It started out as a feel-good story – the Houston Astros, whose hometown was battered and bashed by Hurricane Harvey earlier that year, finally won their first World Series championship.
Yesterday, Major League Baseball suspended Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the entire 2020 season for their actions – or inactions – in a sign-stealing scheme that used technology to intercept opposing players’ signs and give the Astros an unfair advantage in games.
Let’s start with this. Luhnow and Hinch deserved what they got. They either participated in the scheme, or they knew about it and didn’t stop it. And other members of the Astros organization in 2017 are sure to face retribution as well, even though they’re on other MLB squads today.
And the Astros’ punishments are not limited to those suspensions. The team loses MLB draft picks for the next two years; and the team received a massive $5 million punitive fine. Oh, and Luhnow and Hinch were later fired by the Astros organization, with the hopes that the team can start from a clean slate.
That being said, I’ve seen some armchair baseball pundits claim that because the Astros’ World Series victory was tainted, that it should be removed – that either their opponents, the Los Angeles Dodgers, should be declared retroactive 2017 World Series champions, or that the title should be vacated completely.
Other armchair baseball pundits have used this story as a “wait, if this, then why not that” argument that purports that since Pete Rose bet on baseball, that he should be reinstated to Major League Baseball’s good graces and admitted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “The Astros cheated and they received one year,” shout the pundits. “Pete Rose didn’t cheat, and he’s suspended for life? Unfair!!”
First things first. Nobody’s going to vacate any World Series championships or batting titles or anything like that. Nobody vacated the Chicago White Sox wins in 1919 when they reached the World Series and eventually threw the games as part of collusion with gamblers. Nobody vacated Barry Bonds’ home runs because they were augmented with the cream and the clear.
Here’s the difference between the age-old tradition of “stealing signs” and what the Astros did.
In a baseball game, there are several forms of non-verbal communication between various parties – from the on-base coaches to the outfield, from the catcher to the pitcher. These signs allow for the pitcher to throw the proper baseball for the moment and not have it zip past the catcher’s glove on the way to the backstop. These signals can change every week – in some teams, it can change every inning.
By the same token, if the opposing team can figure out a difference in the pitcher’s throws – in his movement – in the way he holds the ball before the windup – then they can use that to their advantage. If someone notices that Freddie Fireballer tends to wiggle his glove before he throws a slider, the batter will know to look for that wiggle, because a home-run-meatball slider is on the way.
The problem is exacerbated when you bring in technology. Now the game isn’t about a ball and a stick. It’s about a ball and a stick and an Apple Watch. Now the game isn’t about how smart you are at noticing a pitcher’s minute variations, but instead how talented your tech team is in relaying information to your batters – by flashing a light in center field, for example, to signal a fastball; or banging on a trash can with a baseball bat to alert that a changeup is on the way. It stops being a game of skill and starts becoming a game of micro-tech.
Now let’s address vacating games and titles. This is professional baseball. This is a professional sport. This is not a college sport where championship titles and victories are vacated and struck from official records due to point-shaving or illegal recruitment or horrifying human abuse violations. That’s on the NCAA. That’s their parameters to execute those decisions. Same thing with the Olympics – medals can be seized and championships vacated due to drug violations or other forms of blatant cheating.
And honestly, the only other professional sport I know of where championships have been vacated has been the Tour de France, where those who were caught doping had their titles stripped.
In other words, I’ve heard this argument before – “Well, if so-and-so used steroids and they won the batting title, shouldn’t it go to the next eligible person, who hit .338 while testing clean?” No. In baseball, the records stand, but so too do the reasons why they stand. Yeah, Barry Bonds has the home run record, but those steroids he took will keep him from the Hall of Fame.
“But Pete Rose didn’t cheat to win,” the pundits cry. “He just gambled on games. And there’s no indication he bet on his own games.”
Gambling on professional sports – while you’re playing in those professional sports – is taboo. Sure, Pete Rose bet on certain games, but let’s not forget he was a manager at that time. He knew who was injured and who was having a good streak and who was going to ride the pines, by the virtue of the scouting reports he might have received for upcoming contests his team might have played against those other squads. His involvement meant that he had the inside track on who might win and who might not. And on occasions when he DID bet on his team to win – did he have knowledge enough to bet on them to win, and not bet on them when he knew that his starting third baseman was nursing an injury that nobody else knew about?
And nobody ever took Pete Rose’s hits away from him. He still has the MLB record of 4,256 hits, and none of those hits were ever rescinded. In fact, the only attempt that has ever been made to take Pete Rose’s “Hit King” title away was by claiming that Ichiro Suzuki’s combined Japanese and MLB professional hit totals surpassed Rose’s totals (4,367).
So the Astros’ World Series championship stands. It will stand as long as records are written and baseball stories are told. But in those stories, now we have the tale of how the Astros used technology and chicanery to not only steal their opponents’ signs, but to place a cloud over the sport as well.
Forget Hurricane Harvey. The Astros got decimated by Hurricane Manfredi.