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The Astros Will Reckon with Sign Stealing Backlash Eventually

With the news that Lebron James' media company will be producing a docuseries on the Houston Astros cheating scandal, we take a deep dive into the scandal.

Overview

The Houston Astros cheated their way to the club’s first World Series victory in 2017. Using a camera mounted in centre field at Minute Maid Park with a live feed of the catcher’s signs broadcasted into the dugout area, members of the Astros would alert the batter to offspeed pitches in real-time.

The Major League Baseball investigation began in January 2020 after former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for Houston in 2017, disclosed details of the scheme to reporters from The Athletic. The inquiry confirmed that Houston stole signs in the 2017 regular season and during their successful postseason run, as well as during part of the 2018 regular season.

Video evidence shows clear banging sounds coming from the dugout which served as a signal to batters that an offspeed pitch was coming, but anecdotal evidence from opposing players suggests that there were claps, yells, and whistles also involved. The additional claims were not substantiated by MLB investigators in their findings.

Sign stealing is an art, not a science

Sign stealing in general has been part of the game since its inception. Baserunners are known to signal to the batter the type or location of pitch. From the batter’s perspective, trying to decipher a pitcher’s mannerisms associated with each of their pitches is also commonplace. These practices are often the role of one or more of the on-field coaching staff, and players might even review game footage prior to a start to see if the pitcher has a tell. Pitchers at all levels of baseball work to minimize changes in their windup or delivery based on their grip. Just the same as defensive players picking up on baserunning or batting signals, the practice is accepted and well-known across the sport.

The difference between what’s acceptable and Houston’s approach is the introduction of technology to change the outcome of the game as it was happening. Major League Baseball has had rules forbidding the use of technology to steal signs since as early as 1961, but a 2001 addendum specifically prohibits teams from communicating with electronic devices, especially to steal signs. Prior to the Houston story breaking, the Red Sox were fined for attempting to use smartwatch technology to steal signs in September of 2017. The league issued another memo to all thirty major league clubs warning against sign stealing technology.

In hindsight, the second memo from commissioner Manfred serves as an important milestone in the Astros timeline. From the top down, the team knew that their setup went against league policy and they continued to do it anyway.

Sanctions

In exchange for their cooperation with investigators, the league granted immunity to all players involved with the club’s World Series win in 2017. The Astros organisation, however, faced the most severe penalties ever handed down by Major League Baseball in response to in-game misconduct, to the delight of many in the baseball world. Houston was fined the maximum allowed $5 million USD and stripped of their top draft pick in each of the 2020 and 2021 amateur drafts.

Alex Cora, bench coach for Houston in 2017 and manager of the 2018 and 2019 Boston Red Sox, was determined to be directly involved in executing the programme on the bench and in the video room. MLB suspended Cora for the entirety of the 2020 season, including the playoffs, and the Red Sox forfeited their second-round draft pick in the 2020 draft. The league then opened a parallel sign stealing investigation into the 2018 Red Sox that led to a video operator’s departure, but no additional discipline against Cora.

The Astros leadership passed down disciplinary action of their own. The team fired general manager and president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch following the league’s publication of their report but, like the league, has not reprimanded any players.

Public relations post-scandal

This choice looks deliberate from the perspective of the Astros management. The optics are positive if the team makes high-profile front office changes, which they did, because it signals that they are taking the situation seriously. It also takes some of the pressure off of the players who could easily have been accused of spearheading the entire enterprise; choosing to punish some players but not others would risk complicating the relationship between former Astros players and their new teams by blurring the lines of who implemented it, who participated, and who knew about it and let it slide. The bill of non-accountability absolves players of any wrongdoing, regardless of their actual level of involvement.

This is where the Astros’ response to the inquiry leans into denial opportunity territory. Firing two members of Astros leadership does not mean their clubhouse and front office are clear of blame. Choosing not to discipline players is tantamount to saying what they did wasn’t that bad. After all, it worked. They won the World Series. Their players received significant bonuses and perks as a result. The players were, in fact, rewarded for their behaviour.

The conclusion here is that the Astros are trying their hardest not to acknowledge how truly reprehensible the activities of their players and coaching staff were. This choice to focus blame on two individuals offers an escape to every member of the organisation who wants to feign ignorance in the face of overwhelming evidence that the entire Astros team and coaching staff knew what was being done and did nothing to stop it. There are dozens of examples of players and coaches dodging media questions about their involvement in favour of rehearsed statements, and who issued “apologies” that did not communicate remorse.

It remains to be seen how widespread the impact that the Astros’ penchant for illicit activities will be. For the livelihoods of pitchers whose numbers were decimated by sign stealing, for the teams whose performances were good enough to win against the Astros at Minute Maid Park but who did not, and for the game of baseball that will now be marred by a modern scandal the lengths of which are still developing, there doesn’t appear to be an obvious remedy.

Violating the code leads to unpredictable consequences

Historically, contravening baseball’s unspoken rules has led to ostracism for the perpetrators.

Eight players on the 1919 White Sox threw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for money and were banned for life, including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson whose career numbers warrant a place in the Hall of Fame. Jackson remains on the ineligible list. The same goes for player and manager Pete Rose whose career hits record still stands at 4256. Rose was found to be placing bets on games in which he served as player-manager of the Reds in the 1980s. He also remains permanently banned from Major League Baseball and the Hall of Fame. Similar cases are associated with players found to be using performance-enhancing drugs and corked bats. There is a culture within baseball that touts work ethic and strategy over shortcuts and deception. Being found to be a fraud or to have put one’s own interests ahead of the team’s is still cause for outrage in the modern game.

Since the verdict of the league’s inquiry became public, players all around the major leagues have voiced their opinion and spoken out against the Astros. Even players who are notoriously reserved have let loose about the impact of the scandal. The Angels’ long-time MVP Mike Trout, who rarely expresses emotion with the press, has spoken out against the lack of punishment brought by the league upon Astros players. The 2017 MVP runner-up Aaron Judge, who was beat out by Astros second baseman José Altuve for the title, discussed the impact of dishonesty on younger generations. Cody Bellinger, a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Astros’ 2017 World Series opponents, expressed outright anger toward Houston’s organisation. These are athletes who are highly trained in how to speak with the media, so it’s not hard to imagine how intensely they feel about an issue when so much emotion bubbles up in a controlled environment.

Even Houston’s own are revolting against them. Astros fan Brendan Donley launched a Twitter account called the Astros Shame Tour dedicated to documenting every painful moment of the 2020 season. Meanwhile, Dodgers fans who were potentially cheated out of a World Series victory have banded together to purchase over 2000 tickets to a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim game in order to boo the Astros when they come to town, since the National League Dodgers do not face Houston in 2020. Here’s hoping the season resumes in time to witness that show.

Judging by the turnout in the abbreviated 2020 preseason, fans like that will be out in droves to express their anger toward the implicated players. Fortunately for the jeer squad, the core group of players who carried the team through the 2017 postseason continue to play for the club. In fact, José Altuve and all-star third baseman Alex Bregman are both under contract with the Astros until at least 2024, and starters Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, and George Springer remain in the mix for at least a little while (Gurriel and Springer through 2020, Correa until 2022, respectively).

Until the 2020 season resumes, there’s no way to know how the Astros will attempt to repair their image. Apologies don’t seem to be getting them very far. The team tarnished their own reputation and aren’t doing a thing to build back the lost trust of the baseball world. Maybe a change in leadership will do it, maybe the culture has been damaged for the long term. No matter what, the Astros will get hit, they’ll get booed, and they will have to take every opportunity to prove that they are worth respecting again. It’s hard to know when that will be.

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