BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 01/17/2020

Thiel: Astros owner, players are allowed to slide

As a third manager gets axed in the fallout from the Astros’ signal-stealing scandal, Commissioner Rob Manfred’s punishments overlook some principal figures.

Owner Jim Crane claimed no knowledge of the Astros’ signal-stealing. He’s also one of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s 30 bosses.

When it comes to new frontiers of misbehavior — weaponizing the in-game banging of garbage cans certainly qualifies, especially when it goes undetected — the office of the commissioner of Major League Baseball has an emergency tool. The commish is authorized to deal punishment, based on his judgment of the facts, “in the best interests of baseball.”

The phrase is deliberately broad and undefined, much like the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” in the U.S. Constitution. Because, to use a legal description, you never know what crazy-ass things crazy-ass people will do to advance their personal interests at the expense of honor. Best to keep the net wide.

Following Thursday’s news that Carlos Beltran had been fired from his new job as New York Mets manager — before he even made out his first spring training lineup — to become the third MLB manager axed in the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, it looks as if the blotch on ball has grown to the size of Texas.

Previously fired his week were managers A.J. Hinch of the Astros and Alex Cora of the Boston Red Sox. In 2017, when the use of electronic devices began, Cora was a coach with the Astros and Beltran a player. Also fired was Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow.

But the punishments laid out in Commissioner Rob Manfred’s nine-page summary of the MLB investigation, which included 68 interviews, were noteworthy for what was not included.

There was no vacation of the Astros’ 2017 World Series title. Nor were sanctions levied against the position players who benefited from knowing what pitch was coming from the clanks upon the dugout garbage cans, once the signs were decoded off a secret video system.

Nor was there personal consequence for Astros owner Jim Crane. In fact, Manfred went out of his way to exonerate Crane, whose name was the first one mentioned in the report because he claimed he knew nothing about the scheme. From the Manfred report’s first page:

At the outset, I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.

Crane is, of course, one of Manfred’s 30 bosses. And that’s part of the problem. The investigation was not independent.  When it comes to determining ownership culpability, Manfred is immediately suspect.

Regarding sanctioning owners, Manfred certainly can’t hide behind a lack of precedent.

One of the most notorious episodes of owner malfeasance was in 1991, when Commissioner Fay Vincent banned Yankees owner George Steinbrenner purportedly for life for his outrageous stunt against one of his own star players.

From the New York Daily News July 31, 1991:

George Steinbrenner was permanently banned last night from control of the most famous team in sports because he secretly paid a Bronx gambler $40,000 for helping the Yankee owner’s renegade investigation of Dave Winfield.

“He did something to harm baseball and he has to pay the price,” said baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, who announced his action against Steinbrenner at a packed news conference at the Helmsley Palace Hotel. “He knew, or at least should have known, that if the payment were exposed, it would bring disrepute to him and therefore to baseball.”

Vincent was invoking “his best interests of baseball” powers. While the circumstances were different, because Steinbrenner was directly involved in attempting to dig up dirt on Winfield (the lifetime ban was subsequently reduced to two years), the damage done to baseball’s credibility by Crane’s organization was much more significant than Steinbrenner’s childishness — the Astros’ advantages may have denied the Los Angeles Dodgers a World Series win.

It was the second episode of national embarrassment by the organization. Last October during the clubhouse celebration after the Astros won game 6 of the American League Championship Series over the Yankees, assistant general manager Brandon Taubman taunted a group of female reporters about Astros relief pitcher Robert Osuna, an alleged domestic abuser. He yelled repeatedly, “Thank God we got Osuna!” He had been acquired a year earlier while serving a 75-game suspension for DV charges.

When one of the reporters published an account of the episode in Sports Illustrated, Taubman and the Astros denied the story, calling it “misleading and completely irresponsible.” But when other eyewitnesses confirmed the story, the Astros backtracked, then confirmed it when Taubman owned up. He was fired, and a week after the episode, Crane apologized to the reporters in person.

The organization’s conduct drew a scolding from Manfred in the report:

It is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic. At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident.

The Astros have won 101, 103 and 107 regular season games in the past three years, playing in two World Series, winning one. Houston should be MLB’s shining city on the hill; instead they are the Asstros.

They aren’t the first team and won’t be the last to cheat, and to bully. But if Manfred had Vincent’s guts and suspended Crane and miscreant players, he’d have a splendid start on a zero-tolerance policy that would resonate with 29 other franchises.


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YourThoughts

  • busterbluth

    It’s simply ridiculous that they weren’t forced to vacate the championship they cheated to win. NCAA titles, Tour de Frances, Olympic Medals,etc. have all been vacated when instances of cheating were confirmed. It really isn’t that hard of a decision it you at least want to keep the appearance of fair play in your sport.

    • art thiel

      Given the difficulty of winning a World Series, franchises obviously are willing to get caught cheating to do it, because it’s worth it if MLB won’t swing the hammer.

      • busterbluth

        Absolutely. That’s why it’s important to drop the hammer when they are caught. Not taking the title away basically turns this into a business calculation.

        • Husky73

          The ultimate punishment would be to have Greinke, Altuve, Correa, Bregman, Springer and Verlander assigned to the Mariners. There would undoubtedly be no repeat offenders.

          • art thiel

            Cruel, dude.

      • Kirkland

        And from what I’ve seen on Twitter, a lot of fans would be happy to cheat their way to the title even if it costs them their manager and GM a bit down the road. I would not be surprised if a few Mariners fans would like to follow the “Asterisks”‘s blueprint.

        • art thiel

          I’m sure it’s more than a few. Paying the price of one guy’s job, a little cash and a few draft picks for gratification? Easy choice for some, as Lance Armstrong proved.

          • tor5

            I don’t get it all. As a huge former Lance Armstrong fan, I feel nothing but disgust and embarrassment. Where’s the glory in fraud?

          • art thiel

            He’s a complex stew of motives. But looking from afar, he seems to be a pathlogical narcissist. So most people’s rules and valuies don’t apply to him.

          • jafabian

            When I was diagnosed with cancer ten years ago I started reading books by cancer survivors. I never finished Armstrong’s because he talked mostly about how great and strong he is and said that’s how he survived. A far cry from Stuart Scott’s book who discussed in length his family and unashamedly about his struggles. And I finished his.

          • Husky73

            Glad you are a survivor.

  • coug73

    Cheating, gambling and unsportsmanlike behavior have always been a human failing in sport. Good luck and vigilance policing sport.

    • art thiel

      Sports are no different that real life, except in our fantasies.

    • LarryLurex70

      And, it’s always been rewarded. Certainly the curious case of Gaylord Perry should come to mind whenever the conversation is about “cheating”. Yet, it never does, as evidenced by him being rewarded with a Hall of Fame induction for his career efforts, whilst his apologists fall over each other defending him as an individual and separating him from the larger issue. Look, we’ve all seen the video of him getting caught cheating. I’d love to see the sports media stop with the semantics and selective memory games regarding protecting the integrity of the game or whatever, and quit telling fans who we should be upset at for “cheating” as THEY define it, depending on WHO does it.
      The media and their faux-outrage can NEVER be taken seriously until the Perry example is placed back under the microscope in relation to today’s debate.

  • tor5

    I’m not all up to speed on how this worked, but it sounds like most or all of the Asstro players had to be in on it too, right? That makes it even more troubling to me because it’s not just a few wayward guys, but a corrupt culture. It raises questions about the whole MLB, I’d think. For that matter, I can’t help but think about the whole post-truth era we’re living in. The temptation to cheat and lie is there for all of us, but beware the slippery slope. I just hope we can continue to be sickened and outraged by the cons, and celebrate the everyday heroes who do right. When cynicism overcomes this discernment, it’s hard to know what the point is anymore, to sport and beyond.

    • art thiel

      You have it right, tor. It’s a corrupt culture, and the sign-stealing mess happens right when he political world is being told up is down by the White House. Manfred had a chance, and he blew it.

      • Husky73

        A serious question—- is there any big time sport that isn’t a “corrupt culture?” Or business? Or politics? Or religion? And not even big time– how about Little League and local high school basketball?

        • art thiel

          I think lots of sports, businesses, governments, agencies, schools and churches operate honorably with good intentions. Occasionally, parts of them stumble. Sometimes, the whole enterprise. In the case of baseball, regarding the rules of the game, I think most follow the rules, some don’t. My reference was to the Astros specifically, not baseball generally.

          • tor5

            Indeed, my original post was that I hope cynicism doesn’t overcome discernment. That is, I hope we don’t just say “everything it corrupt and always has been” and not recognize and still be outraged by cheating and lying. There’s both honor and deceit in just about every enterprise, but some are clearly better, and some are clearly worse. If we just get beaten down and lazy about this discernment, well, that’s exactly what the cheaters and liars are hoping.

      • 1coolguy

        Give it a rest Art – I’ll remind you this isn’t a political column and there are a number of despicables that do enjoy your writing. It’s become the lazy man who blames all things negative on our president.

        • art thiel

          As you know, I draw analogies from many facets — religion, art, music, science, pop culture, business and, yes, politics. Also as you know, the column wasn’t about politics. The remark was, indeed, political, but only in the sense that politics
          is driving a national conversation about persistent and massive lying and cheating as the new standard of governmental conduct. The analogy to the Astros’ long-term cheating is apt.

          • rosetta_stoned

            about persistent and massive lying and cheating as the new standard of governmental conduct.

            New? I can’t believe you actually wrote that with a straight face.

  • Vacating the title of the Houston Asterisks would have sent a chilling, effective message to all of baseball. Manfred failed in an epic, miserable and cowardly manner. Now everyone walks away knowing “if we cheat, we keep the spoils”. Trophy, acclaim and postseason money. Every player should have been fined the exact amount of their playoff share.

    Reminds me of the Kris Kristofferson line: If a cheated man’s a loser, and a cheater never wins……. Horse puckey. The Asstros proved that is not exactly true.

    • art thiel

      It appears Manfred tried to navigate he easiest path for the industry: Suspending three people, then letting the clubs fire them, while inflicting minor damage with loss of money and picks. To sort out guilty players would have created bigger disruption, as would the vacation. Justice is hard; Manfred didn’t have the guts.

  • jafabian

    If MLB truly wanted to get this under control they’d take a cue from their own drug policy and have MLB Security randomly inspect stadiums but I doubt they’d do that. If they did they’d probably find even more widespread cheating. I feel bad for the Astros fans however I’m hoping this gives the M’s an opportunity to catch up with the Astros. I’m that desperate for a contender! But not desperate enough to advocate cheating.

    • art thiel

      I hope you haven’t kept a closet shelf empty awaiting Mariners World Series gear.

      • jafabian

        I always keep the faith. Check out my Twitter bio!

  • Husky73

    Too bad Lev Parnas wasn’t around for Steinbrenner. However The Boss was a big Giuliani fan.

    • art thiel

      Remember Howard Spira, the Bronx gambler? He was to Steinbrenner as Parnas was to Giuliani/Trump: A fixer.

      • Husky73

        Did Steinbrenner know Roy Cohn?

        • art thiel

          Good question. I’ll guess yes.

      • 1coolguy

        Give it a rest Art – This is supposedly a sports column.

        • LarryLurex70

          Sport & politics constantly intersect. You can’t be oblivious to that. In fact, I’ve long been of the opinion that national propaganda is also part of the equation as well. Seen your “national anthem” lately? You can’t convince me that’s it’s an absolute necessity of the modern day athletic competition, sorry. It’s got nothing to do with the actual game that succeeds it.
          I would highly recommend that you listen to a radio programme out of D.C. on Thursday mornings at 7am our time called The Collision for an honest and progressive discussion and dissection of the cross world of sports and politics. Particularly if you’re sick of the usual ranting and chest pounding that usually comes from sports talk radio.

        • d3s

          I guess you could put your fingers in your ears, or cover your eyes?

  • Kirkland

    Some overseas sports and leagues have come up with creative punishments for cheating franchises that baseball and our sports could look at.

    — A few years ago, the Australian rules football team Essendon Bombers were found guilty of a widespread doping violation, with one week left in the season. The league immediately ruled them ineligible for the playoffs, even though the Bombers had already qualified mathematically (seventh place out of 16, top eight get in). The eighth-place team got bumped up to the seventh spot, and the ninth-place team, which would’ve been on the outside, got bumped up into eighth and qualified.

    Plus, the coach and the players involved were suspended for a season. That decimated the Bombers’ roster so much, they had to borrow reserve players from the other teams just to field a team that season.

    — This off-season, the English rugby team Saracens were found to have breached the league’s salary cap by about 1 million pounds in each of the last four seasons, in which they won a few domestic and European championships. The English Premiership gave them a 35-point penalty to start this year, a pretty big hole (22-game season, 4 points for a win, plus try and losing bonus points). Saracens have chopped off most of that deduction, but just recently there are rumors of another salary cap breach, and if true, it could mean automatic relegation to the second division next year even if they mathematically aren’t in the last-place relegation spot at season’s end.

    So, besides vacating those Astros titles, MLB might consider year-long suspensions for the players involved — at least it will give their AAA players a taste of the bigs — and making them ineligible for the postseason, even if they have another 100-win year. Worth a look.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for sharing, Kirkland. Some creative ideas here. The penalties needed to have direct, immediate consequences to a cheating team’s standing, as did the cheating for the opponents during play.

      • Chris Alexander

        I could get on board with some “creative” punishment. While I do think that stripping them of their 2017 title would have been the right move, making them “ineligible” for the postseason (regardless of their record) for 2-3 years would send a similar message. It would also basically gut the team as no “quality” free agents would sign with them and most of their better players would try to get the heck out of Dodge.

        But, since we’re being creative, let’s ALSO say that any player from the 2017 team that can be definitively linked to the cheating is ALSO banned from the postseason for the same 2-3 years. And when I say “linked,” I don’t just mean the participants, I mean anyone on the team that KNEW about the cheating and didn’t speak up.

        Oh, and there definitely needs to be a “creative” punishment for the owner since the $5M fine – although being the maximum fine the commissioner can impose – is sort of like telling me that I can’t buy a new jersey next season.

        • art thiel

          The problem with banning future post-season play is that it dis-incentivizes yet another team from playing to win. Baseball is already plagued with teams like the Mariners who tear down for the purpose of building future contention. The Astros could decide, in the face of a throwaway season, to trade away much of their aging premier talent for prospects.

          But maybe that’s the sort of difficulty MLB deserves to have until is creates stiffer rules and codifies more severe punishments.

  • Tian Biao

    Now we know why the Astros always hit Felix so hard in Houston: they knew the changeup was coming, the cheaters.

    But hey — why didn’t opposing teams catch on? I mean, banging a garbage can is pretty obvious. Not the M’s, they can’t be expected to solve something like that, but how about one of the smart teams, like the A’s or the Yankees?

    • art thiel

      The investigation isn’t over. Other teams may have use more subtle techniques.

  • Archangelo Spumoni

    Bear with me please:
    You are 28, a middling-to-slightly-above-average MLB pitcher and you concluded contract negotiations right before last season. Now you read of this (including the part about Altuve, et al, wearing the shoulder buzzer) and then talk with your agent, who recalls the negotiation phase your club specifically pointed out your shortcomings vs some team . . . say . . . the Astros. Your agent can do 2nd-grade math and figures this shortcoming cost you $2M a year times the 4 year contract and you can multiply using the very same said 2nd grade skills.
    Metaphysical certitude exists that certain Astros hitters are going to be wearing those unique, classic baseball bruises where you can identify individual stitches within the bruise.
    Talking about stripping World Series titles is one thing, but most pitchers can do some math.
    Wouldn’t want to be an umpire next season, tasked with maintaining order. Wouldn’t want to be certain Astros hitters, even considering what they make. Doesn’t help when that 98mph fastball gets away from the hurler.

    • art thiel

      The fact that an opponent cheated and caused damage to another’s career is a legit backstory here, but I don’t think will linger long. Players are too absorbed in the moment. Then again, the investigation isn’t over. Maybe lots of teams do similar things.

  • Chris Alexander

    I think Art has hit the nail on the head – the guiltiest parties have effectively dodged (or at least delayed) punishment because the commissioner didn’t have the courage to make an example of the players or the organization. It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing.

    That said, I highly suspect that this episode will – rightly or unjustly, depending on their involvement – follow and forever taint the careers of all the players on the 2017 Astros team. For instance, I doubt Beltran will be the only former player who is denied a management opportunity as a result of this.

    What concerns me, however, isn’t the punishment – or lack thereof – for the “real culprits” behind the Astros scandal, but rather the fact that the scheme doesn’t appear to be limited to JUST the Astros. We already know that the Red Sox are suspected of cheating and I won’t be surprised if we learn that several other teams did similar things as well.

    ‘Tis a sad time to be a baseball fan.

  • 1coolguy

    USC was stripped of their 2004 national title by the NCAA – if that organization can impose the max penalty, then there is no room for MLB to not do the same with the Astros.

    • art thiel

      I think it’s reasonable, but the NCAA has that punishment in the rulebook. Baseball does not. Which is why I mentioned that the commissioner’s office has wide discretion with the “best interests of baseball” mandate. Unfortunately, the commissioner is also CEO of a business whose 30 board members don’t want to be subject to retroactive punishments.

  • Will

    Art,

    Aside from the morality and so-called integrity values of the game, while also knowing baseball has statistics on minutia, is there numerical evidence related to the sign stealing?

    Did the Astros cheat away from their own home field? Is there a difference in batting and pitching statistics for home and away games?

    Professional athletes are fine-tuned for their specific sports, has MLB questioned various
    pitcher/catcher combos if they sensed something hinky related to Astro hitters getting hits that shouldn’t have been hittable?

    And, with that question in mind, did the simple act of changing catcher signals to the pitcher neutralize, at least for a time, the sign steal effect?

    As for punishments, MLB is a business and has values more related to profit than anything else. The commissioner’s office serves their masters – the team owners – and I recall a commissioner not lasting in his job because he took moral high roads when problems arose.

    If MLB teams were first and foremost after bragging rights, they would do as the Russians have done in the Olympics – have sanctioned cheating and go all out to win every event.

    Sports cheating is slimy but if the Russians weren’t permanently banned from the Olympics, can we even begin talking about shutting down the Astros or Red Sox?

    • Kirkland

      I read that one Astro’s batting average was a couple hundred points higher at home than on the road. Make of that what you will.

  • Kirkland

    In the meantime, spare a thought for an innocent roped into this scandal: the trash can the Astros were banging on. He went on the record with a Philadelphia news broadcast: https://awfulannouncing.com/local-networks/phillys-fox-29-interviews-trash-can-astros-sign-stealing.html

  • rosetta_stoned

    Is there any subject in which you won’t take an opportunity to take a shot at Trump? ‘Cause I’d sure like to see it. Just once.

  • Richie Rich

    MLB is having trouble maintaining popularity. First it was the financial disparity – whether self-imposed or not – between the top teams and the chronic basement dwellers. Now cheating is a slap on the wrist, essentially. (What team wouldn’t risk winning a championship if all it meant was two employees getting sidelined for a year?)