By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Late Sunday afternoon, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred stepped to a podium at the Braves’ spring training park. He tried to crack a few jokes. He tried to put on a happy face. He tried to turn the page on what he referred to as “a long offseason.” Earlier on Sunday, he appeared in a sitdown interview with ESPN, seeking to achieve the same result.
He didn’t do a spectacular job. And his players took notice.
As players have shown up to work for spring training, they have shown absolutely no hesitancy to mercilessly rip their commissioner for what they consider to be a severe mishandling of the situation.
And some of those players are making it mighty personal.
Justin Turner of the Dodgers, for one, did not appreciate hearing Manfred refer to the World Series trophy as being just a “piece of metal.”
“I don’t know if the commissioner has ever won anything in his life,” Turner said Monday, per the LA Times. “Maybe he hasn’t. But the reason every guy’s in this room, the reason every guy is working out all offseason, and showing up to camp early and putting in all the time and effort is specifically for that trophy, which, by the way, is called the Commissioner’s Trophy. So for him to devalue it the way he did yesterday just tells me how out of touch he is with the players in this game.”
Turner added: “At this point the only thing devaluing that trophy is that it says ‘Commissioner’ on it.”
The Dodgers, of course, lost out on taking home that “piece of metal” when the Astros beat them in the 2017 World Series. Manfred had said Sunday that he and his people spent many minutes contemplating the stripping of the Astros’ title, but ultimately decided to stick with precedent and let the public decide how to handle the information.
“Once you have a situation in which the 2017 World Series will always be looked at as something different, whether or not you put an asterisk or ask for the trophy back … it just … you know … I don’t think it makes that much difference. I think we did what we should do. That was, we found the facts and we were transparent about them,” Manfred said. “Once you go down that road of changing what happens on the field, I just don’t know how you decide where you stop.”
Turner, naturally, didn’t like that explanation.
“Now anyone who goes forward and cheats to win a World Series, they can live with themselves knowing that, ‘Oh, it’s OK. … We’ll cheat in the World Series and bring the title back to L.A.,” Turner said. “Screw [manager] Dave Roberts and screw [general manager] Andrew [Friedman]. It’s just those guys losing their jobs. I still get to be called a champion the rest of my life.’ So the precedent was set by him yesterday in this case.”
It’s not the Dodgers taking aim at the commissioner, either. Veteran outfielder Nick Markakis, who’s entering his 15th MLB season, can be counted among that group.
“I think the commissioner completely handled it the wrong way,” Markakis told reporters at Braves camp. The way he handled this situation, he should be embarrassed with himself.”
Sean Doolittle, who won the “piece of metal” last October, was bothered by the description by Manfred.
“It bothered me, man. I hated it. It made him sound really out of touch,” Doolittle said. “That’s the holy grail of our sport. That’s what we show up for in the beginning of February, thinking about and working towards. I just can’t believe how out of touch that is. You’re the commissioner of our game. You’re the steward of this game. That’s a really special thing. It’s an iconic symbol of our game. Please don’t say that, even off-hand, even tongue-in-cheek.”
Mike Trout, the biggest superstar in the sport, took a more diplomatic approach but was still critical of Manfred.
“It’s tough. They cheated. I don’t agree with the punishments, the players not getting anything. It was a player-driven thing,” Trout said. “Obviously the GM got fired and [A.J.] Hinch got fired. But the players getting nothing, that’s definitely not right, for sure.”
Washington’s Howie Kendrick, entering his 15th MLB season, was likewise critical of Manfred’s handling of the matter.
“It doesn’t put baseball in a good light, and the commissioner really hasn’t done a great job of trying to diffuse the situation, honestly,” Kendrick said.
The criticism extends from outside of the MLB realm, too, as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tweeted that MLB does not have capable leadership in place to navigate the current “mess.”
Baseball is a mess right now and they have zero vision to see them out of it. I’m thankful they didn’t let me buy a team. https://t.co/W6lIF7mlws
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) February 18, 2020
The media has certainly taken notice, too. For The Washington Post, John Feinstein wrote, “Given the severity of Houston Astros’ cheating scandal, it would be almost impossible for the cover-up to do any more damage to the game of baseball. But the Astros and Commissioner Rob Manfred are giving it their best shot. … As shameful as the Astros behavior has been, Manfred has has been worse. He is supposed to be the leader when a crisis hits his sport, that’s why he’s paid $11 million a year. Right from the beginning, MLB has botched this investigation, starting with the blanket immunity it gave players to Manfred’s refusal to so much as make a symbolic gesture by taking the 2017 World Series title and trophy away from the Astros.”
Manfred’s “performance,” such as it is, has likewise drawn attention from media members who cover other sports, like Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio. He wrote, “[Manfred’s] handling of the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal shows shockingly little leadership, conviction, or perspective. … Manfred is lucky. If baseball were as popular as it used to be (and there once was a time when it was more popular than football), Manfred would be in grave danger of losing his job.”
And this barrage of harsh criticism came a week after Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer absolutely ripped the commissioner for various “stupid decisions,” during which Bauer said to Manfred, “You don’t even have a pulse on the game that you’re commissioner of.”
It’s certainly a fascinating time in baseball history, as it seems like Manfred badly misjudged how players across the league would view the Astros’ situation. Though Manfred has denied it, the prevailing thought with his issuance of immunity to all players in the “player-driven” and “player-executed” cheating scheme was due to the commissioner’s fear of the players’ union. That’s not without merit; the MLBPA’s record against management is strong, and issuing unprecedented suspensions for sign-stealing/trash can-banging/illegal video use that didn’t really have specific rules in place until it was too late? The union could have a field day fighting that punishment.
But based on the outrage expressed by a number of outspoken players across the league, it’s fair now to wonder just how hard the union might have opposed player suspensions. Surely, it would be an odd position for the players’ union to be in, having to fight for the rights of players who cheated other members of the union. Had Manfred suspended all players he knew to have been involved for, say, 50 games to start the 2020 season, would the roughly 2,000 other members of the union want the MLBPA to protest those suspensions, or would the players who were cheated by the cheaters want the cheaters to pay a price?
On that, it appears as though Manfred guessed wrong. As a result, MLB players are capitalizing on a rare opportunity to completely tee off on their sport’s commissioner.