NORTH PORT, Fla. — Late Sunday afternoon, just as M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred began his annual spring training news conference in Florida, the Chicago Cubs’ Yu Darvish sent a tweet from Arizona.
Earlier in the day, Darvish had wondered aloud why the Houston Astros got to keep their 2017 World Series title despite having cheated that season. A fan responded to that comment by tweeting a photo of the Commissioner’s Trophy in front of an Astros backdrop.
“Gorgeous trash can!” replied Darvish, who lost Games 3 and 7 of that World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I like it!”
Players across the majors have reported to spring training this year with gloves, bats and barbs. When they are not lashing out at the Astros, they are lampooning them. The Astros’ sign-stealing scheme was egregious enough to break established norms in professional baseball, where players rarely gang up on fellow members of the brotherhood.
But now there seem to be 29 teams of saints and one dirty band of sinners from Houston, absolved by a benevolent commissioner who granted immunity in exchange for confessions. That decision now undermines Manfred with fans and players, and he knows it. Before he even took a question on Sunday, he asserted that shame was punishment enough for the Astros.
“I think if you look at the faces of the Houston players, as they’ve been out there publicly addressing this issue, they have been hurt by this,” Manfred said. “They will live with questions about what went on in 2017 and 2018 for the rest of their lives.”
Sad faces? Constant questions? Apparently it is up to the news media to do what Manfred could not: impose some kind of lasting toll on the Astros. Four people from the 2017 Astros have been suspended or fired in the wake of the scandal, but all were general managers or managers. None of the active players who benefited from the scheme — stealing catchers’ signals electronically and relaying them in real time by banging on a trash can near the home dugout at Minute Maid Park — have been penalized.
Had Manfred suspended the players, he would have surely faced pushback from their union. His report in January blistered the Astros’ leadership but curiously spared the team’s owner, Jim Crane, who piled on the departed General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch last week by blaming them for not giving “proper guidance” to his players.
Manfred said Sunday that, in a perfect world, he would have punished the players, but he needed their cooperation to confirm what really happened.
“They had an obligation to play by the rules and they didn’t do it,” Manfred said. “I understand when people say the players should have been punished. I understand why people feel that way, because they did not do the right thing. If I was in a world where I could have found all the facts without granting immunity, I would have done that.”
The Astros begin their exhibition schedule on Saturday night against the Washington Nationals, who beat them in a seven-game World Series last fall. Houston opens its season at home on March 26 against the Los Angeles Angels, and then plays its first road series in Oakland, home of the Athletics and pitcher Mike Fiers — the former Astro who revealed the sign-stealing operation to The Athletic in November.
Who will be the first pitcher to inflict punishment at 95 miles an hour? At Red Sox camp on Sunday, reporters asked Chris Sale — who was thrashed by the Astros in the 2017 division series opener in Houston — about that. Sale seemed fine with whatever his fellow pitchers decide.
“I think the game polices itself sometimes,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I think you’re going to see some stuff happen this year. I don’t know if it’s right, wrong or indifferent. Guys are certainly welcome to handle things however they want.’’
Not if the league can help it. The Astros’ new manager, Dusty Baker, publicly asked M.L.B. over the weekend to step in against “premeditated retaliation,” and Manfred relayed the message to managers before a dinner here on Sunday.
“I hope that I made it extremely clear to them that retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter intentionally will not be tolerated, whether it’s Houston or anybody else,” he said. “It’s dangerous and it is not helpful to the current situation.”
The next situation — an investigation into sign-stealing allegations involving the 2018 Boston Red Sox, who also won the World Series — should be completed by the end of the month. In the meantime, Manfred said, he would engage the players’ union about further anti-cheating measures. Over the last two years, he said, some initiatives have helped — a league official monitoring the video room, for example, and the recording of dugout phone conversations. More are coming.
“I do expect that we will, for 2020, have really serious restrictions on player and playing personnel access to video in-game,” he said. “I think it’s really important for us to send a message to our fans that not only did we investigate and punish, but we altered our policies in a way that will help make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
That is a noble and necessary goal, but the league lost credibility by failing to uncover the scheme earlier, despite accusations by several teams. And the Astros’ credibility is so shredded that, no matter how much they or M.L.B. dismiss it, many fans and players will always believe the Astros used buzzers to transmit the Yankees’ signs to hitters last October.
“In my own mind, it was hard for me to figure out, when they were immune: 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?” Manfred said. “Can I tell you I’m 100 percent sure about that? You’re never 100 percent sure in any of these things.”
And that is the problem. We are supposed to be 100 percent sure that the games are played fairly. That is the very underpinning of sports. Manfred wisely let the Astros keep their trophy; the Dodgers do not want it, and it is pointless to pretend those games never happened. They did, the Astros won, and that will never change. But Darvish is right: The trophy might as well be a trash can.
“The 2017 World Series will always be looked at as something different,” Manfred said. “Whether or not you put an asterisk or ask for the trophy back, I don’t think it makes that much difference. I think we did what we should do — that was, we found the facts and we were transparent about them.”
The facts were devastating to the players’ reputations, but that was the best M.L.B. could do to punish them.
The Astros* play on.