Thursday, February 20, 2020

Manfred in a "Mountain" of an MLB Mess

Manfred in a “Mountain” of an MLB Mess
Commentary by Sanford D. Horn
February 20, 2020

In 1921 the first commissioner of Major League Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis - a real judge, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt, took bold and brisk steps in banning from professional baseball, for life, eight members of the Chicago White Sox World Series team from 1919.

Bold, as the loss of eight members of a team decimated the White Sox - losing six players either in their prime or past their prime but with something left in the tank to ably contribute to the team. One player retired following the 1919 season, and one more played infrequently, riding the bench for the most part.

Brisk, for although the investigation into allegations the White Sox, received ill-gotten payments to throw the World Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds, took 22 months, Landis’ decision came on the heels of a court ruling. A Chicago jury found the players, a.k.a. The Black Sox, not guilty, in spite of overwhelming evidence, in what had to have been a bigger fix than the series itself. In spite of that ruling, Landis said:

“Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing games are planned and discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball. Baseball is entirely competent to protect itself against crooks, both inside and outside the game” said Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. [] 

Nine commissioners and a century later, Major League Baseball is embroiled in a scandal just as significant, regarding another World Series - this one the 2017 Houston Astros v. the Los Angeles Dodgers. In a series that went the distance, the Astros defeated the Dodgers four games to three; or did they?

Accusations of cheating were made public last November when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, a member of the 2017 team, spoke with The Athletic blew the whistle on his former team’s sign stealing via electronic means - signs that would indicate to the batter what kind of pitch would be forthcoming - information that could make a mediocre player good, a good player great, and a good team a World Series winner. In addition to the electronic sign stealing scheme, the Astros optioned additional signals to batters through the banging of trash can lids.

In conducting an investigation, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred opted for short cuts that are now making him a pariah in his own sport, and to others outside of baseball. Manfred, in the interest of expediency, and a bit of cajoling by the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) - their union, agreed to grant immunity to any players responding honestly during the investigation. This is a weak-kneed decision by Manfred, taking the easy way out and genuflecting to the players union. Major League Baseball suspended both Astros manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for one full season, fined the team $5 million, and stripped the team of two future draft picks. Not a very strong punishment. Astros owner Jim Crane, within hours of the MLB decision, fired both Hinch and Luhnow. The five million is akin to lunch money for a team owner, $50 million would deliver a stronger message.

Granting immunity to admitted cheaters caused a firestorm around baseball. The Dodgers believe they were robbed of both the 2017 and 2018 World Series - losing in 2018 to the Boston Red Sox in seven games. The 2018 Red Sox were led by rookie manager Alex Cora, the bench coach for the Astros during the 2017 season. Cora is now unemployed. So too is Carlos Beltran, about to start his first season at the helm of the New York Mets. Beltran played on the 2017 Astros and a beneficiary of the sign stealing.

“Over my 20 years in the game, I’ve always taken pride in being a leader and doing things the right way… As a veteran player on the team, I should’ve recognized the severity of the issue and truly regret the actions that were taken,” said Beltran.

New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said to ESPN on February 14, the Astros “had a distinct advantage,”and that the illicit sign stealing was the difference maker. “I definitely think it had an effect on things, without question,” added Cashman regarding the Yankees loss to the Astros in the 2017 American League Playoffs.

Typically quiet Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout said he “lost respect for the Astros. They cheated… I don’t agree with the punishment. Going up to the plate knowing what’s coming… that would be a lot of fun. If you know what’s coming it’s definitely going to help you. Obviously the GM got fired and Hinch got fired, but the players getting nothing, that’s definitely not right, for sure,” said the three-time American League Most Valuable Player.

“The commissioner completely handled it the wrong way… he should be embarrassed,” said Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis. “Everything has been handled [in] a bad way… the players are scot free. Those guys still get to play. It’s bullsh*t,” said the usually low key Markakis, a 14-year veteran in the league.

Many other players are outspoken about how miserably Manfred botched this scandal, calling for both the Astros and Red Sox to be stripped of their respective World Series titles from 2017 and 2018. That is exactly what should happen, and I rooted for both the Astros and Red Sox in those two series. Cheating tarnishes the game with a permanent stain; a stain that can only be eradicated with extreme prejudice.

Adding insult to injury, responding to calls for the Astros to vacate their 2017 World Series, Manfred disparaged the very trophy on which his name, as commissioner, is etched. “The idea of an asterisk, or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act,” said Manfred about the World Series trophy in an interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravech.

“You need to fix this for the sake of sports,” tweeted NBA all-star LeBron James. I’m no fan of the Los Angeles Lakers player, but James is spot on. Problem is, a fix may be too late. Manfred has already demonstrated his weakness as a commissioner in both kowtowing to the players association in granting immunity, and for not extending the investigation and digging deep into the trenches before going the easy route.

It’s times like this that I know I can count on Abraham Lincoln. “By general law, life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb,” is one of my favorite pearls of wisdom from our 16th president.

Manfred and perhaps a fair number of Astros players are those limbs and Major League Baseball is that life. A life that must be preserved, for as Kenesaw Mountain Landis said, “Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy. It is his training field for life work. Destroy his faith in its squareness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his heart.”

Sanford D. Horn is a writer and educator living in Westfield, IN.