Astros’ $5 million fine a reminder MLB works for the owners, not the other way around

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Five million dollars. That’s how much money the Astros were fined by Major League Baseball as part of their punishment for stealing signs using video technology, en route to a World Series championship in 2017. It’s the maximum amount of money that any team can be fined by the league, and it’s a paltry sum, especially in the context of what Houston got from the cheating itself.

The Astros made $66 million in profit in the season following their 2017 title run — teams that win the World Series tend to see an uptick in attention and revenue. They also earned additional cash in the 2017 postseason, too, simply by being there and playing through to a Game 7 victory. The Astros’ players alone split over $30 million in postseason shares that fall, and that money came from a larger pool of postseason earnings that was split with each postseason teams’ players and the teams’ owners. That $5 million is nothing compared to what Houston gained.

That’s how the system works, though. The other MLB owners might be upset that the Astros and especially their owner, Jim Crane, got off so light in his punishment — MLB commissioner Rob Manfred basically opened up MLB’s statement on the matter by exonerating Crane of all wrongdoing, and then lightly tapped him on the wrist while removing a few draft picks and some spare change from the organization — but they’d want similar treatment were they in a similar situation. Basically, you’ve got 29 other owners upset that the one of them that was caught didn’t get hit harder. Well, maybe 28: the Red Sox will get what’s coming to them soon, too.

Why would Manfred go with such a light punishment? This isn’t just my opinion that it was light: as Jeff Passan was told by a team president, “Crane won… 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.” Manfred and the league work for the owners, not the other way around, and that’s at the center of all of this.

The owners are the ones who put into place the maximum fine of $5 million, in MLB’s constitution. It’s a number that can look impressive in many punishable contexts, like situations that aren’t showing that the entire integrity of MLB and the game it plays are at risk. The fine falls well short of what it should be in this situation, but there’s nothing to be done: the Red Sox are also going to be punished, and there are a number of other teams out there that are going to be investigated as well for similar cheating situations. The Astros might have been the most blatant and gained the most from their tech-based cheating, but they’re far, far from alone in it. The owners aren’t about to change how much their subordinate can punish them, when it’s extremely likely about one-third of them will be suffering said punishment soon.

And Manfred is their subordinate, let there be no mistake about that. The commissioner always has been. William Eckert was the commissioner of MLB until 1968 — that just happens to be the year the first collective bargaining agreement in sports was agreed to, between MLB and the Players Association. Eckert had three years left on his contract, but the owners, fearing the players were going to be too much for him to handle, let him go.

Fay Vincent might be the most egregious example of the owners going after the commissioner, though. Vincent helped work toward the end of the 1990 lockout, in part because he wanted baseball back and making profit once more, but also because he knew the owners were in the wrong for staging the lockout in the first place. The 1990 lockout began, in short, because the owners were upset that the players were upset about being colluded against throughout the mid-to-late 80s. The owners wanted to reassert their authority over the players, so they began an ill-advised lockout: Vincent didn’t approve of the lockout, made no secret of that, and was put in a position where he could resign or be fired. He chose the former.

Vincent’s replacement was one of the furious owners, Bud Selig. How did Selig last so long as commissioner? Because he was, for a significant portion of his time as commissioner, still a team owner, and that’s the background he came from and was influenced by. He understood what the owners wanted and needed, the differing relationships between the richest and not-as-rich, and how to get them all on the same page. He remained in the position for decades, and then was able to place his handpicked successor, Rob Manfred, in the role once he was done.

Selig got to walk away, because his interests as commissioner were always the owners’ interests. There are many reasons why Selig was awful, but in the job he set out to do, he was often brilliant, and able to manage the conflicting personalities of the owners, bringing them onto the same page by telling them what was most important. And they listened to him, because he was one of them, and he listened back.

That’s the MLB environment Manfred was raised in, and he’s not about to mess with it. Red Sox partner Tom Werner was destroyed in the election to be Selig’s replacement, because no one in their right mind is going with Tom Werner over the guy who made his name facing off against the MLBPA and worked his way into Selig’s inner circle in the process. Manfred has done some shady things working for MLB — he was the one in charge of the Biogenesis investigation that seized documents the federal government was after, potentially obstructing justice in the process, all in the name of suspending Alex Rodriguez before Selig called it a career — and that’s why the owners approve of him. He’ll do what he has to for their sake: he’s one of them, or at least, he understands them enough to play the part he’s been given.

The owners might not like that Crane got off light, but they’re mostly upset that he won and they didn’t, and they’ll be glad again when they’re the ones under the harsh investigative spotlight. The $5 million isn’t much, and it’s by design: the system is working how it’s supposed to, in that regard. A shame about everything else that isn’t.

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