The Astros, and cheaters do prosper

The Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series in seven games, two of them among the best that have ever been played, then lost all the prestige and acclaim associated with their triumph in the nine pages it took Commissioner Rob Manfred to detail how the Astros did it.

The Astros cheated. They won 101 games in the regular season and two seven-game series in the playoffs, aided by an illegal advantage. They set up a video camera outside their Minute Maid Park dugout, deciphered opponents’ pitch signals and passed it on to batters by banging on trash cans. Nothing is more major league than combining modern technology with sophomoric hijinks.

Somewhere Princeton graduate, catcher and World War II spy Mo Berg is pleased at the code-breaking if aghast at the immorality.

That major-league players cheated is hardly novel. There would have been no Shot Heard ‘Round the World in 1951 without the Giants’ cheating that was kept quiet for 50 years. Gaylord Perry’s plaque in Cooperstown should be streaked with the kind of Vaseline he put on the baseball. Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four, “If you had a pill that would guarantee a pitcher 20 wins but might take five years off his life, he’d take it.” He wasn’t kidding.

Cheating is much a part of sports as overindulgent halftime shows are of bowl games. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de Frances empowered by illegal substances, his denials, like his pedaling, coming faster and faster until the truth broke his story like the chain coming off a bike. Russia cheated so badly for so long it can’t even be recognized at the Olympics. The famous Italian blue team was accused of cheating in bridge multiple times, including by tapping each other’s feet under the table. If there is an argument to be made that bridge is a sport, it’s that its competitors have so often been accused of cheating.

The only surprising thing about the Astros cheating is that their catcher, Brian McCann, didn’t stop it. Forget about manager A.J. Hinch, who will get the 2020 season off to look for new employment, expressly because he didn’t do more to stop it, other than twice damaging the offending illegal monitor.

McCann is the self-appointed commissioner of the Play the Game the Right Way police, who never met an exuberant young player, usually Latin, he couldn’t chastise for not obeying the rules in McCann’s head. Apparently, cheating wasn’t against McCann’s code.

“Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme,” Manfred wrote in his statement, “or participated in the scheme by helping to decide signs or bang on the trash can. Many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules.”

They knew it was wrong, and they did it anyway could be the motto of the Steroid Era. The principles that drove it are still intact.

The Astros’ penalties included a loss of four draft picks, a $5 million fine (the maximum allowed) and the suspensions of Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. According to a tweet by ESPN’s Pedro Gomez, the Astros’ World Series triumph “was worth about an extra $60 (million). Not just extra gear sold, but ticket price increase, larger crowds (in 2018), higher prices to sponsors for being associated with the champs, price of commercials for radio and TV broadcasts spike, etc.”

You don’t have to major in accounting to know that paying $5 million to accrue $60 million in profits is a good deal. There’s probably about 30 out of 30 major-league teams who would agree to it (at least two, since the 2018 world champion Red Sox, and manager Alex Cora, who as Astros bench coach was named multiple times in Manfred’s statement, are up next. Cheating is so much a part of baseball that it seems Cora took the Astros’ way to Boston and implemented it there, or something similar. And thought no one would notice or be offended.)

But what’s the price on the Astros’ reputation? We’re about to find out. Hinch and Luhnow are gone, suspended by MLB and fired by owner Jim Crane, who comes out of this, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater on Watergate, like the piano player in the brothel who says he doesn’t know what goes on upstairs. Maybe the piano player never asked.

“At the outset,” said Manfred in his statement, “I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane … was aware of any of the conduct in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization …”

Maybe Crane truly is. But he’s also one of 30 people who get final say on Manfred’s employment status. Some businesses might call that a conflict of interest.

Crane was far less troubled to put an uncompetitive team on the field in the first two years he owned it. The 2012 Astros lost 107 games and the 2013 Astros lost 111 games. The team brazenly tanked; how troubled was Crane by that? Some observers might call that, and have, consumer fraud.

If nothing else, anyone who can remember back far enough to how the Astros built their championship team can’t be sorry to see them receive their comeuppance.

But while it’s justified and the penalties appropriate, MLB in the role of justifying avenger is misguided. It’s MLB’s myopic vision on the new technology that enabled the Astros’ perfidy.

Sixty-plus years ago Don Larsen’s perfect game ended with a called third strike. Watch the replay and you have to look closely to tell that a final pitch uniformly agreed by several Yankees and Mitchell as a ball actually is a ball. Today cameras can hone in so closely on the catcher’s signal that viewers at home know what’s coming.

Handing this technology to 30 teams looking for an edge is like leaving Willie Sutton alone in the bank, giving him the combination to the safe and expecting him not to open it. It’s difficult to resist temptation.

There’s a reason players and coaches cover their mouths at mound meetings. Because they know how prevalent cheating is, and if a lipreader is the difference between making the playoffs and missing them, somebody will hire one and stash him in the replay room. The Astros and Red Sox, who used Apple watches to cheat in 2017, no doubt weren’t the only offenders. Not every steroid user tested positive or was disciplined.

It’s amazing so many ex-Astros kept secret the team’s cheating until Mike Fiers finally revealed it last season. Fiers, who’s probably going to be a lot of fun at reunions of the 2017 champions, isn’t the only ex-Astro from that team. (When old-timers say players were different in their day, they’re not wrong. The 1951 Giants kept their cheating a secret for half a century; the 2017 Astros couldn’t make it half of a half decade.)

But the greatest irony of the whole sordid affair is how unnecessary the Astros’ cheating might have been. The 2017 Astros led MLB in runs scored with 896 and OPS at .823 and were second with 238 homers. And their splits reveal a clearly dominant side — they scored 501 runs, had an .834 OPS and hit a tied-for-MLB-best 123 home runs in half their games. But the Astros, according to the numbers, were a better offensive team on the road.

They scored 106 more runs, hit eight more homers and had an OPS 22 points higher away from Minute Maid Park and the scam they operated there.  The Astros were 14th in runs scored at home and first on the road; their pitchers were seventh in ERA at home and 17th on the road.

Some of that is certainly because the park was pitcher friendly in 2017, and some might be evidence of how little impact the whole thing had. Or not. That the Astros tarnished that question for all-time is on them.

The Yankees and Dodgers feel their seven-game losses in the ALCS and World Series are stained, and they are. The Astros beat the Yankees in all four games at Minute Maid Park, but the Yankees scored three runs total there. That was because of the Astros’ pitching, not the illegal monitor. And the Dodgers lost a Game 7 at home and split four games at Dodger Stadium. How much did the Astros illegal sign-stealing at home benefit them? We don’t know, but even a little in a seven-game series is a lot. That doesn’t mean the Dodgers should start planning a belated victory parade.

“Some Astros players told my investigators that they did not believe the sign-stealing scheme was effective, and it was more distracting than useful to hitters,” Manfred said in his statement.

A year later the Astros shut the whole thing down, because as Manfred repeated in his statement, “the players no longer believed it was effective.”

Maybe the commissioner doth rationalize too much. And maybe it’s too bad for the Astros’ legacy, and the good of the game, they didn’t have other motivations.

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