the long run will help in preventing this type of cheating from happening again.
The other option was to interview Mike Fiers, take what he said as the gospel and hand down punishments based on his testimony. No Houston player was knowingly going to admit to cheating or provide details that would implicate their teammates. So Manfred would have had to go off of the only player who was willing to go on the record and dole out suspensions that he seemed to fit the crime.
Manfred chose the option that fits society’s mentality and served to improve the game’s long-term health. We as a society pride ourselves on being a “woke culture,” that is always being aware of what is happening around us and never just accepting a reasoning without digging into it more. The immunity granted by Manfred allowed the details to emerge, helping to truly inform the public about how the sign-stealing was devised and executed. This information also allows the league to put parameters in place to prevent further cheating from ruining the game. The issue here isn’t that Manfred valued information over justice, but it’s that his definition of justice doesn’t jive with the public’s definition.
In that same interview with ESPN, Manfred made another comment that really made many players hot. The question was simple. Ravech asked about the potential of stripping the Astros of the 2017 World Series. Manfred’s response was as short as it was damaging.
“The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act,” said Manfred in response to the question.
It’s like the commissioner took the same PR advice as Astros owner Jim Crane, as every answer seemed to undermine his punishment. These answers aren’t hard. Stripping titles has little to no effect. Just ask the NCAA as they desperately try to punish schools by stripping titles and vacating wins that do little in terms of real consequence. Everyone still remembers Louisville winning the 2013 basketball national championship, USC’s 2004 football national title and Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy. Stripping titles and taking banners down do little to wipe away the memory of watching those teams and players accomplish greatness. So Manfred is right when he says stripping the Astros of their World Series would be futile. Except he bungled the delivery and completely lost control of the message.
It’s frustrating to see Major League Baseball continually shoot themselves in the foot and only dig a deeper hole to get out of. With weeks to map out an explanation and defense of the punishments, first the Astros and then the commissioner looked totally off guard and ill-prepared for the questions they received. Unfortunately for the game, this entire cheating scandal has blown up in their face and taken the attention away from the Astros and placed it squarely on the sport’s leader. Rarely do words speak louder than actions. The commissioner accomplished that feat to the dismay of baseball fans everywhere.