Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

Here’s How Rob Manfred can fix this

Rob Manfred

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 02: Rob Manfred Commissioner of Major League Baseball before the American League Wild Card Playoff game at RingCentral Coliseum on October 2, 2019 in Oakland, CA. (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Sunday Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred met the press in an effort to defuse the anger and displeasure arising out of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal by, basically, talking about it in the past tense, attacking the media and acting defensively. It went poorly. This morning Ken Rosenthal published a story in which Manfred attempted to shift blame and justify his actions and inactions in the sign-stealing scandal. It went over like a lead balloon, and players and fans around the league continue to voice their anger and displeasure at the Astros and the league.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

No, Manfred can’t fix his past mistakes or un-do the damage the Astros and other teams around the league who broke the rules have done, but he could chart a different course forward and at least begin the process of lifting baseball out of this muck. He could do it by issuing a simple statement. Making a speech, actually.

Something like the one I wrote below. He’ll never do it. I don’t believe he has the self-awareness or the humility to even attempt it. But it’s what a real leader would say.

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Mets

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 16: Commissioner of Baseball Robert D. Manfred Jr. speaks at a press conference on youth initiatives hosted by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association at Citi Field on June 16, 2016 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Hello. I’m here to speak today about sign stealing and the controversy surrounding it that has engulfed the game in recent months.

Yes, we’ve spoken about it a lot already, but it’s clear that my own words and actions, and the words and actions of others inside the game, haven’t helped matters. Fans and players are angry and upset. My words have only served to intensify that anger. At a time when people are questioning the integrity of the great game of baseball, the very person whose primary task is to protect the game’s integrity has failed you. I have failed you. I have failed to take full ownership and responsibility for this situation and to do what is necessary to get baseball past this rough patch, and for that I am deeply and truly sorry.

I’d like to talk today about what I plan to do about that beyond merely apologize, but before I do, I’d like to talk a bit about how we got here. I’d like to talk about the mistakes that I have made and the mistakes that now, unfortunately, I am having to learn from. I’d like to talk about how we’re going to move on from this unfortunate place in which we find ourselves and into the 2020 season feeling better about where baseball is heading even if we still, understandably, feel bad about where it’s been.

For as long as there have been competitive sports, athletes have been tempted to obtain whatever small edge they can to succeed. Some of them will even break rules to do it. Some of that rule breaking goes beyond obtaining just that small edge. Some of it is such that it can compromise the very competitive integrity of the sport or put it at great risk of being compromised.

It is my responsibility to prevent that from happening. Failing that, it is my responsibility to punish it when it occurs. Indeed, this office was created 100 years ago this November, in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal, for that express purpose. While, over time, the tasks of the Commissioner of Baseball have expanded greatly, the person holding this office has no greater responsibility than the protection of the integrity of the game of baseball. If a Commissioner fails at all other things, he must never fail at protecting the game from those who would pervert and destroy its competitive nature.

Sign-stealing, primarily by savvy baserunners on second looking into the catcher, has always been a part of the game. An acceptable part of the game, mind you, as baseball always has and always will be every bit a game of intellect and strategy as much as it’s a game of physical prowess. Players and managers may get cranky about that from time to time, but it does not put the competitive nature of the game at risk. If you don’t want your signs stolen by the runner on second, use better signs.

Sign-stealing with the aid of cameras or binoculars or any number of other technologies is another matter. It’s was not unprecedented before this current controversy -- indeed, it occurred multiple times in the game’s history, going back to the 1951 Giants, the 1940 Tigers and any number of their forerunners, known or unknown -- but it was not common and it was always considered against the rules or, at the very least, it constituted an unacceptable violation of norms. If, in 2010, we had found a member of a team’s coaching staff sitting in the outfield bleachers with a telescope and a walkie-talkie, it’s not a thing this office would have let pass. It would’ve been recognized as a transgression and it would have been dealt with as such.

Major League Baseball instituted a replay challenge system in 2014 and with it came replay rooms with real-time video located mere steps away from the dugout and clubhouse. While we would’ve immediately recognized the threat of that coach with the telescope and the walkie talkie, we did not recognize the temptation real-time video available to players would create. We should have, but we didn’t. That is our failure. My failure. And for that I am sorry.

But our failures continued. Between 2014 and 2017, we received information that multiple teams were stealing signs via various electronic means. We did not have the level of detail about how such systems were working that we would later obtain about the Astros -- and some of the reports were based more on speculation than concrete evidence -- but we had enough to act. You’ll recall the Apple Watch situation in Boston, for example, after which I told clubs that I would hold managers and general managers accountable for electronic sign stealing.

As I’ve said many times recently, I thought such action would be sufficient. I thought that club management, who has authority over the players, would be incentivized to stop the sign-stealing or prevent it from beginning by virtue of their authority over the players. In this, I was quite obviously wrong. As our investigation and as the reporting into this matter by many media outlets have revealed, neither the players nor the clubs considered this a sufficient deterrent. Management continued efforts to decode signs and players -- now, if anything, emboldened by the fact that management, and not players, would be punished for violating our rules -- continued to steal signs.

It is clear to me now that at some time between 2014, when replay rooms came into existence, and 2017, when the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing system reached its apex, I should have possessed a greater appreciation for the potential for the misuse of real time video by players and management. It is clear to me now that during that time I should’ve taken greater heed of the warnings and accusations of sign stealing which I heard from various sources around the league. It is clear to me now that, in addition to warning management that they would be subject to punishment for electronic sign stealing, that I should have engaged the Players Association in an effort to reach an agreement which would provide for the discipline of players as well. An agreement, I suspect, that the Executive Director of the PA and I could’ve reached amicably, as it’s every bit as much in the Players Association’s interest to protect the game’s competitive integrity as it is in the league’s.

I realize that my decision not to punish any players in the wake of this scandal has become a major source of anger on the part of fans and other players around the league, but because I didn’t do those things, I do not, practically, have the power to level retroactive punishment on the players who took part in sign-stealing and, if I attempted to do so, it would lead to needless and futile litigation that the league would, in all probability lose. This is something, when the anger about all of this begins to recede, I trust that the other players around the league will appreciate, as they would not normally ask me why I did not wield disciplinary power I do not possess. I am, however, sorry that I did not take the necessary steps to do this when I needed to do so in order to prevent this current crisis in confidence in the game’s integrity.

I also realize that many people believe that I should cause the Astros to vacate the 2017 World Series title. While I am apologizing for a lot today, I stand by that decision. Once the Commissioner of Baseball starts retroactively stripping championships and records, there is the danger that such decisions can spiral out of control, making a hash of baseball history. That is not a road I feel it would be prudent to go down. Baseball has survived with more than its fair share of black marks on its permanent record. It has survived them and it has learned from them. Pretending that they do not exist would not only serve no purpose, it would hinder the game’s ability to learn and to grow. Let baseball fans and historians contextualize the nature of the Astros’ 2017 championship for better or for worse.

This, unfortunately, is where we are. But it does not have to be the end of this story. We can look at our past failures, accept responsibility for them, learn from them and then do everything in our power to prevent a situation like this from happening again. And that is what I intend to do starting now.

In addition to my apologies for allowing this situation to transpire, I would like to offer a couple more apologies.

First, I would like to apologize to all of the players in the league and all of the fans of the game for my remark last Sunday about the Commissioner’s Trophy being “a piece of metal.” It was a horrible choice of words on my part and those words served to devalue and disrespect the very thing each and every player who plays this game is out to do: win a World Series. It was not my intention to do that -- I was trying to underscore what I believed, and still believe, would be the empty gesture of stripping the Astros of the 2017 title -- but it was not the right way to put it. It was not respectful to the players or to the game and for that I am sorry.

Second, I would like to apologize for my January 13th report’s omission of extensive information we obtained during our investigation of the Houston Astros. As the Wall Street Journal’s recent report revealed, I was in possession of considerable evidence of the Astros front office’s involvement in sign stealing and that information was not included in my report. My thought process at the time was that, since I intended to suspend Jeff Luhnow -- and since I was pretty certain that would lead to his dismissal -- that it was not necessary to do more than to hold the head of the baseball operations department accountable. I realize now that that was a serious miscalculation that caused players and fans to distrust me and this office. I am sorry for that and I vow never to proceed with anything less than the fullest feasible transparency in any and all future investigations this office undertakes.

Finally, I would also like to apologize to Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal, whose reporting I dismissed with a rude comment during last Sunday’s press conference. I will admit that I was angry about a letter I wrote that was not intended to become public being made public, but that’s not Jared’s fault and he did not deserve that. This game is played in the public eye and I perform my job in the public eye. I should remember that when a reporter is simply doing their job and not behave in so immature a manner. Jared, I’m sorry. Truly.

And now I’d like to talk about how we move forward.

In the coming days I intend to introduce new rules regarding the placement and use of real-time video equipment at ballparks during games. It is said that the cheaters are always ahead of those who would enforce the rules, but that does not mean that those of us who enforce the rules should do nothing. I cannot promise that, by virtue of these new rules, someone won’t come along and find a new way to cheat the system, but I can do whatever is in my power to make that as difficult as possible.

I also hereby invite the Players Association to meet with me and begin the work of creating rules and a disciplinary scheme about sign stealing that will be simple, clear, fair and effective. Rules that will deter players, coaches, management and team employees from breaking them and rules which are accompanied by severe punishment in the event they are not deterred. Our complacency led to this scandal reaching the level it reached. We will not be complacent in the future.

I thank you for your time today. I hope that, in this time, I have begun the process of restoring people’s faith in the game of baseball and restoring their belief in its integrity. There is nothing more important than that. There is nothing I do that I take more seriously. I will, going forward, prove that to you with both my words and my actions.

Thank you.