MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred fears for whistleblower Mike Fiers

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 10: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the 2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on December 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 10: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the 2019 Major League Baseball Winter Meetings on December 10, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /

“We will take every possible step to protect [Fiers] wherever he’s playing,” says MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, fearing for the whistleblower.

Say whatever else you will about MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s handling or mishandling Astrogate, from the first reports he got about illicit off-field-based electronic sign-stealing to the judgment or lack thereof he handed down in January. He’s anything but wishy-washy when it comes to the former Houston Astros pitcher who blew the whistle on Astrogate in the first place.

When he speaks of Mike Fiers, Manfred considers that the righthander who’s been an Oakland Athletic since an August 2018 trade from the Detroit Tigers has done baseball a phenomenal favour. But the commissioner has more on his mind, as he told the San Francisco Chronicle‘s invaluable Susan Slusser Tuesday: the abuse sent Fiers’s way from the moment he took it to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November.

It’s been a fifty-fifty proposition for Fiers since. For every one who calls him a hero, there’s another who calls him a rat fink bastard. And the latter is one of the more polite insults thrown Fiers’s way. Enough of it has been violent sounding enough to cause Manfred fear for Fiers’s safety when the A’s play on the road this season.

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“We will take every possible step to protect Mike Fiers wherever he’s playing, whether it’s in Houston or somewhere else,” Manfred said. Welcome to the whistleblower’s world, Mr. Fiers. Where your heroism stops at the door behind which those who adore the ones on whom you blew the whistle wish for little better than your immediate hanging, preferably by your genitalia, before they get really mad.

At least the A’s have Fiers’s back as well as Rob Manfred does. When Manfred first announced his suspensions of promptly-enough-fired Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, A’s manager Bob Melvin swatted to one side any critiques proclaiming Fiers broke the code of the clubhouse when he broke Astrogate.

You know. The code that kept other players from saying they’d speak on the record about what they knew of the Astro Intelligence Agency in the first place. The code that made it tough for reporters such as Slusser to publish about high-tech cheating long before Fiers finally put himself on the record about it.

“This goes way beyond that,” Melvin said. “This is the integrity of the game. This is the closest thing you can find to fixing a game. It’s something that needs to be cleaned up. The farther this goes on the more I think people are going to realize Mike Fiers was a hero for doing something like this. It needs to be out of our game. No one should have that advantage.”

Rob Manfred would agree to that, at least. “I do believe we will be a better institution when we emerge at the end of this episode,” Manfred told Slusser, “and without a Mike Fiers, we probably would have a very difficult time cleaning this up. I think we would have done it eventually, but it would have taken a lot longer. I have a real problem with anyone who suggests that Mike did anything but the right thing.”

The good news is that the worst Fiers is liable to face if he faces the Astros in Minute Maid Park will be booing, hissing, catcalls, and the usual snarky banners. Say what you will about Astro fans since the Astrogate bomb exploded but they’re not prone to graduating from that to violence.

Or, to the kind of thing particularly brain-damaged New York Yankee fans did during last year’s American League Championship Series, taunting Zack Greinke over his anxiety disorder and clinical depression while Greinke loosened up pre-Game Four in the Yankee Stadium visitors’ bullpen.

Even those who believe to their souls that the Yankees have too much class for many of their own fans probably figure Fiers is more likely to be greeted as a hero if he pitches in Yankee Stadium this year, while the Astros are likely to be greeted as an organised crime family—in the Bronx and elsewhere.

There were other players with very mixed feelings about Fiers before spring training, unable to decide whether he was a hero or a traitor. But the clumsy performances of Astros owner Jim Crane, second baseman Jose Altuve, and third baseman Alex Bregman at last Thursday’s presser outraged non-Astros far more than any of them were discomfited by Fiers previously.

All of a sudden, Manfred had to wrestle with assorted Astro personnel for the title of baseball’s biggest villain. And that’s before he delivers his final report on the Boston Red Sox, who’ve been under investigation for operating an off-field based sign stealing operation out of their replay room.

After admitting he and his office were “slow to appreciate the risk” on high-tech cheating, Manfred now fears for the risks to its signature whistleblower when he pitches on the road. Don’t laugh. Baseball may be the thinking person’s sport but even baseball’s fans aren’t completely immune to regressive behaviours when they take their games as matters of life and death.

Enough fans who aren’t Astro fans think whistleblowing is worse than the crime on which the whistle’s blown. And they’ve thrown such violent reading and sounding invective around as to cause fear enough that someone’s liable to give Fiers not the keys to a city but a trip to the intensive care unit.

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It bear repeating: Fiers is to Astrogate what New York police legend Frank Serpico was (with some well-connected help from his fellow cop David Durk) to 1960s-70s department corruption, the first one to put his name on exposing it publicly. As Serpico (and Durk) forced the city and the department to face corruption squarely, Fiers forced baseball to face high-tech cheating squarely.

Manfred might also ponder the implications when Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis says he feels “like every single [Astro] over there needs a beating,” and a reader doesn’t want to decide whether he means a game blowout or assault and battery. If Markakis meant the latter, that’s above and beyond even the prospects of Astro hitters facing beanballs this season.

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That’s almost as bad a look for baseball as anything the Astros did. Or, anyone who’d treat Fiers like a criminal for doing nothing more than saying “the code” shouldn’t sanction illicit off-field-based electronic cheating.