Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: Major League Baseball is the real loser in the Red Sox scandal

What’s weaker than a slap on the wrist? A finger wag? A passive-aggressive head shake?

Whatever you call it, that’s what the Boston Red Sox received last week from Major League Baseball. More than 100 days after the league announced its investigation into allegations of illegal sign-stealing by the 2018 World Champions, the findings and disciplinary decisions were finally reported on April 22. 

After 65 witnesses and tens of thousands of emails, texts, videos and photographs, Boston walked away from this four-month headache with nary a scratch. And somehow, MLB looks worse than the Sox.

The allegations surfaced in early January in — where else but — The Athletic. Similar to the Houston Astros, the Red Sox were accused of using video replay technology to decode signs during games, which is prohibited by MLB rules.

While the alleged misconduct was not as egregious as Houston’s blatant hubris, it was compounded by context: Boston was fined in September 2017 for using a smartwatch to relay sign sequences from the replay room to the dugout. 

In the words of “The Office’s” Michael Scott, “Fool me once, strike one. But fool me twice, strike three.”

So what did the league find? Not much.

Red Sox video room operator and former minor leaguer J.T. Watkins occasionally used the in-game live replay feed to decode signs and update the pregame reports he provided to batters. Watkins “vehemently disputed” any wrongdoing, according to the report.

MLB clarified that such information was only relevant when the team had a runner on second base, and even then, the league’s 15-page report said Watkins only used the in-game feed a few times when relaying signs.

Further, Commissioner Rob Manfred found that then-manager Alex Cora, the front office and a majority of the players were unaware of the scheme, and that the team “made commendable efforts toward instilling a culture of compliance.” It was a stark contrast to the Astros.

In short, after months of investigation, MLB found that in very limited circumstances, one particular video operator directed an illegal cheating practice without the knowledge of the rest of the organization. 

Feeling skeptical? Join the club.

As punishment, the league announced that Watkins would be suspended for the 2020 season and prohibited from video replay responsibilities in 2021. The Sox would also forfeit a second-round pick in this year’s draft.

Additionally, Cora was suspended for the 2020 season for his conduct with Houston in 2017.

That’s it. No fines, no high-profile suspensions of current personnel. 

It is worth noting that the loss of a draft pick is not insignificant. As part of the league’s COVID-19 response, it announced that the 2020 draft would be reduced to as few as five rounds, making each round all the more important. 

The Sox were lucky to hold onto their first-round slot, pick No. 17, the team’s highest spot since 2016. But the second round is crucial — just ask Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester or Red Sox Hall of Famer Fred Lynn.

While the loss stings, it doesn’t compare to Houston’s forfeiture of its first- and second-round picks in 2020 and 2021. That is not to mention a $5 million fine and the suspension of both the manager and general manager.

Ultimately, Manfred comes away from this episode more derided than the Red Sox. The commish’s reputation has endured more damage in recent months than Chris Sale’s elbow. 

First he botched the Astros investigation, levying a slew of punishments universally deemed insufficient. Then the league took far too long to wrap up the Sox case, releasing the report nearly a full month after the investigation had ended. 

Manfred blamed the holdup on the league’s coronavirus work. He initially said he hoped to finish by the end of February. Then it was delayed. And delayed again. Then the league postponed the beginning of the season, which would have been March 26, and the self-imposed deadline became irrelevant.

In the wake of the measly punishment and prolonged investigation, many have theorized that the league found very little or nothing of importance, but did not want to exonerate Boston or appear weak. 

The longer the case dragged on, the more it was assumed the Sox would be found mostly innocent. Once it became apparent that the Red Sox were mostly innocent, the league announced the findings on Earth Day and the day before the NFL Draft as a strategic news dump, which the league hoped would fly under the radar.

Regardless of the league’s motives, it is laughable that Manfred took this long just to pin the alleged misconduct on one team employee while acquitting Cora and the front office. Even if there is baseball this season, Manfred has to know that, at this point, a 2020 suspension is pointless.

The other notable storyline that spun off the league’s report is the potential for Cora’s return to Boston. 

While the Sox removed the interim tag from current skipper Ron Roenicke immediately after the findings were released, he is assumed to be a short-term solution. With Cora eligible to return to MLB in 2021, and his tenure with the Sox now untarnished, it is not by any stretch a crazy notion.

Cora was an excellent manager during his two years in Boston, and he fits the exact profile of a leader the Sox and baseball boss Chaim Bloom seek: young, analytically minded and a strong communicator. Both back in January and again last week, Red Sox brass were clear that they hold Cora in high regard.

“We have enormous respect for Alex. He’s a good friend,” chairman Tom Werner said in a conference call April 22 following the release of MLB’s report. “I’m glad his tenure with the Red Sox was not colored by the report.”

I do not mean to minimize Cora’s misconduct in Houston. The findings both in The Athletic and in Manfred’s report demonstrate that Cora clearly cheated with the Astros. He should have known better.

However, he was a first-year coach working for an organization with craven leadership and little care for morality. He will return to baseball one day, be it through a redemption tour on ESPN or through reinstatement next season.

No matter who helms the Red Sox in 2021, the team is relieved to be done with this ordeal. Boston managed to escape the investigation with minimal harm, and somehow, the league looks even worse.

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