If you blinked this week you missed the denouement of Major League Baseball’s sign stealing scandal. The more I’ve thought about it, the more convinced I am that was probably by design.
When Commissioner Rob Manfred released his report on the Astros in January it seemed like an opening salvo in a much larger scandal. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were both suspended for 2020 and subsequently fired, the team lost their first and second round draft picks and the league levied the maximum fine of $5 million against the club. While many people thought the Astros’ punishments should have been stronger it seemed clear that the discipline wouldn’t stop with the Astros. The Red Sox were explicitly named as a team that was also under investigation for sign stealing and when the extent of Alex Cora and Carlos Beltrán’s involvement was made clear both agreed to step down from their respective managerial roles.
In fact the longer the investigation went on the more fans speculated that the Red Sox scandal would result in even stronger punishments for Boston, and particularly for Alex Cora. My brother has texted me on multiple occasions convinced Cora was facing a lifetime ban.
I don’t think anyone expected the punishment to be substantially more lenient than the Astros. And approximately no one thought the report would be dumped the day before the NFL Draft in a classic move to avoid the news cycle. Yet, here we are.
The Washington Post summed this up aptly in an article titled “Following the Red Sox report the biggest suspension is that of disbelief,” as Thomas Boswell wrote:
When Major League Baseball announced Wednesday that the only member of the Boston Red Sox who would be punished for cheating in 2018 was a replay technician, I couldn’t have been more surprised if the cure for the novel coronavirus turned out to be Alka-Seltzer.
I hope it’s true, for baseball’s sake. And when we look back in a few months or a few years, it damn well better turn out to be true, for baseball’s sake.
I couldn’t agree with Boswell more and as the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich wrote on Thursday that the 15-page report leaves a lot of questions unanswered:
The investigation of the Red Sox was challenging for the league in several respects. Witnesses offered conflicting accounts. The team’s video replay room infractions happened off the field, away from TV cameras, making them difficult to prove. Investigators did not benefit from an on-the-record whistleblower triggering their efforts, the way Mike Fiers did for the Astros investigation. In the case of the Astros, easily discovered video evidence also helped serve as confirmation.
To Manfred, the differences between the violations of the Red Sox and Astros warranted not only a different punishment, but also a different perspective — a perspective some might interpret as inconsistent with his previous rulings.
The only member of the Red Sox staff who was punished was replay room operator J.T. Watkins. He was suspended for 2020, and in the event he is hired by another team for 2021 he cannot operate the replay room. It strains credulity that he acted alone and that the rest of the front office and team management had no knowledge of the scheme.
I mean I guess the team took a hit by losing their second-round draft pick, but it is a stunningly light punishment compared to what the Astros faced. Cora’s suspension for 2020 was explicitly tied to his role on the Astros, not the Red Sox, and there are already whispers in Boston that he could eventually manage the Red Sox again.
In the end, there was no smoking gun, or trash can as it were, in Boston. For all of the furor that erupted around the Astros baseball fans have turned their attention to whether there will be baseball at all in 2020 given the COVID-19 outbreak. MLB seemed to conclude that they couldn’t conclude anything based on the 65 interviews they conducted in the Red Sox investigation and gambled that they could quietly release the dud of a report when fans were not paying attention.
For the sake of the integrity of the game when it does return, I hope that bet pays off. However, color me skeptical that teams in search of any competitive edge will be dissuaded from future schemes based on the slap on the wrist the Red Sox received.