Sports

Field of cheats

Major League Baseball dropped the ball on a Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal that threatens the fabric of the game. Will the players ever be punished?

If the game of baseball matters—and it has mattered deeply for more than 150 years to hundreds of millions of parents and children in communities small and great across the Americas and beyond—then the spectre of organized, methodical, scientific, continuous, years-long, unpunished cheating that hangs over the ballpark as the 2020 season begins is as dark and rueful as a rainout on Mother’s Day.

At its nucleus, the current crisis involves the Houston Astros championship club of 2017, though there may have been several other teams invested in their own schemes that have not yet been exposed. But this affair is about much more than millionaire athletes using a high-res video feed to steal each other’s strategic signals. It goes to the value and meaning of sport itself, asking plangent questions about privilege and punishment, trust and tradition, the value of integrity itself, and the treacherous triangle of responsibility, remorse, and revenge that all of us dance along in our off-the-field lives.

“The only church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the church of baseball,” the lovely Annie Savoy proselytizes in Bull Durham. But baseball’s Notre Dame is on fire, and the catechism of cheating that the Astros blessed—and Major League Baseball’s sickeningly weak response to the revelations—has the weight to bring the ancient buttresses down.

“The Astros, as diverse and hard-working as Houston, reflect our nation’s future,” crowed the Houston Chronicle when the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, weeks after their city had been devastated by Hurricane Harvey. The paper noted the champions’ provenance from Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and across the United States and gushed, “The concoction is truly the modern version of America’s Team.”

Now they are America’s disgrace. If the game of baseball matters to you, they are your disgrace, too.

Some of the Astros’ players may not have taken part in the piracy. Others moved on and kept their counsel. In the long glare of history, none of that matters now. As has been said in another context, the Houston Astros are impeached forever.

The Houston scandal began with an insinuation that was whispered for years around the major leagues, followed by a belated confession by an ex-Astro that blew the cover off the crime—pitcher Mike Fiers’s admission to journalists last fall that, in 2017, 2018 and perhaps during other seasons as well, many or most of the Houston team’s most respected, most experienced and wealthiest players were clandestinely using a secure video link to intercept the coded hand-jive that opposing catchers waggle to signal to their pitchers what sort of ball to heave next.

Fast or slow, straight or curving, tight or wide, a rise, a dip—for a batter at the professional level, advance warning is like a bet on a one-horse race. Erase the existential contest of wits and skill between the hitter and the pitcher, and it’s not baseball, it’s Whac-A-Mole—a spree for the slugger with the stick, and a bludgeon to the pride and career of the bewildered man on the mound.

That the Astros profited competitively and financially from their cheating is not in dispute—they kept this up for years. When their manager took a war club to the video apparatus—twice—they set up a new monitor each time. When a coach questioned the whistling and garbage-pail banging that the team’s spies used to alert the batter, they ignored him like the old fool he was.

There even is rampant suspicion that when one star player, having hit a game-winning home run against the fastest-throwing pitcher in the game’s history, clutched at his uniform shirt as he rounded third base, he was alerting his compadres not to tear off the garment in celebration lest it expose an electronic buzzer taped to the hero’s body. (José Altuve’s original alibi was that he was “shy” and “my wife doesn’t like it.” Later, it was that he didn’t want anyone to see a “really ugly” new tattoo. A clang, a holler, a jolt—the method of delivery matters far less than the subversion itself. Altuve also has claimed that he did not join the sign-stealing cabal.)

Here’s the walk-off blast: absolutely nothing has been done so far to punish the players involved—not a fine, not a suspension, not a firing, not a demotion, not a reprimand, not a scarlet ‘C’ to go with their tangy orange stars. The Astros’ field manager and front-office manager were sent away in token shame but can return to the game next season. The team was fined US$5 million; a laughable sum. The club’s owner hee-hawed that “this didn’t impact the game. We had a good team. We won the World Series and we’ll leave it at that.”

Fifty-seven seconds later, this same gallant reversed himself and said, “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.”

Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Mike Bolsinger, left, walks off the mound as Houston Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez rounds the bases after hitting a three-run home run during the fourth inning of a baseball game in Houston. (Eric Christian Smith/CP)

The flaccid commissioner of Major League Baseball, a corporate lawyer beholden only to the billionaires’ cartel that owns the National Pastime, having already trussed up the canard that firing or suspending the players would violate the union’s collective-bargaining agreement, went so far as to announce that the Commissioner’s Trophy itself—the prize for which young men dream and scuttle across naked sandlots and posh academies from Havana to the Houston suburbs—is “just a piece of metal.”

This man—Rob Manfred Jr.—is the son of a schoolteacher and a father of four. Well, on his watch, the coolest kids in math class found the final exam in the teacher’s desk. Sharing the answer key, they all scored A’s. So the schoolmaster fired the prof and the principal and drove the cheaters in a limo to the prom.

(Major League Baseball’s own television network did not broadcast the commissioners’ derisible comments in real time in mid-February—it showed a rerun of Bull Durham instead. As Annie Savoy once said, “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”)

The courts have not yet had their hour. Mike Bolsinger is a former journeyman pitcher who got called up to the Toronto Blue Jays, only to see his big-league career end in a gruesome one-inning battering by the free-swinging, pennant-bound cheaters. Now he is suing the Astros and Major League Baseball for millions, accusing the team of “unfair business practices, negligence and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations.” (Bolsinger’s attorney represented Colin Kaepernick, the anthem-kneeler, in his suit against the NFL.)

“There’s a message to be sent to youth out there,” Bolsinger, who has a two-year-old son, told USA Today. “You don’t have to cheat to get to where you want to go.” Of his 2017 beatdown, leading to a 16-7 Houston win, he added: “It’s like they knew what was coming.’ That was the thought in my head. I felt like I didn’t have a chance.”

Rival players have been viciously condemnatory of the Astros in interviews and on Twitter, breaking a canon of conformity and cover-up that has been in place since the days of the handlebar moustache. “Worse than steroids,” is their consensus, drawing an important distinction between a man jabbing a syringe into his gluteus in private, and an entire team poisoning any chance at fair play on the public field.

“Everybody in the world is laughing,” said Kenley Jansen, a Dodgers pitcher. “What are you gonna teach kids out there? You’re not gonna teach anything.”

“It’s tough. They cheated,” said stellar outfielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, who never has played in a World Series. “I don’t agree with the punishments, the players not getting anything. It was a player-driven thing. It sucks, too, because guys’ careers have been affected, a lot of people lost jobs. It was tough.”

“I don’t know if the commissioner has ever won anything in his life,” said Justin Turner, the Dodgers’ third baseman, in perhaps the most hurtful jibe of all.

Justin Verlander #35 of the Houston Astros looks on prior to a team workout at FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on February 13, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

As 2020 begins, league executives have warned against pitchers taking retribution into their own hands by throwing 100-mile-an-hour bullets at the Houstonians’ heads. No one knows all the truths yet, but as their shortstop Carlos Correa was saying on the first day of Spring Training, “It’s not going to be a fun season on the road.” In their consciences, Houston’s own fans will have to decide whether it should be a lark at home as well.

In this spirit, the Astros convened at West Palm Beach, Fla. on a February weekday to commence their exertions for 2020 with a new manager, most of the same, guilty players, a swarm of journalists from inside and outside the sport, and, at long last, nowhere to hide.

This was the now-infamous morning when Jim Crane, the supply-chain-logistics magnate and former small-college pitcher who owns the Astros, had the astigmatism to call them—after everything they did—“a great group of guys” and to insist that “the players should not be punished for their actions.”

“We’re not going to do anything to the players,” Jim Crane said, more than once.

Inside the clubhouse, a handful of regulars from the 2017 team—all of whom have earned tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars from the diamond game—costumed themselves in contrition to go with their taut skin and soft, brown eyes.

“When we first started, we thought we were taking advantage of technology, but it was wrong,” Correa explained. “You don’t want to be remembered as that kind of player. I don’t want my kids, my brother, my family members to think of me as a cheater.

“I get it,” said Correa, getting it three years too late. “I love this game too much to be a cheater. It’s just terrible, man. We feel really bad for ruining careers.”

“We regret everything,” said George Springer, the centre fielder. “The amount of remorse is very high. I wish I had done more.”

“Mike Bolsinger wants you to give your 2017 World Series bonus to charity,” a Maclean’s reporter informed Justin Verlander, the veteran pitcher who has signed a two-year contract with the Astros valued at $66 million. (The championship dividend was a measly $438,901.57.)

“I already gave my 2017 World Series bonus to charity,” he snapped back.

At their training base in Dunedin, Fla., the Toronto Blue Jays reacted with the same level of passion.

“I don’t know what they’re really thinking,” the 21-year old shortstop Bo Bichette told Maclean’s. “I don’t know what their true intentions behind the apologies are. From the outside looking in, it doesn’t seem to be too apologetic.”

Bichette was not yet in the American League in 2017. No one has suggested the Jays of that epoch essayed a similar sign-stealing scheme. (The team was so bad that year that they probably would have swung at the trash can and missed.) But the infielder swore that he never will take part in such dastardly deeds, vowing he’d make “a pretty big ruckus” if he learned that sort of thing was happening.

“If I knew what’s coming, I could hit five hundred,” said 20-year-old Vladimir Guerrero Jr., though it was difficult to discern whether this idea struck him as nefarious or delicious. Bichette, Guerrero, and their baby Blue Jay nestmates often are labelled the future of the game. Of course, they said the same thing about José Altuve and Carlos Correa and George Springer.

Nothing about this scandal is truly new, of course—baseball men have been swiping signals with telescopes since Galileo was a rookie. The Philadelphia Phillies ran a wire from the outfield stands to the third-base coach’s box—in 1900!—and finished third anyway. Spies in the scoreboard, conspirators on the roof, men waving handkerchiefs and spinning weathervanes—all of this always has been well known, nostalgic, laughable. Until now.

Exactly 100 years ago, eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused—and acquitted in a court of law—of conspiring with gamblers to lose the World Series on purpose. The Commissioner of Baseball banned them from the game for life anyway.

Three years ago, an unknown number of members of the Houston Astros spent hundreds of hours trying surreptitiously to gain an unfair advantage in dozens of league games before millions of paying spectators. The Commissioner of Baseball looked the other way.

So now it was up to the perpetrators themselves to police their own immorality, because if the game of baseball matters, it forces everyone who cares to take a position, regardless of city, country, tribe, regime, or class.

Manager Dusty Baker answers questions from the media during a team workout at FITTEAM Ballpark of The Palm Beaches on February 13, 2020 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

“Tremendous remorse, sorrow, embarrassment,” the soft, old man was saying now.

The Astros’ old new manager was standing all alone in the middle of the dressing room, taking it all in. At 70, Dusty Baker, who broke into the big leagues barely 20 years after Jackie Robinson was chosen to break the colour bar, has seen much between the foul lines, and outside them. His function in Houston is to deflect the coming hurricane with loquacity, wisdom and calm.

“It’s like the students cheated and the teacher got fired instead,” an old baseball scribe suggested, shaking hands with the sage.

“Probably,” Dusty Baker replied. “I have a kid in college.”

The boy is at the University of California. His personal hitting coach, Baker was saying, is the one and only Barry Bonds, the home run and anabolic-steroid champion whose liniment iniquities seem quaint compared to an entire team of athletes betraying their game, night after night, for two long years. History will judge all this more coolly, should baseball endure and anybody care.

“Did you ever cheat on a test?” Dusty Baker was asking the reporter, down in West Palm.

“Never,” he was told. “What about you? Did you ever cheat on your income tax?”

“Well, they accused me of cheating!” Baker laughed.

“Didn’t you try to steal signs when you were playing?” the old manager was pressed. “Didn’t you want to know what was coming?”

“No,” insisted Dusty Baker, in the eye of an awful storm. “I didn’t want to know. I thought I could hit.”