Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: Commissioner Manfred has got to go

In the maelstrom that is the Major League Baseball sign-stealing scandal, four talented baseball minds have lost their jobs (so far). Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch, general manager Jeff Luhnow, Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora and New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran all got the boot following the explosive 9-page report released by league Commissioner Rob Manfred last week. 

What began as a sign-stealing scandal in Houston has spread to three teams (so far), infecting the entire sport and calling into question the integrity of two of the last three World Series. And what started with four high-profile firings should end with one more: Manfred.

Since Manfred assumed his role five years ago this week, the game of baseball has improved in various ways. The League strengthened its policy regarding domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse while also taking important steps toward improving the pace of play. The rollout of instant replay rules in 2014 and 2017 was relatively smooth. 

But the commissioner has made one fatal blunder that outweighs any of his accomplishments. Manfred was tasked with responding to the biggest cheating scandal the sport has faced in decades, and he struck out. 

The discipline Manfred administered to the Astros wasn’t even the most glaring issue. The Commissioner suspended Hinch and Luhnow for the entire 2020 season, fined Houston a league-high $5 million and took away the team’s top two draft picks for the next two seasons –– a hefty punishment for an indefensible violation of league rules and norms. While some, myself included, hoped for a harsher response, Manfred’s discipline appears strong enough to dissuade future transgressors. It was more than a meager slap on the wrist.

The problem, however, is his continued commitment to allowing sign-stealing in baseball legally –– whatever that means. 

In the League’s Sept. 15, 2017 press release that announced an undisclosed fine of the Red Sox for using smart watches to communicate stolen signs, Manfred wrote early in the statement: “At the outset, it is important to understand that the attempt to decode signs being used by an opposing catcher is not a violation of any Major League Baseball Rule or Regulation.” He then went on to explain the ways in which the Sox’s scheme fell outside the bounds of the acceptable forms of sign-stealing.

But that sentence right there is the issue. Manfred himself has blurred the lines of what is acceptable. While it should be obvious to anyone who cares about baseball that using a video camera to steal signs during a game should be strictly prohibited, Manfred’s continued assurance that sign-stealing the right way is allowed has encouraged teams to hone their strategies and push boundaries, and eventually led the game’s brightest to take things too far. 

So why encourage the tactic in the first place?

As many players, executives and coaches have said in recent weeks, everyone steals signs. In a sport that relies so heavily on secretive communication, it makes perfect sense that teams would attempt to decode their opponents’ systems to gain a competitive advantage. But just as teams retaliate after a batter is beaned, sign-stealing falls squarely into the category of baseball’s unwritten rules. Everyone does it but nobody talks about it. Except Manfred.

I understand Manfred’s intentions. By reassuring teams that the practice of stealing signs is permissible, he is attempting to safeguard the tradition. But it seems it has had the opposite effect. Give teams an inch and they’ll take a mile. 

Instead, Manfred should focus on preventing the violation itself: the use of technology. The League should ban all use of video during games. Take away the team’s video replay room if need be. Clearly we cannot rely on integrity and honesty alone to police the game. However, this is a conversation for another time.

In my mind, Manfred has lost his credibility. Sure, four talented managers lost their jobs. Two of them were suspended anyway and Cora is sure to be soon. In addition, Manfred declined to discipline any of the Astros players involved in the scheme — even Beltran, who the report names as the architect of the malfeasance. Plus, $5 million for a billionaire owner is pocket change. 

The most telling reaction to the whole debacle has been the debate over whether other owners would willingly trade $5 million, four draft picks and the jobs of their GM and manager in return for a World Series. To some, it doesn’t seem so crazy. And that’s how we know the punishment wasn’t enough.

The fact that this thought is crossing people’s minds also displays Manfred’s inability to effectively lead the league. Manfred has 30 bosses, and if they respond to this cheating scandal by paying lip service to the commissioner and then mocking his response, that is not a healthy dynamic. Manfred does not inspire or intimidate. He is neither feared nor loved. 

With less than a month until the 2020 season, three teams are without managers. One of those teams is without a GM and another still awaits further discipline. Despite the seemingly severe punishments handed down to Houston, the rest of the league has been left feeling let down. Some hoped for harsher punishments, while others even question if the discipline outweighs a Commissioner’s Trophy. 

All this for a sport already struggling to attract fans and control its pace of play spells big trouble for MLB. In such times of crisis, superior leadership is required. The person charged with cleaning up a mess of this magnitude must have the trust of owners, coaches, players and fans alike. While Manfred is not solely to blame for the prevalence of cheating in baseball, it has become clear that he is also not the right person to lead the league out of it. 

With Manfred, there’s no there there. Amidst a massive cheating scandal in the MLB, there should be no Manfred there.

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