Rob Manfred is an avid golfer, so he is quite familiar with the concept of a mulligan. And this commissioner of baseball has never needed a second chance more.
No leader of any entity wants to set the precedent that he can be backed off of a decision by public/employee sentiment and outrage. But Manfred has to see now that his ruling in the Astros sign stealing scandal is inadequate. It has left an entire industry — including fans and rival players and front offices — believing that crime pays, namely that the Houston players skated with zero penalties except public rebuke by their peers, media and fans.
Manfred should not worry that amending his initial sanctions will look weak — since that is the general sense already, that he was afraid to take on the Players Association or punish one of his bosses, Astros owner Jim Crane. A mulligan would make Manfred appear open-minded to the ongoing rightful indignation. He would look bigger, not smaller, for accepting that not all he does is flawless and that when there is a wrong to right, he will try to make it right, even when it was his wrong initially. By the way, my wrong too — I thought his initial punishment hit the Astros hard. The unprecedented player vs. player on-the-record ire has forced reconsideration.
Manfred cannot renege on his agreement with the Players Association that gave immunity to any player who testified to MLB during the investigation in exchange for honesty. So as much as so many want to see suspensions of 2017 Astros, the commissioner cannot go there. He would have to find ways in the margin or by rethinking his first ruling to better hit at the cheaters.
Here is a way to do that:
1. A three-year ban for any 2017 Astro — hitter or pitcher — from appearing in the All-Star Game. Not every hitter on the team participated in the scheme, and the pitchers obviously did not hit. But the pitchers benefited from the hitters’ success by being backed by run scoring. Plus, the message here is: Moving forward, if your team is cheating, say something even if you are not directly involved, or else you too will be punished.
The Players Association would probably fight back, in part, because many players’ contracts contain All-Star bonuses. MLB should be up for the fight — and force the union into picking a side between the players. Because the rest of the union members who are not 2017 Astros do not want to see those players enjoy further rewards. If Yordan Alvarez (not a 2017 Astro) makes the All-Star Game, fine. But no Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman or Justin Verlander, etc. By the way, would any 2017 Astros want to go to a game in which they may be criticized and ostracized by their peers?
The Players Association also could argue that the promise was not to punish players — and this is a punishment. But the tacit understanding was no suspensions for the players in the way that now former GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were levied suspensions. I would argue this as less a punishment and more not conveying an honor to players.
2. No member of the 2017 Astros should ever receive a postseason share again. Once more the union would probably bark. But this is where the other players should step up. The playoff share pool will not be decreased one penny. This merely means a bunch of players who cheated their way to one title and one World Series share check should never receive another. It is more money for the non-cheaters.
3. For 2020 and 2021, in their 81 home games, the Astros have to bat in the top of all innings, rather than the bottom. Thus, they get the home field edge of the fan base, but not (among other things) last licks. This acknowledges the sign stealing was done mainly at Minute Maid Park.
4. No home playoff games for the next three seasons. There has been some calls that — like in college — the Astros should be banned from the playoffs for a period of time. But then why would they call up prospects and start their service clock or why would their best pitchers push themselves in September, etc? Houston still can get into the tournament, but the players do not derive the benefit of a home crowd and ownership does not receive the benefit of gates. Yes, I can imagine the AL playoff teams that do not face the Astros thinking that is an advantage for the club playing Houston. So be it. There are no perfect punishments, and the key here is to hurt the Astros tactically and in their ownership’s pocket.
5. Houston does not get to host the All-Star Game for the next 15 years. Ownership did not receive nearly enough penalties for overseeing such a rogue organization.
6. No international signings for 2021 and 2022. It is too late for this year. In the first go-around, Manfred merely stripped the Astros of 1st- and 2nd-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. That will hurt. But not enough, since the Astros will definitely be picking late in 2020 and probably 2021. The international ban will curtail this renegade organization from reloading easily.
7. Suspend Crane for two years. Manfred exonerated Crane the first time. Even if Crane was oblivious to what was going on — which he claims — he hired Luhnow. He hired Hinch. He created the tenor of an organization that claimed it had zero tolerance for domestic abuse, then traded for Roberto Osuna (so forgive me if I don’t believe Astro leadership’s word now that it will have zero tolerance for any further cheating). Crane ran an organization that not only hired and elevated Brandon Taubman but put out a malicious and incorrect press release to defend him during last year’s playoffs.
If Luhnow and Hinch are going to be punished for horrific oversight, then the ultimate leader has to feel that wrath too.
Here is the thing: Crane should be the one coming forward to essentially ask for the sanction. This is what a real leader would do, not talk about his complete innocence and say he did everything to fix matters by firing other people to look tough on crime.
If Crane refuses — the likely outcome — Manfred needs to step up. Because part of the distrust with how the commissioner adjudicated is a sense he tried to find the middle ground by doing a deal with the players and protecting one of his bosses. And as we have seen, he is sinking on that middle ground.
He needs to take another swing at this. Time for a mulligan.