Rob Manfred is, by trade, a labor lawyer. Harvard-educated. Years of experience.
He isn’t, you could argue at least, a baseball guy, despite the fact he’s worked full time for Major League Baseball since 1998 and been its commissioner since 2015.
Maybe that was the issue. Maybe that was the blind spot.
Faced with a massive cheating scandal that involved the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros, Manfred thought like a lawyer — reacting cautiously, limiting exposure, setting the terms of the investigation and then finally doling out sanctions that leaned heavily on precedent (both established and future) rather than punishment.
He didn’t act like someone with his finger on the pulse of baseball. Now he is paying the price.
On a seemingly hourly basis, Manfred’s decision to spare individual Astros from any punishment and his refusal to strip Houston of that World Series title is getting blasted by the players themselves. The response has been overwhelming, both in volume and vastness.
“I wasn’t a fan of the punishment,” said Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees. “I thought it was a little weak for a player-driven scheme. … I feel like the players involved should be punished. If I go out there and cheat the game, like [Chicago Cubs’ pitcher Yu] Darvish said. ‘If you’re playing in the Olympics and they find out you cheated, you don’t get to keep that medal.’”
“Sad for baseball,” said Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. “It’s tough. They cheated. I don’t agree with the punishments — the players not getting anything. It was a player-driven thing.”
Judge and Trout are two of many, but they stand out and not just because they are among baseball’s biggest stars. They’ve also spent their careers rarely, if ever, saying anything interesting or pointed about any subject. Criticizing opposing players and the commissioner’s office is wholly out of character.
When those guys are blasting a decision, that decision is at serious odds with the opinions of the rank and file.
It seems Manfred never saw it coming. You could say he didn’t read the room well, but it is more likely he was never in the (locker) room to even read it.
Manfred has offered various explanations, but none are quelling the controversy. He apologized for calling the World Series trophy a “piece of metal” although the real issue seems to be that he equated the actual trophy with the accomplishment.
He said the player’s union wanted immunity for the players, but the MLBPA said it was offered right away. He said he didn’t want to strip the Astros of the title, because, “it has never happened in baseball. I am a believer in the idea that precedent matters and when you deviate from it, you have to have a really good reason to do that.”
In Manfred’s opinion, stealing signs to win the World Series wasn’t a “really good reason.” The players don’t agree.
They see the emotional pain of losing. They see all the work that gets put in only to have it stolen. They see the danger of being a pitcher and having a batter sit on a fastball — there’s a reason pitchers throw from behind a net in batting practice, when hitters know what pitch is coming.
“It sucks, too, because guys’ careers have been affected, a lot of people lost jobs,” Trout said.
“Guys who went to Houston and got beat up and never made it back to the big leagues,” Judge said. “You really can’t tolerate that. Guys who are going there and playing fair and square, and get beat up a little bit, now they’re out of a job because of it, that ain’t right.”
Mainly the players seem to care more about the reputation of baseball than the commissioner, who seems hung up on the process.
“All I heard about on TV was baseball and sign-stealing: ‘Cheating. Cheating. Cheating,’ ” Judge said. “I grew up a fan of baseball, I don’t want to see that. … ‘Daddy, why is so-and-so cheating? What’s up with that?’ That was the toughest thing for me, just all of the talk about cheating, man, and destroying the great reputation this great game has.’’
Stripping Houston of the World Series is simple, but not easy. There’s a good chance (and Manfred may know this better than anyone) that the pending investigation into the 2018 Boston Red Sox will come to a similar conclusion on cheating, meaning that championship would likely have to be vacated as well.
And then there are concerns about what should cause such a punishment. Organized sign stealing? OK, but what about a single player stealing signs? Or what if a Game 7, game-winning home run is hit by someone who later tests positive for PEDs?
It can get murky. That’s the kind of thing Manfred-the-lawyer considered, and there is value in that.
What he apparently didn’t foresee is something he may not have even known to focus on, that the people who play the game would view this entire saga in a very different light.
The players want their peers punished, humiliated, called out. Or worse.
“I feel like every single guy over there needs a beating,” Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis said.
The commissioner didn’t dole out justice. So now it may go vigilante-style, beanballs and spikes-up slides.
The commissioner went legal and tried to consider all sides. It just turns out he didn’t recognize the side of his players and now this mess is bigger than ever.
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