February 17, 2020

Rob Manfred Holds A Press Conference And Bombs In Every Possible Way, Giving Illogical Answers And Insulting Reporters. (Later, Mike Trout (!) Rips Him.)

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred held a press conference last Friday in North Port, Florida.

How did it go? Well, here are a few headlines:
Rob Manfred Offers Little Insight, Shows Contempt For Reporters In Press Conference (NBC Sports)

Manfred Says Astros' Shame Is Penalty Enough. Opponents Might Disagree. (New York Times)

Rob Manfred Defends Astros' Punishment, Says He Would've Penalized Players In 'Perfect World' (CBS Sports)

Astros Cheating: MLB Network Airs Bull Durham Over Rob Manfred Press Conference (Sports Illustrated)
Manfred said that public shame was a serious enough punishment for the Astros players:
I think if you look at the faces of the Houston players ... they have been hurt by this. ... They will live with questions about what went on in 2017 and 2018 for the rest of their lives. ... [T]hey have payed a price. ... [T]hey're [not] skipping down the road into spring training happy.
Manfred referred to the World Series trophy as "a piece of metal". (The trophy is officially known as the "Commissioner's Trophy".)

Manfred was asked whether the Astros wore buzzers under their uniforms in 2019. He said the players told him they did not, and he took their word for it.

Manfred admitted that if former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers had not spoken to The Athletic about the Astros' cheating in 2017,
we would not have been able to conduct the effective investigation that we did. We would not have been able to impose the disciplines that were imposed. We would not have been able to probably take the prophylactic measures that we're gonna take with respect to 2020, and it's important — painful, but important — that we clean all that up.
Meaning that Commissioner Rob Manfred, even with a reported 10-12 separate complaints about cheating by the Astros piled up on his desk and the fact that Houston's cheating was apparently an "open secret" throughout all levels of the baseball industry, would not have begun any investigations into what those complaints about the Astros were all about.

And Manfred praised his own office's "intestinal fortitude" in sharing the "not very pretty" results of the Astros investigation.

Justin Turner of the Dodgers had a few things to say on Monday:
I don't know if the commissioner has ever won anything in his life. Maybe he hasn't. But the reason every guy's in this room, the reason every guy is working out all offseason, and showing up to camp early and putting in all the time and effort is specifically for that trophy, which, by the way, is called the commissioner's trophy. So for him to devalue it the way he did yesterday just tells me how out of touch he is with the players in this game. At this point the only thing devaluing that trophy is that it says "commissioner" on it. ...

Now anyone who goes forward and cheats to win a World Series, they can live with themselves knowing that, "Oh, it's OK. … We'll cheat in the World Series and bring the title back to L.A. Screw Dave Roberts and screw Andrew [Friedman]. It's just those guys losing their jobs. I still get to be called a champion the rest of my life." So the precedent was set by him yesterday in this case.
And then ... Manfred was ripped by friggin' Mike Trout!

Marc Carig, The Athletic, February 17, 2020:
Mike Trout, fairly or not, has been made into the poster boy for baseball's personality problem. Rob Manfred had something to do with it. A few years back, the commissioner criticized the Angels' star for not doing enough to promote the game. It was a reference to Trout's perceived public blandness. Indeed, Trout's allergy to saying anything remotely controversial has been well documented.

But on Monday morning, Trout seized the megaphone that comes with being the best player in baseball, then delivered a pointed message. He declared his belief that the Astros are cheaters, that Manfred should have punished the players responsible for one of the biggest scandals in the history of the sport, and that he looks upon the 2017 World Series championship with suspicion.

"You don't know what helped them or what not,” Trout said. "But if you know what's coming, it's going to definitely help you. It's tough. Taking a trophy away, taking the rings away, I think they should definitely do something. I don't know what. But to cheat like that and not get anything, it's sad to see."

Trout lobbing a grenade at fellow players and the chief executive of the league just might be the wildest development of the fallout. It remains rare in baseball for players to criticize other players. That tendency toward silence is embedded deep into the culture of the game. ...

To be clear, his comments won't be mistaken for some of the sharper barbs that have come from clubhouses all over the league. ... But in relative terms, this was Trout at perhaps his angriest. He was unflinching. He was even funny.

For Trout, lowering his guard is talking about the weather. But even he managed to take a sleepy Monday morning in spring training and turn it into a late-show monologue. For a few minutes, the timing of his laugh lines rivaled his timing at the plate.

Had he noticed the banging? "I didn't notice the banging. I noticed the banging off the bat, in center field." ...

Is knowing the signs an advantage? "Me going up to the plate knowing what's coming, it would be fun up there."

Indeed, it would be fun to watch. But it would never happen, Trout said, because stealing signs with technology is cheating.

"It's sad for baseball," Trout said. "Tough. They cheated. I don't agree with the punishments, with the players not getting anything when it's a player-driven thing. … Guys' careers have been affected. A lot of people lost jobs." ...

Trout conceded that he "lost respect for some of the guys." Most notably, Trout did not hesitate to share his dismay with Manfred, particularly when it came to meting out punishments to the players. ...

"Obviously, they had something to know that they were cheating," he said. "So, I don't know. It's a tough subject to talk about. Like I said, they cheated the game, cheated players. It's just tough to see."

The howls of protest coming directly from opposing players have been unprecedented. At no point during the Steroid Era was there such a unified chorus. ...

[W]ith Manfred scheduled to meet with media in Arizona on Tuesday, the vitriol about the Astros has shown no signs of slowing down. To Trout, there is an obvious reason.

"Because a lot of teams were affected," he said. "You look at the Dodgers, you look at the Yankees, we weren't in the playoffs but they were in the playoffs. You come to spring training because you want to win a ring. If you see someone cheated to do it, it's a tough thing to swallow. I'm sure a lot of people are mad. I'm sure a lot of people are going to hold back and not say much."

Bill Baer, NBC Sports, February 16, 2020:
Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke at a press conference, addressing the Astros cheating scandal and other topics on Sunday evening. It did not go well.

To start, the press conference was not broadcast officially on MLB's own TV channel (it aired the 1988 movie Bull Durham instead), nor could any mention to it or link to the live stream be found anywhere on MLB.com. When the actual questions began, Manfred's answers were circuitous or simply illogical given other comments he has made in the past. On more than one occasion, he showed contempt for reporters for doing their jobs — and, some might argue, doing his job — holding players and front office personnel accountable.

Last month, Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal broke a story about the Astros' "dark arts" and "Codebreaker" operation, based on a letter Manfred sent to then-GM Jeff Luhnow. Diamond was among the reporters present for Manfred's press conference on Sunday. Per The Athletic's Lindsey Adler, Manfred addressed Diamond, saying, "You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part." MLB's response to the depth of the Astros' cheating ways was lacking and, without Diamond's reporting, we would have known how deeply lacking that response was. It is understandable that Manfred would be salty about it, since it exposed him as doing his job poorly, but it was an immature, unrestrained response from someone in charge of the entire league.

Onto the actual topic at hand, Manfred said he felt like the punishment doled out to the Astros was enough. Per Chris Cotillo, Manfred said Astros players "have been hurt by this" and will forever be questioned about their achievements in 2017 and '18. Some players disagree. Former pitcher Phil Hughes even suggested the players have a work stoppage over this issue.

Manfred defended his decision not to vacate the Astros' championship, saying, "The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act." The commissioner devaluing the meaning of a championship seems… not great? Counterintuitive, even? The "piece of metal" is literally called the Commissioner's Trophy. Manfred went on to brag about the league having "the intestinal fortitude to share the results of that investigation, even when those results were not very pretty." Be careful, don't hurt yourself patting yourself on the back for doing the bare minimum. ...

Because the players involved in the Astros' cheating scheme weren't punished, some — like Larry Bowa — have suggested intentionally throwing baseballs at Astros players to exact justice. Manfred [said] ... retaliatory beanballs "will not be tolerated." ... Manfred has done nothing about beanball wars in the past, but it will now give the Astros somewhat of an advantage since pitchers will now be judged closely on any pitch that runs too far inside on Astro hitters. ...

All in all, this press conference could not have gone worse for Manfred. The press found it condescending and the comments he made rang hollow to the players. Manfred seemed on edge and unprepared addressing arguably the biggest controversy baseball has faced since the steroid era. This is a dark time for the sport.
Brendan Gawlowski, FanGraphs, February 17, 2020:
The [press] conference was not broadcast on MLB Network — Bull Durham aired instead — nor did it stream on MLB.com. Whether this reflects a continuation of the league's misguided damage control policy or a misunderstanding of the scandal's resonance to fans, it was a strange way to downplay the commissioner's remarks on such a topical issue. ...

Listening to his remarks, one gets the impression that the league will remain in reactive mode perpetually as new details emerge, and that Manfred himself wants nothing more than to reach the other side of this. At one point he clumsily exclaimed "we'll have baseball in 2020!" We're all excited too, Rob. ...

At this point, the league's response to the scandal has become a part of the story. Public reporting has driven MLB's investigations and actions at every step ...

The majority of questions were, understandably, about the Astros. By the midway point of the press conference, Manfred seemed like he'd rather have been talking about anything else, saying that "[t]his has been really fun but I'd like to move on to other topics at some point." Naturally, the following question was about the Astros.

Most dissonantly of all though, in his (otherwise reasonable) explanation for why he didn't vacate Houston's 2017 title, he said "the idea of… asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile idea."

"A piece of metal." It was just one flippant line in a half-hour conference, but it was nonetheless shocking to hear the commissioner of baseball refer to the game's ultimate prize in that manner. ...

He also dismissed the idea that the players are getting off easy, noting that their accomplishments will be forever tainted ...

One intriguing moment was Manfred's claim that, without Mike Fiers talking to The Athletic, the league probably would have never launched an extensive investigation. "Without the reporting… and the availability of Fiers, we probably wouldn't have gotten where we got to."

That's a strange message in the broader context of the scandal. Players and executives from around the league have talked about how Houston's cheating was an open secret. Danny Farquhar, at the very least, caught on to the banging scheme in real time. It strains credulity to think that the league couldn't have investigated this properly without help from the press, and Manfred's comment only reinforces the impression that damage control has been the league's unwavering priority in this matter. ...

Boston sign stealing: Somewhat lost in all the Astros news lately is that the league has still not administered discipline to Alex Cora (or anyone else) involved in Boston's sign-stealing scandal. Expect that to change in the next fortnight: "We always want the investigation to go as quickly as possible," Manfred said. "Never, however, at the expense of making sure that we have pursued every possible lead and done everything we can do to get the facts right. I think by the end of next week we should be done and have a decision out." Whether anyone will be happy about that or not, we'll see.
Craig Calcaterra, NBC Sports, February 17, 2020:
A lot of people have become armchair public relations experts as it relates to the Astros, but my personal view is that the Astros' public statements are not lacking because they're tone deaf or because they have bad P.R. It's simply because they're not sorry. ...

Athletes are lauded and mythologized for being willing to do anything to win. A century and a half of pro sports has shown us, time and again, that that anything often includes cheating. And that with few exceptions, the reward is worth the risk. It's also worth the fallout in the instances in which they are caught. The Astros won a title. They got glory and fame and in some cases money ... There is really nothing that can be done. And, on some level, the Astros know this. To the extent they feel bad it's because they got caught and because they are being scrutinized now. ...

This is one of those basic things that anyone who is into high level sports just has to make peace with somehow. Or, even, if they can't, it's something they need to stop assuming is a stain on some pure thing. Baseball is not pure, nor are the men who play it. ...

[On social media, Astros fans are] vacillating between "see, they apologized!" and "they have no reason to apologize because everyone else was cheating and no one else is talking about that, are they?!"

This last bit is what's most fascinating to me, because it involves two levels of cognitive dissonance on the part of those who hold the opinion.

First off, I'm struck by the notion that for seven years the Astros and their fans have insisted that the Astros do everything better, earlier, faster, and more efficiently than the rest of the league. Then, the moment they get busted for something that their better and faster front office innovated "Codebreaker" they insist that they were merely doing what everyone else was doing across the league. I guess the Astros are only at the cutting edge of exploiting competitive inefficiencies in non-rule-breaking ways. Pretty convenient! ...

Finally, even if the Astros are being singled out, it does not absolve them. I would hope that's not a difficult concept to grok – "I may have been copying Billy's test but Billy was copying from Suzy" hasn't washed as an excuse, basically ever – but you'd be amazed at how many Astros fans I've encountered who are arguing, basically that. Down with whataboutism, folks. It's simply crap logic. ...

[T]he most telling part [of Manfred's press conference] is when he made a snide and dismissive remark about Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond's story which revealed (a) how much more sophisticated and front office-led the sign-stealing was; and (b) how Manfred apparently buried all of that in his January report on the matter. Manfred:
"You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part."
How immature. How peevish. In this Manfred comes off like a whining child. Like someone so out of his depth in the job of commissioner that the echo sounder can't gauge it. ...

[T]here are very, very few reporters who are super critical of the league or Manfred from an editorial perspective. The reason for this is simple: a substantial part of the baseball press corps is employed by MLB itself or work for MLB rights holders like ESPN, RSNs or radio outlets which broadcast games. That Manfred can't handle even the very small amount of heat he gets from the press – that a simple factual support inspires an ad hominem attack on the reporter who, via basic reporting, revealed Manfred's own incompetence – is simply sad.

Anyway, it's a whole new week now. Maybe now people will begin to accept that not all apologies are required to be accepted. Maybe they'll begin to accept that not all bad behavior has a defense. Maybe they'll begin to accept that Major League Baseball cares far less about getting to the bottom of issues that reflect poorly on the league than it does about burying said issues in the bottom of a quarry someplace. Maybe they'll move on to baseball. To the parts about it that aren't ridiculous and pathetic.
Tyler Kepner, New York Times, February 16, 2020:
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. ... 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 ...

Manfred said Sunday that, in a perfect world, he would have punished the players, but he needed their cooperation to confirm what really happened. ... "If I was in a world where I could have found all the facts without granting immunity, I would have done that." ...

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. ...

"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."
Manfred felt that public humiliation was enough of a punishment for the players, but not for the manager or the general manager.

Why not? That makes no sense.

Why not have A.J. Hinch live with questions about what went on for the rest of his life? Why not have him never skip down the road into spring training happy?

We'll take a quick break to point out that Manfred also gave a head-scratching answer to a question about the Tomahawk Chop, acting like the numerous complaints over this racist practice were a new thing that he has not had time to investigate.

Christopher Buchanan, 11 Alive, February 17, 2020:
The leader of Major League Baseball seemed hesitant to delve into the Braves' "Tomahawk Chop" controversy as he fielded dozens of questions about the Astros cheating scandal on Sunday. ...

To begin with, Commissioner Rob Manfred suggested that the Chop controversy hadn't been on his mind recently.

"You know, um, I'm sorry to admit this, but with the - all that's going on ... it's just simply too much going on and I haven't even gotten around to it. ... I just can't do better than that for you, right now."
Atlanta's baseball fans have been doing the Chop since 1991. The protests against it have also been going on for 20 years.

Manfred has been working with MLB in some capacity since 1987. During the 1994–95 strike, he served as outside counsel for the owners. He joined MLB as the Executive Vice President of Economics and League Affairs in 1998 and represented MLB in negotiations with the Players Association for new collective bargaining agreements in 2002, 2006, and 2011. Manfred was promoted to Chief Operating Officer at the end of the 2013 season and elected as Commissioner in August 2014.

All of that is to say that Manfred has been well aware of the controversy over the Chop since it began. He cannot suddenly use the excuse of the recent sign-stealing scandal to mask his years of inaction.

And in California, the Long Beach Little League and East Fullerton Little League won't have any teams named after the Astros. "Parents are disgusted," Long Beach Little League president Steve Klaus told the Orange County Register. "They are disgusted with the Astros and their lack of ownership and accountability. We know there's more to this scandal. What's coming tomorrow? With the Astros, you've got premeditated cheating."

Mike Axisa, CBS Sports, February 17, 2020:
On Sunday, it was MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's turn to face the public regarding the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal that has dominated baseball the last four months. ...

"When we began the investigation after we became aware of the Houston situation, we started with an important and fundamental goal," Manfred said at a Sunday press conference. "That was goal was to make sure that we found the facts, completed the investigation, found out what was going on, and put ourselves in position to be as transparent with our fans and other clubs. People had a right to know what happened and we achieved that goal."

Earlier [in the day], Manfred conducted an interview with ESPN's Karl Ravech in which he said Houston's apology earlier in the week was "not successful." ...

[Manfred told ESPN:] "I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have payed a price. To think that they're skipping down the road into spring training happy, that's just a mischaracterization of where we are."

Here are six important things to know about Manfred's press conference Sunday afternoon.

1. Manfred would've liked to punish players ... "If I was in a world where I could've found all the facts without granting immunity, I would've done that."

Because MLB granted the players immunity in exchange for information, Manfred said they are being punished through public shame, essentially. Answering questions about the sign-stealing scandal and having others (fans, opposing players, etc.) consider their accomplishments illegitimate is punishment enough. ...

2. Manfred is not certain there were no buzzers ... Manfred said his investigation found no evidence of buzzers. He stopped short of saying the Astros did not use buzzers, however.

"You're never 100 percent sure in any of these things, but these were my best judgments," he said.

Manfred said MLB was aware of the buzzer allegations ... before the garbage can investigation. According to Manfred, Astros players ... [were] consistent in their denials about the use of buzzers in 2019. He's taking their word for it. ...

Manfred said the [Red Sox] investigation is ongoing, but he expects a resolution by the end of next week. ...
Jimmy Traina, Sports Illustrated, February 17, 2020:
Commissioner Rob Manfred held his first press conference regarding Houston's sign-stealing chicanery Sunday afternoon, just a few days after the Astros held a disastrous press conference in which they shrugged off the entire affair.

However, MLB Network passed on airing Manfred's meeting with the media and stuck to its original programming at the time: Bull Durham.

Yes, baseball's own network decided not to air an important and newsworthy press conference held by its own commissioner so instead they could air a movie that has been shown on its network a million times.

MLB Network aired the Astros' controversial press conference on Thursday featuring Crane, Jose Altuve and Bregman, so it's hard to understand why it would ignore Manfred's presser on Sunday. ...

SI reached out to MLB Network about the decision ... So the presser was covered, but not covered live, which is a mind-boggling decision. There was absolutely no excuse for not showing Manfred live on Sunday.


MThomas said...

So with the lack of any discipline for the players, and the lack of disincentives to cheating in this fashion, what changes should MLB make to minimize the impact of schemes like this in the future?

Sign stealing has been around for more than a century, amd, please correct me if I am wrong, it is not expressly against the rules (at least as long as you dont use video replay and certain forms of technology to transmit signs). But what if signs were transmitted electronically from the dugout instead of through a series of visible gestures? Why not embrace the change in technology going forward, and allow teams to develop new, better ways of signaling what pitch to throw, when to call for a stolen base or hit and run, et cetera.

I think about how technology has influenced play calling in the NFL. The quarterback is allowed to have a helmet through which he can receive play calls from the offensive coordinator or head coach. The same is the case for a designated player on the defensive side of the ball. The teams are permitted to fax photos of plays from the coaching booth above the field down to the players and coaches on the sideline. Adjustments are part of the game, and part of what makes the game exciting.

I'm not saying its foolproof and doesn't also have to be governed. But I think it's important to acknowledge that human beings (not just elite athletes) in competitive situations are incentivized to push the boundaries of what's allowed in order to gain an advantage. The technology exists to allow for a more efficient and secure transmission of strategically important data from coaches to players on the field.

To me, the further restrictions and guidance on what is and is not allowed with regard to sign stealing is as misguided as the commissioner's statements.

I understand that the focus right now is on the past, and about making wrongs right. But there is no focus on how to ensure history doesn't repeat itself all over again.

Pitch selection and other play calls will continue to be communicated via an outdated and inefficient system of hand gestures. Players and entire baseball organizations will find new and innovative ways to capture that data and take advantage of it. As Calcaterra points out, it's basically in the job description.

I Will Not Get The Jab said...

Just like the head corrupt of the NFL, the head office of MLB is behind the times when it comes to its use of technology. MLB is looking up to change the rules of a game that is always about 2-3 hours long. The new generation of fans are Twitter-type folks who will always instant gratification, so perhaps baseball really is not a sport they should be following.
As for this so called sign-stealing business: the media has blown this WAAAAAAAAY out of proportion. Reminds me of the NFL where the media rarely says a peep when any team but the Patriots commits a possible rule transgression.