The Pen: Rob Manfred basically admits MLB can’t be trusted to police cheating

Rob Manfred, seen here presenting Astros owner Jim Crane with his World Series ring, says MLB investigators looked into complaints about Houston's sign-stealing habits, but didn't find evidence of wrongdoing until Mike Fiers went to the media. (Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB via Getty Images)

VENICE, Fla. — Perhaps the most significant revelation among the deluge of rumor and reporting that has emerged about the Houston Astros since the commissioner’s office released its official report is that other teams suspected them of illegal sign stealing long before Mike Fiers spoke to The Athletic. And that they didn’t keep those suspicions to themselves. A number of teams have said both on and off the record that they complained to the league about the Astros.

This begs two questions. First: How could anyone in Houston (looking at you, Jim Crane) credibly claim that they had not even an inkling of anything nefarious until last November? (They’re lying, probably.)

And even more importantly: Why didn’t Major League Baseball figure out what was happening and put a stop to it sooner? Did they even bother to look into the Astros’ then-alleged cheating prior to this offseason?

On Sunday, on a bright and breezy concourse at the Atlanta Braves’ new spring training facility in Venice, Florida, I asked Rob Manfred just that.

(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

“‘Looked into’ is a difficult phrase,” he started out by saying. “Let me say this: Post the Apple Watch decision in 2017, we had had complaints from a variety of people about a variety of clubs, including the Astros, and in response to every one of those we undertook an effort to figure out whether we could verify the assertions that were made.

“Just to give you a feel for some context, usually those assertions took the form of, ‘We know they have our signs.’ That's hard, you know. It's hard to prove something when that's what you have. And, you know, I make no bones about it, without the reporting and the availability of Mike Fiers, we probably wouldn't have gotten where we got on this investigation.”

Obviously The Athletic should use that soundbite in promotional materials, but beyond that: This is very troubling!!! Manfred was presiding over his annual Grapefruit League news conference, which was officially unrelated to the sport-consuming scandal but effectively a chance for reporters to pummel the commissioner with questions about why he didn’t strip Houston of its championship and when we can expect the report on the Red Sox sign stealing affair. Precedent, in part, and end of next week, respectively — but wait a minute: Did the commissioner of Major League Baseball just admit that he wouldn’t have been able to uncover the most egregious team-wide cheating scandal of this century — even if he knew which team was doing the cheating — without the assistance of the media?

Just to confirm: They did look into those earlier accusations?

“We looked into it; we couldn’t find any evidence that what had been asserted to us was true.”

But it was true! The Astros were stealing opposing teams’ signs. Those teams told the league that they believed the Astros were stealing their signs. MLB failed to find “any evidence” of this. That progression, as detailed by the commissioner himself, essentially says that the league cannot be relied upon to find wrongdoing where we now know it exists.

Either the investigations department is not very good at its job or the league didn’t take credible accusations of cheating very seriously to begin with. Manfred wants it to be known that his office didn’t bury evidence of the Astros’ sign stealing until public outcry forced them to reckon with it — just that they were never capable of finding any (any?!) such evidence in the first place. He’s relying on ignorance as a defense and in the process, admitting incompetence.

In retrospect, surely this makes all those other complaints the league has apparently received about a “variety of clubs” seem a lot more plausible. So then, are they re-investigating those teams, perhaps with some newfound vigor?

I'm not going to comment on where we have open investigations, other than Houston and Boston.

And that was all Manfred said about that.

It’s not outrageous that MLB would be unwilling to disclose anything about ongoing investigations. But they also have lost the ability to be a believable arbiter on rule-breaking in their ranks. Manfred said that without the media explaining what happened in Houston, the league never would have been able to prove their guilt. Maybe he should tell us what other teams have been the subject of internal complaints.

This isn’t a rhetorical attempt to embarrass Rob Manfred. It’s crucial to the future integrity of the game that fans trust the league to adequately police itself. A clean game requires more than the right rules and a strong deterrent — it requires public credibility to say when a team is cheating. And also when they aren’t. Manfred’s league looked into the Houston Astros and concluded that they weren’t cheating. He was wrong. So why should we believe what he says going forward?

Notes from the clubhouse

Baseball (activity) is back, and so are clubhouse conversations. In the first week of spring training, they’ve largely revolved around how players, who have had months to stew on it, feel about the Astros stealing signs and the punishments they did not receive from the commissioner’s office.

The Nationals’ Patrick Corbin was one of the last few pitchers to face the Astros last year before the bombshell story came out, and the teams share a spring training facility in West Palm Beach. We talked the day after Houston’s apology press conference.

On whether the punishment the Astros received will serve as a deterrent:

“Well the players kind of got nothing so … I don’t think it’s going away any time soon like they want it to. For them to apologize and say they're moving on, there's no way that's happening. So, I don't know what the right punishment is, and I don't even know if we know all the facts are what really did happen.”

On whether he was surprised to see the story detailing how the Astros stole signs:

“I mean, we were going in there getting the multiple signs with no one on base, so we obviously knew something was going on. They did it in ‘17 and baseball didn’t do anything about it. They had to have done something different in ‘18 and ‘19. There’s no way they would have just stopped with no punishment. That’s why the buzzer thing to me is not as crazy as some people think it is. But you just don’t know. You have no idea what they were doing. I don’t think all the facts are out yet.”

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