When the offseason started, few thought that we would be in the state of total chaos that we currently find ourselves in. Thoughts were on what was a really interesting free agent class, potential rules changes, and there was even an eye on relations between MLBPA and MLB as negotiations for the new CBA are on the horizon and look like they could be contentious. Basically, all of the usual stuff.
Then, this offseason happened.
The elephant in the room here is that the Houston Astros should shoulder a lot of the blame for the current state of discussion surrounding the game of baseball. Due to the wide-reaching sign stealing operation they had in place for at least the 2017 and 2018 seasons (and one would be excused if they were skeptical that the 2019 season didn’t have some funny business going on), fans and analysts alike are talking about the integrity of the sport far more than the actual product we are expecting to see on the field. Baseball has something for everybody and whether you are old school, analytics driven, or somewhere in-between….there is one constant baseball must have for fans to have confidence in it: the game has to be fair and be played by the rules.
Sure, sign-stealing has been around forever, but that has been guys on the field trying to relay information by signs themselves and the delay often made such tactics impact the game very little. Plus, pitchers and catchers have routinely changed their signs up during the course of a game to combat this for years and years. It was never feasible for a human to decipher every set of signs a team has and then use that information on the field for a very marginal impact. It was against the rules, but violations never seemed to be egregious.
The Astros took things to an entirely different level. By designing algorithms as well as digital sign and pitch recognition software and then relaying that information directly into the dugout, that information was available in real time and opposing pitchers had little chance. Changing signs was no longer effective in the wake of the Astros’ tech savvy methods and the information was getting to the hitters via trash can bangs (and possibly other methods) much more quickly and reliably. That performance boost is more than performance-enhancing drugs could have ever provided.
Immediately after the scandal broke wide open, the Astros said and did some of the right things by dismissing general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, but as we have seen in the last week or so, the team’s pattern of truly awful media and public relations continued yet again thanks largely to an owner that seems to want to avoid any accountability and won’t even acknowledge that the team gained an advantage in games which, on its face, is laughable.
However, this should have been expected. The culture in the Astros organization has been to blame others and deny any accountability for perceived misdeeds in the past. It was true when the team denied access to a credentialed reporter, it was true when a team executive was shouting about a confirmed domestic abuser at a group of female reporters, and it will likely be true again.
However, what has arguably been more troubling has been MLB’s complete inability to handle the situation appropriately under commissioner Rob Manfred. These failures speak to the direction of the entire league as well as its ability to effectively police its ranks and recover from such actions.
Not only did the Astros, by most accounts, get off with a punishment that many consider to be light, but the players and some of the executives who were responsible got off without any punishment. Manfred’s position in his recent interviews has been that he needed to promise immunity to get information as well as to avoid disputes with MLBPA since the team didn’t instruct the players that what they were doing was wrong. Now, some players getting immunity in order to get confirmation on the details of the scheme makes some sense, but every player? That seemed hardly necessary. As for trying to avoid fights with the players union, this is coming from the same commissioner that has not exactly cooled speculation that the league is not going to make concessions to players and a work stoppage could be coming. Are we honestly being asked to believe that MLB was worried that the union would be upset that their players weren’t notified officially by their team that what they were doing was wrong even though everyone with any amount of common sense or knowledge of the game of baseball knew that it was?
Unfortunately, that is what we have come to expect from the commissioner’s office under Manfred. MLB wants more fans to come to games, but has failed spectacularly to market its players. The league wants teams to play by the rules and maintain the integrity of the game, but won’t hold its members fully accountable nor will it claim any of its own accountability. This sort of feckless leadership has not gone unnoticed and threatens the health of baseball overall.
If this was a one-off situation, it could be understood as a mistake that could be learned from. However, Manfred has also seen his relations with the player’s union continue to deteriorate due to how free agency has gone the last few offseasons, the league getting into a very public and ugly spat with Minor League Baseball over the league’s overzealous and heavy-handed plans to contract the number of minor league teams, and rule change proposals that have ranged from difficult to implement to “why in God’s name is this a thing?”
This has been baseball under Manfred so far. A lack of media savvy, a very clear corporate agenda that comes across as disingenuous, out of touch with what makes fans enjoy the game of baseball, and picking fights only when it serves the league and its owners and not when the league’s health necessitates this. It has been a no good, very bad offseason for MLB and Rob Manfred. The sad part is that as long as the league’s owners continue to make money, his job is likely safe. However, if there is continued damage to MLB as a brand and product and that damage starts showing up on the balance sheet (which could feasibly happen), the 2020 season could become a referendum on Manfred as commissioner in a hurry.