Another short-sleeve spring day in baseball paradise. And once the Braves finished their chores at their five-star, Ritz-Carlton of a training facility, all their Florida neighbors stopped by to admire the place.
Managers and GMs from around the Grapefruit League had been summoned here for a media gathering Sunday. Joining them was the poobah himself, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.
What a perfect setting to address the bright promise of a new season. What a fine day to celebrate the surroundings of green ballfields and rustling palms and managers with no need yet to explain even the first loss.
With all that, there was but one inescapable topic.
The Houston Astros sign-stealing of 2017 and 2018 — and maybe beyond if you listen to some of their more suspicious opponents — is the zit that won’t pop. It is the Buick with the “I (heart) My Pomeranian” bumper sticker going 53 in the left lane and just won’t get over. It is the rain, rain that won’t go away.
The man partly responsible for the stubbornness of this stain at least was the one compelled to talk about it to the exclusion of most other baseball matters Sunday. Manfred’s dealing with the sign-stealing scandal obviously has done little to heal it. (Then there’s the Astros themselves, of course, who every time they open their mouth, integrity suffers another hip pointer.)
Because he had offered Astros players immunity and because he had no appetite for tangling with the players union, Manfred forfeited all ability to punish those who benefited most from the big cheat. Maybe he’d do it differently the next time, who knows?
Additionally, he would not then nor consider now stripping the Astros of the illicitly attained championship. That would have been unprecedented. And he doesn’t do unprecedented.
“I’m not saying you always follow precedent, but I think you ought to start by looking back at the way things have been done. You have to have a really good reason to depart from that process,” he said during his Sunday press conference here. This scheme that combined technology with chicanery, this baseball version of identity theft, apparently was not reason enough.
Four men employed by three different teams who were tied to the sign-stealing — Houston manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow, Boston manager Alex Cora and would-be New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran — were fired. This, the commissioner said Sunday, should be deterrence aplenty for anyone who might dream up another way to take a shortcut to the World Series.
The rest of the punishment is up to you, the good people of baseball, Manfred intimated. A sound public shaming will have to substitute for the lack of anything more substantive. They keep the trophy. The players suffer no setbacks, financially or professionally. But their feelings are going to be really hurt.
All further adjudication is now in the hands of the court of public opinion.
“If you look at the faces of the Houston players as they’ve been out there publicly addressing this issue, they have been hurt by this,” Manfred said. “They will live with questions about what went on in 2017 and 2018 for the rest of their lives. And frankly it’s rare for any offense that you have punishment that you will live with the rest of your life.”
Here we’ll mention that the shame would have no different a half life had they incurred actual, tangible penalties.
“If nothing else, I think we all can agree that we’ve gotten enough facts out there that are plenty of people who have made their judgments about what went on,” the commissioner said. “Once you have a situation in which the 2017 World Series will always be looked at as something different. Whether or not you put an asterisk (next to it) or ask for the trophy back, I don’t think it makes that much difference.”
Oh, they have suffered a severe finger-wagging, and considerable outrage, particularly in such high-value markets as New York and Los Angeles (the last two stops the Astros made on the way to the World Series title).
But should opponents seek any old-fashioned variety of justice, woe be to them. They will be the ones facing suspension, not the Astros. Manfred said he spoke to the assembled managers here Sunday and, “I hope I made it extremely clear to them that retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter intentionally will not be tolerated, whether it’s Houston or anyone else. It’s dangerous and it is not helpful to the current situation.”
Thus, the commissioner has ceded all remaining discipline to you the fans. He is resting on the well-established principle that words hurt, too, you know.
Atlanta will have to hold onto this scandal for nearly the entire season, as it recedes into the mists of other wrong-doings like steroids and strikes and gambling. Houston plays at Truist Park on the final series of the season, Sept. 25-27. By then, how much energy will anyone have left to give the Astros the good tongue-lashing they so richly deserve?
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