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Rob Manfred considered stripping Astros of 2017 title

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference during the owners meetings on Feb. 6 in Orlando, Fla. Credit: AP / John Raoux

NORTH PORT, Fla. — With no end in sight to the outrage surrounding the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, and the baseball industry itself still under siege, commissioner Rob Manfred said Sunday night that he did consider stripping the 2017 World Series champions of their title.

“We thought about it,” said Manfred, who answered questions for roughly a half-hour at the Braves’ new spring training complex. “If you talk about the minutes of discussion during the process, it was high in terms of the minutes that we spent talking about it.”

As players around MLB continue to publicly denigrate the Astros, several have called for their 2017 crown to be removed, a stunning development in a sport in which this type of targeting among peers rarely happens. The latest was Cubs righthander Yu Darvish, who had a 21.60 ERA in two 2017 World Series starts against the Astros as a member of the Dodgers.

Manfred acknowledged the animosity and relentless public outcry but ultimately chose not to vacate the title because of the lack of precedent and because he was concerned about where that path could lead.

“First of all, it had never happened in baseball,” Manfred said. “I am a precedent guy. I am not saying you always follow precedent, but I think you ought to start by looking back at the way things had been done and need a good reason to depart from that precedent.”

Manfred also stressed the importance of building a solid case, “to get the facts,” and then let everyone make their own judgments regarding the validity of the Astros’ title season.

“Once you have a situation in which the 2017 World Series will always be looked at as different,” Manfred added, “whether or not you put an asterisk or ask for the trophy back, I don’t think it makes that much difference.”

And what if Manfred did choose to take away the Astros’ trophy? “Once you go down that road as for changing the result on the field,” he said, “I just don’t know where you stop.”

Manfred continues to take heat for refusing to discipline the players, who were granted immunity for their testimony. As a result of the commissioner’s investigation, three managers — AJ Hinch of the Astros, Alex Cora of the Red Sox and Carlos Beltran of the Mets — and Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired.

Manfred reiterated that the players’ cooperation was critical to his probe and that he really had no other recourse.

“I think the worst possible outcome would have been if we conducted an investigation and came back and said, you know what, we just couldn’t find out what went on,” he said. “People had a right to know what happened and we did achieve that goal.”

Manfred vehemently disagreed with those who insist the Astros escaped any meaningful discipline.

“I think if you look at the faces of the Houston players as they have been out there publicly addressing this issue, they have been hurt by this,” he said. “They will live with questions about what went on in 2017 and 2018 for the rest of their lives. And frankly, it is rare for any offense that you will have a punishment that you will live with for the rest of your life.”

As for Manfred’s limited actions working as a deterrent, that remains to be seen.

In reality, the commissioner issued suspensions only to Luhnow and Hinch, both of whom were fired by Astros owner Jim Crane later that day. The Red Sox terminated Cora for just being named in the commissioner’s report and the Mets took the same action with Beltran after only 77 days on the job.

“You had four really respected baseball people that lost their jobs over this,” Manfred said. “I think losing their jobs in a sport like baseball where there is really no substitute is a pretty serious deterrent. I think on the players’ side, I don’t think there is a player in MLB that relishes being a 2017 Houston Astro and being out there answering questions about what happened and why it happened.”

Manfred said his investigation supported Jose Altuve’s assertion that he wasn’t wearing a buzzer or any other electronic device when he homered off the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman last October to send the Astros to the World Series. The commissioner described the players as “candid” and “consistent” with their testimony regarding the buzzer denials.

Manfred did not look into Altuve’s unfinished tattoo as the reason for not removing his jersey, as teammate Carlos Correa said recently. “That one has not occurred to me yet,” he joked.

Manfred already is working with the union on new rules to prevent high-tech sign-stealing, such as “serious restrictions” on players and coaches having access to video during games.

MLB also could have a problem with players seeking retribution on the Astros based on the current level of anger throughout the sport. Manfred has talked with some Florida-based managers and intends to do so next week in Arizona.

“I think the back-and-forth that has gone on is not healthy,” he said. “This is another topic that we were trying to be proactive. I hope that I made it extremely clear to them retaliation in-game by throwing at a player intentionally will not be tolerated, whether it’s Houston or anyone else. It’s dangerous and not helpful to the current situation.”

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