By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The news on Monday hit like a bomb dropped in the middle of the baseball world. A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a full season, and then fired shortly thereafter. The Astros were hit with a $5 million fine and the loss of their next two first-round and second-round draft picks. Speculation began on the future of Red Sox manager Alex Cora, and that outlook does not look good at all.

We all went a little cross-eyed trying to keep up with it all. And it kind of made us overlook one significant detail.

The Astros’ players cheated. “Virtually all” of them. And none of them are being held accountable.

That is, in a word, insane.

Now, if the conclusion reached by MLB was that the sign-stealing efforts executed by Astros players was no big deal, then that would be one thing. But the sign-stealing scheme was deemed significant enough that Manfred felt compelled to issue historic levels of punishment to the manager and general manager of the Astros. Hinch and Luhnow are both now one strike away from a lifetime ban, and after their abrupt firing, it’s unknown if other teams will be in any hurry whatsoever to welcome them back into the big leagues next year. Cora will find himself in the same boat soon enough. The investigation may end up nabbing more teams and more managers and executives when it’s all said and done.

This sign-stealing scheme in Houston, Manfred was careful to note, was “player-driven and player-executed.” And yet, not one guilty player is seeing even one iota of punishment.

Manfred made it clear beyond any doubt on Monday that this level of cheating simply will not and cannot be allowed in Major League Baseball. That is … unless you’re the one that’s actually doing the cheating. Then? Well, it’d be too difficult and too messy to sort it all out, so it’s best to just punish nobody instead of punishing players who were known to have participated and benefited from the unsophisticated process of banging trash cans to signal off-speed pitches were coming.

This conclusion is inexplicable.

In a league where Shoeless Joe Jackson and his “Black Sox” teammates were banned for life, where PED suspensions are dished out regularly, where Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are being held out of the Hall of Fame, the players who were found to have created and executed a sign-stealing operation in the year they won a World Series are being completely let off the hook.

What kind of conclusion is that?

It makes one wonder what exactly the motives are for Manfred to do this. He could be doing his best to preserve public trust in the integrity of the sport. Punishing the players could forever tarnish that 2017 World Series, and the thought of either stripping the title or awarding it to the Dodgers would be too complicated. (The Yankees, who lost the 2017 ALCS, would certainly feel cheated there, too.) Manfred may just not have the appetite to take on the MLB Players Association and thus drag the process out longer. Or maybe Manfred is telling the truth, that it would simply be “both difficult and impractical” to punish some players and not others, because it would just be impossible to determine beyond a reasonable doubt who cheated and who didn’t.

Whatever the motive might have been, the end result is a failure to hold accountable the actual players involved in the scheme.

For further understanding on Manfred’s stance on players’ culpability, read the following excerpt from Manfred’s ruling. In this paragraph, the commissioner of Major League Baseball makes fully grown adult professional baseball players sound like wide-eyed puppy dogs who simply do what their master tells them to do.

“Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can. Many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules. Players stated that if Manager A.J. Hinch told them to stop engaging in the conduct, they would have immediately stopped.”

Later, Manfred added this:

“I recognize that some players may have understood that their conduct was not only condoned by the Club, but encouraged by it.”

Think about that.

For one, Little Leaguers have been held to higher ethical standards than this.

Secondly, does this excuse work in any other scenario?

The player took PEDs, yes, but he said that he would not have taken the PEDs if only his manager had told him not to take the PEDs. As a result, the player is getting away with no punishment, and the manager is getting a 50-game ban.

Doesn’t exactly fly.

The only comparable punishment is when a pitcher hits a batter after warnings have been issued to teams in a game. MLB typically suspends the pitcher and the manager in that scenario, but that doesn’t involve cheating.

If a player tests positive for PEDs, he gets suspended. The manager does not.

If players all admit to cheating, they do not get suspended. The manager gets the boot.

That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Manfred complicates this matter by stating that “virtually all” of the Astros’ players in 2017 were involved in this scheme in some way.

“Assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical. It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme, and I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability,” Manfred wrote. “It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other Clubs.”

Eh, pretty much every single player was involved in this sign-stealing scheme which I deemed to be an egregious offense that cost two men their jobs. But what am I supposed to do — investigate further to determine how the players should be punished? That would just be impractical!

Manfred damaged his own credibility — and called into question his harsh punishments for the team, the manager, and the general manager — when he said that, welp, who’s to even say if the notification that an off-speed pitch was coming instead of a 99 mph heater was actually helpful?!

“Some Astros players told my investigators that they did not believe the sign-stealing scheme was effective, and it was more distracting than useful to hitters. I am neither in a position to evaluate whether the scheme helped Astros hitters (who were unquestionably a very talented group), nor whether it helped the Astros win any games,” Manfred astonishingly wrote. “There are so many factors that impact the outcome of games that addressing that issue would require rank speculation.”

No.

No it would not.

When the best hitters in the world are gifted with advanced notice of what pitches are coming … it does not require rank speculation to understand that their jobs just got a whole lot easier.

For Manfred to downplay the effectiveness of the scheme while simultaneously delivering historic punishments is a case of the commissioner talking out of both sides of his mouth.

In this instance, Luhnow and Hinch got the hammer dropped on them. Cora will get served his whopper in the coming days or weeks. The Astros will be paying the price for years.

It was severe punishment issued by Manfred, no doubt. But considering the actual cheaters skated 100 percent scot-free, the Astros still got off easy on this one.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred hands the World Series Trophy to the Astros. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

Comments
  1. Perry Jameson says:

    While offering no defense for the sign stealing, Manfred has a viable argument that “… (he is) neither in a position to evaluate whether the scheme helped Astros hitters (who were unquestionably a very talented group), nor whether it helped the Astros win any games.”

    For example, Altuve was .311 at home in ’17, .381 away, and hit far better on the road in ’16 – .299 at home versus .376 on the road.

    Regardless, management had to know what was going on and – more importantly – thus should bear the greatest sanctions.

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