Astros Sign Stealing Baseball

A.J. Hinch holds the World Series championship trophy after the Houston Astros’ Game 7 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017. Hinch was fired on Monday in the fallout over MLB’s probe into the Astros’ stealing of signs during that postseason.

If the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros are cheaters, then every World Series champion of the past 150 years are cheaters.

When it boils down to it, the Astros stole signs. If you’re getting to the root of the crime, that’s what they did. Which, of course, baseball players have been doing since Abner Doubleday was Abner Singlemorning.

Before we go any further, let me admit my bias. I’m an Astros fan. I have been since my first visit to the Astrodome in the late 1970s. Does that skew my feelings when it comes to the 2017 team, and the punishment that Major League Baseball delivered on Monday? Sure. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.

Can I still apply reason and logic to any discussion about this topic? You bet. It’s just more passionate reason and logic than usual.

So, the Astros added a video element to a practice that has been going on in baseball since the 19th century. They used video to steal opponents’ signs, then relayed that information to batters in the least technologically savvy way possible, by banging on the back of a trash can. This is their crime, and it’s debatable how effective it was. Some of the Astros players told MLB investigators that the banging was “more distracting than useful for hitters.” Certainly, if you’ve been hitting one way your whole life, you might experience a bit of information overload while trying to process some additional auditory info before making your swing.

Then again, if the Astros didn’t think it might have some benefit, they wouldn’t have done it. Hence the reason I say its effectiveness was debatable, not definitive one way or the other.

Now, if you’re a baserunner on second base and you catch a glimpse of the opponent’s signals, then pass that on to your dugout, that’s fair game, right? That’s just baseball. But somehow adding video and recording the signs makes it the worst crime in the history of baseball? I’m not buying it. There’s too wide of a gap in that canyon of reason.

Adding the technology does make it feel different. It’s taking it to another level. And, believe it or not, I believe the Astros deserved to be punished. Even severely.

But some have suggested that Monday’s punishment — a $5 million fine, the loss of two years’ worth of first and second round picks, and year-long suspensions for manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow — weren’t nearly harsh enough. Are you kidding? What more do you want? The fine was the maximum allowed under the MLB Constitution.

Nobody does over-the-top discipline like baseball. Or, rather, nobody sticks their heads in the sand more during the actual malfeasances, only to bring over-the-top discipline well after the infractions. (See Era, Steroid.) The players implicated in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, where players tanked games to get a payoff from gamblers, were suspended for life. Pete Rose gambled on games, and the all-time hits leader remains a spectator for the Hall of Fame.

People still argue ad nauseam whether those punishments fit the crime. And, just to recap, those crimes were juicing, tanking and gambling. The Astros’ crime was banging. On a trash can. To try to get a competitive edge.

Major League Baseball was always going to make an example of the Astros. I fully expected Commissioner Rob Manfred to bring the hammer down, to try to dissuade a practice that the MLB office knows is happening elsewhere. (In the on-deck circle are the 2018 champion Red Sox, who should probably expect similar penalties for their own sign stealing attempts.)

No hammer stung as much as the one swung by Houston owner Jim Crane. The most surprising news of Monday wasn’t MLB’s penalties, but Crane’s firing of Luhnow and Hinch. I appreciate that he wants to run a clean franchise. But there is something to be said for sticking by the guys that built a championship club. You didn’t see the Patriots fire Bill Belichick for his role in Spygate, and to me that’s the most similar “cheating” scandal in sports to the Great Sign Heist of 2017. (Sorry, I refuse to call it Signgate. Writers are getting lazy with their labeling.)

Now, there’s a reason that I qualified my first reference of the 2017 Astros as “World Series champions,” because nothing has changed in that regard. Nor should it. I’m against vacating titles and adding asterisks in every instance. You can’t play revisionist history on this thing. Should MLB retroactively award the Dodgers the 2017 and ’18 World Series titles? If your answer to that (actually rhetorical) question was yes, then you’re probably a big proponent of participation trophies, too.

The 2017 Houston Astros happened. You may not like it, but they happened. So too did the 2013 Louisville Cardinals basketball team and the 2004 USC Trojans football team and the 1990 Fifth Down Colorado Buffaloes football champions.

Is the Astros’ title tainted? Maybe in the eyes of baseball fans around the country. I’m sure that’ll be the case for many people. That’s unfortunate.

It’s still a title, and they’re not going to remove the banner at Minute Maid Park. Moreover, for Astros fans — and I feel pretty safe in speaking for the plurality of them — it doesn’t change the memories. That team, led by Verlander and Altuve and Correa and Springer and the like, was special. It gave a city that had been rocked by Hurricane Harvey a reason to hope, to cheer.

In the closing moments of Game 7 that year, I nervously paced around the living room, counting outs in reverse. Four outs to go, three outs to go, two outs to go, one out to go. When Altuve threw to first base for the final out, I whooped and hollered and jumped around the living room with my son Cooper, whom I had allowed to stay up past his bedtime to partake in that historic moment.

Sorry, but nothing will ever taint that.

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