Stick an asterisk next to the Houston Astros' 2017 World Series title and a fork in baseball’s integrity: Rob Manfred has a mushrooming scandal on his hands that needs a competent cleanup crew ASAP.
Here’s what happened under the MLB commissioner’s embarrassing watch in the past week:
This is not the first time an MLB commissioner has had to deal with his league's reputation taking a hit. Former commissioner Bud Selig was in charge during the steroid fallout and woefully undersold the damage it did to the game’s integrity. What he did not do is call the World Series trophy "a piece of metal," though, as Manfred did when talking about the possibility of stripping the "Asterisks" of their 2017 World Series title.
This flaming mess on MLB’s front porch comes at a most inopportune time in the game's history. A recent poll showed only 9 percent of sports fans considered baseball their favorite sport, and MLB’s overall attendance has declined every season since 2012.
If Manfred wants to earn back the public’s trust — and the trust of MLB players — here are five things he must consider:
Vacate 2017 World Series title
A World Series championship puts players on the mountaintop. For some, it’s the difference between a Hall of Fame bust and a lifetime of good-but-not-great. Ask former Braves star Dale Murphy what a title would’ve meant for his Hall credentials. At a minimum, Manfred should strip the "Asterisks" of their 2017 title. Then he should strike that season's stats of all Astros batters from the record books. Would that have a dramatic impact on, say, Altuve's chances to make the Hall of Fame decades from now? You bet. Worth it? Yup.
Ban ringleaders from baseball forever
Former Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch received one-year suspensions for their roles in the scandal. Each was fired by the Astros after the fact. Alex Cora, who was bench coach for the 2017 Astros and then became Boston's manager, parted ways with the Red Sox. Supposedly a scandal ringleader, he was mentioned 11 times in MLB’s investigation. Carlos Beltran, who, as a player for the Astros in 2017 was considered a driving force behind sign-stealing, was let go as Mets manager. Neither received a suspension — yet —and that’s woefully inadequate. Luhnow, Hinch, Cora and Beltran should be banned from baseball permanently, as their judgment is forever in question. If I were running an MLB team, I wouldn’t let them in the clubhouse.
Ban Houston from the playoffs for one season
The NCAA enforcement police have a sense of punishment that has bordered on the cruel and unusual. (See SMU football in the history books.) But that's what the "Asterisks" deserve here: a harsh enough punishment that it will dissuade anyone from going down this road again. A postseason ban feels appropriate. Imagine having to play 162 games knowing the possibility of the playoffs is nil. Still want to cheat?
Suspend main participants for one year
MLB's investigation determined this scandal was mostly "player-driven," but the players received immunity in exchange for their cooperation. Bad move by Manfred. Even if the MLBPA would have potentially fought back against active player suspensions, the league has leverage under the detrimental conduct clause in the collective bargaining agreement. With players coming out en masse against the Astros — including stars of the game — perhaps the MLBPA wouldn’t muster much of a fight against one-year suspensions anyway.
Ban Astros from midseason/postseason honors
We’re trained to believe that baseball players’ legacies are important to them, and legacies are largely built on league-wide honors. Banning the Astros from the All-Star Game and from postseason awards for at least one year sends the message that the sport will not celebrate tainted success. Let players prove themselves without the benefits of cheating for at least a year before they get feted on the game’s grandest stages.