The key word in that last sentence? Former. Beltran and Farquhar are former players. On Monday, Manfred suspended Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for a full season (both men were fired later that day, followed soon after by Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was Houston’s bench coach during its 2017 World Series-winning season and then managed the Red Sox to the title in 2018). The commissioner also punished the Astros by taking away substantial future draft picks. And while Manfred certainly came down harder than the NFL and NBA did when dealing with similar scandals in their leagues, something was noticeably missing from his statement: players. Currently active, showing-up-at-spring-training-in-a-month baseball players. You know, the people who actually did the cheating.
It is not as though Manfred didn’t point a finger at them as a group. The report explicitly states, “Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can” and that “they knew the scheme was wrong.” But Manfred let them off the hook, saying, “assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical.” Instead, he threw the book at the executives and coaches.
The only player tied to the cheating by name is Beltran, who retired after the 2018 season and thus has one key thing in common with the other 13 people in the report: He is not currently a member of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
The lurking monster, the looming tower, in major-league baseball right now is the impending expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, which will happen on Dec. 1, 2021. Major League Baseball hasn’t lost a game to a labor dispute since 1995, the year after the still-staggering cancellation of the 1994 World Series, but labor peace has perhaps never been more imperiled since then than it is right now.
Baseball’s luxury tax has essentially turned into a salary cap, depressing spending by the wealthiest teams, and last year’s free-agent freeze led to claims of owner collusion from the players union. Most worryingly, some players are actively threatening to strike when the bargaining agreement expires. (Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright said last year, “Unless something changes, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent. I’m just worried people are going to walk out midseason.”) Players are widely thought to be storing up money in case there’s a work stoppage, and the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, as tapped-in as anyone in the sport, quoted an agent last year as saying the current situation could lead to players and owners “locking arms and walking off the cliff together.” Rosenthal is one of the writers specifically mentioned in Manfred’s report.
Just about every news story in baseball these days should be filtered through the lens of the collective bargaining agreement. The temperature has been turned down lately, thanks partly through some big contracts being signed and a much more active free-agent market, but largely because Manfred doesn’t seem to want to throw another wrench into impending negotiations just a couple of months after word of a contentious meeting with the union leaked to NBC Sports.
Suspending individual, active players for cheating almost certainly would have opened a fight with the union, stirring questions about whether executives or players are more responsible for cheating scandals such as this one (particularly because it appears Manfred went light on the Astros’ owner, Jim Crane). Omit the names of any specific still-active players from that 2017 Astros team and the potential trouble vanishes.
We can argue about whether the players involved with the scandal should have been punished or not — and baseball writer Joe Sheehan makes a powerful case that they should — but that isn’t a fight Manfred appeared interested in having. As someone who still remembers the time they canceled the freaking World Series, and would rather not see everyone walking off the cliff once more, I’m inclined to agree with him. Cheating is bad. But no baseball at all is a lot worse.