Rob Manfred
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With Rob Manfred, the buck stops nowhere

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Rob Manfred has completely and utterly stepped in it with respect to the Astros and the sign-stealing scandal. Everyone is mad, the highest profile players in the game are taking their turns raking him, the league, and the Astros over the coals, and the very integrity of the game, once given as bedrock, is now a legitimate topic of debate.

But if you’ve been following this game as long and as closely as I have, you realize something: every time Rob Manfred steps in it, a story comes out a day or two later about how his mistakes or his incompetence were totally understandable. Even excusable! These stories always follow a classic 1-2-3 progression:

  1. Hey, we could’ve done better, but [insert defense of what he did with little pushback from the writer];
  2. Maybe you are mad at us, but the union and media didn’t see the problem either! Maybe they’re to blame, did you ever think of that?; and
  3. Lots of passive voice comments that will be reported on as if they constituted an apology or the acceptance of responsibility but, in reality are not.

If you like stories of that ilk, look no further than Ken Rosenthal’s piece at The Athletic this morning.

The story contains a lot of “hindsight is 20/20” and references to “unintended consequences” which Manfred did not foresee. A lot of space for Manfred to explain his side but not a lot of pushback about how, while most of us may be justified in being blindsided by all of this, Rob Manfred is not most of us. He is the Commissioner of Baseball. Someone who, no, is not expected to be clairvoyant, but who is and should be held to a higher standard than others when it comes to both the prevention of and the punishment of cheating in the game.

Indeed, I almost threw my laptop across the room when I read this passage:

In fairness, Manfred was not alone in failing to see the future clearly. As far back as 2015, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) expressed concerns to MLB about the rise of technology in the sport. The union, however, did not directly focus on the threat to the game’s integrity.

This is absolutely enraging.

Protecting the integrity of the game is literally the reason the job of Commissioner of Baseball was created. It is on the Commissioner, above all else, to deal with threats to the game’s integrity. While one can reasonably debate whether the Commissioner should have done this or he should have done that, it is risible to suggest that it is not his responsibility and his responsibility alone to protect the game’s integrity.

Does the union have a role in it? Sure. If new rules or initiatives or punishments spin out of the Commissioner’s acts to protect the game’s integrity, the MLBPA is entitled to be at the table and agree to or reject proposals in a negotiated setting. But that’s not what Rosenthal is getting at here. He is not citing something Manfred tried to do but the union opposed. He is excusing Manfred’s failure to anticipate and failure to act on the most critical part of his job by saying that the union — who does not have that as its primary job — didn’t do it either.

Indeed, it’s even worse than that because, as was the case with Kennesaw Mountain Landis and the Black Sox and Bud Selig and PEDs, the players are, almost necessarily, the ones who are posing a threat to the game’s integrity! They are the ones consorting with gamblers. They are the ones injecting themselves with steroids. They are the ones banging on trash cans to signal the next pitch. Not all of them, of course not, but enough to where the players union — a body that, by definition, requires agreement and solidarity to do anything — has an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to matters of the game’s integrity. Some want to cheat. Other don’t. To expect that conflicted group to take the lead on these sorts of matters is like expecting two toddlers fighting over a toy truck in the playroom to take the lead on resolving their differences. It’s adult in the room’s job to keep that from happening and to prevent and/or punish misbehavior. When it comes to integrity in the game of baseball, the Commissioner is, by  definition, the adult in the room.

All that aside, Manfred cannot with a straight face claim that his inaction and ineptitude in all of this was the fault of the union, because if he has shown anything in his career he has shown that he can pretty much make the union do what he wants. When it’s a simple matter of setting the broad agenda, whatever he decides to say at a press conference becomes the agenda for the next several years (see: pace of play and random rules tweaks). When it’s down to the brass tacks of actually implementing the changes he’d like to see — be they rules or stuff relating to the financial side of the game or almost anything else — he has been more successful at jawboning the union into doing his and the owners’ will than any man in the game’s history. For him to now passively — via the prose of Ken Rosenthal and some rhetorical shoulder-shrugging — claim that combatting cheating in the game was the responsibility of anyone else besides him is preposterous. 

We live in a time in which responsibility is a four-letter word. We live in a time in which blame-shifting is the order of the day. We live in time in which the buck stops nowhere. Rob Manfred, unfortunately, is showing himself to be very much a man for these times.

Astros sweep as Twins lose 18th straight in playoffs

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — Shaken up by a scandal before the virus outbreak shrunk the season, the Houston Astros barely played well enough to reach the playoffs – with the rest of baseball actively rooting against them.

Well, they’re not ready to leave yet.

Carlos Correa hit a two-out, tiebreaking home run in the seventh inning for the Astros, who produced another stifling pitching performance and swept Minnesota over two games with a 3-1 victory Wednesday that sent the Twins to a record 18th straight postseason loss.

“I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here,” Correa said. “But what are they going to say now?”

Nine months after Houston’s rules-breaking, sign-stealing system was revealed, the Astros advanced to the Division Series in Los Angeles. As the sixth seed, they’ll face the Oakland Athletics or Chicago White Sox in a best-of-five matchup starting Monday at Dodger Stadium.

“I don’t think they necessarily thought that they had anything to prove. They just had to play ball,” said manager Dusty Baker, who took his fifth different team to the playoffs and advanced for the first time in seven rounds since winning the 2003 NL Division Series with the Chicago Cubs.

The Twins are 0-18 in the playoffs since winning Game 1 of their Division Series at the New York Yankees on Oct. 5, 2004, a total of seven rounds lost. Since that date, the Astros are 43-35 in postseason play, winning 10 of 15 rounds with three trips to the World Series.

Kyle Tucker hit two RBI singles for the Astros and made a key throw from left field for the inning-ending out in the fifth.

Rookie Cristian Javier worked three hitless innings in relief for the victory in his postseason debut and Ryan Pressly pitched a perfect ninth against his former team, giving the Houston bullpen a total of 9 2/3 scoreless innings in this wild card series with three hits allowed.

“From the very beginning, we envisioned ourselves back in the playoffs and playing real well,” Tucker said. “So we never counted ourselves out at any point.”

Nobody on this Twins team has had a hand in more than six of the playoffs losses, but for the second straight year one of baseball’s most potent lineups limped through a brief postseason cameo. In a three-game division series sweep by the Yankees last year, the Twins totaled seven runs and 22 hits. Against the Astros, they mustered only two runs and seven hits.

“We put a lot of balls in play, it seemed like, but they were up in the air and, yeah, it seemed like we played into their trap,” said Max Kepler, one of four starters who went hitless in the series. “At the end of the day, we didn’t get the job done.”

Nelson Cruz gave the Twins an RBI double for a second straight game, this time in the fourth inning against starter Jose Urquidy. Luis Arraez aggressively tried to score from first base, but Correa took the throw from Tucker and fired home to beat Arraez to the plate to preserve the tie after third base coach Tony Diaz waved him in.

“I don’t know why he sent him,” Correa said.

Then in the seventh against losing pitcher Cody Stashak, Correa drove a 1-0 slider into the tarp-covered seats above right-center field for his 12th home run in 52 playoff games.

After winning 101, 103 and 107 games in the last three regular seasons, winning the 2017 World Series and losing the championship in seven games to the Washington Nationals last year, the Astros stumbled through the 2020 season at 29-31 under Baker and new general manager James Click with a slew of injuries after the COVID-19 pandemic cut the schedule to 60 games.

They had the third-worst road record in the major leagues, too, but none of that mattered this week against the third-seeded Twins, who were out of sorts in their two biggest games this year.

Jose Berrios was one of the few who were locked in with five strong innings to start, with just two hits allowed. His two walks were costly, though, issued right before Tucker’s single in the fourth.

“I don’t think anyone was ready to leave, to end this way,” Cruz said. “That’s life.”

KIRILLOFF FOR BUXTON

Already missing third baseman Josh Donaldson, the Twins held another one of their most valuable players out: center fielder Byron Buxton. Baldelli declined to confirm whether Buxton was experiencing a recurrence of concussion symptoms that kept him out of the last two regular season games. Buxton was picked off first base after pinch running for Cruz in the eighth.

Kepler moved to center, and Alex Kirilloff – the 2016 first-round draft pick – played right field to become the first Twins player in history to make his major league debut in a postseason game. Kirilloff singled in the fourth. With the bases loaded in the first, he flied out to end the inning.

FEELING BLUE

Both teams took issue with plate umpire Manny Gonzalez’s strike zone, with Astros slugger George Springer the first to visibly complain. After being called out on strikes in the fourth, Springer barked, “No way, man!” multiple times on his way back to the dugout.

Then in the sixth, the Twins lost left fielder Eddie Rosario to ejection after he argued a called strike two that would’ve given him a walk if it were called a ball. After swinging and missing at strike three, Rosario yelled again and was quickly tossed.

First base umpire Tim Timmons missed consecutive calls in the eighth inning on grounders by the Astros when he called the runners safe. Both were reversed to outs after replay review.

UP NEXT

The Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series in each of the last three years, will play Monday against either the A’s or the White Sox. RHP Lance McCullers Jr. is the only member of their regular season rotation who did not pitch in Minnesota.

The Twins enter the offseason with 10 players set to become free agents, including the 40-year-old Cruz who led the team in home runs and batting average (among players with a qualifying amount of at-bats) for a second straight season. Their 2021 opener is scheduled for April 1 at Milwaukee.