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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred goes easy on Red Sox in sign-stealing exploits of 2018

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media at the owners meeting in Arlington, Texas, on Nov. 21, 2019. Credit: AP/LM Otero

After an investigation that stretched nearly four months and included 65 witnesses as well as countless pieces of electronic evidence, commissioner Rob Manfred finally revealed the mastermind behind the Red Sox sign-stealing conspiracy of 2018.

Turns out it was all the fault of J.T. Watkins.  

Who is that, you may ask?

Watkins operated the Red Sox’s video replay system and was the only member of the organization punished by Manfred, who suspended him without pay for whatever remains of the 2020 season and also banned him from the same role in 2021.

Former manager Alex Cora, who already had been fired by the Red Sox for his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing debacle, was officially suspended through the 2020 postseason, but Manfred said it was due solely to his Houston malfeasance.

“I do note that Cora did not effectively communicate to Red Sox players the sign-stealing rules that were in place for the 2018 season,” Manfred wrote in Wednesday’s16-page report. “No other member of the 2018 Red Sox staff will be disciplined because I do not find that anyone was aware of or should have been aware of Watkins’ conduct.”

Nonetheless, Red Sox president/CEO Sam Kennedy made sure to immediately apologize Wednesday on behalf of the team. He said the violations were “unacceptable,”  perhaps learning from the disastrous fallout caused by the Astros’ obstinance.

Still, Manfred basically exonerated everyone else and did little to tarnish the Red Sox’s 2018 title, going as far as to say that Watkins’  behavior was limited to the regular season. The commissioner also docked the Red Sox a second-round pick from the 2020 draft, which might be limited to only five rounds.

No banging on trash cans, no whistling, no illicit monitors in clubhouse runways. The Red Sox’s transgressions, as detailed by Manfred, were pretty tame compared to the Astros’ high-tech skulduggery. It all boiled down to Watkins studying the live feed to decode catchers’ sign sequences, but passing them along only for the use of Red Sox runners at second base in a more traditional way of alerting hitters.

“I find that unlike the Houston Astros’ 2017 conduct, in which players communicated to the batter from the dugout area in real time the precise type of pitch about to be thrown, Watkins’ conduct, by its very nature, was far more limited in scope and impact,” Manfred wrote in the report.

The commissioner emphasized that this technique could only be relayed with a runner at second base, which occurred during 19.7% of plate appearances league-wide in 2018, and that the evidence also showed Watkins using the live feed a small percentage within that time.

According to the report, Watkins denied any wrongdoing, and Manfred pointed out that 30 of the 44 players who cooperated with the MLB investigation said they had “no knowledge” of him operating illegally. The most incriminating statements had to do with players saying there was a difference between the sign-related intelligence Watkins provided during the game as opposed to before first pitch, which is considered within the rules.

“One player described that he observed Watkins write down sign sequence information during the game while he appeared to be watching the game feed in the replay room, circling the correct sign in the sequence after the pitch was thrown,” Manfred wrote.

During the past few months, the Red Sox insisted they were innocent, and Manfred pretty much backed that up Wednesday. Like the Astros’ investigation, the players were granted immunity, but the commissioner took them off the hook entirely with his report.

“Although we agreed not to discipline players who were truthful in their interviews, this is not a case in which I would have otherwise considered imposing discipline on players,” Manfred wrote. “Watkins decoded sign sequences using the replay  review system, and most of the team was unaware that Watkins obtained any information during the game utilizing that system.”

Manfred’s report couldn’t have been much better for the Red Sox if the team’s front office had crafted the document themselves.

“As an organization, we strive for 100% compliance with the rules,” Kennedy said in a statement. “MLB’s investigation concluded that in isolated instances during the 2018 regular season, sign sequences were decoded through the use of live game video rather than through permissible means.

“MLB acknowledged the front office’s extensive efforts to communicate and enforce the rules and concluded that Alex Cora, the coaching staff, and most of the players did not engage in, nor were they aware of, any violations. Regardless, these rule violations are unacceptable. We apologize to our fans and Major League Baseball, and accept the Commissioner’s ruling.”

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