MLB commissioner Rob Manfred defends punishment of Astros

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Manfred defends punishment of Astros in exclusive interview (5:14)

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred discusses the investigation and subsequent punishment of the Astros for sign stealing, as well as what happens next. (5:14)

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred defended his punishment of the Houston Astros for sign stealing in 2017 and said Major League Baseball will institute new rules to police the use of technology before the 2020 season.

In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN's Karl Ravech, Manfred explained why he didn't punish any Astros players for their roles in the scandal, which involved illegal use of technology to decipher their opponents' signs and relay them to Houston batters in real time.

"Yeah, I understand. I understand people's desire to have the players pay a price for what went on here," Manfred said. "I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have paid a price. To think they're skipping down the road into spring training, happy, that's just a mischaracterization of where we are. Having said that, the desire to have actual discipline imposed on them, I understand it and in a perfect world it would have happened. We ended up where we ended up in pursuit of really, I think, the most important goal of getting the facts and getting them out there for people to know it."

MLB announced its discipline of the Astros last month, suspending general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the entire 2020 season while stripping the organization of four draft picks and levying a $5 million fine.

But none of Houston's players was suspended or fined, and Manfred had previously announced that MLB had no plans to strip the Astros of their 2017 World Series title -- decisions that have drawn widespread criticism from the baseball community, including players from other teams.

"In the context of my original decision, something that we talked about and analyzed extensively," said Manfred of potentially stripping the Astros of the 2017 title. "A big topic of conversation between me and my senior staff. ... It has never happened in baseball. I am a believer in the idea that precedent happens and when you deviate from that, you have to have a very good reason. The report gave people a transparent account of what went on. We put people in position to make their own judgments about the behavior that went on. That certainly has happened over the last month.

"The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act. People will always know that something was different about the 2017 season, and whether we made that decision right or wrong, we undertook a thorough investigation, and had the intestinal fortitude to share the results of that investigation, even when those results were not very pretty."

Manfred told Ravech that any discipline of the players likely would have resulted in grievances from the Major League Baseball Players Association, citing Luhnow's failure to communicate to the Astros' players the contents of a 2017 memorandum outlining MLB's policy on the use of technology.

"Well, they just didn't do it. It's in my report. The memorandum went to the general manager, and then nothing was done from the GM down," Manfred said. "So we knew if we had disciplined the players in all likelihood we were going to have grievances and grievances that we were going to lose on the basis that we never properly informed them of the rules. Given those two things, No. 1, I knew where, or I'm certain where the responsibilities should lay in the first instance and given the fact we didn't think we could make discipline stick with the players, we made the decision we made.

"Having said that, I understand the reaction. The players, some of them in a more articulate way than others, have said, admitted they did the wrong thing. And I understand that people want to see them punished for that, and in a perfect world, they would have been punished."

Manfred said that although it doesn't absolve the Astros' players, he believes that Luhnow and Hinch were obligated to inform them of the memo and enforce MLB's rules.

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2:03

Should Astros be stripped of 2017 World Series title?

Tim Kurkjian says the Astros should be allowed to keep their 2017 World Series championship, and adds that the players having to deal with the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal is punishment enough.

Manfred also said he understands the sport's reaction to the scandal, especially after the Astros' ill-received news conference Thursday, when owner Jim Crane made several comments that stoked the ire of players and officials from other teams.

"Well, I think the owner has the ultimate responsibility for what goes on in his franchise," Manfred said. "I mean, that goes back to the way we govern the game, right, I mean that the owner has that obligation. I think in this particular case, I was prepared, based on what the facts showed, to discipline an owner if I felt that was appropriate. I think when you discipline, you have to always rely on the evidence.

"When you get into disciplining people based on a concept, it's very difficult. What the evidence showed with respect to Jim was when he got the Apple watch decision, the Yankees-Red Sox decision, and the subsequent follow-up from our office, that he did, in kind of an unusual move for him getting directly involved on the baseball side, he did instruct Jeff Luhnow to make sure that they were behaving in compliance with the rules. When that happened, I felt that his effort in that regard was sort of the key to the finding we made with respect to the owner."

Still, players around the league are not happy with the Astros, leading to speculation that pitchers on other teams will retaliate against Houston batters.

"Give you two answers to that," Manfred told ESPN. "Have been working for some time on a memorandum about intentionally throwing at batters. It's really dangerous. Completely independent from the Astros investigation, we'll be issuing a memorandum on hit by pitches which will increase the disciplinary ramifications of that type of behavior. I think that will be a tool for dealing with whatever flows from the Houston situation. Over the next three days, I'm going to meet with all of the managers in MLB and the topic that you raise will be one of the things I intend to address with them. Simply not appropriate to express frustration you have growing out of the Astros' situation by putting someone physically at risk by throwing at them. It's simply not acceptable."

The Red Sox fired manager Alex Cora for his part in the Astros scandal when he was bench coach in Houston. MLB is also investigating the Red Sox for allegedly stealing signs during their 2018 championship season when Cora was manager.

"We have done everything we could possibly do to get the facts right," Manfred said at a news conference later Sunday. "I'm still thinking the end of next week we should be done and have a decision out -- end of next week, not this week, but the following week."

When asked about MLB's plans going forward, Manfred indicated that baseball would restrict access to video during games.

"No question we'll have a new policy before the 2020 season," Manfred said. "I don't deny video can help you perform if you have access to it during the game, but a golfer can't come off the sixth and take a look at his swing. ... We're going to have to live with less access to live video in and around the dugout and clubhouse."