Nothing is more engrossing right now than the Astros scandal that has continued to rock the sport for seemingly months at this point. Between the initial uncovering of the banging scheme, to rumors around buzzers and tattoos, to “Operation Codebreaker,” we have been treated to story after story that has forced us to suspend our disbelief about the dysfunction that is governing baseball, and it all, as it always does, stems from the top.
Commissioner Rob Manfred, like his predecessor, now has a bona fide, culture-wide scandal under his belt, and while we thought Bud Selig’s cover-up of the steroid era was the peak of cynicism and bad faith, we are treated to something that could only be drummed up by a true protege.
In the original commissioner report, the details seemed to be straightforward: the Astros complied with the investigation and it was revealed that they cheated throughout the 2017 season and throughout the postseason, and that there was no evidence found that they continued in 2018 or beyond. They determined it to be a player-driven scheme with Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran essentially running point while AJ Hinch tacitly approved.
Operation Codebreaker put a monkey wrench in that narrative, as it was revealed that an intern pitched the idea to Jeff Luhnow, and he used an Excel sheet to do his decoding. It may have been player-driven in execution, but the idea in the report that Luhnow had no knowledge but should be held responsible doesn’t square. Also mentioned in the report is that discipline for players was deemed “difficult and impractical” because it seemed that all players were somewhat involved. Hold on to that information for just a minute longer.
Just this past Sunday Manfred sat down for an extensive interview with Karl Ravech where he seemingly contradicted everything just written. He states that a memorandum went to the general manager explaining that the stealing needed to stop, and management failed to send that information down the pipe, “So we knew if we had disciplined the players, in all likelihood we were going to have grievances and grievances that we were going to lose on the basis that we never properly informed them of the rules.”
This was, though now reported, basically an open secret in baseball. At least five to ten teams were actively engaging in this practice, and there had already been public warnings after the Yankees–Red Sox Apple watch penalties, so this was not outside the bounds of control. It was well known that players were cheating and it would require severe credulity that baseball would lose a grievance against players for suspensions if they were found cheating in such a blatant manner. Ravech pushes him on that lack of punishment, and he essentially says the public shame is enough punishment for the players and owner.
Just that afternoon Manfred had a second media appearance, this time a press conference. Manfred defended not vacating the title on “precedent,” and lashed out at reporters for getting a copy of his correspondence with Luhnow. He also placed blame on the MLBPA for, in his view, “ refus[ing] to make Astros players available for interviews without blanket immunity.” The union disputed this account, stating that “Any suggestion that the Association failed to cooperate with the Commissioner’s investigation, obstructed the investigation, or otherwise took positions which led to a stalemate is completely untrue.”
While it may be true that the union pushed back against the possibility of an entire team being suspended, I think it’s farcical to believe that the union, which has been handed defeat after defeat from the league, would have the power to stop the commissioner from suspending Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve if he wanted to, or even Beltran, who had a significantly larger role.
What this all squares as is a total smoke screen. In Manfred’s original Ravech interview he expressed the importance of taking the investigation where the facts took him, and that ultimately is a tricky phrasing to use. If I were aware of a scandal, and it was in my material interest (his interests and the owners are obviously aligned) to make sure the scandal is as contained as possible, then it would make sense to investigate it in as narrow a sense as possible to maintain plausible deniability.
To put a cherry on top, you have seen in an unprecedented way players speaking up about the failure of the commissioner to seemingly end the crisis. Aaron Judge described the 2017 title as “not earned.” Mike Trout, who rarely makes a comment of anything sans the weather, said that “It’s tough. Taking a trophy away, taking the rings away, I think they should definitely do something. I don’t know what. But to cheat like that and not get anything, it’s sad to see.” LeBron James, widely thought of as an ambassador of American sport writ large, tweeted that—going after Manfred directly—”you need to fix this for the sake of Sports!”
Whether this smoke screen is a good cover to put a schism in the MLBPA while dealing with the scandal has been written about here and I won’t go much further, but it seems that each decision is made without a wide-reaching strategy, each action just a self-preserving action to fight another day. Likewise, I think an effort even intentional against the union has largely failed, mostly because—in LeBron’s words—the blame is falling squarely on the commissioner for the lack of accountability and transparency.
Just like with the Juiced Ball controversy, where an unending parade of vagaries were put forth to avert attention, there is no real way to parse how or why Manfred is intentionally trying to conceal the “when did you know it, and how much did you know.” Whether it’s the trash banging scheme or the juiced ball or even all the way up to government with an app to report caucus results, we are in a world where events that should be explainable become muddled, confused, and riddled with incompetency that could in certain contexts be concealed malice.
The point with that, as the point with all institutions that are crumbling around us, is that the distinction does not matter: Manfred speaks for the owners and their interests, and whether he is bungling a crisis or hiding a wider conspiracy, the vagueness and incompetence is a feature and not a bug. Baseball wants you to walk away knowing less than when you started, wake up in the morning, and log on to Ticketmaster for your Opening Day tickets.