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Why anger is boiling behind the scenes about Houston Astros’ sign-stealing punishments

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The kneecapping of the Houston Astros went off Monday in exquisite fashion. Big names were fired. Draft picks were revoked. A record fine was levied. Pounds of flesh were exacted from egregious cheaters. The optics worked. The Astros’ comeuppance was here, and it was severe. Major League Baseball was righting an obvious wrong.

As the day rolled on and people around baseball pondered exactly what had happened, a less-obvious version of the story emerged. It was all so tidy, all so clean, so carefully orchestrated and meticulously calibrated — like something the Houston Astros, ever lauded for their efficiency and ruthlessness, might concoct.

Gone were general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, first suspended by the league for a year, then fired by owner Jim Crane, even as MLB’s investigation into Houston’s sign-stealing scheme determined it was “player-driven.” Gone, too, were their first- and second-round draft picks for 2020 and 2021, painful but not crippling. And that record fine? All of $5 million, couch-cushion change for every owner in baseball — and the most commissioner Rob Manfred can levy under the MLB constitution, which speaks to the limitations of the position.

It is a job of extreme compromise, of politicking, of figuring out how to appease the 30 billionaires who are his bosses, and Manfred’s handling of the cheating scandal — the biggest of his commissionership so far and one that cut to the heart of the game’s integrity — offered remarkable insight into how he runs the sport. As much as MLB played the big, bad monolith in delivering the ruinous news from on high, this was not some unilateral punishment for the Astros. It was a sneak peek inside the sausage factory of power and the anger that Crane’s relative acquittal caused across the league.

Multiple ownership-level sources told ESPN that dissatisfaction with the penalties had emerged following a conference call with Manfred, in which he explained how the Astros would be disciplined, then told teams to keep their thoughts to themselves.

“The impression,” one person familiar with the call told ESPN, “was that the penalty for complaining would be more than Houston got.”

The concern over any possible discipline for breaking ranks didn’t entirely silence teams. At 12:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost the 2017 World Series in seven games to an Astros team that MLB’s investigation confirmed cheated during that postseason, released a statement that read: “All clubs have been asked by Major League Baseball not to comment on today’s punishment of the Houston Astros as it’s inappropriate to comment on discipline imposed on another club. The Dodgers have also been asked not to comment on any wrongdoing during the 2017 World Series and will have no further comment at this time.”

Run through a passive-aggressive translator, the Dodgers’ words mirrored what a team president had said earlier in the day.

“Crane won,” he said. “The entire thing was programmed to protect the future of the franchise. He got his championship. He keeps his team. His fine is nothing. The sport lost, but Crane won.”

On a day when a well-regarded manager and successful executive lost their jobs and the 1919 Black Sox were invoked as comparables, it was easy to miss how MLB soft-pedaled Crane’s punishment. In the first paragraph of Manfred’s nine-page statement outlining the league’s investigation, he addressed the original report by The Athletic that spurred the controversy. How there was “significant concern” that what the Astros were alleged to have done violated “the principles of sportsmanship and fair competition” and how he treats such threats to the game with “the utmost seriousness.” He continued: “I believe in transparency.” And then, after that on-point thesis, came two completely out-of-place sentences.

“At the outset,” Manfred wrote, “I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.”

The absolution of Crane so early in the document came as no surprise. Crane said he saw details of the league’s punishment over the weekend. It allowed him to introduce himself as a do-something organizational shepherd. He announced the firings of Luhnow and Hinch on live TV, generating maximum effect. He promised “the Astros will become stronger — a stronger organization because of this today.” Months of misery — beginning with former assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s post-ALCS outburst at three female reporters that led to his firing, continuing with the revelation of cheating and culminating in this — had made it fairly evident that for all of the strength Crane tries to project, fundamental weaknesses exist throughout the Astros’ organization.

Much of Manfred’s document was incriminatory, particularly the details of the scheme as laid out by MLB investigators and a section in which the commissioner referred to the Astros’ organizational culture as “problematic” and blamed it on “an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.” The words were necessary and important — and entirely dismissed by Crane, who said: “I don’t agree with that.”

“Did you notice,” another team president said, “he never said ‘Sorry’?”

Crane didn’t, though it also took him six days to say the word to the Sports Illustrated reporter whom the organization tried to smear after she wrote how Taubman had gloated that he was “so f—ing glad we got Osuna,” a reference to closer Roberto Osuna, who was acquired while still under a lengthy suspension for domestic violence. On Monday, Crane did apologize to fans, sponsors and the city of Houston. Not the teams the Astros beat while cheating or the sport his franchise’s actions put in this position.

For Crane to offer anything beyond the hollow and perfunctory would have been an upset. While MLB’s standard for the punishment was reasonable and rational — the league targeted violations after the Sept. 15, 2017, memo Manfred distributed that said violations of the league’s technology policy would fall on teams’ general manager and manager — Crane said he fired them because “(n)either one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it.”

The same, of course, could be said of him . Either Crane did not know that the business he owns and operates was cheating or he did know and did nothing about it. Neither is good.

None of this, actually, is good. Baseball is far from done with sign-stealing scandals. The league has launched an investigation into the Boston Red Sox after The Athletic reported they used a video replay room to decode signs in their championship-winning 2018 season. Boston manager Alex Cora was previously the bench coach for the 2017 Astros and was implicated by Manfred’s report as a central figure in Houston’s adoption of a system in which players used an illegal camera feed to crack sign sequences and feed pitch types live to hitters via banging a baseball bat against a trash can. Between the evidence incriminating Cora and Hinch’s firing paving the way for managerial dismissals, the end of Cora’s time in Boston could be coming, two sources with knowledge of the team’s thinking told ESPN.

If Hinch and Cora are both out, the onus then shifts to the New York Mets and Carlos Beltran, who must decide whether they want to be the only team standing by a manager whose name shows up in a report that details rampant cheating. Manfred’s report named Beltran as one of the players involved in the scheme, though the league did not discipline him because it gave players immunity in exchange for their testimony.

That choice registered publicly as another curious part of Manfred’s ultimate decision. What sort of disciplinary action clears players for a “player-driven” scheme? The answer is a practical one. Between the well-defined lines that held GMs and managers responsible and the fear of the Major League Baseball Players Association defending any discipline against active players and sending the cases into grievance hell, Manfred’s pragmatism here, though not satisfying, is understandable.

Already this has stretched beyond his level of comfort. Initially, Manfred planned on limiting the investigation to the Astros. Now MLB is looking into the Red Sox — and considering their use of an Apple Watch to relay signs in August 2017 was the original sin of modern technological cheating, the penalties for any second offense could be severe. Though they’re the only other team with a known investigation pending, Sports Illustrated reported that the Astros named eight other teams they believe cheated in 2017 and 2018 — and Crane said “the commissioner assured me that every team and every allegation will be checked out.”

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Tim Kurkjian is concerned that the Astros’ scandal is a sign that some of the new-age executives in MLB think they can outsmart the game.

That sounds far-fetched, like the sort of politicking a commissioner does to placate one of his bosses. What Manfred can do is fast-track the announcement of a new policy on the in-game use of technology, one that holds players and management accountable and entails the sort of harsh penalties Luhnow and Hinch received. The sport needs buy-in from all parties to actually move on.

Hinch tried. In a statement, he apologized and acknowledged that he could’ve tried to do better — to tell players and coaches to stop instead of breaking the video monitor twice in protest. He didn’t. There wasn’t much sympathy for Hinch’s actions around baseball, but there was a willingness to forgive. Executives agreed: He’ll manage again after being suspended through the end of this World Series.

Like Crane, Luhnow apologized to the team, the fans and the city. He said in a statement, “I am not a cheater.” That doesn’t exactly square with the team he ran cheating during its championship-winning season and with the information in Manfred’s report that “at least two emails sent to Luhnow” informed him of replay-review room sign decoding, about which he did nothing. Luhnow continued to try to clear himself of responsibility while blaming “players” and “low-level employees working with the bench coach.” Considering his apparent affinity for throwing people under the bus, let us hope Luhnow’s next career does not involve large motor vehicles.

The rest of baseball is bracing for the fallout of the Astros’ punishment, and most do believe one purpose was served: that Manfred’s disciplinary choices will prompt the rank-and-file to avoid any sort of electronically aided sign-stealing schemes.

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Astros to interview Dusty Baker for managerial opening

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The Houston Astros will interview Dusty Baker for their open manager position next week, a source confirmed to ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

The story was first reported by MLB Network.

Houston is looking for a new manager after Monday’s firing of AJ Hinch in the wake of a sign-stealing scandal.

Baker, 70, last managed the Washington Nationals in 2017.

In 22 seasons, Baker has a 1,863-1,636 record that includes a National League pennant with the San Francisco Giants in 2002.

The Astros have already interviewed former managers Buck Showalter and John Gibbons and current Cubs third-base coach Will Venable.

Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire a new manager by Feb. 3.

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Fans want Astros players punished for sign-stealing scandal

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More than half of Major League Baseball fans believe that Houston Astros players should have been penalized along with team management in the aftermath of the sign-stealing scandal that’s gripped the game over the past week, according to an online survey conducted among 1,010 adults, including 810 MLB fans, nationwide Thursday and Friday on behalf of ESPN.

Fifty-eight percent of adults responded that Astros players should have been penalized by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, according to the survey. In addition, the vast majority (72% of adults and 76% of MLB fans) said they would support MLB taking additional steps to punish players who were involved in sign-stealing.

According to the survey, MLB fans are paying a lot of attention to the scandal, with 61% of the game’s fans polled saying they are closely following events surrounding the Astros and Boston Red Sox. One-third of MLB fans say they might watch those two teams less, though most Americans say the doping/steroids scandal was worse than the current sign-stealing scandal that led the Houston Astros to fire general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, with the Red Sox parting with manager Alex Cora. The New York Mets were not involved in a sign-stealing scandal, but parted with new manager Carlos Beltran, who was involved with the scandal while a player with the Astros. The survey was started before Beltran and the Mets parted.

Among avid MLB fans, 86% view the situation as serious, with 57% saying it’s very serious, compared to 83% of the game’s overall fans considering it serious, including 52% who say it’s a very serious situation. Among all Americans, 77% find it serious, with 45% finding it to be very serious.

Most Americans say the doping/steroids scandal was worse than this one (49% say doping was worse vs 24% who say the current sign stealing scandal was worse) but rank this scandal above Pete Rose gambling on his own team (44% say this scandal is worse vs 25% for the Pete Rose scandal).

While over half of Americans view both the Astros (56%) and Red Sox (52%) less favorable in light of the scandals, the negative impact is less severe for the MLB, the players, and the owners, with 54% saying their views of MLB itself are unchanged and 53% saying their views of their players haven’t changed. Just under half (49%) say their views of the game’s owners have changed, although around a third or slightly more say they have a less favorable view of each of these entities or groups.

Among MLB fans, it’s about an even split when it comes to whether the teams caught cheating should have their championships stripped, with 56% saying the Astros should relinquish their 2017 championship and 53% believing the Red Sox should do the same.

While 60% of adults and MLB fans alike say the scandals make no difference in their likelihood to watch MLB games, around a third of fans say they are less likely to watch the Astros or the Red Sox.

Roughly 3 in 4 Americans (74%) and MLB fans (76%) believe most teams were using technology to steal signs, but it’s just the Astros and Red Sox who got caught.

The survey has a margin of error of +/-3%, and the margin of error among 810 MLB fans is also +/-3%.

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Yu Darvish left with more questions in aftermath of Astros scandal

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CHICAGO — In the aftermath of the Astros‘ cheating scandal, Yu Darvish has been left wondering: Was he tipping pitches during the 2017 World Series or were Houston players stealing signs?

In the two-plus years since, the right-hander had thought it was the latter. He was rocked by the Astros that postseason while a member of the Dodgers, and Houston players afterward told him he was tipping pitches.

But now, after a Major League Baseball investigation found that the Astros illegally stole signs that year, Darvish isn’t so sure.

“That’s what I want to know,” he said Friday at the Chicago Cubs winter fan convention.

“A couple of Astros players told me I was tipping pitches, but now it comes out they were stealing signs. Was I tipping or were they stealing?”

Such questions have mounted throughout baseball since MLB commissioner Rob Manfred unveiled the league’s report on the Astros on Monday.

For Darvish, it hit especially close to home.

While with the Dodgers, he had a combined 1.59 ERA in the 2018 NL division and championship series. But against Houston in the World Series, his ERA ballooned to 21.60. He gave up four runs in 1.2 innings in Game 3 in Houston, then got hit hard again in Game 7 in Los Angeles, taking the loss as the Astros captured their first World Series title.

It’s left Darvish with more questions than answers.

“I know they were stealing signs but at the same time I was not good during the World Series,” he said.

His World Series struggles likely had long-term results, as well.

He was a free agent after that season, and the Cubs later admitted teams may been scared off by Darvish’s performance against the Astros, giving Chicago an easier path to signing him to a six-year, $126 million contract.

It also took Darvish time to mentally recover from the two losses. Coupled with arm issues that ended his 2018 season prematurely, it wasn’t exactly the best stretch his career, and he’s still wondering if what Houston did contributed.

“I’m better for what I went through,” Darvish said. “But, yeah, everyone is wondering about pitching against them.

“It’s tough to pitch. We’re losing the strike zone. It’s getting smaller. They want (us) to (pitch) quicker. And the hitters are stealing signs.”

Cubs pitchers hope the playing field will be level after the league completes its investigations; MLB also is probing whether the Boston Red Sox used video to decode opponents’ sign sequences and passed the information to their players in 2018, as alleged in a report by The Athletic.

Cubs players echoed what many others in the game have said: The Astros aren’t the only ones cheating.

“You just don’t know to what extent,” right-hander Kyle Hendricks said. “Is it legal sign stealing or illegal? Hopefully this offseason will eliminate that stuff.”

Cubs president Theo Epstein praised the league’s beefed-up investigation arm for its due diligence in the scandal. Both Epstein and star first baseman Anthony Rizzo are adamant the Cubs have never gained an edge using technology in that manner.

The goal is for no team to be able to do it.

“We applaud Major League Baseball’s efforts to step up in this situation and make sure the games are played with integrity,” Epstein said.

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