By Michael Levitt
Even with spring training games having started last week, debate over Major League Baseball’s biggest scandal from the last 20 years is still going strong. In November, former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers made a public statement that the team had engaged in electronic sign-stealing and the league investigated, finally concluding the case in January.
While sign-stealing has been a part of baseball for close to 150 years, using a mechanical device to do so is illegal and has been considered such since 1962. The legal ways to steal signs include a runner at second base seeing the catcher’s signs as well as hitters noticing that a pitcher accidentally uses different windups when throwing different pitches. They do not include having a camera in center field and then banging on a trash can or whistling to let the hitter know what pitch is coming, which is how the Astros did it.
For the last few years, it had been an open secret with teams throughout the league that the Astros were doing something illegal to gain an upper hand over their opponents. The other teams did not know what the Astros were doing, but they had a feeling that Houston was doing something they were not supposed to.
These teams did file complaints with Major League Baseball, but the League did not do anything about them. But when Fiers made his statement, the league immediately started an investigation. It is sad that it took a player going against his former team for the league to look into it, but at least the league finally did something about it. Part of it could be that the league could not find anything when investigating other teams’ complaints due to players not being willing to talk. That changed with Fiers’ statement though.
After concluding their investigation, Major League Baseball decided to suspend both Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for one year each, as well as fine the club $5 million and take away the team’s first and second round draft picks for the next two years. Hinch and Luhnow were almost immediately fired by Astros owner Jim Crane, who eventually found replacements in the form of veteran manager Dusty Baker, formerly with the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals, and new general manager James Click, who was previously the Vice President of Baseball Operations for the Tampa Bay Rays.
More fallout from the scandal happened when Boston Red Sox manager and former Astros hitting coach Alex Cora as well as newly named New York Mets manager and former Astros player Carlos Beltran each mutually parted ways with their respective teams. Both Cora and Beltran had been said to be big parts of the sign-stealing scheme, and Beltran was the only player listed by name in the league’s investigation report.
However, what most fans are most upset about has been the lack of punishments for players who took part in the scheme. While the players involved probably should have been punished, the league was not able to do that, as they had granted players immunity in exchange for giving information about what had happened. Punishing players would have most likely have been complicated as well, since it would be hard to determine the length of suspensions for different players, many of whom had varying involvements with the scandal.
Players from other teams have spoken out on the scandal as well, with some clamoring for the removal of the Astros’ World Series championship in 2017 and any individual accomplishments by Astros hitters. There is a case to be made for taking away the World Series championship, as the club did use the scheme during their championship-winning season, but the league has refused to go that far with their punishments.
On a separate note, Major League Baseball is still running an investigation into the Red Sox, as there have been allegations that Cora used illegal sign-stealing practices when he first joined the club as manager in 2018. However, there is no timeframe for when the league releases their findings on the matter, and there is no knowing what, if any, punishments the Red Sox receive.
If Major League Baseball revoked the Astros’ World Series championship from 2017, it would likely have to do the same with the Red Sox’ championship season in 2018 if they found enough evidence of wrongdoing. It is probably unlikely that the Red Sox receive as harsh of a punishment as the Astros did anyway, but it would cause an outrage if the league took away one of the two championships and did not take away the other.
These scandals have taken up much of the attention on Major League Baseball this offseason, and rightly so, but it also expanded how much baseball was talked about by sports fans in general. Many fans who do not normally follow baseball seem inclined to give their opinion on the matter, even if what they say shows that they have not followed the sport. The last time that baseball had a scandal this big was a generation ago with steroids, and like this one, it also took a long time for the league to finally acknowledge it.
The key now is for everyone to move past these scandals and things to get back to normal, which will take time. Once that happens, the league should be at a better place and can then manage the rules without being criticized by every armchair fan across the U.S. and Canada who thinks they know what the punishments should have been. Everyone has different opinions with that. The league did what they thought was right and what they could do, and it would have been hard to go beyond that. Hopefully, for the sake of the sport and its purity, it will stop other teams from doing something similar in the future. But how other teams respond to this on the field will be critical. And the Astros have a lot to apologizing to do.
Edited by Emma Moloney | firstname.lastname@example.org