If Pete Rose is out of baseball forever, Alex Cora should be too

Dan WetzelColumnist

In the long annals of Major League Baseball, there are but just a few men who have suffered the ultimate punishment from the league — lifetime banishment. That includes members of the Chicago Black Sox Scandal, most famously Shoeless Joe Jackson, and all-time hit leader Pete Rose, who was caught gambling on the game as a manager in the 1980s.

In both cases, the sins were the manipulation of games (the 1919 World Series) or the potential manipulation of games (any that Rose managed while gambling, even though there has never been proof he bet against his team to win).

Both punishments are controversial. Both stand — three decades now for Rose, nearly a century for the Black Sox. It’s part of MLB’s zero-tolerance policy.

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The core issue is that individual conduct rendered the games illegitimate (or potentially illegitimate). It’s something MLB believes it simply can’t tolerate, thus the use of its nuclear option of discipline.

So if Rose and Jackson are out forever, then why not former Red Sox manager Alex Cora?

The Red Sox effectively fired Cora on Tuesday in the wake of the league concluding that while working as a bench coach for the Houston Astros in 2017, Cora orchestrated a sign-stealing program using the video replay room and the banging of garbage cans to alert hitters. The system helped the Astros win the World Series that year.

Alex Cora holds the championship trophy after Game 5 of the 2018 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. With Cora under scrutiny, both the 2017 and 2018 World Series are now in question. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Alex Cora holds the championship trophy after Game 5 of the 2018 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. With Cora under scrutiny, both the 2017 and 2018 World Series are now in question. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

“Cora was involved in developing both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs,” MLB’s report stated. “Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players’ conduct.”

There is a lot more. After the 2017 World Series triumph, Cora left the Astros to become the manager of the Red Sox who (what a coincidence) won 118 games and the World Series in his first year. 

The league hasn’t concluded its investigation into Cora’s behavior in Boston, but MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the 44-year-old was implicated in that as well. Manfred said he would determine league discipline at the appropriate time. On Monday, Houston’s manager and general manager were suspended one year for not stopping Cora’s plan. The club in turn fired them.

When MLB finishes this, even though the Red Sox have already taken action, it will have to ask itself what’s the difference between Cora and Rose and Jackson, et al.

There is no known gambling component, but Cora presumably altered the outcomes of two World Series. The sport was cheated. Players were cheated. Fans were cheated. Who cares if a gambler somewhere did or didn’t make a buck off of it?

Sign stealing has a long history in the sport and there has always been some element of gamesmanship to it — there is a reason catchers often disguise what pitch they are calling for the pitcher to throw. 

Yet with advanced technology, it has been taken to the next level. The future of the sport rests on fans believing that what they are watching during a given day, let alone the World Series, is fair athletic competition. Without that, what’s the point?

MLB has a disaster on its hands. It stands to reason that this extends beyond just the handiwork of Cora and could implicate other teams, maybe a lot of them. That only increases the importance of dropping the hammer here and making up for years of lax oversight by the league. 

The only reason it isn’t a bigger deal is because the sport is no longer America’s pastime, long ago eclipsed by the NFL and even college football. It’s benefiting from this coming out at a time the NFL playoffs suck up a lot of media oxygen. 

Still, losing the credibility of the competition would be devastating for a sport that is clinging to national relevance. Baseball is still a big deal, but mostly because when a local team is winning, everyone in that market gets enthralled. When the local team is losing though, those same fans don’t tend to follow the game league-wide the way they do with the NFL or even NBA.

Cora has a right to his defense, so we will see what he says. Barring some incredible turn of events though, he seems likely (and hopefully) finished as a MLB manager regardless of the length of his suspension. 

The damage is done — both in the crowning of the potentially wrong teams in 2017 and 2018, and the confidence fans in the future have in the legitimacy of the sport. No baseball fan can be sure of what they did or didn’t watch the past few years. This is a more effective way to cheat than performance-enhancing drugs, which alone turned the game into a partial joke, albeit with lots of exciting quarter-mile home runs.

Yes, it is a different America these days than when Rose or Jackson were busted. The culture doesn’t find cheating, lying and manipulating as socially unacceptable as in the past. It can even be celebrated and rewarded. 

So what? That shouldn’t excuse MLB from not taking this with all the severity it ever did in trying to protect its sport. Cheating is cheating. Or it should be.

So either Alex Cora should join Jackson, Rose and the others on the permanent banishment list, or Jackson, Rose and the others should be freed at last. 

We’ll find out about MLB one way or the other as it begins to dig out from a scandal that looks far closer to the start than the end.

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