It’s official: The Houston Astros are cheaters. The commissioner of baseball himself said so, in a nine-page report issued Monday.
In his report, Rob Manfred cited the 2017 Astros for repeated violations of rules that banned the use of video equipment to steal signs during a game. In the last game of the 2017 season, the Astros won the World Series championship, beating the Dodgers.
So that makes the Dodgers the 2017 World Series champs, right?
No. Manfred did not award the 2017 title to the Dodgers, or vacate the Astros’ title.
This is not the NCAA, where executives vacate titles and essentially tell fans they did not see what they actually did. Bud Selig, Manfred’s predecessor, despised Barry Bonds for his alleged steroid use, but Selig did not put an asterisk by Bonds’ all-time home-run record.
And you never know what might turn up in the future. When the Angels won the 2002 World Series, they were celebrated for vanquishing the evil Bonds, and the rest of the San Francisco Giants. In 2007, when Sen. George Mitchell’s investigation into baseball’s steroid era was released, three members of the 2002 Angels turned up among the alleged users, including World Series MVP Troy Glaus.
How did Manfred punish the Astros?
He suspended general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season. Astros owner Jim Crane then fired Luhnow and Hinch.
Manfred also stripped the Astros of their first-round and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and he fined the team $5 million.
Why $5 million?
It’s the maximum allowed under the MLB constitution. It is less than the salary the Astros paid to journeyman catcher Robinson Chirinos last season. It also is less than the $66 million Forbes estimated the Astros made in profit in 2018, the year after they won the World Series.
And what should we make of the draft picks?
In 2011 and 2012, when the Astros were terrible and picked at the top of the draft, three of their top four picks were Carlos Correa, George Springer and Lance McCullers Jr., all contributors to the 2017 World Series championship. In 2020 and 2021, when the Astros should be pretty good, they will be picking near the bottom of the draft.
In his report, Manfred described the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme as “player-driven and player-executed.” Why did he not punish any players?
Manfred said he had previously warned teams that managers and executives would be held responsible for such misconduct. He also said that player discipline would be “difficult and impractical,” since “virtually all of the Astros players” were aware of the scheme and he could not reasonably determine who should be most guilty. He noted, too, that many of those players now play for other teams.
Also, although Manfred did not make this explicit, managers and executives cannot appeal discipline, but players can. Player suspensions would have resulted in negotiations with the players’ union and/or grievance hearings, extending a saga the league would prefer to say it has concluded.
Did investigators find any nonplayers responsible for the scheme?
The one named in the report is Alex Cora, then the bench coach for the Astros, now the manager of the Boston Red Sox. Manfred said he would announce punishment for Cora after the league completes its investigation into allegations that, under Cora, the Red Sox used a similar sign-stealing scheme in 2018.
Hey, the Red Sox won the World Series in 2018! What team did they beat?
How did the league find out about the Astros’ scheme?
Mike Fiers, who pitched for the Astros in 2017, spoke about the cheating to the Athletic last November. Fiers now pitches for the Oakland Athletics, and the A’s are scheduled to play 10 games in Houston this year.
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was embroiled in an earlier scandal involving theft of team secrets. Was this related?
No. FBI investigators uncovered evidence in 2015 that St. Louis Cardinals employees broke into an Astros network that housed databases of proprietary statistics and scouting reports. Luhnow had been a Cardinals executive through 2011. Cardinals scouting director Christopher Correa eventually pleaded guilty to five counts of unauthorized access of a protected computer.
Other than the Astros and Red Sox, are other teams implicated in sign-stealing via technology?
It would be naive to say no. In a game that has embraced technology in areas from player evaluation and game plans to coaching and ticket sales, and in an era in which teams have hired armies of research and development staffs, it is little wonder that the search for every possible edge has extended to technologically enhanced cheating.
MLB could let teams steal a sign in whatever way they like, old-fashioned or video-assisted. In his statement, Manfred appeared to frown on a laissez-faire approach, condemning the Astros for a “culture of the baseball operations department ... that valued and rewarded results over other considerations.”
Without Monday’s punishment, what would Hinch have been doing July 14?
Managing the American League All-Star team, at Dodger Stadium. Can you imagine?