Toeing the line between palpable relief and giddy absolution, the Boston Red Sox began the process of moving on from their own sign-stealing scandal Wednesday, as a Major League Baseball investigation found no smoking guns, let alone the stunning thud of a baseball bat crashing into a trash can.
No, the 2018 Boston Red Sox were not the 2017 Houston Astros, who flouted MLB's rules so egregiously, they became an object lesson in ethics, accountability and crisis mismanagement.
Instead, these Red Sox, who supplanted the Astros as World Series champions and won 108 regular-season games thanks in part to a replay-room guru illegally updating sign sequences, reside in a far more gray area of wrongdoing.
And their punishments reflected it.
MLB found a fall guy, but did not make him disappear. And neither will the Red Sox.
Advance scout and replay-room official J.T. Watkins took the blame, but not the fall: He'll be suspended for a 2020 season that may not happen, anyway, and be limited to advance scouting duty only in 2021. But he will, multiple Red Sox officials made sure to note, remain with the organization.
That's not the case for former manager Alex Cora, who was fired in January by the Red Sox for his actions as the 2017 Astros' bench coach and suspended by MLB Wednesday for the remainder of this year. Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy indicated in so many words that Cora will not return to the club when eligible in 2021.
The Boston Red Sox under then-manager Alex Cora, second from right, won 108 regular-season games and the World Series in 2018. (Photo: Greg M. Cooper, USA TODAY Sports)
Perhaps that's the consistent thread in commissioner Rob Manfred's reports on these scandals: They find heroes and villains.
Cora, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch and then-player turned Mets manager Carlos Beltran were demonized, rightifully it seems, in the January report. Owner Jim Crane was lauded as above the mess and accountable, a framing he'd self-destruct weeks later in a regrettable spring training press conference turn.
With angry fans and livid players hungry for more cheating flesh, Manfred's investigators swung big at the Red Sox but came up with only Watkins, a former Red Sox minor league catcher who denied he broke rules on in-game video and sign-stealing, but was ultimately cornered by Manfred, who reported he had several players' word Watkins imparted fresh information during games.
And that, along with the loss of a 2020 second-round draft pick, was it.
The #RedSox today released the following statement from President & CEO Sam Kennedy in response to Major League Baseball’s report: pic.twitter.com/FLEMdwzgfI
Other figures, most notably GM Brian O'Halloran, came off well. O'Halloran, promoted from the assistant GM ranks since 2018, gave us all a lesson in how to leave a positive paper trail, properly passing Manfred's communiques on sign-stealing to the appropriate parties.
Little wonder, then, that the mood was far from funereal at Fenway Park Wednesday.
"Yes, I do feel a sense of relief, but we’re not taking any victory laps," says Kennedy. "A violation was uncovered and that was wrong and not acceptable. I am relieved that the report got to the truth and to the bottom of what happened. People will draw their own conclusions. I do feel a sense of relief and am glad the investigative process is over."
Like the Astros, the Red Sox can point to Manfred's report as the final word on the scandal, and in their case, feel pretty good about it. Manfred himself repeatedly admits his gumshoes don't always find everything out, and in this case, it wasn't much — not surprising given that the investigation was launched by an anonymous former employee rather than an upfront figure with highly specific and damning allegations, like former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers.
The biggest separator: Sure, the Red Sox probably got some help during a 108-win regular season, but the presence of a video room monitor likely killed that advantage during a postseason in which they went 11-3 in rampaging through the 100-win Yankees, 103-win Astros and 92-win Dodgers.
"I don’t think it would be appropriate to invalidate the accomplishments of the ’18 team," says Kennedy, who said he believes the 2018 title is "not at all" tainted. "I believe the 2018 team was one of the truly talented baseball teams every constructed.
"I’ve been with the Red Sox for 19 years. This was by far the most talented team I’ve been a part of or witnessed in person."
Yet if Wednesday — and the Astros-Red Sox sagas — taught us anything, it's that two things can be true.
"I don’t think there’s any hiding the fact that whatever advantage you’re doing – whether legal or illegal within the current rules of the game – you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t think it would give you an advantage. It would be disingenuous to think otherwise," he says. "I think we’ll never know how much advantage someone was able to get by permissible or impermissible means."
Red Sox GM Brian O’Halloran with refreshing candor not often found in Houston: “Whatever advantage you’re seeking – whether permissible or impermissible within the current rules of the game – you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t think it would give you an advantage.”
And that's why Kennedy, owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner found themselves on a conference call with Manfred and MLB's 29 other owners, apologizing for their team's actions. Yes, the '18 Red Sox probably win the World Series even in a low-definition world.
That doesn't eliminate the queasy feeling of gains achieved through ill-gotten means.
"We have to earn back trust and we’re prepared to do that. It's very important," says Kennedy. "We recognize that as an organization. The efforts of our baseball operations group ( to avoid wrongdoing) were spelled out in the report but we fell short. We need to do better."
So, they move on. The club announced Ron Roenicke is the club's permanent manager, with a decent chance to see his contract extended beyond this very uncertain year. Bloom lauded him for his ability to steer a club through a business-as-usual spring even as they faced an MLB probe, the recent trade of superstar Mookie Betts and the loss of Cora.
Watkins, too, will be back, decoding opposing signs pregame but kept far away from the action once games begin.
"He is suspended. He remains an employee," says chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. "Right now, we don’t plan to take any additional action against J.T.
"We think the penalty speaks for itself."
Unlike the Astros, the Red Sox should have a far easier time living in that reality.
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