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Justice is the real loser in the Astros cheating scandal

John Romano | Granting immunity to players was the easiest way to make the sign-stealing investigation go away quickly. That may have been smart but it wasn’t satisfying.
Manager A.J. Hinch was one of two people suspended for a year by baseball and later fired by the Astros for the electronic sign-stealing saga. It seems somewhat unfair considering Hinch was merely aware of the situation while his players were active participants. [DAVID ZALUBOWSKI | AP]

NORTH PORT — If the goal was expediency, then Major League Baseball handled its investigation of the Astros perfectly.

If the goal was justice, then the commissioner’s office whiffed badly.

That’s not just my opinion, by the way. After listening to commissioner Rob Manfred explain, once again, his reasoning behind the get-out-of-jail free card given to all of the players involved in the sign-stealing scandal, l called Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe to get his perspective.

Was the commissioner’s decision to offer blanket immunity to players a wise choice from an investigative standpoint?

“Depends on what you’re trying to accomplish," McCabe said. “If you’re trying to get it over it with quickly then, yes, that’s the way you do it."

And, if you think about it, that’s what happened here. Even Manfred has acknowledged that in a roundabout way.

Speaking to reporters at the Florida Governor’s Baseball Dinner on Sunday evening, the commissioner essentially said he was willing to sacrifice the punishment of players in exchange for getting their cooperation.

Related: Rob Manfred defends decision to not punish Astros players

And that means the people who broke the rules were free to go their merry way while their bosses were suspended.

“Our desire to find the facts and figure out what really went on drove a lot of the decisions we made in the investigative process," Manfred said. “You might look back and say, ‘I would have made a different decision.’ I will tell you this: I think the worst possible outcome for this institution is if we conducted an investigation and came back and said, ‘You know, we just couldn’t figure out what went on.'"

That sounds fine, but Major League Baseball might have done it a little backward.

It’s not that using immunity as a tool was wrong. Cutting deals, after all, is a daily part of our criminal justice system. Low-level offenders can get considerably lighter sentences, or even complete immunity, if their cooperation leads to more important convictions.

But that’s not what the league did. Instead of using the information already provided by former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers as a starting point to get others to flip, the league’s investigators skipped a few steps and just let all the players off the hook from the start.

Why?

It could be, as Manfred said, to make sure they got to the truth. Or it could be that commissioner’s office acquiesced to a powerful owner who did not want his star players out of the lineup or his team banned from the postseason. The manager and general manager, who were easier to replace, were offered up as the faces of the scandal even though there was no evidence they orchestrated it.

Interestingly enough, another cheating scandal has been playing out in soccer’s Premier League in recent days. Except in that situation, the offending team got hammered compared to the Astros.

Manchester City, one of the world’s top soccer franchises (not to be confused with the Glazer-owned Manchester United), was barred from the Champions League for two years and fined $32.5 million for manipulating spending rules intended to maintain competitive balance.

Related: Ex-Ray Alex Cobb: ‘Zero respect’ for Astros involved in sign-stealing scandal

The owner of Manchester City is fighting the punishment, which means it could be tied up in litigation for a while. And that, McCabe said, could have been another reason for Major League Baseball’s strategy.

“I’ve never read baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, but my understanding is the players might have a grievance process if they were punished," McCabe said. “So I can see why the commissioner would want to get the investigation over with as quickly as possible. But I can also see where people are unhappy that it looks like the players are going to get away with this."

Manfred, however, maintains the players have been punished in the court of public opinion.

To some degree, that’s true. Jose Altuve, however, will still be drawing a $26 million salary. George Springer will still be making $21 million, Alex Bregman will be making $11 million and so on.

To be fair, this story was always going to turn out ugly. Too harsh, too lenient, too conspiratorial. Take your pick, there was always going to be someone complaining about the outcome.

It just seems that justice could have been higher up on the league’s list of goals.

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