Earlier this week, Major League Baseball announced the most severe series of penalties ever handed out by the commissioner’s office. The Houston Astros cheated – and won the World Series. And the club had developed a toxic organizational culture that was blasted by Commissioner Rob Manfred’s report.
The fallout (so far):
- The Astros lost their first and second round picks in the 2020 and 2021 MLB Draft and the organization was fined the maximum $5 million.
- Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was banned for one year – and subsequently fired.
- Astros manager AJ Hinch was banned for one year – and subsequently fired.
- Red Sox manager Alex Cora was named in the report. He was not disciplined – yet; the Red Sox, under his leadership in 2018, are also under investigation. Cora agreed to part ways with the Red Sox and still waits for the hammer to come down.
- And, on Thursday, new Mets manager Carlos Beltran agreed to step down before ever managing a game because of his involvement in the scandal. Beltran was the only player (current or retired) named in Manfred’s report.
Manfred also suspended former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman for the year. Taubman made offensive comments directed at a group of female reporters at the conclusion of the American League Championship Series centering around Houston closer Roberto Osuna. Osuna, while with the Blue Jays, was suspended because of domestic violence allegations before he was acquired by the Astros. Taubman lost his job after making the scene in October.
No active players were disciplined for their actions. However, on Thursday rumors swirled on social media that Astros players including 2017 American League MVP Jose Altuve and 2019 AL MVP runner-up Alex Bregman wore devices that buzzed to indicate pitch selection.
It doesn’t feel like the dust is completely settled on this amazing controversy. But discipline impacting the game this significantly has never happened.
Is this the worst scandal in baseball history?
The biggest scandal in the history of the sport is still considered the 1919 Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series. The “Black Sox” have had books written about them, a major motion picture made and websites devoted to the legacies of the players and the events that led up to a team taking money from gamblers to lose the championship to the Cincinnati Reds.
Is this worse than the Black Sox?
Yes. It is.
And it isn’t close.
Who was impacted by the Black Sox scandal? Two teams: the White Sox and Reds. White Sox players took money to hurt themselves and their teammates – not players on other teams. Sure, a case can be made that the players on the Reds team that won the championship have somewhat tainted legacies because they won against a team that tried to lose, but the cheating was limited to just the World Series.
This scandal has already changed the 2020 seasons – and beyond – for three organizations. There are three top tier managing jobs available less than one month before pitchers and catchers report – an unprecedented reality.
The actions that led to the Astros punishments took place over the course of entire seasons, not just one series. The cheating was more widespread than the Black Sox.
But the biggest issue I have with the Astros actions (and Red Sox and, likely, other teams that took part in using technology for an advantage) is that it impacted the lives of players all over baseball.
When the Black Sox cheated the other team won the World Series.
The Astros cheated and the Dodgers lost the World Series.
The Red Sox cheated and the Dodgers lost the World Series.
Players all over baseball have been impacted financially as well. The Cubs may have ultimately benefitted from Yu Darvish’s poor performance in the World Series with the Dodgers; that undoubtedly cost him millions of dollars. While Darvish ultimately signed a six-year, $126M contract with the Cubs, lesser players were hurt in their chase of staying in the major leagues because they didn’t pitch well against “good teams” like the Astros or Red Sox.
So should the Astros championship be vacated?
What exactly would that accomplish? Take down a banner or flag? Put an asterisk in a record book nobody reads any more? Fans still lived through the experience. The Astros franchise value exploded; you’re not telling the ownership of the franchise that the organization is worth less because of this. Everyone remembers the Astros (and Red Sox) winning the World Series.
You can’t tell Michigan fans that Chris Webber and Jalen Rose were never on campus. Similarly, you can’t tell baseball fans that the 2017 and 2018 World Series never took place.
Vacating events in the past is a stupid, amateur way to deal with problems in hindsight.
Let the NCAA be the amateurs.
Which brings me to my final comment on the issue.
Should the players have been suspended for their role in this cheating?
The Black Sox players were the ones who did the cheating. The list of individuals who were directly involved was limited. And each of them was banned forever, including “Shoeless Joe” Jackson. (Note: an ESPN report on Friday indicates that MLB is now softening its stance on banned players after death; Jackson and other “Black Sox” players may be eligible for a veterans committee to consider for Hall of Fame induction in future years.)
In this case, the number of individuals who were involved is much larger than the list of individuals named in the report. The players absolutely benefitted from knowing what pitches were coming, but coaches and team officials were involved in the set up and execution of the plan. In the case of the Astros, the entire organization is culpable. And we’ll find out how many people were involved with the Red Sox soon (probably before Kris Bryant’s five-year-old service time grievance is final).
However, the report that was released by the commissioner’s office would never have been as detailed as it is if players hadn’t been granted immunity. No matter what Jessica Mendoza thinks, if Mike Fiers hadn’t gone public to The Athletic with his allegations nothing would have happened; enough current and former players have spoken up about claims being passed along to MLB behind closed doors that it’s easy to believe MLB could have buried these actions if not for public pressure.
So the players having protection to openly and, in theory, honestly tell what happened was important to this being dealt with.
And the players involved in this scandal will feel the burn later in their lives.
Altuve isn’t the first player to cheat and win an MVP award. Jason Giambi owes an MVP trophy to Frank Thomas for his 2000 campaign. Now, everyone knows that Aaron Judge theoretically should have been the AL MVP in 2017. And Altuve will have to live with that reality.
More importantly, the Hall of Fame candidacy of players will be forever tainted. Beltran will be the first player to feel the impact of his actions on the HOF ballot when he is eligible. One of the greatest switch-hitters in the history of the game, Beltran will now have to wait to see how writers react to his actions. My guess is he’ll have to wait longer than anticipated to get into Cooperstown.
Other players, including Altuve and Justin Verlander, will also have to reconcile their actions in winning the first championships of their respective careers on a roster that cheated. Unlike Beltran, they have time to earn back the respect of the media and fans on the field. Hopefully they do a better job of doing that than Alex Rodriguez did. But Andy Pettitte was able to come back from a PED suspension to have a credible end to his career.
Players play for the love of the game, the money and a legacy. These players will make their money – so will the teams involved. And one might make a naive case that it was their love of competition that led them to cheat. But their legacies will forever be tainted by their actions. And never again will fans be able to look at Altuve and other players on the teams in question and say their heroes did things “the right way.”