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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Red Sox got off easy, but it's still a sorry episode for them

FILE - From left, in a Jan. 15,

FILE - From left, in a Jan. 15, 2020, file photo, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and CEO Sam Kennedy react during a news conference at Fenway Park in Boston. The Boston Red Sox were stripped of their second-round pick in this year’s amateur draft by Major League Baseball for breaking video rules in 2018 and former manager Alex Cora was suspended through the 2020 postseason for his conduct as bench coach with the Houston Astros the previous year. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced his decision Wednesday, April 22, 2020, concluding Red Sox replay system operator J.T. Watkins used in-game video to revise sign sequences provided to players. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File) Credit: AP/Elise Amendola

Maybe Rob Manfred was too lenient on the Red Sox. Maybe pinning it on the video room guy, J.T. Watkins, was the easy way out for a commissioner weary of the sign-stealing noise pollution. Maybe MLB blew another chance to establish a deterrence policy with teeth.

All of that can be true. But whatever your view, there is one indisputable takeaway from these latest Fenway shenanigans (don’t forget the Apple Watch fiasco of 2017!)

The Red Sox cheated. They even publicly apologized for it, which by definition, goes in the books as an admission of guilt.

How much it helped them remains open for debate. According to Manfred’s report this past week, Watkins’ singular crime was decoding pitching sequences from the in-game live video feed, which were  used only by Sox runners at second base, and infrequently at that. We’re also supposed to believe that most of the players, as well as then-manager Alex Cora and his coaching staff, were largely unaware of Watkins’ illegal practices.

Fine. Manfred already had boxed himself into a corner by granting immunity to players in these investigations, so no one expected J.D. Martinez or Mookie Betts to take the fall here. The Red Sox fired Cora in January just for being fingered in the Astros’ rap sheet, so his suspension for the 2020 season — solely because of his Houston role, Manfred emphasized — was hardly unexpected.

Losing a second-round draft pick stings, but it’s not a crippling penalty. Watkins being suspended for a season that may never happen, plus a 2021 ban from returning to the same role, isn’t going to bother the Red Sox much. They’re the ones who sold him out anyway.

What should stick, however, is the label: Cheaters.

It doesn’t matter that Manfred said Watkins’ shady deeds were “far more limited in scope and impact” than the Astros’ 2017 trash barrel-banging operation. Or that the commissioner assured us in his 16-page report that Watkins’ illegal codebreaking activities didn’t occur during the Sox’s postseason run to the 2018 title.

Semantics, really. In the final analysis, despite the varying shades of enforcing those rules, there is no gray area when it comes to cheating.

I don’t believe for a second that the Astros and Red Sox are the only teams to get creative with video equipment. Every club has its ballpark wired up with surveillance that would make the CIA jealous. In MLB’s hyper-competitive environment, any slight edge, no matter how tiny, can be too tempting to dismiss, never mind a high-tech treasure trove of data. 

But the Astros and Red Sox got caught. After winning a championship, no less. And unfortunately for them, the commissioner is under a great deal of pressure — partly because of the league’s gambling relationships, no doubt — to provide some degree of transparency. So Manfred put together a 16-page summation of his investigation and smartly released it a day before the NFL Draft, with a discipline that amounted to some mild wrist-slapping.

What followed was far more damning: the Red Sox’s power brokers lining up to apologize. It was the right thing to do, but they also didn’t have much choice after seeing the Astros tortured for their obstinance during the winter. The mea culpas also made sure this cheating scandal will leave a permanent stain, like a scarlet C to go with the B on the caps.

Red Sox principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner apologized to the other 29 owners on a conference call. Team president/CEO Sam Kennedy was the first to launch the public campaign, while also pointing out that Watkins’ illegal actions were “isolated instances.” 

“Regardless, these rule violations are unacceptable,” Kennedy said in a statement. “We apologize to our fans and Major League Baseball, and accept the Commissioner’s ruling.”

It was all a well-orchestrated broom job designed to sweep the whole unsightly mess under the rug as soon as possible. But the Red Sox — like the Astros — don’t get to just move on whenever baseball is played again. They deserve to be excoriated as cheaters at every road stop, too. By stadiums full of screaming fans, calling into question their character — and accomplishments. 

“What I regret most about all of this beyond the toll it took on our organization is the position it put our fans in — having for months to wonder if the 2018 championship could actually be the result of unfair play,” Henry wrote in an email this past week to The Boston Globe. “It’s clear from the report that these isolated occurrences in 2018 happened during the regular season. The report references how often those instances called into question had an opportunity to take place, and within the context of the overall season, all one has to do is the math to see the net potential result. But I’ll let others do the math.”

  What Henry chooses to ignore is that this is not about arithmetic. The commissioner’s report said the Red Sox cheated during the 2018 season, one that ended with the franchise’s fourth World Series title in 15 years — the most of any team during that span. And then the Red Sox basically admitted they cheated by apologizing for these “isolated occurrences.”

  No matter how many times it happened, or who supposedly knew and who didn’t, whatever the resulting punishment — the Red Sox still have to wear the label for their actions in 2018.

  And now it should read cheaters, not champions.

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