Olney: MLB fails to set example with toothless sign-stealing penalty for Red Sox

Rob Manfred pointed out last week when asked about the Yankees' complaint that MLB does not have a rule against stealing signs. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

Any parent who has worked to alter the behavior of a son or daughter understands baseball commissioner Rob Manfred's position as he decided what to do about the Boston Red Sox's violation of baseball’s rules against using technology in the dugout to steal signs.

The rule is established, given to teams in writing. And Major League Baseball apparently confirmed what the New York Yankees alleged was accurate: Through the use of a watch in the dugout and the adept handling of that decoding information by veteran players, the Red Sox repeatedly gained what was potentially a competitive advantage by rapidly relaying signs to the hitters.

In short: The Red Sox were caught red-handed. Sign-stealing is not against baseball's rules, but everybody in baseball has been told that using technology is a violation, and Boston was nailed.

From Manfred’s statement: “Based on the investigation by my office, I have nonetheless concluded that during the 2017 season the Boston Red Sox violated the regulation quoted above by sending electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout.”

The penalty: An undisclosed fine to be donated to hurricane relief efforts in Florida.

Manfred essentially punted on the discipline and offered the weak refrain of worn-out parents everywhere: Well, the next time we catch you, you’re really in trouble. From his statement: “I have received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type. ... Moreover, all 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks."

No one was specifically reprimanded. No suspensions. Nothing.

Manfred’s penalty was toothless for a franchise worth billions of dollars, and time will tell whether the get-out-of-jail free card will embolden other teams to try (or continue) to do the same -- and whether they’ll take the commissioner’s warning against future violations any more seriously than a teenager who gets off with a warning.

Time will tell whether other circumstances arise in which a scrutinized team or player might offer the same excuse that MLB seemed to embrace in the Boston case -- that everybody tries to steal signs.

It is surprising that Manfred didn’t treat the Boston case the same way MLB treated Michael Pineda and his gob of pine tar in 2014. Everybody knew then and everybody knows now that dozens and dozens of other pitchers break the same foreign-substance rule that Pineda broke, for the same reason -- to grip the ball better. Pineda’s mistake was to be so blatant about it that Red Sox manager John Farrell had to ask the umpires to check on the pitcher, and MLB effectively threw the book at Pineda, suspending him for 10 games.

Not only did Manfred pull his punches on his discipline of the Red Sox, but he also seemed to provide Boston some cover by simultaneously announcing that the Yankees had been guilty of a much lesser violation at the same time. From the statement: “In the course of our investigation, however, we learned that during an earlier championship season (prior to 2017) the Yankees had violated a rule governing the use of the dugout phone. No club complained about the conduct in question at the time and, without prompting from another club or my office, the Yankees halted the conduct in question."

Sources from both teams have indicated that MLB preferred that none of the charges ever become public, and by seeming to provide false equivalence of the infractions of the respective teams, it’s as if Manfred’s message is: I’m really punishing both of you, and you can both go to bed early without the sprinkles on your ice cream.