January 15, 2020

MLB Offers "A Carefully Orchestrated, Meticulously Calibrated, Thorough And Impressive Whitewashing"; Grievances Against Astros For Sign-Stealing Were Buried By MLB, Which Acted Only After The Information Was Made Public

"A thorough and impressive whitewashing.
Tidy, clean, carefully orchestrated, meticulously calibrated.

Those are the words of ESPN's Jeff Passan, describing Commissioner Rob Manfred's investigation and disciplinary decisions regarding the illegal sign-stealing committed by the 2017 Houston Astros. Passan also reports on growing anger around the game concerning the relatively soft punishments for the Astros.

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch were suspended (and then fired) despite MLB's statement that the sign-stealing operation was "player-driven". The lost draft picks were (in Passan's words) "painful but not crippling" and the $5 million fine is "couch-cushion change for every owner in baseball" (though, interestingly, it is the highest amount Manfred could levy under the MLB constitution).

MLB played the part of "the big, bad monolith in delivering the ruinous news from on high", but that's not the impression received by many others in the game.

One team owner: "Crane won. The entire [investigation] was programmed to protect the future of the franchise. He got his championship. He keeps his team. His fine is nothing. The sport lost, but Crane won."

Passan notes (my emphasis):
[I]t was easy to miss how MLB soft-pedaled Crane's punishment. In the first paragraph of Manfred's nine-page statement outlining the league's investigation, he addressed the original report by The Athletic that spurred the controversy. How there was "significant concern" that what the Astros were alleged to have done violated "the principles of sportsmanship and fair competition" and how he treats such threats to the game with "the utmost seriousness." He continued: "I believe in transparency." And then, after that on-point thesis, came two completely out-of-place sentences.

"At the outset," Manfred wrote, "I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested."

The absolution of Crane so early in the document came as no surprise. Crane said he saw details of the league's punishment over the weekend. It allowed him to introduce himself as a do-something organizational shepherd. He announced the firings of Luhnow and Hinch on live TV, generating maximum effect. ...

Initially, Manfred planned on limiting the investigation to the Astros. ... Sports Illustrated reported that the Astros named eight other teams they believe cheated in 2017 and 2018 -- and Crane said "the commissioner assured me that every team and every allegation will be checked out."

That sounds far-fetched, like the sort of politicking a commissioner does to placate one of his bosses. ...

Luhnow ... said in a statement, "I am not a cheater." That doesn't exactly square with the fact that the team he ran cheated during its championship-winning season and with the information in Manfred's report that "at least two emails sent to Luhnow" informed him of replay-review room sign decoding, about which he did nothing. Luhnow continued to try to clear himself of responsibility while blaming "players" and "low-level employees working with the bench coach." ...

"[Manfred's disciplinary choices] will scare employees of MLB teams from cheating, at least for a while," one high-ranking executive said, "and the man who owns the team gets to enjoy his ring. He gets off lightly and can start with a clean slate."

This refrain was common inside the game, and it came with a question that was rhetorical-but-not-really ... How many owners in baseball would trade $5 million, four high draft picks and the firing of their GM and manager in exchange for a World Series title?

Twenty-five? Twenty-eight? All 30? ...

Whatever the answer, the remaining two mentions of Crane in Manfred's report do yeoman's work of clearing him. The first said it was "difficult to question" Crane giving Luhnow responsibility of baseball operations. The second stated, as fact, that Crane "was unaware of any of the violations of MLB rules by his club." And that was it. A thorough and impressive whitewashing. Tidy, clean, carefully orchestrated, meticulously calibrated. The Houston Astros, same as they ever were.

Alden Gonzalez and Jesse Rogers, writing for ESPN, spoke to more than 15 executives, coaches, scouts and players, who offered their comments (anonymously) about the Astros' cheating scandal and MLB's punishments.

The two writers ask: "How can a player-driven scheme not punish any players?"

That would seem to make no sense, but one player stated: "You can't punish a whole team. And some of those guys are not with the Astros anymore. It has to be the organization. Like in college football -- when there's misconduct, by the time it's found, most players and sometimes coaches are gone. The fans and the current players take the brunt of the punishment. Same here."

One club executive: "It doesn't seem like there are any consequences for players for doing this stuff, so as a result, why would they stop? I suppose if they see how much trouble they can get their manager in, then maybe that will matter."

Gonzalez and Rogers also report that as far back as 2016, it was "a pretty open secret among [opposing teams] that the Astros were stealing signs in some fashion". One pitcher stated:
I faced Carlos Beltran in 2017. I actually went back and looked at the AB. I knew it could be the last time I might pitch against him and I wanted to get him out. He was always such a hard out. I got ahead 0-2, then he laid off four straight pitches. I couldn't believe it. When I went back to watch it, I heard the banging. I just figured I was tipping or whatever. No one knew to what extent they were doing it, but we all suspected something.
One player said that grievances were filed, but MLB did not act until the issue reached the public.

I would have appreciated some additional information on this point. It would appear MLB learned exactly zero from The Steroid Era.

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