Rob Manfred has spoken.
Houston Astro General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Field Manager AJ Hinch have been suspended for a year without pay. The club had their 1st and 2nd round picks in the next two amateur drafts (or whenever they next have those picks) whisked away. And a five-million-dollar fine will be collected. This is the official cost for an unprecedented sign stealing operation the likes of which had never been seen before.
But was it enough?
The Astros owner Jim Crane didn’t wait for that answer. He took matters into his own hands and cut Luhnow and Hinch from the organization. (Just as he did with Brandon Taubman following his insensitive comments to female reporters on October 19th.) He called it a cleaning of the house and it’s a step toward a fresh start. It’s exactly what he needed to do because the truth of the matter is that the situation is far too messy to know exactly what Major League Baseball should have done.
The nine-page document released by the office of the commissioner (is this the same letter you get for his expressed written consent on broadcasting games?) laid out the truth of the matter as far as we know it. Bench coach Alex Cora, several players, and other lower-level Astros employees all had a part in creating and putting the scheme in place. Luhnow and Hinch did not help create this system — in fact Hinch seemed to be against and went as far as to destroy the monitors being used in the scheme — but both did nothing to stop it.
And there it is.
Nothing to stop it. In fact, Hinch denied it.
Manfred indicated in his report that it would be too hard to determine how much each individual player knew about the scheme and, more importantly, benefited from it. Many of the players are out of the organization. One is even a new Major League manager. (For now!) The trail goes in many directions from the clubhouse, but the trail starts — and could have stopped — with Luhnow and Hinch. It’s the price of leadership. That proverbial buck stops with you.
There have been some calls for the lifetime ban of Luhnow or Hinch and that’s understandable. However, both the crime and punishment are new to baseball. This wasn’t betting on the game. This wasn’t performance enhancing substances. Both of those crimes against the grand tradition of the sport were brand new problems at one point as well. Then rules came into place and the punishments followed, setting the bar. Year long suspensions. Draft picks. Fines. I’ll take that as a bar now. MLB can go above that bar later.
The Astros can find a new general manager and skipper, but the draft picks will weaken their organization for the next few seasons and beyond. That matters. Look how they built up their team going back to 2011. George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker all joined the team and, yes, those were higher selections than what the team will lose. However, you can find a lot of evidence of Hall of Famer players coming at the spots the Astros will lose. This does hurt.
What also hurts is the reputation of what was considered a model franchise and the poster team for rebuilding in this modern age. That 2017 World Series? Never happened to some fans now as the court of public opinion weighed in with its verdict long before Manfred did. While all the stolen signs in the world don’t make hitting the ball any easier, (something we used to hear about PED’s mind you) you can’t say that it didn’t hurt. Yu Darvish agrees.
So, should the Astros have actually lost that championship? Sure! Why not?!?
Now explain how that would work?
There a lot of Tweets out there calling for them to be stripped of the title like it was an Olympic sport. While that makes a nice Tweet, that’s Hot Take Syndrome in full effect. This isn’t the Olympics. This isn’t one cyclist or gymnast or swimmer going head to head with other athletes while enjoying a clear advantage. Even if that advantage was pressed into place by coaches or an entire country. It’s just not the same. You can’t just give the Dodgers the title. It would be easier to just have no winner that season.
Who on the roster actually participated and who played the role of Buck Weaver of the 1919 Black Sox? Did it have an effect on the road? While some videos showing specific moments and incidents where the system seemed to pay dividends have been flashed out into the public, how many more moments exist when the system didn’t pay any dividends at all? Seriously, answer these questions between making snark Tweets.
This isn’t a defense of the Astros. This really isn’t. This is an acknowledgement that the office of the commissioner had a real doozy on their hands. Something diabolical was going on, but it’s hard to erase a collective history.
Barry Bonds is still the all-time home run champion after all.
Another reason why Major League Baseball might have had a tough time taking back the World Series trophy from Houston is the possibility that they know this isn’t the only team factoring into this whole story. And that doesn’t mean they don’t know and are waiting to find out. This means there is a good chance Rob Manfred is pouring a stiff drink and staring at a document indicating other teams with similar problems. The sweat is probably dripping off his forehead right on. We know of the Red Sox and the clear connection between Alex Cora and his Houston bench coach ways of 2017.
But what else does Manfred know?
If he takes the Astros title away, does he then take the Red Sox 2018 title away? And when it’s revealed that other teams used similar tactics do you go through and take away specific wins or accomplishments? It just keeps rolling downhill at that point. Why don’t we just we erase the last three seasons like a re-save on a video game and replay baseball from 2017 on?
You just can’t.
Baseball is the greatest sport we have, but it’s never been perfect. And we’re not talking about the fine art of cheating that’s built into the game. This isn’t nipping a sign while standing on second. No, the game had a gambling problem. The game was marred by the inhumane segregation of generations of skilled players of color. It’s been marred by front office collusion and on-field enhancements. Baseball has often gone to wonderful dazzling heights while built on the shaky foundations of the humans that play and lead it. Now, as then, the best baseball can do is take the actions is feels are appropriate to correct the problem, learn from it, safeguard the game from it, and push forward into a (hopefully) brighter future.
This first crack of bat to ball in the coming season will be the sound of hope springing eternal.
The sound of going forward.
Walk Off Quote
“It ain’t true, is it, Joe?”- alleged quote from a young fan to Shoeless Joe Jackson on the steps of the criminal court building in Chicago.
Ken Napzok would miss the trash can if asked to bang it, but is the author of Why We Love Star Wars and host of The Napzok Files podcast feed.