Sign-Stealing of the Times
Opening Day for Major League Baseball’s 30 teams was supposed to be March 26. Yet, thus far in 2020, for most baseball fans, reporters, and players, there is only one team to talk about — and it’s not my Washington Nationals, the 2019 World Series champions. That honor goes to the Houston Astros, the Nationals’ opponent in that thrilling seven-game battle and the winner of the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The reason Houston has been the talk of the professional sports world is that details emerged in a November 2019 exposé in The Athletic that the Astros aren’t just world-class contenders, they’re world-class cheaters.
According to that article, which cites former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, the organization used a centerfield video camera to film opposing catchers’ signs to pitchers. Astros players and team staffers would watch the live camera feed in a room behind the dugout and then relay the signal to the batters — by banging on trashcans or whistling — to communicate what kinds of pitches were coming. A subsequent MLB investigation confirmed that the team did steal signs illegally using technology during the 2017 regular season and postseason, as well as for part of the 2018 season. For what it’s worth, MLB uncovered no evidence of illicit sign-stealing by the Astros in 2019, though the Nationals were warned prior to the World Series that Houston would try to cheat.
The league office meted out several punishments, suspending Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch for the entire 2020 season (both were subsequently fired by the Astros); fining the team $5 million, the maximum allowed under the current MLB Constitution (Houston’s total payroll for 2020 is more than $206 million); and stripping the team of its first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 amateur drafts. The only Astros player named in the MLB report was Carlos Beltrán, the supposed ringleader of the operation, who retired after the 2017 championship. MLB punished no Astros players, current or former, because they received immunity in exchange for their cooperation in the investigation. MLB didn’t even punish Beltrán, who was named field manager of the New York Mets prior to this season. But he didn’t come out unscathed, as he and the Mets “mutually parted ways” in the wake of the revelations. The league is also preparing a report on alleged sign-stealing by the Boston Red Sox during their 2018 World Series campaign.
Reporters and fans have been more than a little dissatisfied with these penalties. This was compounded by the fact that when spring training began, the Astros refused to use the word cheat in reference to their misdeeds. “We broke the rules. You can phrase that any way you want,” said Astros owner Jim Crane. Prolific sports writer Thomas Boswell commented, “There’s no better way to show good old-fashioned genuine remorse than by refusing to speak the misdeed you committed,” adding for good measure, “I knew I shouldn’t have left that barf bag on the plane.”
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