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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Is Rob Manfred more likely to punish the Red Sox simply to save face?

Commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball have a credibility issue.
Commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball have a credibility issue.FILE/LM OTERO/ASSOCIATED PRESS/Associated Press

Embattled Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has unwittingly adopted the rallying cry of the 2018 Red Sox: “Do Damage.”

The more Manfred tries to engage in damage control to quell the outrage that has spread like wildfire across baseball regarding the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, the more damage he does to his credibility and that of the sport he presides over.

Now, to avoid absorbing continued public relations punishment Manfred might have to inflict one on the Red Sox to turn the tide.

The problem is that Manfred is treating the Astros’ brazen illicit sign-stealing operation during their World Series-winning 2017 season that involved a refuse percussion section, as well as additional impermissible sign-stealing in 2018, as a PR crisis. It’s more grave. It’s a crisis of public confidence in the legitimacy of the product. Most damning, that lack of faith in baseball’s competitive integrity extends to the players, Manfred’s biggest critics. Players feel defrauded by the Astros and have continued to lash out about the lack of player discipline levied by MLB for a cheating scheme Manfred stated was “player-driven.” If the players aren’t convinced MLB is dedicated to ensuring the games are on the up and up, why should we be?

It seems like every other day there is another revelation, bruising player statement, or tone-deaf quotation from Manfred that squirts more lighter fluid on the raging conflagration of a cheating scandal that has engulfed MLB. Degrading the World Series trophy as a mere “piece of metal” when pressed on stripping Houston of its World Series win was a nadir for Manfred, resulting in caustic player scorn and an apology from the commissioner.

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Defending the punishments, Manfred sounds like the exasperated father justifying a decision with the well-worn parental trope “because I said so.”

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All of this ties back to those 2018 Red Sox, purveyors of that catchy “Do Damage” slogan. The Sox remain under investigation by MLB for impermissible sign-stealing during their World Series-winning season. The Sox face allegations, first unearthed by The Athletic, that they used their video replay room to decode signs in violation of MLB policy during the 108-win joy ride. That was also one of the methods of sign-stealing the Astros employed in 2017 — before advancing to a monitor near the dugout and trash-can thumping — and in 2018. A verdict from MLB on the Sox is expected by next week.

The Red Sox have maintained innocence. They’ve asked us to reserve judgment. They remain confident they’ll be completely exonerated. But given the current climate in MLB, Manfred absolving the Sox of sign-stealing guilt isn’t going to play well at all, even if it’s supported by the facts.

Manfred and MLB have a credibility gap on this issue. New Sox catcher Jonathan Lucroy said Thursday that when he played with the Oakland Athletics in 2018, the A’s alerted MLB that the division-rival Astros were engaging in chicanery. Oakland GM David Forst told the San Jose Mercury News last week that the A’s lodged a formal complaint with MLB prior to A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, a former Astro, going public in November, triggering MLB’s investigation. Letting another World Series winner under suspicion walk scot-free isn’t going to help Manfred. Players appear to be in no mood to readily accept MLB’s word on sign-stealing because they feel Manfred wants to bury the schemes, not get to the bottom of them.

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People will harp on the fact that the allegations stemmed from three people who were with the Sox in 2018, according to The Athletic. They’ll speculate that there was a quid pro quo for the Sox parting ways with manager Alex Cora, the sign decoding common denominator between the Astros and Boston. Cora was singled out by MLB as one of the architects of Houston’s 2017 sign-stealing operation as its bench coach.

Manfred might have to ding the Sox Green Monster-style to placate the hardball hordes assembling at his gate, no matter how small the actual impropriety in this case. He could justify a PR-guided punishment like a fine or docking draft picks by pointing out that the Sox were found guilty of violating rules on electronically-aided sign-stealing in 2017 in the Fitbit kerfuffle with the New York Yankees.

Manfred feather dusted the Sox with an undisclosed fine and a stern warning then. In a statement announcing that decision, Manfred said, “I have received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type.” The Sox were back before MLB’s court for allegations stemming from the next season.

None of this would be fair. But baseball folks want their pound of flesh and the Sox are on deck on the carving block. All-Stars Cody Bellinger, Kris Bryant, Nick Markakis, Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton have all ripped the Astros while expressing dismay that MLB has allowed them to keep their ill-gotten spoils and failed to provide a greater deterrent for illicit sign-stealing.

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Manfred and baseball are getting pounded like John “Way Back” Wasdin. Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner and former Sox pitcher and current Chicago Cubs ace Jon Lester both lambasted Manfred for his “piece of metal” quip, opining that the Commissioner’s Trophy is debased by having Manfred at MLB’s helm.

Ouch.

Stanton smacked the rhetorical equivalent of one of his mammoth home runs on Wednesday when he told reporters, “I don’t think the punishments were harsh enough player-wise. At the end of the day, it gives more incentive to [cheat].”

Correct. If the only penalty for cheating in a manner that can boost your win total, your stats, and your paycheck is that your manager and general manager will get the gate if you get caught, that’s a risk worth taking.

In fairness to Manfred, the MLB Players Association bears significant blame in this imbroglio as well. The commissioner needed the cooperation of the MLBPA to impose player discipline. Yes, inviting management punishment is anathema for any union, but ultimately a union serves the interests of its members, some of whom feel defrauded by the Astros. The union shouldn’t repeat the sins of the PED era.

The MLBPA has stated it’s not averse to player punishments moving forward as baseball engages in a comprehensive review of sign-stealing policy. But it made zero effort to enable Manfred to punish players during the Astros investigation. MLBPA head Tony Clark scoffed at the mere mention that player discipline should’ve been on the table, offering this nonsensical, political palaver:

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“We believe that the rules that were in place independent of [immunity] players weren’t going to be disciplined. As a matter of fact, the language suggests that only clubs and club personnel can be disciplined for whatever it is that a player may have done.”

Read that back, Tony. Does that make any sense?

The baseball backlash over this botched operation isn’t something Manfred can fix with conversational cosmetic enhancement in pressers and interviews. It’s going to take action, and that could put the Sox in an uncomfortable position. They represent one way for Manfred to save face.

Either Manfred will have to continue to take damage to his reputation or the Sox will have to take a little bit of damage to theirs for the good of the game and the commish.


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