Major League Baseball’s Steroids Era left in its aftermath a wide swath of damaged reputations, impugned achievements and guilt by association.
The entire saga made you question everything, and everyone. Skepticism became a default setting for fans.
If a certain player had big muscles and hit home runs, you questioned whether it was achieved authentically or with the help of chemicals. Fair or not, every player came under suspicion. Our original naiveté over the explosion of home runs was replaced by a healthy dose of distrust.
One wonders if this Houston Astros sign-stealing scheme will have a similar effect if more cases of subterfuge come to light. Electronic sign stealing will become MLB’s new steroids nightmare if this wasn’t an isolated instance involving one rogue organization.
According to Sports Illustrated, multiple Astros officials told MLB investigators that eight other teams used technology to steal signs, which is prohibited under league rules. Former Chicago White Sox pitcher Jack McDowell in a radio interview accused Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa of using cameras to steal signs in the late 1980s.
Then came this beauty last week: A Twitter accusation from a “niece” of a former player went viral claiming that Astros players wore electronic buzzing devices, which caused people to re-examine Jose Altuve’s reaction after hitting a series-clinching walkoff home run in Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS with suspicious eyes.
What is that wrinkle in his jersey? Why doesn’t he want his shirt ripped off by teammates as he crosses home plate?
This isn’t going away. More stories will come out. Bank it.
The fact that it took so long for the Astros’ scheme to get exposed — they were banging on a garbage can to signal pitches to their batters, for Pete’s sake — when so many inside the organization were aware of it was both remarkable and predictable. A code of silence exists when it comes to cheating.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred basically acknowledged that fact in explaining to Sports Illustrated why he didn’t punish individual players but rather limited his focus to Astros officials.
“It’s about recognizing the reality that figuring out which individual players were in and out and what their participation was, you just never are going to get there in the clubhouse culture that exists,” he said.
In all, three managers lost their jobs — Houston’s A.J. Hinch, Boston’s Alex Cora and the New York Mets’ Carlos Beltran — for being associated with the cheating. Houston also fired GM Jeff Luhnow, lost draft picks and was fined $5 million.
Manfred’s punishment didn’t go far enough. What about the players? Why do they get off scot-free? Sure, their reputations have taken a hit, but they cheated their way to the 2017 World Series title (which has financial reward tied to it) and there’s no punishment for them other than having their manager fired. How is that a deterrent?
Baseball players will always look for an edge because failure is ingrained in the game. The big-league lifestyle is seductive, especially the money, so the temptation to cheat occasionally clouds judgment.
Sign stealing has long been part of the game, but technology has opened the floodgates. MLB’s investigation found that the Astros’ system originated in their video replay room, where employees decoded signs that were relayed to batters by banging on a trash can.
In 2017, the Red Sox were busted relaying signs from the replay room to an Apple Watch in the dugout. Manfred noted in his Astros investigation report that after the Red Sox case he informed all teams that “any use of electronic equipment to steal signs would be dealt with more severely by my office.”
A stern warning didn’t deter the Astros. Maybe this episode will scare teams and players. Maybe not.
MLB obviously can’t eliminate technology outright, but the league needs to explore measures that will protect the game by preventing teams from using video to gain an illegal advantage.
Baseball’s integrity is at stake. The Steroids Era left many us of skeptical about what we were watching. That is no way to enjoy a sport.