MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred needs to take steps that are in the long-term interest of baseball. John Minchillo/Associated Press

It could be a very cold winter for Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred.

The league is at a crossroads, with a number of issues coming together to challenge the sport once known as America’s pastime. It is still a multi-billion dollar industry, but if Manfred doesn’t act soon the sport will continue to lose its grasp on the country’s sports fans.

The latest controversy to make headlines is the cheating scandal embroiling the Houston Astros. The Astros are accused of using cameras to steal signs at Minute Maid Park during its World Series championship season in 2017.

Baseball can’t dismiss these allegations since they come from Mike Fiers, a pitcher who played for the Astros that season. The Athletic first reported Fiers’ allegations, and then followed up with an email it obtained expressing the efforts of a team executive to have scouts steal signs from the stands.

It’s a tawdry affair, and falls in Manfred’s lap at a time when he is trying to invigorate the game. He has long been a proponent of efforts to speed up the pace of play and, by extension, shorten the length of games. Sign-stealing doesn’t help that effort, since it leads to long delays of catchers going through multiple signs and pitchers looking in their caps at “cheat sheets” intended to avoid sign detection.

The MLB Players Association has battled any attempts to speed up games. The union is not thrilled with a new rule that will go into effect next season mandating that relief pitchers face a minimum three batters (unless they end an inning), putting a stop to endless lefty-righty pitching matchups that grind games to a halt in late innings.

Yet there will be no pitch clock, a device used in the minors with great success in recent years. Go to a Portland Sea Dogs game and you’ll notice the difference in pace. Pitchers must be in their windup (or a set position) before the 20-second clock expires. There’s no such timer in the big leagues, and pitchers often take much longer between pitches.

Speaking of the minors, many small cities were shocked to hear of the recent plans by MLB to break affiliation with as many as 42 minor-league teams as part of a reshuffling of the long-accepted structure of Minor League Baseball.

The current agreement between Major and Minor League Baseball ends after the 2020 season. The new proposal does away with the current setup (essentially three “A” level teams and two higher-level teams for each Major League organization) and will see big-league affiliations stripped away from many teams.

Portland is not on the list of 42 teams, but you can easily imagine what it would be like if Sea Dogs fans were suddenly told they were an independent team with no direct route to “The Show.”

The last thing baseball needs is a fight with smaller markets around the country. The game is trying desperately to hold onto its fans, not alienate the ones who still pay to see the sport at any level.

Manfred has to be bold in his vision for the future. He must severely punish the Astros after his investigation is complete. From there, it’s time to pull back electronics at MLB ballparks. There are cameras and iPads everywhere in dugouts and bullpens. Time to get rid of them and return to an older time.

He should also stop the crazy idea of stripping affiliations away from minor league franchises. The concept might be sound, but it’s the wrong time for baseball to pull back its allure.

A commissioner needs to do what is best for the long-term interest of the game. If Manfred doesn’t act soon that interest will continue to take a big hit.

Tom Caron is a studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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