Spring training has begun. Down in Jupiter, Florida, our hometown heroes are lacing up their cleats and getting to work. Yadi is planting his knees into the dirt, negating impossibly wild pitches. Carp is working to get his swing back. Waino is throwing across the outfield, gradually stretching from a game of catch to a very long toss and getting stronger. It all looks very familiar but make no bones about it – baseball will feel very, very different this year.
The Houston Astros cheated the game of baseball, they benefited from that cheating to the greatest extent possible, and – worst of all – they got away with it. As a result, the national pastime will never be the same.
We all know the basic facts: the Houston Astros had an organized, technologically enhanced system for stealing pitch signs from their opponents and transmitting those signs to their hitters. This system was in place for at least two full seasons, including the 2017 season when the Astros won the World Series. Every player on the team participated, every player on the team knew about the system, every player on the team cheated. Not a single player was punished.
When this news first came out, many people reacted with relative indifference. Players have been stealing signs since fielders still had to share gloves, they said. The opposing teams should have been more careful, they said. Then, the full extent of the scandal began to set in, and the nearly incomprehensible paucity of punishment began to burn the back of our collective throat. The Astros cheated, and they got away with it.
Rick Reilly, writing in The Atlantic, says that the Astros are the crookedest team in baseball history. He is right, and it isn’t very close. The Chicago Black Sox? That was eight players and one series, and the players involved were banned from the game for the rest of their lives. Steroids? Well, the steroid era was incredibly bad for the sport, but it was a league-wide scandal that at least kept the playing field relatively level.
One could argue this more closely mirrors the New England Patriots “Deflate-Gate” controversy, but even that scandal seems fairly minor league compared to the systemic shunning of the letter and the spirit of the baseball rulebook undertaken here.
We live in an era that is witness to the crumbling of institutions. That which was steadfast and mighty just yesterday can be gone tomorrow. Baseball is not immune; it is not too big to fail.
The punishment to the Houston Astros in this scandal was as follows: the manager and general manager were fired, the team was fined $5 million [less than 2% of team revenue] and had to forfeit a few draft picks.
The World Series banner still hangs in Minute Maid Park. Jose Altuve still has his MVP trophy. No single player was so much as denied pine tar or sunflower seeds.
Jim Crain, the very unpunished owner of the team, said in a press conference, “Our opinion is, this didn’t impact the game.” That is unbelievable. The level of either hubris or naivete in that statement boggles the mind.
And, oh, other players are angry. Current major leaguers are speaking out against this scandal in harsher tones than any time in history. This impacted the game, Mr. Crain.
So we will watch our beloved Cardinals this year. We will cheer for Yadi and Waino and Carp, and we will root against the Cubs. Our mood will rise and fall with our win-loss record. But something about this season will feel just a little bit off. The outfield grass will look a little less green, the stripes of the field less striking. The whole season will be less sweet, less pure, less baseball. The Houston Astros cheated, and they got away with it.