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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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Source — Ryan Zimmerman agrees to 1-year deal with Nationals

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The Washington Nationals and Ryan Zimmerman have agreed to terms on a $2 million contract for 2020 that includes the possibility of earning $3 million more in incentives, a source confirmed to ESPN’s Jeff Passan on Friday.

The agreement was first reported by The Washington Post.

When Zimmerman, 35, became a free agent, he figured he either would be back with the Nationals — or out of baseball.

“I think I’ve made my intentions pretty clear,” Zimmerman said in December. “It’s either play some more here or play more golf.”

He was the first player drafted by the Nationals in 2005 after the club moved from Montreal to Washington, and he has played in every one of their 15 seasons. He holds franchise career records for hits, doubles, total bases, homers and RBI.

Zimmerman was around for the consecutive 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2009, the frequent trips to — and early exits from — the playoffs from 2012 to 2017, and, of course, the World Series championship last year.

Injuries limited him to 52 games and a .257 average with six homers and 27 RBIs in 2019, although he was a key contributor in the postseason. He is expected to share time at first base in 2020 with newcomer Eric Thames and holdover Howie Kendrick.

“He’s the classiest big leaguer I’ve ever been around. He’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. The guy’s been through some trials and tribulations. We all forget about the first six, seven years, when he played 160 games every year. I saw needles in his shoulder. I saw him play when he probably shouldn’t have played earlier in his career,” general manager Mike Rizzo said late last season. “That’s the kind of man he is and the kind of player he is. You see when he’s a healthy player, he’s a pretty damn good one still.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Reports — Ryan Zimmerman agrees to 1-year deal with Nationals

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First baseman Ryan Zimmerman, considered by many the heart and soul of the Washington Nationals, has agreed to a one-year, $2 million contract to return for a 16th season according to multiple reports.

The deal, first reported by the Washington Post, could max out at $5 million if Zimmerman, 35, reaches all of the performance bonuses for games played and plate appearances, according to the Post.

Zimmerman was the first draft pick in Nationals history after the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington in 2005. He made his debut with the team late that season and has been a fixture ever since, hitting .279 with 270 homers and 1,015 RBIs. Zimmerman played in just 52 games in 2019, when he dealt with a foot injury, hitting .257 with six homers and 27 RBIs.

Zimmerman was a fixture at first base this past postseason as the Nationals won their first World Series title. He homered in the NLDS and also had the first World Series homer in team history when he took Houston’s Gerrit Cole deep in Game 1.

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Athletics’ Mike Fiers declines to discuss whistleblower role

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers didn’t have any more to say regarding his role as a whistleblower.

Fiers declined Friday to answer questions about revealing the sign-stealing scandal that has engulfed Major League Baseball, instead saying he simply wanted to focus on the future. He spoke a day ahead of an A’s fan event, his first public appearance since divulging that the Houston Astros used electronics to illicitly steal signs from opposing catchers in 2017.

“I don’t want this to be a distraction to them, I want them to be ready for the season,” Fiers said. “For me it’s all about getting ready for the season, playing baseball and not being a distraction to this team.”

Fiers said he would take “baseball questions.” As for the cheating scam and its aftermath, “I’m not talking about that right now,” he said.

“We’re moving forward,” he reiterated several times without saying whether he expected to face scrutiny with his decision to disclose the Astros’ cheating.

Fiers told The Athletic in a story published in November that his former club had used a camera in center field to steal signs on the way to winning the 2017 World Series championship.

His current manager and teammates were quick to applaud him for what he did.

“A lot was reported to the league, but it’s tough to get something done unless a player that was there comes out and says something. It wasn’t going to go down any other way,” manager Bob Melvin said. “And this is significant enough that it needed to be addressed. And as time goes on, he’ll be revered for doing this, for making the game a better place.”

“You’re seeing more sentiment come his way right now, as it should, because there’s no place for this in baseball. This crosses a serious line. It needed to happen and MLB did what they should have done with it. And hopefully we’re past this because it’s an ugly black mark on the game,” he said.

Fiers’ disclosure of Houston’s elaborate scheme led to the seasonlong suspensions by MLB and ensuing firings of Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch. Alex Cora was dismissed by the Boston Red Sox after commissioner Rob Manfred identified him as “an active participant” in the cheating scandal when he was Astros bench coach. Cora led Boston to a title the following year, in 2018.

The Mets also parted ways with manager Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017. Hired this offseason, Beltran was let go before ever managing a game for New York.

That means Fiers took out three managers — 10% of the majors — with one set of comments.

“There’s a lot that goes into that decision, it’s not just a purely spiteful or anything like that about making someone else pay,” Oakland closer Liam Hendriks said. “It was about saving people’s careers. It was about rectifying for those people whose careers that have been lost because of something like this.”

“But it shows a lot of courage to be able to come up and say what he said knowing the backlash, knowing the repercussions of his actions. Talking to him, he is completely sound of mind with his decision, he is happy with the decision, and regardless of how certain people have been viewing him and been talking about him, he is happy with what’s come from it,” he said.

Fiers, 34, spent part of the 2015 season and all of 2016 and ’17 playing for the Astros.

Fiers pitched the most innings for the Astros in 2017, but was left off the postseason roster after compiling a 5.22 ERA. He signed with Detroit as a free agent the following offseason.

He is back in the American League West and set to begin the second season of a two-year contract worth more than $14 million that he signed with Oakland in December 2018 that pays him $8.1 million this season.

The low-budget A’s finished second in the division to Houston each of the past two seasons, winning 97 games in consecutive years.

“Clearly MLB’s drawing the line,” A’s general manager David Forst said, noting he isn’t wondering where Oakland might have been in the standings. “I don’t think about it that way. It’s not for us to look back and say, ‘What if?”

Houston, which won a majors-best 107 games last year, plays its first regular-season road series at the Oakland Coliseum beginning March 30. Fiers won’t have to bat against Houston, so it’s unclear what kind of response he will receive from around the majors.

When asked if he would handle the situation the same way again, Fiers again turned toward baseball.

“I just want to focus on this team and not the past,” Fiers said.

White Sox left-hander Dallas Keuchel on Friday became the first member of the ’17 Astros to publicly apologize for the team’s sign-stealing scheme.

Keuchel was at a Chicago fan event and was asked about Fiers. Keuchel called it a “tough subject” because players rarely tell secrets outside the locker room.

“It sucks to the extent of the clubhouse rule was broken and that’s where I’ll go with that,” Keuchel said. “I don’t really have much else to say about Mike.”

Fiers has been one of the steadiest starters for the A’s, pitching his second career no-hitter on May 7 against the Reds and finishing the year a career-best 15-4 with a 3.90 ERA over 33 starts and his most innings yet at 184⅔.

“There’s a lot of people I don’t think would have had the courage to come out and say it until they maybe have been retired,” Hendriks said. “My hat’s off to him, he stood up tall and put the name behind the investigation that started this whole thing. We’re happy the game’s being cleaned up, and Mike Fiers is a big part of that.”

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