Around the Horn

Manfred is bad for baseball

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred held a press conference today from the Atlanta Braves' spring facility that addressed the ongoing fallout from the Houston Astros' cheating scandal. It did not go well for Mr. Manfred, for Major League Baseball, or for the concept of justice.

I've had (and continue to have) my issues with Commissioner Manfred, with his penchant for mucking around with the rules of the game for reasons that are at best lacking in logic. He has a wish list of changes to the game that are largely awful. He now wants to dilute the regular championship season so vastly as to make .500 teams regular playoff contenders. He seems intent on hurting my game and I resent it.

So I have a bias. I already don't like the guy. And his response to the issue at hand—the Astros' sign stealing and arguably fraudulent championship and general malfeasance over the last several seasons—having been universally seen as, shall we say, tepid, only reinforced that bias. That said, I'm not the only one that thought this event today was shameful, not the only one that finds his motives suspect, not the only one that thinks it's grounds for his removal.

Today Manfred did, among other things, the following:

  • Chastised a reporter for reporting. Dripping with sarcasm, Manfred addressed Jared Diamond, the writer who broke the story about Houston's "Codebreaker" scheme and included a letter from Manfred to since-fired Astro GM Jeff Luhnow with this: "You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part." This in response to a direct question of why incriminating evidence against Astro executives and front-office personnel was not included in the Commissioner's report on the scandal. The rest of his answer wasn't terrible, but he did admit that "we didn't expect [that letter] to become public" and went down a bit of a rabbit hole about not consulting lawyers and choosing what "facts" to include when writing documents.
  • Suggested that the fact that the scandal has become public knowledge was sufficient punishment for everyone within the Astros' organization, implying that they are shamed and therefore repentant despite there being no evidence whatsoever that this is the case. "The notion that anybody in the Houston organization escaped without punishment—I think if you look at the faces of the Houston players as they've been publicly addressing this issue, they have been hurt by this. They will live with questions about what they did in 2017 and 2018 for the rest of their lives."
  • Omitted any mention of 2019 in the above. There is every reason to believe the Astros maintained their cheating ways last season even though no one from that team has yet copped to it.
  • Dismissed the suggestion that Houston's 2017 World Series title be revoked or even acknowledged officially as tainted as "futile" and argued that any such action would need a precedent before he could do anything like that. An amazing feat of circular logic that defies reason and even invites speculation of a cover-up.
  • Acknowledged that he gave Astro players immunity for "honest testimony" regarding the club's behavior and used that as an excuse for assuming there has been no wrongdoing in 2019, naively claiming he could think of no reason "why they would be truthful and admit they did the wrong thing in ’17, admit they did the wrong thing in ’18, and then lie about what was going on in ’19.” Well, I and most other observers can think of a reason: They'd been outed about ’17 and ’18 already. Plus, the accusations that the cheating reached new technological levels last season were even more explosive and likely even Milquetoast Manfred wouldn't be able to avoid doling out harsh punishment if those were found to be true.
  • Said the following, with a straight face: "Once you go down that road of changing what happens on the field, I just don't know how you decide where you stop." Now, it's possible he was restricting his thoughts to changing records of what had already transpired, e.g. revoking the Astros' World Series title, but even so the fact that the man uttering those words is the same man that wants to and has already fundamentally altered the rules of the game to, yes, change what happens on the field, is scoff-worthy. (And if he was only thinking of the Astros' title, then it's just a stupid remark; you stop at the point that fair play resumes. It's not a difficult calculation.)
  • Asked if he felt the punishments to Astro personnel were sufficient to discourage any future attempts at cheating in this manner, Manfred said yes and pointed to the fact that Houston manager A.J. Hinch, Houston GM Luhnow, and former Houston coaches Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran were fired from their jobs and called that "a pretty serious deterrent." Not mentioned: The Commissioner's office had nothing to do with those firings; they were not, in fact, punishments doled out by MLB but PR CYA moves by the Astros, Red Sox, and Mets (who had been employing Cora and Beltran, respectively). Later, he defended his decision to leave disciplinary action on personnel up to the Astros beause, and believe it or not this is a true quote, "we didn't know enough about the Astros' organization to make a good judgment as to what should happen."
  • Said that "retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter will not be tolerated, whether it's Houston or anybody else." OK, I'm not opposed to separating out dangerous acts like beaning players as a different class of offense, but how he said it and how it's being interpreted by some players is "cheating will be tolerated, but responding to it will not." At best, tone-deaf. At best.
  • Forgetting what he said earlier about precedent, said that he "could envision [official response and punishments] being different in the future" if such a scandal were to happen again. No follow-up.
  • Accused minor league baseball of lying about ("mischaracterising") the dispute between MLB and the minor league organizations over Manfred's plan to shut down scores of minor league franchises. Whether that accusation has merit or not I don't know, but given the rest of this press conference it doesn't play well.
  • Said "if we had not been talking about [expanding the playoffs] we would not have been doing our jobs." Excuse you? That implies a problem with the current setup and no one, not even Manfred himself, has articulated one.

This guy has no business being baseball commissioner. Granted, neither did the last guy. The Office of the Commissioner has not been a positive influence on the game in many ways since Fay Vincent was deposed in Bud Selig's coup d'etat in 1992; it's been neutered of its objectivity and become a sledgehammer for the interests of team owners. This whole Astros affair shows why a real commissioner is required. It's akin to the reason the game got its first commissioner in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. You think Kennesaw Mountain Landis gave a crap about precedent in punishing cheaters? Bowie Kuhn was an asshole, but he handed out suspensions and punishments for any offense he thought would give the game a black eye.

Baseball needs another Bart Giamatti or another Vincent. Someone with integrity who respects the game, its history, and looks out for, in Landis' legendary terms, "the best interests of baseball" rather than the best interests of a team owner in Houston or a marketing consultant or a TV network executive.



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