One of the biggest scandals in the history of professional sports, and certainly the largest scandal in Major League Baseball since the steroid era, is unfolding before our very eyes.

Earlier this week, news broke of the devastating penalties MLB would bring down on the Houston Astros organization for orchestrating an elaborate signal-stealing process that involved countless players, spanned multiple years, and certainly affected the outcome of the 2017 World Series, which the Astros won.

After the penalties were reported, Astros owner and Chairman held a press conference announcing that he would go above and beyond the penalties levied by MLB. 

“I have higher standards for the city and the franchise, and I am going above and beyond MLB’s penalty,” he said. “Today, I have made the decision to dismiss [manager] A.J. Hinch and [general manager] Jeff Luhnow.”

So both the manager and the general manager lost their job, the organization will surrender its first and second-round picks for the next two years, and the team will pay MLB a penalty of $5 million. Surely, those penalties are severe enough to erase this issue and put it in the past? Not nearly, if MLB has any intention of preventing teams from taking opportunities like this in the future. 

A True “Higher Standard”

Crane’s suggestion that he has a higher standard for his organization than MLB is difficult to swallow. Either he was aware of these activities and simply didn’t take action until they were in the public eye, or he was woefully ignorant of the goings-on within the team he owns. In either case, he ought to hold himself to the same higher standard he suggests he holds the team.

But the implications of these punishments go well beyond the careers of AJ Hinch or Jeff Luhnow. The bigger question is about the integrity of a game so old and so historic that its original scandals happened in black and white.

Sign stealing has happened throughout the history of baseball. And, within reason, it is part of the gamesmanship of the sport. Catchers should be aware when runners are on second base, and if those runners can somehow decode and relate the information to the hitter, it is as much the failing of the defending team as it is a lack of integrity on the batters.

But the Astros’ particular brand of theft is both stunning in its audacity and dismaying in its simplicity. The crudeness of loudly banging a trash can twice to indicate a coming breaking ball boggles the mind. It causes one to speculate how indeed this mastermind criminal enterprise went on undetected for so long. 

But of course, it did not go on undetected. In fact, it was detected from the very start. White Sox pitcher Danny Farquahr admits that he decoded the trash can deception during a game in 2017. After the Astros lit up starting pitcher Yu Darvish during the postseason the same year, accusations of their sign-stealing were wide spread.

And yet, it took two-plus years thereafter, and another World Series in which the Astros came one game from winning it all again, for MLB to take any action. They were only prompted to do so after a sprawling report from The Athletic which cited former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers among those reporting the violations today (“The Astros stole signs electronically in 2017 — part of a much broader issue for Major League Baseball,” The Athletic, 11/12/19).

Which begs the question: why the wait? There were plenty of accusations flying around before, and while this report was certainly detailed and devastating, with the benefit of hindsight it didn’t come as a surprise. 

That leads to one of two conclusions: either that MLB did not take the accusations against the Astros (or the significance of sign-stealing in general) that seriously, or they withheld action for fear that, as the article’s title suggests, it would uncover a much broader problem for their league. Unfortunately, because they waited, that’s exactly the situation they find themselves in.

The Tendrils of Truth

As in any sport, the veterans and understudies of a successful organization tend to find themselves offered increased roles in other organizations. In this particular scandal, that dictum manifests in two very significant ways: Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, then the bench coach and a veteran bench player for the Astros in 2017, are now managers for other MLB organizations (the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets respectively).

MLB continues to investigate Cora, who graduated from the Astros to lead his new team, the Red Sox, to glory again the following year. The chances that Cora’s repeated postseason success did not include an imitation of the sign-stealing that had worked so well with his previous club are as thin as the chalk on the first base line. In fact, the investigation is actively turning that way.

The Red Sox have not yet taken action against their two-year manager, despite internal calls from the generally supportive Boston media to do so (“Red Sox need to do the right thing and fire Alex Cora,” Boston Globe, 11/14/2020). 

Beltran, for his part, retired after capturing the World Series he had chased his entire career. The postseason legend is tabbed as a major influence in the espionage scheme, but the always-unlucky New York Mets hired him as their manager immediately before these reports broke. 

Building a Better Game

Neither Cora or Beltran should hold a job when the MLB season begins in 2020. If baseball as a whole, not just MLB itself, is committed to eradicating cheating within its own ranks, then it certainly must take this elementary step toward justice. Yes, Cora and Beltran both had storied careers as players. But baseball has a history of disqualifying even the greatest among its own who break their rules, and this case should be treated no differently than Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, or “Shoeless” Joe Jackson before it.

As for MLB, the punishments it handed down were considered severe by some and lenient by others. But it certainly will take no further action against the Astros, especially after Crane’s additional step of firing those involved.

But it’s a shame that they chose not to set a higher standard.

The NCAA, whatever its fault, has a notoriously severe “death penalty” for teams that violate its most sacred legislation. Programs like the once-mighty Southern Methodist University have been effectively abolished by the ruthless sanction. It looms over the entire NCAA dynasty as a vestigial threat against potential violators; likely to never be used again, but always there as a worst-case possibility.

MLB would have been wise to enact a similar punishment for the Astros. Yes, it penalties they enforced were severe, but how can something be too severe a rebuke for such an arrogant flaunting of league standards, and for the theft of one and the near-theft of another World Series Championship? 

Now, as MLB considers similar cases in the future, they are limited in the scope of their penalties by not enacting harsher standards here. As Rob Manfred seeks to build a better game, he has sent one clear message: don’t cheat to get ahead, but if you do, we won’t cut your legs out from under you.

Perhaps, though, the effect of the Astros’ cheating was so extensive that the players involved will be unable to perform without it. Several of the young stars of the game could face decline – and accompanying ridicule – without the benefit of sign-stealing next season. And that would be a fitting conclusion to this epoch in the game’s history.

No one who participated in this charade will emerge untouched by its stain. Even players like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and George Springer will emerge dusted if not completely blotted out by the mark this will leave on their career. And perhaps that will be the legacy of the 2017 Houston Astros. There is a higher standard, even if Major League Baseball hasn’t found it yet.