Elected officials lie. Captains of industry steal. And injustice as usual has become the norm in politics and business everywhere. But in baseball, where all men are still created equal, fair play matters.
With their recent sins, the St. Louis Cardinals have balked this tradition and jeopardized the integrity of the game. Evidence from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department implicates Cardinals employees of inter-league espionage against the Astros organization. The New York Times reports that St. Louis hacked a Houston computer network to steal critical draft reports and secret player records.
The state’s legal sentences are forthcoming, but predictably insufficient. For this crime, Major League Baseball must deliver a swift and severe punishment.
In sports and society, rules exist as the manifestation of a people’s moral sense. Just as theft is criminal, stealing first base is illegal: both are intrinsically unfair and everyone knows it. Though increasingly endangered elsewhere, law and order traditionally find fulfillment in baseball.
A Different Kind of Cheating
All players, regardless of position, own a right to three strikes. All are either called safe or out. And none can question the omniscience of an omnipotent umpire behind the plate. Because in baseball, right and wrong remain black and white.
Sure, the game’s been dirty before. Some Hall of Famers slid cleats high, read lips, and threw screwballs. While those players bent the rules, though, the Cardinals broke them, and with more than just a cheap trick. A player with a corked bat can strike out. A pitcher with a scuffed ball can be hit. But an algorithm with inside information can’t be beat.
Since baseball met modernity, statistics and spreadsheets have played an integral role in strategy. To build and maintain a winning streak throughout seasons, teams most find top players at the lowest prices. This “Moneyball” metric demands as much brawn on the field as brains in the front office.
This scandal wasn’t the product of a dramatic secret squeeze play. Cards Manager Mike Matheny didn’t have pitcher John Lackey build code for the hack from the bullpen, and catcher Yadier Molina wasn’t the muscle running interference. More likely, low-level managers with potbellies and thick glasses stole an old password to steal secrets to steal wins.
Worst of all, they didn’t even really need to do it.
A historic powerhouse, St. Louis has won more championships than any other honorable team (the Yankees have taken 27 Championships; the Cardinals, 11 titles). This year, they already boast the best record in baseball. Why then would a storied and successful organization stoop so low? Personal vendetta. Officials report that a petty rivalry motivated officials to stack the deck against the Astros. In doing so, they’ve further smeared baseball’s reputation, setting a precedent that could spark irreversible damage to the game.
Baseball Needs a Strong, Swift Punishment for the Cardinals
If Commissioner Rob Manfred and the league slap the Cardinals on the wrist, if they let the organization off lightly, they will send a clear message to less-fortunate ball clubs in every division: cheat to win.
Still reeling from the steroids scandal of the nineties, baseball can’t afford another haphazard response. Then-Commissioner Bud Selig’s system of suspensions only drove the doping problem underground where it reemerges periodically today. Now younger, more cynical fans see baseball stripped of its wonder, rigged like everything else. It’s no wonder they flee in droves for cheaper excitement in other sports. Today’s scandal only adds to the problem.
Off the field, we remember Bernie Madoff and Dick Nixon as the rule. In baseball, we remember the exile of Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson as the tragic exception. Baseball doesn’t have a betting problem today because the sport hurled a beanball at cheating. Manfred can learn from history and succeed where Selig failed with steroids. He can come down hard.
So let the DOJ and FBI conclude their investigation and level legal charges. But a fine here and an arrest there won’t fix this problem. The league must respond with more painful and enduring punishments: lost draft picks, heavy franchise fines, and, most importantly, lifetime bans.
After all, this isn’t football where the National Football League babysits domestic abusers. It’s not the National Hockey League, where toothless Canadians are sent to a time-out after beating each other over the head with sticks. And it’s certainly not FIFA soccer, where effeminate men flop around on the ground to draw penalties.This is baseball, the game of decent, thinking men. It should stay that way.
So, to preserve the sanctity of the game, Major League Baseball needs to start throwing strikes. Otherwise, America’s pastime will become corrupt like everything else, and the last true institution of fair play will have passed.