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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Rob Manfred makes an example of Astros by issuing harsh discipline in sign-stealing case

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pauses while speaking to

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

Rob Manfred doesn’t run the NCAA. This isn’t a case in which the commissioner can simply vacate the Astros’ 2017 title, or ban them from the postseason tournament, or take away scholarships.

But Manfred does possess the authority to police the game and has a responsibility to protect his league’s integrity, as much as that’s possible in a sport in which everything from PEDs to the replay rooms to the baseball itself has faced heightened suspicion in recent years.

Finally, on Monday, Manfred dropped the hammer. He didn’t kill the Astros with his harsh disciplinary action — their talented on-field roster of cheaters remains intact — but he was able to make an example of Houston, and one scary enough that should keep teams in line moving forward.

The one-year (unpaid) suspensions for general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch got everyone’s attention, along with the docking of the team’s first- and second-round draft picks this year and next and the $5 million fine.

The $5 million fine isn’t going to bankrupt the Astros, but it was the maximum allowed by the MLB Constitution, so might as well throw that on the bonfire, too.

For those of you who thought Manfred was too lenient, we present Astros owner Jim Crane, who fired Luhnow and Hinch roughly an hour after the commissioner’s damning report was released.

Just like that, Houston’s top management team was erased. Manfred held them accountable for the high-tech sign-stealing after what he stated were multiple warnings, and that was followed by Crane cleaning house.

This was really the max punishment available to Manfred, who steered clear of disciplining the players despite his well-documented details of their wrongdoing. The commissioner obviously didn’t want to get in a fight with the union over this, not when it easily could be avoided by laying all the blame on their superiors for not keeping them in line.

Luhnow released a statement later Monday saying he had no knowledge of the sign-stealing schemes and adding that the “trash-can banging was driven and executed by players . . . the video-decoding of signs originated and was executed by lower-level employees working with the bench coach.”

Still, the GM doesn’t get to hide behind ignorance, even if that’s really what happened. As for Hinch, his role — as detailed in Manfred’s report — is almost comically inept. According to the investigation, Hinch “neither devised the banging scheme nor participated in it” and yet he didn’t stop the cheating or even convey his disapproval. Manfred also included that Hinch “expressed much contrition” to both him and the investigators, but let’s be real here. To turn a blind eye to illicit activities happening a few feet away practically makes him an accomplice.

Manfred did his homework, with MLB’s Department of Investigations interviewing 68 witnesses, including 23 current and former Astros players. They also went over “tens of thousands” of pieces of electronic evidence, from emails to photos to Slack conversations.The commissioner needed total transparency, and based on the evidence that emerged, Manfred was able to prosecute the Astros to such an extent that they should serve as a deterrent in the future.

There remain loose ends, however, and the potential for more collateral damage.  Manfred now is moving on to an investigation of the Red Sox’s sign-stealing operation from the 2018 season, with manager Alex Cora — the former Astros bench coach — positioned in the crosshairs.

Cora is one of the stars of Manfred’s Astros report and even gets his own boldfaced headline, along with Luhnow, Hinch and disgraced former assistant GM Brandon Taubman (also suspended a year for last October’s clubhouse harassment of women reporters). Manfred links Cora to just about everything — the trash-can banging, the replay-review misconduct — and paints him as the ringleader.

From what we witnessed Monday, that’s bad news for Cora. If Hinch got a one-year suspension and subsequently was fired merely for looking the other way, Cora has to be a goner in Boston — only two seasons into the job, and after winning the World Series in his rookie year.

Then again, that ’18 trophy now is permanently tarnished, as are the resumes of Cora, Hinch and Luhnow. Not to mention all the players who benefited from the cheating.

And before we forget, what of new Mets manager Carlos Beltran? He was a key figure in the report but was able to skate because he was a player on those Astros teams and not in a position of authority (in Manfred’s eyes).

Beltran already has received plenty of unwanted attention for this, and it’s not going to get any easier with spring training fast approaching. Just because he’s not suspended doesn’t mean Beltran escapes with a clear conscience, and we’ll see how this impacts his Hall of Fame chances down the line.

Manfred did what he needed to do Monday, but the job isn’t finished yet. At least now everyone knows he means business.

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