Commissioner Rob Manfred pulled an oft-used trick from his sleeve during Tuesday’s press conference in Arizona: he tried to deflect some blame onto the MLB Players Association. Manfred was asked why Astros players went unpunished when the league completed its investigation into the Astros’ cheating operation. He said that the union would not make Astros players available for interviews unless they were granted complete immunity. In other words, Manfred was attempting to shift the blame off of himself and onto the MLBPA.
To begin, there are a couple of things to note here. One, Manfred wouldn’t have had the authority to suspend an entire roster of players anyway. Two, the union was doing its job. Astros players are union members, thus it is the union’s responsibility to protect them and prevent the league from creating a precedent to levy punishments in such a manner. If the union didn’t fight for immunity for players being interviewed in the investigation, something went wrong.
The MLBPA should respond publicly to the comment Manfred made during his press conference. The press conference was live streamed and reported on widely, so Manfred’s talking point will be repeated and accepted uncritically. The union needs to push back on that.
The larger issue for the union, though, existed prior to Manfred’s press conference. We recently heard from a handful of players, including a snippy back-and-forth between Cody Bellinger and Carlos Correa. Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, and Trevor Bauer are also among the players to have spoken out about the Astros’ cheating and a desire for the players involved to be punished. There is a fissure between union members: the Astros players who cheated, and players mad at them for it.
Prior to the past offseason, the focus had been on growing labor tensions between the union and ownership, referring to issues such as the stagnant free agent market and service time manipulation. For the first time in a while, the players mostly seemed aligned on the issues and the union had a lot of momentum towards building solidarity within the ranks. This cheating issue threatens to disrupt that attempt at solidarity, which is why the union needs to be proactive when Manfred attempts to deflect criticism towards it. Losing this battle could also reduce its effectiveness in the upcoming collective bargaining agreement war.
Update: The MLBPA released this statement:
The Day after The Athletic published its Nov. 12 article, Major League Baseball informed the Players Association it would be conducting an investigation, and that it would want to interview players as a part of that investigation. MLB said from the outset that it was not its intention to discipline players. This was not surprising because the applicable rules did not allow for player discipline, because even if they did players were never notified of the rules to begin with, and because in past cases involving electronic sign stealing MLB had stated that Club personnel were responsible for ensuring compliance with the rules.
Against this backdrop, the Association on Nov. 13 sought and received confirmation from the league that the players interviewed and any others would not be disciplined in connection with the allegations made in the article. We received that confirmation promptly on the evening of Nov. 13, and the player interviews began days later.
Any suggestion that the Association failed to cooperate with the Commissioner’s investigation, obstructed the investigation, or otherwise took positions which led to a stalemate in the investigation is completely untrue. We acted to protect the rights of our members, as is our obligation under the law.
Over the last two weeks, the Association and MLB have had regular dialogue on potential rule changes affecting sign stealing, in-game technology and video, data access and usage, Club audits and disclosures, player education, and enforcement — including the potential for player discipline. Written proposals have been exchanged, and we have made it clear to MLB that no issue is off the table, including player discipline.
This is a pivotal time for our game, and these are critically important issues. How the parties handle the next several weeks will significantly affect what our game looks like for the next several decades. The opportunity is now to forge a new path forward.