Yet take some excerpts from the report Commissioner Rob Manfred issued Monday, which he concluded by suspending Houston General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season — they were subsequently fired — and by saying he would wait to issue punishment for former Astros bench coach Alex Cora, who was jettisoned by the Red Sox in advance of that discipline.
There’s this: “Witnesses consistently describe this new scheme as player-driven …”
And this: “Rather, the 2017 scheme in which players banged on a trash can was, with the exception of Cora, player-driven and player-executed.”
And also this: “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.”
The players in question — Manfred’s investigators interviewed 23 current and former Astros — are still employed. They may be heavier of conscience — who’s to say? But they are not lighter of wallet.
And while the ramifications for Luhnow, Hinch and Cora seem appropriate, it’s hard to escape the idea that Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa and George Springer — picking names out of a hat here — will show up next month at spring training, answer some uncomfortable questions about their participation in the covert operation, but otherwise go about preparation for their seasons unhindered.
In the wake of a 2017 incident in which the Red Sox (pre-Cora) were caught using Apple watches to receive information in the dugout from the video room, Manfred made the decision that he would hold general managers and field managers accountable for these kinds of transgressions. He relayed as much to the clubs. He reiterated that in Monday’s report.
But in this case, he’s using that decision as an out. The report calls disciplining players “difficult and impractical.”
“It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability,” Manfred wrote. “It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other Clubs.”
In a way, baseball is saying this: So many players were involved that it’s too hard to penalize them, so let’s move on. Which is to say the real criminals got away with it.
To be sure, there are practical concerns not listed among Manfred’s reasons for not pursuing player punishment. First, baseball wanted to get frank accounts of what the Astros did from players, so it granted immunity in cooperation for testimony. That bell can’t be unrung. Baseball players are incredibly loyal to both each other and the code of the clubhouse. Two months after the Athletic blew this scandal open with the original account of the Astros’ system, it’s remarkable — and telling — that the only player who has lent his name to the deconstruction of the scam is Mike Fiers, the former Houston pitcher.
Maybe MLB’s investigators wouldn’t have received the full, detailed picture of what the players did had they told the players they could be punished. But there’s another practical matter: The players’ union would not have accepted punishment without a fight — or a series of fights — and it’s possible resulting grievances would have taken months or more to resolve.
This is a delicate time for relations between baseball and the union, and it might have seemed unwise to add acrimony to an already belligerent situation as the two sides head into what are expected to be contentious — and perhaps revolutionary — talks for a new collective bargaining agreement over the next two years.
Those are legitimate concerns. And yet, the result is that players are not being punished for a player-driven ploy. That’s incongruous. It kinda makes the head hurt.
On Manfred’s point about the “impractical” nature of punishing players because they are too numerous and some of them work for other employers: Come on. The problem is so big we can’t take it on? Say a player took performance-enhancing drugs with one team, signed a contract with another in the offseason, and somewhere in between popped a test. He would be suspended for playing for his new team.
The only player mentioned in the report was Carlos Beltran, who in 2017 was in his final season of a noteworthy career, mostly as a designated hitter. It’s easy to name Beltran — and not, say, Bregman, Correa or Springer — because he is no longer a player. Indeed, he’s supposed to be heading into his first year as the manager of the New York Mets.
Should Beltran be disciplined by MLB? Well, how do you do that and not punish the other players involved? Should he be fired by the Mets for transgressions committed with another team in another role? Remember, Cora was axed by the Red Sox not only because of what he did in Houston, but because Boston is under investigation for whatever shenanigans were committed under Cora there. Beltran hasn’t had the chance to incorporate such a system in Queens, and the severity of the sanctions against his former manager and general manager would seem to be a decent deterrent.
But there is a disturbing account of the wink-wink level of how elements of the Astros’ system spread. Before the 2019 season, the New York Yankees hired Beltran as a special assistant to General Manager Brian Cashman. Last June, Boston gave up 29 runs in a two-game series sweep at the hands of the Yankees in London. Afterward, Cora addressed the sweep, and brought up Beltran — unsolicited.
“I was joking with somebody that their biggest free agent acquisition was Carlos Beltran,” Cora said just before providing an exaggerated wink. “I know how he works. He’s helping a lot … I’m not saying ‘devices,’ all that stuff. It’s just stuff that the game will dictate, and we’ll scream at people and it’s right there. Throughout the evening, I was looking and I saw it.”
In the moment, huh? But nearly seven months later, there’s new context to what Cora was talking about. And yet Cora is out of a job, and Beltran is about to start his.
This is not at all to say Luhnow, Hinch and Cora were unfairly punished. But what baseball did here — allowing all manner of technology in and around the dugout during games, but then not policing those areas even after the 2017 Red Sox incident — is akin to having someone bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies, putting it in front of a 5-year-old, telling him not to eat them, then leaving the room expecting the cookies to remain intact during your absence. Except when you come back to a decimated pile of cookies, you don’t punish the 5-year-old for disobeying order, you fire the baker.
The Astros’ first full-squad workout in West Palm Beach, Fla., is Feb. 17. It’ll be fascinating to hear how those position players answer questions about their involvement, about their emotions, about the impact of the cheating on a season that ended with a World Series title.
However they handle them, the next day, those same Astros will show up to work. Their pasts may be tainted. But their futures are uninhibited, and that doesn’t quite fit.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.