Rob Manfred’s disastrous press conference shows how badly MLB mismanaged Astros crisis
Had nothing else been said after the release of Major League Baseball’s findings relating to the Houston Astros cheating scandal, the affair already would have been incredibly damaging for the sport. Both the Astros themselves and the league, however, have made it worse every time they have opened their mouths.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to expect much from the Astros players. Yes, their reputations will take a permanent hit, they’ve been sharply criticized by their peers, and their accomplishments have been tainted. However, everyone on the 2017 team will still be able to point to the championship banner and the World Series rings they now possess, and in their minds, those accomplishments are legitimate. The question has been asked whether it’s worth the scandal and fallout if it means you still get a World Series title out of it. Most would probably say yes, especially in light of the fact that no players were directly punished by the league. While not a defense, it’s easy to see why an Astros player would offer an apology of questionable sincerity and just be prepared to move on.
That is why it was so important for commissioner Rob Manfred to get both the investigation and the punishment correct. It is now widely accepted that he didn’t do that.
The decision not to punish players has outraged most fans and even other players, especially since the sign-stealing scheme was characterized as “player-driven” in the league’s final report. It means Astros players devised the scheme, reaped the benefits, and watched as manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow got fired. It’s hard to see how anyone would really learn a lesson from that.
Manfred’s decision not to punish the players stems, by all accounts, from two factors.
One is that the league offered players immunity in exchange for honest testimony. The second is that the league anticipated litigation and a brawl with the players’ union if they tried to punish the players, due in part to a perceived lack of clarity on what the actual rules against sign-stealing were, and also due to the Astros management not communicating the rules with the players. Manfred said as much in his sit-down interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravech that aired Sunday.
Rob Manfred: "We knew if we had disciplined the players, in all likelihood, we were going to have grievances and grievances that we were going to lose on the basis that we never properly informed them of the rules."
— Ben DuBose (@BenDuBose) February 16, 2020
Immunity may have led Manfred to clearer facts, which makes the discussion a bit more difficult. It’s also worth noting that the league is preparing for what could be contentious labor negotiations with the MLBPA, and going to war with them over the Astros may have made those negotiations more difficult. However, the integrity of the game is at stake. Manfred’s lack of direct punishment sent a message that the league isn’t committed to holding players accountable in the name of fairness and honest play. That may not be intentional, but it’s clearly the message that the players took, considering several pitchers are openly discussing taking justice into their own hands. Had Manfred punished players, that would not be a discussion, at least on a wide scale.
That leads us to the press conference Manfred held Sunday, which went horrendously. The commissioner appeared indifferent to much of the criticism and came off detached and ignorant, as if he didn’t understand why his inaction had sparked such a firestorm. Several of his quotes made the rounds and were ripped apart almost immediately for various reasons. The most notable, however, was the commissioner’s assertion that the public shaming of Astro players was its own form of sufficient punishment.
Rob Manfred: “The one thing I do take issue with is the notion anyone in the Houston organization escaped punishment…It is rare you have punishment you will live with for the rest of your life.”
Shame, apparently, is tangible discipline. #Astros
— Gabe Lacques (@GabeLacques) February 16, 2020
As noted earlier, the Astros appear content to live with it. They believe their title was legitimate. They still have that title. Their reputations may be damaged, and that championship may show up on their resume with an asterisk in the eyes of most, but the fact is, it’s still on that resume. Public shame is not going to be enough to make Astros players truly regret their actions.
Manfred leaned on the public again when he stated that part of the reason behind not stripping the Astros of their title was because he wanted to let fans judge for themselves whether it was legitimate.
Manfred said he considered stripping the World Series title from the Astros and that the league office spent a lot of time discussing the possibility. Said the reasons they didn’t because of lack of precedent & that he wanted to let the public judge the facts of situation.
— Joon Lee (@joonlee) February 16, 2020
This, again, goes back to the previous point. Why should Houston players care if large swaths of the public think they won the title illegitimately? The record will still show that they won the title, and for Houston’s players, that’s both the important thing and not much of a punishment.
In one of the most odious moments of the press conference, Manfred sarcastically jabbed Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond, who was behind the report that shed light on the Astros’ codebreaking computer program. Part of that reporting involved Diamond obtaining a private letter sent by Manfred to ex-Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, which Manfred was pretty openly unhappy about.
Rob Manfred to the reporter who broke the news on the Astros' Codebreaker scheme: "You know, congratulations. You got a private letter that, you know, I sent to a club official. Nice reporting on your part."
— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) February 16, 2020
Manfred has some nerve to call out a reporter like this. He all but admitted that, without the work of The Athletic reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich getting Mike Fiers to go on the record as the whistleblower, this investigation never would have happened and the Astros would have gotten away with it completely. He does not get to pick and choose which well-sourced reporting on the topic is good and which is bad. That sort of reporting is literally the only reason the public knows anything about this story in the first place. If Manfred and the league had bothered to put information about the Codebreaker program in their original report, Diamond’s work wouldn’t have been necessary, but it’s quickly becoming clear that Manfred left out plenty of details in what was meant to be his full disclosure to the public.
The same is true of the Astros’ alleged use of buzzers. Manfred can’t be expected to include every bit of uncorroborated information in his report, and if the league concluded that there was no reliable evidence of buzzer usage, so be it. Given how widespread that rumor was within the game, however, clarification of that within the original report would have answered more questions and avoided the spectacle of a fake Twitter account helping fuel a wildfire of rumors that the report did not cover. That is why this information will keep leaking out and reporters will keep digging.
At one point in his Sunday press conference, Manfred said the back-and-forth that had gone on over the scandal was “not healthy” and voiced his eagerness to move on to other topics. Commissioner Manfred should probably know that baseball fans would love to move on. Many are tired of hearing about the Astros and would like this chapter to be put behind them. The problem is that no one can move on because the league investigation did not do its job. Whatever Manfred says, the players were not adequately punished for what they did. Fan confidence in the integrity and fairness of the game is very low right now, and Manfred’s words and actions send the message that the league is not committed to safeguarding those values. That is why fans and players are unwilling to move on — because Major League Baseball mismanaged its biggest crisis since the steroid era, and continues to do so. Manfred doesn’t seem to get that, and as long as that’s the case, fans and players alike will continue to try conveying to him why that’s such a problem.