Rob Manfred Speaks to the Media by Brendan Gawlowski February 17, 2020 On Sunday afternoon, commissioner Rob Manfred held a press conference at Atlanta’s spring training facility in Florida. Per the typical protocol, the league tried to keep the news relatively muted. The conference was not broadcast on MLB Network — Bull Durham aired instead — nor did it stream on MLB.com. Whether this reflects a continuation of the league’s misguided damage control policy or a misunderstanding of the scandal’s resonance to fans, it was a strange way to downplay the commissioner’s remarks on such a topical issue. Manfred’s comments themselves will likely not please any of those already skeptical about his ability to manage the biggest scandal the sport has seen in a generation. He again defended the league’s response while offering few fresh details. Listening to his remarks, one gets the impression that the league will remain in reactive mode perpetually as new details emerge, and that Manfred himself wants nothing more than to reach the other side of this. At one point he clumsily exclaimed “we’ll have baseball in 2020!” We’re all excited too, Rob. Here are some takeaways from his press conference: Manfred struggles to find the right tone At this point, the league’s response to the scandal has become a part of the story. Public reporting has driven MLB’s investigations and actions at every step, a pattern most recently reinforced when the Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond revealed the contents of a letter Manfred sent to Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow in the weeks before announcing the results of his investigation. The letter indicated that Manfred knew more about the GM’s involvement in the scandal than his public statements insinuated, raising fresh questions about the league’s overall handling of the matter. When Diamond asked a follow-up question about the letter, Manfred responded dismissively: “Congratulations, you got a private letter that I sent a club official; nice reporting on your report,” he said without a hint of humor and at least a sprinkling of snark. Manfred followed by trying to explain why the letter was something other than what it looked like, which wound up sounding off-key. The majority of questions were, understandably, about the Astros. By the midway point of the press conference, Manfred seemed like he’d rather have been talking about anything else, saying that “[t]his has been really fun but I’d like to move on to other topics at some point.” Naturally, the following question was about the Astros. Most dissonantly of all though, in his (otherwise reasonable) explanation for why he didn’t vacate Houston’s 2017 title, he said “the idea of… asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile idea.” “A piece of metal.” It was just one flippant line in a half-hour conference, but it was nonetheless shocking to hear the commissioner of baseball refer to the game’s ultimate prize in that manner. The league got it right on the punishment Responding to a question about whether the punishments he doled out were sufficient, Manfred responded unequivocally: “Yeah, I do. You have four really good, respected baseball people… who lost their jobs.” He also dismissed the idea that the players are getting off easy, noting that their accomplishments will be forever tainted, and adding “I don’t think there’s a player in Major League Baseball who relishes the idea of being a 2017 Houston Astro out there answering questions about exactly what happened and why it happened.” Manfred said that he would have disciplined players in “an ideal world” Manfred explained that, in an ideal world, he would have preferred to punish the players who participated in the sign-stealing scandal. He had previously alluded to some of the impracticalities of that course of action, and his comments yesterday seemed like a response to those within the game who are upset that the players themselves will not be suspended. Manfred followed that up by saying that the Astros players “had an obligation to play by the rules and they didn’t do it. I understand when people say you know ‘players should have been punished’ because they didn’t do the right thing.” Ultimately though, he didn’t feel that he could get enough players talking on the record about the scandal to justify a different course of action: “If I was in a world [where] I could have found all the facts without granting immunity, I would have done that.” On Fiers One intriguing moment was Manfred’s claim that, without Mike Fiers talking to The Athletic, the league probably would have never launched an extensive investigation. “Without the reporting… and the availability of Fiers, we probably wouldn’t have gotten where we got to.” That’s a strange message in the broader context of the scandal. Players and executives from around the league have talked about how Houston’s cheating was an open secret. Danny Farquhar, at the very least, caught on to the banging scheme in real time. It strains credulity to think that the league couldn’t have investigated this properly without help from the press, and Manfred’s comment only reinforces the impression that damage control has been the league’s unwavering priority in this matter. Vacating the title was an actual conversation point Another detail that emerged from the press conference concerned the validity of the 2017 title itself. Manfred revealed that the league had spent a considerable amount of time evaluating whether or not they should vacate Houston’s championship before deciding on a less drastic course of action. He invoked three reasons why the league decided against it: precedent, proportionality, and the slippery slope. As Manfred made clear throughout his comments, he thinks that the public shaming, and the collective public skepticism toward the Astros’ crowning achievement, is a sufficient punishment. Manfred is also clearly concerned about the precedent of retroactively changing the result of something as significant as a World Series title. Given that the 2018 champions are also caught up in a similar scandal, you can understand his hesitancy and concern that other seasons would get pulled into this discussion as well: “Once you go down that road of changing what happens on the field, I don’t know how you decide where you stop.” Retaliation will not be appropriate The commissioner was asked about the heated rhetoric directed toward the Astros from rival clubhouses, particularly charges of potential on-field frontier justice. Manfred says he has followed the discourse and that he’s attempted to proactively address the problems by speaking directly with managers: “I hope that I made it extremely clear that retaliation in-game by throwing at a batter will not be tolerated… It is dangerous and it’s not helpful to the current situation.” Other notable comments: Video room: While making clear that no rules have been formally adopted, Manfred sounded optimistic that the league and player’s association will soon agree on a rule that prevents players from accessing the video replay room during games. Minor leagues: Manfred wasn’t happy with the way MLB’s discussions with minor league owners have been portrayed: “The proposal that we made to Minor League Baseball and every single conversation we’ve had with Minor League Baseball about this topic included a plan so that every single community that has professional baseball would still have some form of professional baseball. Minor League Baseball has chosen to mischaracterize the discussions in an effort to put public pressure on [us].” As if we should be surprised that the teams up for the chopping block continue to see MLB’s de-affiliation plan as an existential threat. Boston sign stealing: Somewhat lost in all the Astros news lately is that the league has still not administered discipline to Alex Cora (or anyone else) involved in Boston’s sign-stealing scandal. Expect that to change in the next fortnight: “We always want the investigation to go as quickly as possible,” Manfred said. “Never, however, at the expense of making sure that we have pursued every possible lead and done everything we can do to get the facts right. I think by the end of next week we should be done and have a decision out.” Whether anyone will be happy about that or not, we’ll see. Tomahawk Chop: Manfred was asked about the Tomahawk Chop twice. He declined to weigh in both times, saying “I certainly understand the sensitivity of the issue” while also stating that other league business had prevented him from having substantive conversations with Atlanta on the topic. If you want to parse the fine print for an inclination of his thinking here, he did offhandedly refer to the action he took that led to the removal of Chief Wahoo from Cleveland’s official logos and uniforms. Playoffs: Manfred downplayed the report that came out earlier this month that the league was considering expanding the playoffs. While acknowledging that the league has informally discussed different scenarios — “In an entertainment environment that is as competitive as the one we live, if were not at least talking about that we probably wouldn’t be doing our jobs” — but he reiterated that there has been no decision about altering the playoffs and he didn’t linger on the subject.