Baseball was the last pure game. Unchanged by time. Still played by nine men under the summer sun, fans in the stands, burying their real lives in sport and beer. Children played the game on the streets until the street lights illumination dictated the universal calling card to come home for dinner. Yea, this is a long ago ideal that has had its nostalgia sugar coated to a diabetes induced level. The fact is, baseball has always harbored cheating for the sake of victory above all else. Ty Cobb, one of the greatest players ever, sharpened his spikes so he could injure opposing players who made the mistake of being near him when he slid. Hank Aaron and Willie Mays admitted to using “greenies” for energy. “Greenies” were actually a version of methamphetamine. Steroids became chic in the late 90’s revival of the game.
But because it was baseball, and the cheating was never idealized in that sepia toned memory of the game in the eyes of children and their parents, most of this was swept under the rug. Even steroids were essentially a Bud Selig led dog and pony show until Congress got involved. That’s what makes Major League Baseball’s absolute throwing of the hammer down on the Houston Astros today so absolutely stunning.
Over the course of two seasons, including seasons in which they won the World Series, the Houston Astros used live cameras from centerfield of their stadium and a television installed in their dugout, along with smart watches, cell phones, and a primitive relay system involving a garbage can to alert batters to know what pitch was coming. Sign stealing isn’t anything new. It’s gone one since the beginning of baseball. Major League Baseball found out that the Astros were involved in this and warned the team in 2017 to stop. Instead of stopping, the team got more creative with it. It was all good for them as they rode the end of the decade as the most successful team in baseball. There is no telling how long this might have gone on until pitcher Mike Fiers, who himself played for the team in 2017, came clean in an interview with The Athletic back in November.
Today, after an investigation, Major League Baseball, under the direction of Commissioner Rob Manfred, levied the largest punishment in baseball since the Black Sox scandal of 1918. The Astros as a team were fined five million dollars, the largest possible fine that the league could put against a team. They lost their first and second round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. Their coach, AJ Hinch, and General Manager, Jeff Lunhow, were suspended for an entire year, and to have no contact with their team. This wasn’t a slap on the wrist, this was an “eye for an eye” punishment.
In the immediate fallout, Astros owner Jim Crane immediately fired Hinch and Lunhow because, you know, five million dollars is a lot of money to be fined, and the embarrassment caused to his team is incalculable. This will forever be a stain on the 2017 World Series Champions. This is the World Series championship team that told everyone that would listen that pitcher Yu Darvish was tipping pitches. The depression Darvish felt from the embarrassment of the losses would weigh on him for a year and a half after.
Beyond that, Alex Cora, the seeming mastermind behind the entire process when he was the bench coach of the Astros in 2017, who would go on after the season to coach the Red Sox, could become the first player since Pete Rose to be suspended for life from baseball. Carlos Beltran, the current New York Mets manager and at the time backup outfielder for the Astros, will avoid discipline, but forever have this scandal taint his career.
Back to Cora, who is now the coach of the Boston Red Sox. MLB had been investigating the Red Sox already for sign stealing by way of using cameras, employees, and smart watches alerting coaching of pitches before they came. The Red Sox hired him after he set this process up in Houston, and at best didn’t do anything to stop him in Boston, and at worst actively aided him. The soon-incoming penalties against the Red Sox will be severe, with Cora quite possibly being put under the baseball guillotine with a lifetime ban.
You know what? Good. Sign Stealing is a part of baseball. It is gamesmanship at its best. But what the Astros and Red Sox have done goes beyond the human element of the process. If your friend was stealing pitches from you while you two were playing video games, you would kick the crap out of them. Major League Baseball needs to flex its influence now to let other teams know that this will not be something that is tolerated in the league. Pitchers are put at an incredible disadvantage in this day and age, and taking back their ability to throw a curve ball without someone in Houston banging on a garbage can to let the batter know what is coming is an incredibly necessary step.
By putting his full influence into this decision, Rob Manfred has drawn a line in the sand across which Major League teams cannot pass. In his tenure, Manfred has been derided for awful decisions that have affected the game of baseball and is leading us down a path to a strike after next season. Where he stands at this moment, though, is as an enforcer for the game. A protector of the competitive balance of the game.
The Astros are a deep and talented roster who will still be allowed to operate as a normal team on a day to day basis. Fans will occupy every seat in the stadium. Beer will be drank. Hot dogs will be eaten. This team will win ball games. Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and the rest of the Astros roster is still built to win a very flat AL West, and it’s not a stretch to say they can make a deep run through the playoffs even without the aid of signal stealing.
As for Cora, he deserves whatever he gets, and it’s fitting that he his career might very well end in Boston. They are a city that loves their cheaters, after all.