Over the past three months — from the moment The Athletic broke the story about the 2017 Astros until yesterday, when two more bombshell reports emerged detailing cheating in baseball — the sign-stealing scandal has dominated the sport’s headlines. And, over the past three months, Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball’s handling of that scandal has been shown to be demonstrably inadequate. Indeed, it has been utterly reckless.
This is no idle claim. It’s as plain as day based on a simple review of the last three months’ reporting.
When the story first broke, Manfred began an investigation and, on January 13, issued, a report. That report focused only on the Astros, focused only on 2017 and beyond and, even if punishment was only doled out to the GM and the manager, the substance of it focused almost exclusively on the players, who he claimed initiated and led the sign-stealing scheme.
We soon found out, via another report in The Athletic, that that was not accurate, as the Red Sox were undertaking a sign-stealing scheme of their own. Manfred began another investigation, the results of which we still do not have.
We then, via the Wall Street Journal, found out that, contrary to Manfred’s Astros report, the sign-stealing in Houston was not a simple player-led scheme. There was an organized front office initiative that, even if it started with a low-level employee, was presented to everyone on up to general manager Jeff Luhnow, to the point where “Codebreaker” and “The Dark Arts” were included in presentations and budgeting spreadsheets. All of which was, for reasons that are not clear, left out of Manfred’s January 13 report despite his knowledge of it prior to its issuance.
Then, yesterday, the Washington Post released a report which put lie to the notion that any of this should’ve been news to Rob Manfred in November. From Barry Svrluga and Dave Sheinin’s report:
According to people at all levels throughout the sport — players, clubhouse staff members, scouts and executives — the idea that the Astros employed nefarious methods was an open secret.
“The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their a—- off for three or four years,” said an executive from a team that faced the Astros in the playoffs during that span. “Everybody knew it” . . . He estimated “10 to 12” teams had complained to MLB about the Astros over the years. An executive from another team agreed with that number . . .
. . . “It was a big open secret, really big,” said a veteran scout from another team whose coverage included the Astros. “Throughout baseball, throughout the scouting community, for several years, not just starting in 2017. I would say probably 2016, maybe earlier, through , things were going on that were blatantly against the rules.”
An MLB spokesman told the Post “[w]e investigate any allegation that’s brought to this office,” but provided no evidence of what, if any, investigation was undertaken on the power of those 10-12 complaints which long predated the November report in The Athletic. As it stands now, knowing what we know and having seen what MLB has done in the wake of public allegations, it’s not unreasonable to believe that such investigations were perfunctory at best. Indeed, it’s not unreasonable at this point to disbelieve the notion that anything one could reasonably call an “investigation” was undertaken at all. At the same time it is quite reasonable to see Manfred’s actions since November as a scramble born of reaction. An effort to put out a public relations fire as opposed to any serious desire to investigate a scandal which goes to the very heart of the sport’s competitive integrity. The media is outworking him by orders of magnitude.
But no matter what the spokesman said, two things are abundantly clear: first, any claim by Rob Manfred that he did not know what the Astros were up to prior to November 2019 is simply not credible. And second, the fact that Rob Manfred knew about it and simply did nothing about it before November 2019 was simply reckless.
The Astros’ cheating — and, in all likelihood, the cheating of other teams, which is getting far less play, probably because there have not yet been detailed reports about it in the media — affected the outcome of baseball games. It affected the outcome of series. It affected the outcome of postseasons. It affected the individual statistics of players which, in turn affected, positively and negatively, their incomes. It stuck a blow to the very basis of competitive sports, which is the notion that the competitions are inherently fair ones.
That notion is the very reason Rob Manfred’s job even exists. The Office of the Commissioner of Baseball was created in direct response to a scandal — in this case the Black Sox scandal — which jeopardized the competitive integrity of the game. Kennesaw Mountain Landis’ appointment to that office was not merely an exercise in public relations. It was not to simply make some bad press go away. There was very real risk in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal of the league falling apart. Owners of various teams were incensed at the Chicago White Sox, and both they and White Sox owner Charlie Comiskey himself were incensed at American League President Ban Johnson’s seeming indifference to the scandal. As that was unfolding the National League — which was at that time still a largely separate entity — openly enticed unhappy American League teams to join its ranks. The very existence of organized baseball as it was then known was in jeopardy and, if it were not for a compromise which put Landis in charge, baseball would’ve been irrevocably changed.
The Commissioner’s job now encompasses all manner of things but at bottom, it remains his job to ensure the health and integrity of the sport. That is his first and most important purpose. It is a purpose that Rob Manfred, who seems to be far more interesting in making this scandal disappear from the headlines than in comprehensively addressing it, is failing to adequately undertake.
To be sure, the sign-stealing scandal is of a different magnitude than the Black Sox Scandal in that, in my view, it’s far worse for teams to cheat in order to lose a game than it is for them to cheat in an effort to win one, but it is not terribly different in kind or in effect. It’s a scandal that calls into question the integrity of the game and, like the Black Sox Scandal, it is one that has caused widespread discord around the league. Opposing players are angry. Opposing managers, coaches, scouts and executives are angry. There will, for some time, remain great distrust of the Astros, their players and any other teams or players that are later revealed to have been engaging in similar behavior. It’s not something that is simply going away because Rob Manfred issued a report last month and suspended a couple of guys.
Indeed, Rob Manfred is one of the primary reasons it’s not going to go away. The scandal was allowed to persist because of his failure to act on what we know to have been common knowledge inside the game about the Astros cheating and his failure to act specifically on the at least 10-12 team complaints lodged to Major League Baseball about it. The fallout of it will continue to linger given his piecemeal response which seems to have been geared toward ending a cycle of bad press rather than digging down, however belatedly, into a serious problem. Bad press that, quite obviously, will continue anyway, because as anyone who has ever dealt with scandal before knows, there is always more bad press to come.
Rob Manfred has utterly mishandled the sign-stealing scandal. And, at this point, it is not enough for him to simply vow to do better. He is obligated, for the sake of his legitimacy as Commissioner of Baseball and for the sake of the game itself, to answer publicly for why he let it get to this state in the first place.