Paul Sullivan: Rob Manfred will never live down his ‘piece of metal’ gaffe about the World Series trophy

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Grapefruit and Cactus League games began Saturday across Florida and Arizona, the first official steps for major league teams fighting for the coveted “piece of metal” that goes to the World Series champion.

The piece of metal, also known as the Commissioner’s Trophy, has been awarded to baseball’s best team since 1967, when Bob Gibson and the Cardinals beat the Red Sox in a seven-game series. Until recently, few knew the World Series trophy even had a name.

But that all changed when Commissioner Rob Manfred called it “just a piece of metal” while discussing why he was reluctant to void the title of the 2017 Astros after their sign-stealing scandal.

Manfred apologized Tuesday for his unfortunate description of the holy grail of baseball. But no one was buying it, save for one Chicago reporter who, speaking “as a baseball fan,” thanked Manfred during a news conference for summoning the courage to admit he was wrong.

“They’re never easy, and I hope I did OK,” Manfred replied. “I mean it. I feel badly about it.”

If Manfred thinks he feels badly about it now, wait until the piece-of-metal presentation ceremony at the next World Series.

It will be impossible for the 2017 Astros to live down the cheating scandal for the rest of their careers. Likewise, it will be impossible for Manfred to remove this gaffe from his baseball obituary, whenever that gets written by one of his employees. The phrase “piece of metal” will be a part of baseball’s lexicon forever, as “Say it ain’t so, Joe” and “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Congrats, commissioner, on your contribution to the game.

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant said the next day he didn’t believe Manfred was being sincere and the apology was meaningless.

“I don’t think people are accepting it,” Bryant said. “When you say something like that, I genuinely believe he really meant that it was just a piece of metal.”

White Sox pitcher Dallas Keuchel, who played for the 2017 Astros and issued the first apology of any of their players, said it was beneath the office of the commissioner to make such a remark.

“If you’re making $30 million to $40 million (Manfred’s estimated salary is $11 million) and you’re the central figure of baseball, I don’t really think you can have that vocabulary in your mind,” Keuchel said Thursday. “Then again, I’m not commissioner. It was distasteful, but that’s not my job.”

So Manfred will have to live with this scarlet letter, not unlike the one steroid users wore after being busted. The lesson they might not have taught Manfred at Harvard Law School is to choose your words carefully — or risk having them attached to you on the internet forever.

Aside from widespread player disgust with Manfred, the vitriol emanating from the scandal — the player-vs.-player shots against the Astros — has been unprecedented. But it’s not particularly surprising given the weak apologies by Astros owner Jim Crane and the team’s biggest stars.

“Not at all,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said when asked if the apologies have been sincere. “I don’t think it was received well from players around the league. They don’t believe that the messaging is sincere, and so there’s going to be some (negative) reaction.”

That leaves new Astros manager Dusty Baker, who was not involved in the scandal, as the scandal’s primary spokesman. He’ll be forced to respond to opposing players’ reactions, whether it’s beanballs or harsh rhetoric, the rest of the season.

Fortunately for the Astros, Baker is experienced in handling a PR crisis from managing Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, not to mention the 2004 Cubs as a whole.

“Dusty is a perfect hire,” Roberts said. “He’s a seasoned veteran. He relates to players. He has a way of doing some damage control. It’s taken Dusty too long to get back to managing, so I’m happy to see him back.”

While repercussions from the Astros scandal play out this spring and we await Manfred’s verdict on the Red Sox sign stealing, MLB is having conversations with the players union concerning Manfred’s desire to “drastically restrict in-game access by game personnel to video (rooms).”

That seemingly would prevent some sign-stealing attempts, but why not just ban in-game technology altogether so there can be no doubts?

“We might be too far down the road on that,” Rockies manager Bud Black said.

For well over a century, major league hitters performed without going into the clubhouse to check video of their last at-bat to make an adjustment in their next one. Surely they can go back to making the proper adjustments based on their knowledge of the pitchers and their own finely honed swings.

“As an in-game teaching tool, scouting tool, technology has become part of what players do and coaches do,” Black said. “Coaches look at video as much as players. But it could be turning.”

Black said he never has worn a smart watch or used technology to try to gain an advantage over the opposing team.

“I barely know how to work my cellphone,” he said.

Mariners manager Scott Servais asked how you would even go about banning technology, though he said limiting it would suffice.

“In-game, OK, I don’t think (a ban) is a bad thing,” he said. “Get (the players) on the bench, back to (staying in the dugout). If that happens, I certainly understand it, and it’s not a bad thing.”

Meanwhile, the controversy over the cheating scandal — and Manfred’s handling of it — goes on with no end in sight. Even the players from the 2017 Astros seem to have accepted that as they try to move on, whether in Houston or in their new homes.

“I don’t know how many people there are in this world, or in this country, but everyone is entitled to an opinion,” Keuchel said. “It’s not going to go away anytime soon, but that’s just the way it is. I’ve said my piece with it and I’m moving on. I’m with the Chicago White Sox, and I’m hoping to bring some playoff experience to this team.”

Like everyone else in the game, Keuchel has only one goal in mind as the new season begins — to hold that beautiful piece of metal over his head eight months from now.


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