I'm just seeing this news at about 4 PM CST and had no intention of writing about it. I had been slowly picking away at a follow-up piece taking a loving look at our pitching staff heading into 2020, but this is big news. It's also something I care deeply about, so I have no reservations putting the evening plans and the chicken and scalloped potatoes dinner on hold.
Just to recap, the Houston Astros have been accused of cheating by using electronic surveillance during the 2017 regular season, through the 2017 postseason which saw them capture a World Championship, and into the 2018 regular season. MLB began an investigation into these allegations following statements from former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, and on Monday issued statements and announced disciplinary measures.
MLB suspended Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, Manager AJ Hinch, and former Assistant GM Brandon Taubman for one year, through the conclusion of the 2020 World Series. MLB stripped the Astros of their #1 and #2 picks in both the 2020 and 2021 drafts, as well as fining the organization $5M, the maximum allowed under the Major League Baseball Constitution.
Luhnow, Hinch, and Taubman are also hit with a "probation" of sorts, as they would be placed on MLB's permanently ineligible list (a lifetime ban) if they were to "engage in any future material violations".
You can read the entire statement from Commissioner Manfred here. It is lengthy and thoroughly detailed.
Per this statement, disciplinary action was reserved to the GM and field manager of any offending team. This investigation seems to point to a player-driven cheating scheme in Houston, with former Astros bench coach and current Red Sox manager Alex Cora the only non-player explicitly implicated. The Red Sox are currently being investigated in their own sign-stealing scandal, and Cora's punishment will be announced following the conclusion of that inquiry. From Manfred's statement:
"Cora arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout. (The center field camera was primarily used for player development purposes and was allowed under MLB rules at the time when used for that purpose.) Witnesses have provided largely consistent accounts of how the monitor was utilized. One or more players watched the live feed of the center field camera on the monitor, and after decoding the sign, a player would bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter.
Players occasionally also used a massage gun to bang the trash can. Generally, one or two bangs corresponded to certain off-speed pitches, while no bang corresponded to a fastball. Witnesses consistently describe this new scheme as player-driven, and with the exception of Cora, non-player staff, including individuals in the video replay review room, had no involvement in the banging scheme.”
Reaction was swift and passionate throughout the baseball world, as some fans were displeased with the severity of the punishment, while others found it lacking in relation to the offense. Many brought up the saga of Pete Rose and tried to compare the two competitive crimes, and fans throughout the spectrum called for a forfeiture of the 2017 title. Then things really got interesting...
Astros owner Jim Crane, whom Commissioner Manfred described as being unaware of the nefarious competitive advantages and completely cooperative in the investigation, fired both Luhnow and Hinch. It was a move that was both swift and decisive. It was bold, and it was welcome. Manfred said of Crane:
"At the outset, I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested."
I'm not a gambling man, but if I was, I'd put money on Hinch and Cora never working in MLB again. Taubman as well, but he also has other issues. Luhnow may, because I really don't think he was heavily involved. He knew, but let the product on the field run their own show.
There are a thousand twists and turns to this story, and details abound throughout the interwebs. I was somewhat overloaded doing some simple research, as I kept finding myself getting sucked deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. This is a horrible story of potentially sport-altering consequence, and should be treated as such. For all the jokes that can be made of beating on a garbage can, this scandal and it's inevitable offspring can pose existential threats to the game itself.
I hate cheating in any aspect of life, as it takes away an equal opportunity from another individual or entity. I especially hate cheating in baseball, because it upsets a delicate balance involving the thinnest of margins. Baseball is famously described as a game of inches. I'd be so bold as to include a few IQ points as well. Unlike other major sports, baseball is rarely a competition between physical specimens. Sure, tools matter, but baseball has always been more chess than checkers. I think, for these reasons, baseball is more susceptible to subtle manipulations that can drastically alter that delicate balance.
Sign-stealing has always been a fixture in baseball, and always will be. I have no problem with that, as long as it is confined to the players and their abilities on the field of play. Hell, that's why they have signs to begin with.
I'll never forget Javy, while playing SS in Colorado on April 22, 2018, noticing that D.J. LeMehieu was stealing signs while on 2B with Arenado at bat. Javy stood in front of D.J. to prevent the transfer of information, and let out his frustration and enthusiasm when Arenado was retired, yelling to his outfielders "see what happens when they don't know what pitch is coming? ". LeMahieu and Javy nearly came to blows (though tensions were already high after KB was hit in the head and Chili Davis and Andy Haines were ejected in the 1st inning), but order was restored following a brief delay. These things happen, they always have, but outside influences cannot be allowed to creep into the equation.
Technology can be a great tool in so many ways. It can give us a better understanding of biomechanics, help to prevent and treat injuries, and speed the development of young players through better training and nutrition. It can also destroy the game by giving that ever-so-slight advantage if used improperly.
I remember the birth of anabolic steroids in baseball. I recall watching with a mixture of intrigue and unease as Jose Canseco became the first player in history to post a 40/40 season. I remember he and his fellow "bash brother" Mark McGwire thumping their Popeye-inspired forearms together after another "routine" 500-foot bomb. I just thought "steroids", and never imagined how it would completely take over and make a mockery of the game.
Technology is here and can be a wonderful thing. It's also going to present it's own set of problems. PED's really are a slippery slope. I see too many fans seeing supplements as black and white, as if there are only Flintstones vitamins and anabolic steroids. No. It's all a huge glob of grey area in the middle, and everybody does something. Everybody.
While the pharmaceutical engineers and enhancement police continue their game of cat-and-mouse, we should learn something. Technology isn't a debate about chemical compounds and restorative powers. It is pretty black and white. You cannot use cameras, or microphones, or Banana watches, or anything else to cheat what is happening on the field. Period, end of story. If you are caught, you will be severely punished.
Unfortunately, I see this devolving into a cat-and-mouse game, and I'm scared of what is about to happen next.
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