FORT MYERS, Fla. — Hey there, baseball fan. Did you ever think you’d be longing for the good old days of commissioner Bud Selig?
Wow. Major League Baseball is imploding in the Sign-Stealing Scandal Spring of 2020, and commissioner Rob Manfred is making Uncle Bud look like Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, or maybe Winston Churchill.
The hardball world is furious with the Houston Astros, and virtually no one is happy with the performance of Manfred since MLB announced its findings about the Astros scam Jan. 13. Manfred gave Houston players immunity from punishment in exchange for cooperation, has declined to fire some Astros executives who had direct involvement, and — most egregiously for many — allowed the Astros to keep their 2017 championship even though he has proof that they cheated to win.
“I just don’t feel it holds any value,’’ Yankees superstar Aaron Judge said Tuesday. “You didn’t earn it. That’s how I feel: It wasn’t earned.’’
More than (alleged) buzzer-wearing Jose Altuve, more than trash-can-banging Alex Cora, more than loathsome Astros owner Jim Crane (who said the cheating “did not impact” games), Manfred has been the public pinata for this scandal. He didn’t help himself when he pledged to punish pitchers who employed “frontier justice” on Houston batters.
What about punishing the players who actually cheated and admitted it?
Some of the game’s stars have unloaded on the commissioner.
“You have absolutely no clue about baseball,’’ charged Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer. “You’re a joke.’’
“I don’t agree with the punishments, the players not getting anything,’’ said never-controversial Angels star Mike Trout.
“He set a weak precedent,’’ said Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner. “So now anyone who goes forward and cheats to win the World Series, they can live with themselves knowing that, ‘Oh, it’s OK.’ ’’
Even LeBron James weighed in, advising Manfred to “listen to your players.’’
It would be hard to find the bottom of the trash can for Manfred thus far, but it probably came Tuesday in Arizona when he apologized for calling the World Series trophy “a piece of metal” in a weekend ESPN interview in which he defended his decision not to vacate the title.
“I referred to the World Series trophy in a disrespectful way,’’ Manfred said. “I want to apologize for it.’’
Swell. But that’s not going to help in the court of public opinion or in clubhouses from Fort Myers to Scottsdale, where just about everybody thinks the commish should reconsider his decision to let the Astros keep their title.
The groundswell to vacate the championship has gained momentum since training camps opened. We’ve never this seen many players openly calling for a reversal of judgment.
“We thought about it,’’ Manfred said. “I’m a precedent guy. It never happened in baseball.’’
He added that he had reservations about “where it would lead.’’
Bogus. There is no precedent for what the Astros did. They cheated, got caught, and confessed. Manfred has proof. This is a new situation. And the pressure to strip the Stros is mounting.
It’s a nightmare for Manfred, the longtime baseball attorney who ascended to commissioner when Selig stepped down in 2015. Boston fans might remember that Red Sox chairman Tom Werner mounted a campaign to run against Manfred but failed to gain any support. Manfred’s current contract runs through 2024.
Manfred never wanted these cheating allegations to go public. He wanted to handle things in-house. That’s why he was so lenient when the Red Sox got caught red-handed in the Apple Watch sign-stealing incident of 2017. Manfred fined the Sox and issued the standard, soft parental warning of “if you do that again, you’ll really be in trouble!’’
But then former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers spilled his guts to The Athletic. And then three anonymous sources ratted out an alleged Red Sox electronic sign-stealing scam in 2018. Two investigations were launched. And so far the Wall Street Journal and The Athletic have uncovered things that MLB investigators failed to find (hello “Codebreaker”).
The beleaguered Rob Manfred is right in the middle of it all, trying to hold his sport together while it springs leaks in every direction.
These are dark days for baseball, and for its commissioner.
Landis went down in history as the commissioner who cleaned up baseball after the Black Sox scandal in 1919. Selig is remembered as the Steroid Commissioner who canceled the World Series in 1994 because of a labor crisis.
Manfred’s legacy-defining moment is here. He is destined to be remembered as the commissioner who allowed sign-stealing and a tainted World Series on his watch.