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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Players should be punished too in baseball’s sign-stealing scandal

The Astros’ sign-stealing system was “player-driven and player-executed,” yet no player has been punished.
The Astros’ sign-stealing system was “player-driven and player-executed,” yet no player has been punished.2017 file/matt slocum/Associated Press

Major League Baseball’s sacrifice squeeze play to rid the game of electronic sign-stealing and restore public confidence is incomplete. It has seen three managers, including Red Sox skipper Alex Cora, and a general manager offered up as hardball human sacrifices to atone for the Houston scandal, the specter of which spread to Boston via the role of Cora, impermissible sign-stealing’s patient zero.

Speaking of zero, how is it possible that there has been zero punishment against the players involved who have sullied the sport? This despite MLB commissioner Rob Manfred stating in his nine-page summary that the Astros’ system of using a monitor near the dugout to decipher signs and a trash can to signal what pitch was coming was, with the exception of Cora, “player-driven and player-executed” during their 2017 World Series title season.

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It’s clear that MLB’s harsh penalties to Houston and the subsequent dismissals of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, Cora, and former Astros player Carlos Beltran (ousted as the Mets rookie manager Thursday) are designed to be both punitive and preventative. But for the sign-stealing escapades to stop, players need to feel the pinch and the pain too. Or this is just empty posturing, the equivalent of airport security theater.

Thus far, Manfred has let the primary perpetrators off without punishment. What kind of message does that send, especially when the players are the ones who stand to benefit the most from sign-stealing? If Manfred really wants to root out information-age cheating, he has to flog the players too and create a deterrent for crossing the line that they can’t ignore.

Don’t get me wrong. All those who lost their jobs have no one else to blame, especially Cora, who was singled out for his role in Houston as bench coach and then allegedly imported some of the same methods to Fenway Park while guiding Boston to the 2018 World Series title.

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But there is blatant incongruity and hypocrisy in the findings of MLB’s report and the discipline that has been doled out. It’s there in Manfred’s own words:

“The Astros’ methods in 2017 and 2018 to decode and communicate to the batter an opposing Club’s signs were not an initiative that was planned or directed by the Club’s top baseball operations officials. Rather, the 2017 scheme in which players banged on a trash can was, with the exception of Cora, player-driven and player-executed.”

Since some folks have been vociferous in their complaints that baseball is held to a higher standard for competitive violations than football, let’s compare the way Manfred has handled player discipline in this case with how Tom Brady was treated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during Deflategate.

Brady got suspended for a quarter of the 2016 season for being “at least generally aware” of tampering with the air pressure in footballs, in the NFL’s estimation. He wasn’t part of a “player-driven” scheme like the Astros.

In 2015, when Goodell denied the appeal of Brady’s four-game suspension, he drew a parallel between integrity-of-the-game violations and steroid use. It was a stretch for football, but it’s not for baseball.

What these players did to hijack signs and predict pitches with greater certainty clearly threatened the integrity of the game. Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood tweeted that he would rather face a player using steroids than a player who knew every pitch that was coming.

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Yet, Manfred all but pardoned the players, the ones who benefitted the most, in announcing the Houston punishments.

“I will not assess discipline against individual Astros players,” he wrote. “I made the decision in September 2017 that I would hold a Club’s General Manager and Field Manager accountable for misconduct of this kind, and I will not depart from that decision.

“Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical. It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability.”

Manfred’s rationale for not levying player punishments is full of sophistry, amounting to: I can’t figure out how many people merit punishment, so I won’t punish anyone.

Huh?

Here’s the real translation of Manfred’s statement: “This is already an embarrassing mess for baseball and bad for business. I don’t want to tangle with the obstructionist MLB Players Association over suspending players and overshadow the games on the field all season long. These guys were dead wrong, but it’s not worth it.”

Manfred looks a bit weak if he doesn’t punish players, but the reality is that cleaning up the game on the player end isn’t solely incumbent upon him.

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Players should want a level playing field too. There should not be a repeat of the intransigence, obstinance, and negligence the MLBPA displayed during the Steroid Era (or Steroid Error) when its members lost jobs and money to those who were cheating by achieving better baseball through chemistry.

Dodgers players such as 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger, who has been outspoken about feeling robbed by the Astros, have advocated for their fellow players being disciplined in this scandal.

Let’s remember it was a player, A’s pitcher and former Astro Mike Fiers, who brought this all to light by speaking to The Athletic. He can’t be the only player that wants this type of cheating removed from the game.

There’s not a lot that MLBPA executive director Tony Clark has done right during his tenure. He agreed to an abominable CBA that has ushered in an era of depressed free agency and a de facto salary cap. But he has an opportunity to do the right thing here.

Ultimately, the players and owners are partners in promoting the same product, and if that product’s reputation is soiled and devalued by this scandal, the harm will cascade through the sport.

As long as MLB abstains from player punishment, rumors and imaginations are going to run wild. Folks are going to think MLB is closer to the old KGB.

Already, in the wake of the Mets parting ways with Beltran, there was social media smoke suggesting that Astros players wore electronic devices under their uniforms that allowed Houston’s replay room to buzz them, tipping them to pitch types.

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MLB stated that its investigation found no evidence to corroborate those allegations. Jose Altuve, the 2017 AL MVP, was one of the players accused. Video of his walkoff home run in the 2019 American League Championship Series against the Yankees and his staunch refusal to have his jersey torn off by his teammates, as is a celebratory custom, was cited as damning evidence.

Altuve denied the allegations via a statement released by his super-agent, Scott Boras. A never-shy Boras cited “the shyness of Jose Altuve” to the New York Post as the reason he fought jersey removal.

That might be true, but it’s hard to believe, especially when a player like Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer says he heard “from multiple parties” that Astros players were wearing such devices.

MLB needs to get to the bottom of player involvement and mete out player punishment before we can take its word that the sport is on the up and up.


Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.