The punishment Major League Baseball handed down Monday against the Houston Astros for stealing signs throughout the 2017 postseason was one of the toughest on record. And yet it still feels as if the league whiffed.
We don’t write this because Los Angeles is home to the Dodgers, who lost to the rules-flouting Astros in a seven-game World Series. We write this because the league’s punishment fell mainly on team manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, who played little if any role in the cheating. According to the league, the sign-stealing scheme was conceived, developed and operated largely by Astros players and not one of them was penalized.
Cheating happens in every professional sport, even with teams that operate at a championship level (hello, New England Patriots). In baseball, players have sought unfair advantages ever since the game was invented, doctoring their bats, tampering with balls and, most notoriously, taking performance-enhancing drugs. In fact, some tactics that seem like cheating aren’t actually against the rules; a baserunner, for instance, is free to try to steal the signs that a catcher gives the pitcher to determine the speed and placement of the next pitch.
What pushed the Astros’ behavior into foul territory was their use of technology to turn gamesmanship into cheating. As Commissioner Robert D. Manfred reminded every team late in the 2017 season, electronics may not be used in the dugout during games. The reminder, which was accompanied by a threat of stiff penalties, came after officials in the Red Sox organization were caught transmitting catchers’ signs to players’ smartwatches, using information gleaned from the video feed from a center-field camera used to help resolve disputes over umpires’ calls.
According to the league’s investigation, however, the warning did not deter the Astros’ players or bench coach Alex Cora, who had decided early in the 2017 season to tap into the video feed to improve the team’s sign-stealing prowess. Yet the league decided not to penalize any of those players — including alleged ringleader Carlos Beltran, now the manager of the New York Mets — in part because Manfred had previously announced that he would hold team management responsible for any violations, and in part because Manfred said he couldn’t be sure the sign-stealing actually helped batters.
If it didn’t help, why did the Astros go to such lengths to do it? And besides, cheating is still cheating, even if it doesn’t produce the desired result. The league said it was still investigating Cora, who went on to manage the Red Sox to a World Series victory over the Dodgers in 2018; it also suspended Hinch and Luhnow for a year, prompting the Astros to fire both of them. Those are stiff and deserved penalties for a manager and an executive who were in a position to stop the cheating and didn’t. But what about the players who actually did it?