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Dan Shaughnessy

With report finally out, Red Sox avoid a huge scandal — but it’s not nothing, either

In January, Red Sox management told everyone to "reserve judgment" on Major League Baseball's investigation into the 2018 team.
In January, Red Sox management told everyone to "reserve judgment" on Major League Baseball's investigation into the 2018 team.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

As cheating scandals go, it’s nothing like the 2017 Houston Astros watching video in real time and banging on a trash can to tell their hitters what pitch was coming. It’s probably not even up there with letting a little air out of footballs, or videotaping NFL coaches’ sideline signals during games.

But despite what rose-colored Red Sox apologists might insist, it wasn’t nothing. And if you think a second-round draft pick is nothing, tell that to Fred Lynn, Jon Lester, and Dustin Pedroia, all Sox second-rounders.

After more than 100 days, 65 witness interviews, and a review of cellphones and in-house e-mails, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred released his findings into cheating allegations against the 2018 world champion Red Sox in a perfectly timed (the NFL Draft begins Thursday night) news dump Wednesday afternoon.

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Concluding that an MLB video replay rule was broken and “potentially benefited" the 2018 Sox, Manfred took away Boston’s 2020 second-round draft pick and suspended Sox video replay system operator J.T. Watkins without pay for a year.

That’s it.

Deposed Sox manager Alex Cora was issued a one-year suspension for his role in the 2017 Astros scandal (Cora was bench coach for Houston in 2017) but absolved of any wrongdoing with the 2018 Red Sox.

Still wildly popular with Sox players and ownership, Cora is free to return to the Boston bench in 2021 if owner John Henry (who also owns the Globe) so desires. Do not rule this out. Current Sox players still love Cora, and with 2020 looking like a lost year in every way, the prospect of a return feels very real.

Could Alex Cora return in 2021?
Could Alex Cora return in 2021?Jim Davis

Cora was the only Sox uniformed person named in Manfred’s 16-page report, which repeatedly stated that the former manager had nothing to do with 2018 Sox infractions. Thirty-four men who played for the 2018 Red Sox were interviewed, and the report states that conflicting stories were told, but players were granted immunity from punishment (same as with Houston’s investigation), so the only man punished is a little-known ex-minor league catcher identified in the Red Sox media guide as "advance scouting assistant.'’

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Thirty-year-old J.T. Watkins was in charge of supplying Sox hitters with scouting reports and patterns on opposing hitters in 2018 and also worked in the video room near the dugout. He would furnish Sox batters with pregame information, but rules stipulate that he could not use in-game information from the video room to “update” his suggestions.

Manfred stated that Watkins “did not provide a persuasive explanation” for why he sometimes altered his information to Sox hitters during games.

Not much, right? Reminded me of the scene from “A Few Good Men” when Colonel Nathan Jessup tells the young attorney, "These two Marines are on trial for their lives. Please tell me their lawyer hasn’t pinned their hopes to a phone bill.''

Alas, it’s too late for Watkins, a West Point graduate and son of a Red Sox scout. Fair or unfair, Watkins goes into the pantheon of loyal, low-paid team employees who took big-time hits for sports scandals involving New England championship teams. Watkins’s photo goes on the rogues gallery alongside Patriots operatives Jimmy “Hotfingers” McNally, John “Dorito Dink” Jastremski, Matt Walsh, Matt Estrella, and Dave Mondillo.

Back in January, when news of this probe first broke, Red Sox officials repeatedly asked that everyone “reserve judgment.” After Wednesday’s findings were released, the club issued a statement in which Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy said, "Alex Cora, the coaching staff, and most of the players did not engage in, or were they aware of, any violations. Regardless, these rule violations are unacceptable. We apologize to our fans and Major League Baseball, and accept the Commissioner’s ruling.''

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This marks the third instance in five years in which the Red Sox have been punished by Manfred for cheating. In July 2016, MLB found the Sox guilty of circumventing rules for signing teenage prospects from Latin America by inflating their signing bonuses. Five Sox prospects were declared free agents and the team was prohibited from signing international amateur players for a year.

In the summer of 2017, the Sox were fined after it was discovered they were using Fitbits to illegally relay signs during games.

Now this.

John Henry and Alex Cora sit together in the Red Sox dugout before a 2019 game.
John Henry and Alex Cora sit together in the Red Sox dugout before a 2019 game.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

We are all glad it’s over. No one thought the 2018 Sox were doing anything that approached the level of the 2017 cheating Astros. The Sox had the misfortune to be grilled at a time when baseball was coming off the embarrassment of Houston’s tainted flag.

MLB dug hard, didn’t come up with much, and opted to issue findings the day before the NFL Draft while baseball is in the middle of a long hiatus forced by a global pandemic.

This sad chapter is now part of Sox history. A huge draft pick is gone, J.D. Martinez can keep claiming the Sox didn’t do anything, the Sox have stricken “interim” from manager Ron Roenicke’s nameplate, and the Cora Watch of 2021 is under way.

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But anybody who hates Boston’s success can still point to the ball club’s official apology and MLB’s assertion that the 2018 Red Sox “potentially benefited” from rules violations during their championship season.


Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at daniel.shaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.