On Tuesday, five days after the launch of the Astros Apology Tour, these things happened:
• Aaron Judge, famous Yankee, said of the Astros' 2017 World Series title: "I just don't think it holds any value for me. You cheated and you didn't earn it."
• Nick Markakis, less-famous Brave and leading candidate to be MLB's sergeant-at-arms, said: "Every single guy over there needs a beating."
• LeBron James, famous in a different sport, tweeted: "If someone cheated me out of winning the title and I found out about it I would be irate! I mean like uncontrollable about what I would/could do! Listen here, baseball commissioner, listen to your players speaking today about how disgusted, mad, hurt, broken (they are) about this. Literally the ball is in your court (or should I say field) and you need to fix this for the sake of Sports!"
• The baseball commissioner apologized for calling the trophy awarded the World Series champion "a piece of metal." The piece of metal in question is named — can't make this stuff up, folks — the Commissioner's Trophy.
Five days after the Astros did their best, which turned out to be their worst, to Put This Behind Them, spring training has become a loop of righteous indignation. Nobody has seen anything like it. There has never BEEN anything like it. The Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series, so they got no piece of metal afterward. (Pieces of silver, yes.) Steroids weren’t confined to a single team. This is different. This is all about the Astros.
On Jan. 13, commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Astros organization and stripped it of two No. 1 draft picks and suspended general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for a year — both were summarily fired — but took pains to characterize the cheating scheme, meaning the trash-can banging, as “player-driven.” He declined, however, to penalize those players.
It's possible to feel a tad sorry for Manfred, who's in far above his head. The only way, at least as he saw it, to find out what happened was to offer immunity for the players' full and frank cooperation. He didn't discipline any players because, he has said, they weren't instructed by Luhnow or Hinch not to cheat. Ergo, any sanctions would have prompted, as he told ESPN last weekend, "grievances that we knew we were going to lose on the basis that we never informed them of the rules."
We note again that players have an impregnable union, whereas GMs and managers do not. The last time MLB beat the MLB Players Association at anything is never. But let’s say you walk into a dealership and drive off with a Mercedes for which you haven’t paid. When apprehended by authorities, your defense is, “Nobody ever expressly told me not to steal this particular automobile.” See how hard the arresting officers laugh before escorting you to the pokey.
So: No player was penalized in any way for his part in player-driven cheating, and the Astros were allowed to remain 2017 champs because … well, here's Manfred again:
“I am a believer in the idea that precedent happens and when you deviate from that, you have to have a very good reason. The report gave people a transparent account of what went on. We put people in position to make their own judgments about the behavior that went on. That certainly has happened over the last month. The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act.”
I believe I can speak for the masses when I say: Those might have been the most impressive five sentences in the history of idiocy.
Precedent only "happens" because someone sets it, and sometimes someone else feels need to break it. Not our Rob, though. Jared Diamond's reporting in The Wall Street Journal has blown holes in MLB's "transparent account." People were put "in position to make their own judgments": Isn't it the commissioner's job to judge? Roger Maris got a commissioner's asterisk for needing 162 games to hit 61 homers, but slapping one on the 2017 Astros would be "futile"? And then, the piece de resistance – "piece of metal."
Said Manfred on Tuesday, having had three days to think: “I want to apologize for that. There’s no excuse for it. I made a mistake. I was trying to make a point, but I should’ve made it in a more effective way.”
What he should have said: “Folks, I’ve botched this. Every time I open my mouth, I make it worse. Here’s where I make it better. I hereby resign.”
MLB being MLB, it misjudged the response its actions, or lack thereof, would have. All non-Astros are irate because they've seen a team game the system twice — they cheated to win a title, and they get to keep the title. You've got Markakis wanting to go to Fist City with an entire roster, and you've got BetOnline setting odds on how many times an Astro will be plunked this season. (Over/under is 80.5; Alex Bregman is even money to get hit the most.) Players are furious because they feel betrayed.
The Astros Affair has gone way beyond stolen signs. The story now is the outrage. We like to think that actions have consequences, that wrongs will be righted. Players on 29 other teams view the Astros as living proof that cheaters do win. Players on 29 other teams see Manfred as the guy who knows what happened — some of it, anyway — and said, "We'll dock the GM and manager and close the file." (Side note: Manfred has warned rival managers that pitchers shouldn't throw at Astros. So what happens if a fastball drifts inside and brushes Bregman's jersey? An automatic ejection?)
No commissioner ever — not Kenesaw Mountain Landis, not Pete Rozelle, not David Stern — could have handled this in a way that satisfied everyone. Manfred has satisfied nobody except the Astros. They get to keep their piece of metal. They’ve gotten away with it.