Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: Houston, we have a (massive cheating) problem

Investigations. Closed door interviews. Years worth of allegations. Potential for unprecedented punishments.

Baseball really is an American game, huh?

This week, Major League Baseball has found itself embroiled in a massive controversy only getting worse by the day. One of baseball’s best teams, the Houston Astros, has been caught in a deeply shameful cheating scheme.

In a bombshell report in The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich deliver a damning account of the Houston Astros’ use of technology to steal signs during their 2017 World Championship season. Two players went on record regarding the incident while video and photo evidence have emerged and the accusations keep pouring in.

This is bad.

Before going further, there are two important caveats: 1) The Astros are by no means the only offender, but the evidence that has come to light so far certainly doesn’t look good for Houston. 2) Sign stealing is legal in baseball. If a player or coach is able to decipher the opposing team’s signs, kudos to them. But the use of technology or electronics to steal signs is strictly prohibited. 

According to the reports of the past week, the Astros devised a system in which a player or team employee stationed in the dugout tunnel would watch a livestream of the game filmed by a secret center field camera and presumably focused on the catcher. They would decode the signs in real time and communicate with the batter between pitches through an understood series of bangs on a garbage can. 

Since the report, visual evidence has emerged to corroborate the alleged cheating, including a video breakdown of the banging method from popular sports YouTuber Jomboy. Footage from the Astros’ World Series documentary also showed proof of the supposed set up: a chair next to a garbage can with what appears to be a laptop. In another frame, someone is seen taking down a television monitor in the same spot.

More recently, some executives have also accused the Astros of using what has been described as a “realistic-looking buzzing bandage placed on a player’s body that buzzes in real time to signal what is coming,” according to the New York Post. Of course, that would also be quite illegal.

The Athletic also obtained a 2017 email exchange between the Astros front office and team scouts that implicates the organization further. The email stated, “One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can [or can’t] do and report back your findings.”

So, what can the league do about this? A variety of potential punishments have been floated — everything from fines or a loss of draft picks to the suggestion that the Astros should be forced to sell the team or even vacate their 2017 World Series title.

While that last one seems like a nuclear option, I see no reason to take anything off the table at this point. Baseball’s best team of the past three years has been caught on tape cheating multiple times. 

Two other current MLB managers are involved as well, as Red Sox skipper Alex Cora served as Houston’s bench coach in 2017 and the New York Mets’ brand new manager, Carlos Beltran, played for the Astros. Other teams and executives have come out with allegations and former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers essentially confirmed all of it.

Commissioner Rob Manfred and the league need to make it crystal clear that such blatant cheating and disrespect of the game are unacceptable. Levying a fine would be a weak slap on the wrist for a franchise worth more than 1 billion dollars. The league needs to find a punishment that fits the crime. And if the crime is using illegal methods to win a World Series, stripping the team of that title may be the only option.

Reprimanding Houston will not eradicate cheating from baseball. The league needs to take this further and make it impossible for teams to use cameras or any other devices to gain an unfair competitive advantage. The MLB could ban all technology in the dugout, prohibit players or coaches from visiting the clubhouse during games or crack down on which — and whose — cameras are allowed in ballparks. Find the source of the problems and quash them.

We are only a week into this scandal and it already feels as though the magnitude of this story could continue to grow until the entire sport is consumed by a black hole of malfeasance.

It may be a while before the full story is known regarding the Astros’ cheating infrastructure. All we know right now is that the 2017 World Champions clearly cheated. If the MLB wants to hold on to a single shred of its integrity as a sports league, Houston needs to pay. 

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