Rob Manfred has a history of botching investigations

Dan WetzelColumnist
Yahoo Sports
Rob Manfred presents the Commissioner's Trophy to the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/houston/" data-ylk="slk:Houston Astros">Houston Astros</a> owner Jim Crane after the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. (Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images)
Rob Manfred presents the Commissioner's Trophy to the Houston Astros owner Jim Crane after the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. (Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images)

Back in 2012-13, long before the Houston Astros became known for banging garbage cans and avoiding significant punishment, Rob Manfred was in charge of a different, high-profile, baseball scandal. 

That one centered on Biogenesis, a South Florida “health clinic” that turned out to be supplying performance enhancing drugs to star players, most notably Alex Rodriguez

Manfred was just Major League Baseball’s Chief Operating Officer back then, not the lofty Commissioner job he currently holds. 

The investigation, however, was every bit the train wreck of this Astros one, except it stemmed from MLB’s overaggressive techniques and a drive for “justice” that stand in stark contrast to the low-key, small-sanction controversy of today. 

Not a single Houston player, for example, will face even one game of suspension for cheating to win the 2017 World Series.

Yet back in 2013, 17 players were initially suspended a cumulative 1,026 games. A-Rod got 212 all by himself, although that was later dropped to a full 162-game season.

You could wonder if Manfred was once too hard and now too soft, or you could look at both cases, listen to the boos, taunts and insults raining down on the Astros from opposing players and fans alike, and conclude the guy just isn’t any good at this stuff. 

Back in 2013, after a Miami New Times story linked A-Rod and others to Biogenesis, MLB was relentless in proving it was true and punishing those involved. How relentless?

As detailed with proper absurdity in Billy Corben’s documentary “Screwball” (currently on Netflix), it included: 

  • MLB repeatedly sending gifts to the girlfriend of one potential witness in an effort to curry favor and cooperation.

  • MLB offering a job to a different potential witness, a tanning fanatic/personal trainer, who himself wondered what he was even qualified to do.

  • MLB paying six figures for a slew of stolen documents that had been plucked from the trunk of a car during a planned break-in during a tanning appointment. The seller was known only as “Bobby from Boca.”

Then there was the lead investigator (not Manfred, he just supervised the case) having an affair with a nurse from the clinic — “Biogenesis was better than Tinder,” joked its founder, Tony Bosch. 

Ah, yes, Tony Bosch. There was plenty of Tony Bosch, a dead broke, drug-abusing, unlicensed doctor (he hates being called “fake”) who would serve 20-months in federal prison. MLB made him their key witness.

Manfred went on “60 Minutes” and denied that MLB paid Bosch $5 million to cooperate, which was the rumor down in Miami. Manfred apparently told the truth, because in the film Bosch lists off only $4.1 million or so in bills and fees. It’s unclear if that included the Manhattan hotel suite that Bosch trashed in a wild party the night before the Rodriguez hearings.

There was pretty much nothing MLB wouldn’t do in an effort to catch A-Rod. Nothing.

Alex Rodriguez was ultimately suspended 165 games for his alleged use of steroids with the Biogenesis clinic in Florida. (Mark Makela/Corbis via Getty Images)
Alex Rodriguez was ultimately suspended 165 games for his alleged use of steroids with the Biogenesis clinic in Florida. (Mark Makela/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Make no mistake, someone in MLB should have been arrested and charged,” Jerome Hill, who was investigating the matter for the Florida Department of Health, said in the film. 

In the end, Manfred got his man, and 16 others, all of whom picked up 50 games or more in suspensions. Rodriguez got hammered hardest and was supposed to be finished, although that didn’t take. He wound up returning post-suspension to play for the New York Yankees and has deftly morphed into a prominent broadcaster. 

Manfred, meanwhile, got the ultimate promotion.

Which brings everything to today, which in MLB means the Houston scandal. 

The details of MLB’s investigation aren’t fully known, but it is clear that teams were complaining about the Astros and sign stealing before Mike Fiers blew the whistle

Baseball couldn’t crack the case, though, and nothing happened, aside from the Astros (and subsequently the Red Sox, also caught in their own sign-stealing scandal) winning the World Series.

Maybe MLB struggled to get anyone associated with the scandal to talk, but just how hard did it try? In November, Fiers, a former Astros pitcher, had no problem blowing the lid off the entire conspiracy with The Athletic. Once he did, Manfred wound up offering full immunity to all players to get the truth. The team was fined, stripped of some draft picks and had its manager and general manager suspended for a year, but no players were punished. Houston even kept the World Series title.

Considering just years before Manfred’s investigation was willing to pay thieves for stolen documents, was getting Fiers to talk to them, rather than the media, that hard?

Just as questionable is Manfred’s sudden willingness to not seek suspensions for players. That decision has left many in baseball — from opposing dugouts to the grandstands — believing the Astros got away with cheating.

It’s why the storyline heading into the 2020 season is fans booing the Astros everywhere they go. And just wait until the real games begin. Manfred may have thought this would blow over, but it hasn’t.

“I understand people’s desire to have the players pay a price for what went on here,” Manfred told ESPN. “I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have paid a price. To think they’re skipping down the road into spring training, happy, that’s just a mischaracterization of where we are.”

Were A-Rod and the others skipping down the road as Biogenesis dragged on? He was relentlessly heckled.

That was then, apparently. This is now. Either way, it’s another bizarre investigation by Rob Manfred’s MLB, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise anymore. 

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