The first day of full workouts for Major League Baseball is Feb. 17 or 18, depending on the team. For most baseball fans, reporters, and players, there is only one team to talk about — and it’s not the 2019 World Series champions, the Washington Nationals.
That honor would go to the Houston Astros, the Nationals’ opponent in that thrilling seven-game battle and the winners of the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The reason the 2019 championship losers are the talk of the town is that details emerged in a November 2019 Athletic expose that the Astros aren’t just world-class contenders, they’re world-class cheaters.
The Astros’ Offense Was Their Offense
According to that article, which cited former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, the organization used a center-field video camera to film the opposing catchers’ signs to the pitchers. Astros players and team staffers would watch the live camera feed behind the dugout then signal to batters via banging on trash cans or whistling to communicate what kind of pitches were coming.
A subsequent MLB investigation confirmed that the team illegally used a camera system to steal signs during the 2017 regular season and postseason, as well as for part of the 2018 season. For what it’s worth, MLB uncovered no evidence of illicit sign-stealing by the Astros in 2019, although the Nationals were warned by many people in the MLB prior to the 2019 World Series that the Astros would try to cheat. Some Nationals players have even claimed they believe the Astros were still cheating in 2019.
MLB meted out several punishments. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A. J. Hinch were both suspended for the entire 2020 season, and subsequently fired by the Astros. MLB also fined the Astros the maximum allowable $5 million, and forced them to forfeit their first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts.
The only Astros player named in the MLB report was Carlos Beltrán, who is no longer an Astro. MLB punished no Astros players — current or former — because they received immunity from MLB in exchange for cooperation.
Justice Hasn’t Been Served
Reporters and fans have been more than a little dissatisfied with these results, compounded by the fact that last week, the Astros refused to use the word “cheat” in reference to their misdeeds. “We broke the rules. You can phrase that any way you want,” stated Astros owner Jim Crane enigmatically.
“There’s no better way to show good old-fashioned genuine remorse than by refusing to speak the misdeed you committed,” commented prolific sports writer Thomas Boswell. “I knew I shouldn’t have left that barf bag on the plane,” Boswell added, for good measure.
Frustration and indignation have also been palpable among the players. Former Blue Jays pitcher Mike Bolsinger in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post explained how in his last game in the MLB in 2017, he threw 29 pitches, was docked for four runs, and lasted only one-third of an inning before being taken out. “The Astros seemed to know every pitch that was coming.”
Turns out, according to video footage studied by journalists and concerned fans, the Astros cheated more often in that game than in any other game in the 2017 season. The shellshocked Bolsinger never pitched in the majors again. He is now suing the Astros, seeking both personal damages and for the team to donate their $31 million in 2017 postseason bonuses to charity.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen termed the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme “worse than gambling, worse than steroids,” and labeled the MLB punishment “the weakest punishment in the history of sports.” He added: “You killed a lot of young careers during the season. … Pitchers used to come up and get crushed and get sent down.”
A number of professional pitchers in turn have either suggested or explicitly declared their intention to hit Astros batters on purpose during the 2020 season. “I don’t think it’s going to be a comfortable few at-bats for a lot of those boys, and it shouldn’t be,” stated Cleveland Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger in January. In response, new Astros manager Dusty Baker made a preemptive plea to MLB to “put a stop to the seemingly premeditated retaliation.”
What Should the MLB Do?
The reason pitchers are already plotting their revenge against the Astros is, quite simply, because the punishments leveled against the cheaters have been insufficient. A January ESPN survey of more than 1,000 fans found that 58 percent of respondents believed Astros players should be penalized, and 72 percent said they support additional steps punishing players involved in sign-stealing.
As a life-long baseball fan — and a diehard Nationals fan ever since they moved from Montreal to my native Washington, D.C. — I can speculate as to why. Sure, perhaps the team’s leadership bears the highest culpability for the cheating; the captain is responsible for everything that happens on his ship. But the players participated in and benefited from the cheating day-in and day-out for years.
More must be done to rectify this sin against America’s most hallowed game. I agree with Baker, at least in principle, that a 2020 season defined by pitchers seeking their own retribution against Astros players is not going to end well. Beaning batters may be fun and feel good to watch, but such vigilantism is likely to spiral out of control.
Nor does hitting players give other players and fans what they really need or want, which is a renewed sense of balance in the baseball cosmos. Unfortunately, MLB erred in shielding the Astros lineup from punishment when it gave them immunity in exchange for their cooperation.
That said, the MLB and fans can do a number of other things to put pressure on Astros players to make necessary amends. MLB should strip the Astros of their 2017 World Series title. The team obviously benefited from cheating. Perhaps they could have won without stealing signs, but we’ll never know.
MLB could also preemptively declare that all players on those Astros teams are banned from future All-Star games and the Baseball Hall of Fame. Such measures are largely symbolic, but they further communicate a judgment that the Astros’ reputation is permanently tainted.
Fans Can Take Unofficial Action Against the Astros
Fans, in turn, should ratchet up the heat. They should organize petitions to the Astros and the MLB to be more honest and forthright about who was involved and what happened, and demand more aggressive action against the perpetrators. I’m talking organized protests against the guilty players during spring training and the beginning of the season. And I’m talking organized efforts during Astros games in the regular season to heckle and embarrass those players, including with custom T-shirts and posters.
Stadiums of opposing teams should allow fans a lot of latitude here, including permitting them to bring in trash cans to bang on or whistles to blow to mock the Astros. If I were an Astros fan, I’d be going after those guys for shaming the team I loved. If the players won’t do the right thing, including fully admitting their guilt and demonstrating some form of public penance, they should be publicly humiliated.
“I’m not going to let them forget the fact that they are hypocrites, they are cheaters, they’ve stolen from a lot of other people and the game itself” said Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer. I’m with Bauer. The Astros cheating wasn’t just unfair; it literally ruined professional careers.
The worst kind of cheater is the one who won’t come clean after getting caught, and analysis suggests several on the current Astros roster, including Alex Bregman and George Springer, were two of the worst offenders in 2017. Bregman’s sins are especially worthy of censure because of his arrogant antics in the 2019 World Series. If he and the other perpetrators of the Astros cheating scandal won’t do the right thing, make ’em hurt.