Given the severity of the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal, it would be almost impossible for the coverup to do any more damage to the game of baseball. But the Astros and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred are giving it their best shot.

The Astros have been unrepentant and sorry only that they got caught, if that. Oh, sure, owner Jim Crane fired general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, but that now appears to be a move made to deflect any blame away from him.

In the Astros’ embarrassing news conference on the first day of spring training, Crane insisted he bore no responsibility for the scandal and at one point actually said, “Our opinion is that it didn’t affect the outcome of the game.” Fifty-five seconds later, he said he did not say those words.

Then, asked directly whether he thought stealing signs and knowing what pitches were coming made a difference in results, Crane said, “It could possibly do that; it could possibly not.”

Of course, Crane never uttered the word “cheating”; none of the Astros used that word. It’s as if they think that if they don’t say it, the world will somehow decide it didn’t happen.

As shameful as the Astros’ behavior has been, Manfred’s has been worse. He is supposed to be the leader when a crisis hits his sport; that’s why he’s paid a reported $11 million per year. Right from the beginning, MLB has botched this investigation, from the blanket immunity it gave players to Manfred’s refusal to so much as make a symbolic gesture by taking the 2017 World Series title and trophy away from the Astros.

Some will argue that stripping the Astros of their title does little. But that’s wrong; it would have a great deal of meaning. Taking away the trophy means the team can’t display it in perpetuity and forces it to remove banners that proclaim them “World Champions.” Remove the Astros’ name from the record book, leaving a blank for the 2017 World Series winner, as there is for 1994, when the World Series was called off after the owners forced the players to strike by violating the rules of collective bargaining.

That’s not nothing. The NCAA, which does little right, has vacated Final Four appearances and, most recently, Louisville’s 2013 national title. The banner that hung at Yum Center had to be taken down, and Louisville fans are angry about all of it.

Good. Astros fans should be angry, too — at their team.

Manfred claims he thought about taking away the championship then decided it wouldn’t really have any meaning, that it was enough for the public to know what happened. Now there’s a guy you would want as the judge when you’re accused of a crime: “Yes, your honor, I did it, but the public knowing about it is enough punishment.”


Manfred’s biggest mistake was not punishing any players. The offer of immunity should have been to a limited number of witnesses. Start with players and then managers no longer with the Astros (Alex Cora, Carlos Beltrán). Then, after discovering who the instigators were, tell them: “We gotcha. You better talk if you ever want to play/work in baseball again.”

Haven’t any of these guys ever watched “Law and Order”?

Instead, Manfred and his band of not-so-merry men took the easy way out: They gave everyone immunity and then took bows for exposing the plot. Except they didn’t expose the plot; former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers did. He had the guts to go on the record to the Athletic, giving MLB enough that it was almost impossible not to get something done. What’s more, we’re now finding out that the cheating had been whispered about for years. Find the whisperers, who at the very least could tell you why they were whispering. Again, not difficult.

But perhaps the most ludicrous thing Manfred did during his mini-media tour Sunday was claim that one of the reasons for his decision not to punish any players was fear of the players’ union.

Baseball’s players’ union is the most powerful in sports and has, in the past, whipped the commissioner and the owners repeatedly during work stoppages. This, however, is different. This isn’t about money. It is difficult to believe that players on the other 29 teams would be eager to raise a ruckus about players on a team that cheated its way to a World Series championship being punished. The comments from players on other teams over the past week sure didn’t indicate that anyone would be up in arms if Manfred had had the guts to punish players.

And if union leader Tony Clark did protest because he was obligated to, chances are the suspensions might be reduced but wouldn’t be overturned.

As it is, four men have been penalized for the scandal: Luhnow and Hinch along with Cora and Beltrán, who were forced to resign from managerial jobs with the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. That’s it. Meanwhile, most Astros are sitting in their posh spring training clubhouse in West Palm Beach, Fla., smirking at everyone, most notably the gutless commissioner.

Baseball’s recent — and not-so-recent — history of commissioners isn’t wonderful: Bowie Kuhn declared free agency would destroy the game; Peter Ueberroth urged owners to collude to keep down salaries; Bud Selig, while claiming to be concerned about steroid use, traveled the country as Barry Bonds cheated his way to breaking Hank Aaron’s home run record.

And now comes Manfred, clearly believing that if he says something’s true, then it’s true. The latest line coming from the baseball apologists is “It’s time to put this behind us.”

That’s not going to happen anytime soon. Almost no one has been punished (the Astros’ $5 million fine and loss of draft picks is almost meaningless), the Astros won’t even say the word “cheat,” and the commissioner wants to be done with it.

What the Astros did is a disgrace that will stain baseball for years. The actions of the team, the players and the hapless commissioner have only made it worse.

That didn’t seem possible when this began. And yet . . .

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