How the Houston Astros Cheated Baseball and Got Away With It

Cheating has always been an unfortunate blight on the professional sporting world. For as long as organised competitions have existed, so too has the desire to get ahead by whatever means possible.

From Essendon’s drug saga to Tonya Harding’s knee scandal. From the New England Patriots’ ‘Deflategate’ to the Australian Cricket team’s ball-tampering, we’ve seen it all.

The latest of such sporting scandals is the tale of the 2017 Houston Astros: a championship-winning team that the sporting world hailed as a refreshing, feel-good story, from rags to riches.

They became the model for a successful rebuild and set the ship steady for what was to be a certain dynasty in Major League Baseball. That was until reports started to surface in November of 2019 that their 2017 championship and subsequent 2018 season weren’t all that honest after all.

Journalists Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic brought to light – with the help of a whistleblowing player Mike Fiers – that the Astros were using highly illegal ‘sign-stealing’ techniques to get the edge on their opponents. It was dubbed ‘Operation Codebreaker’.

In baseball, a catcher will relay signs to their pitcher to signal which kind of pitch they should deliver to the batter. This could range from a fastball, curveball, changeup; they’re all vastly different and have significant tactical benefits.

It was alleged that the Astros used a TV camera set up in centre field to film the opposing catcher’s signs, which were then relayed to other members of the organisation, who would notify the current batter which pitch selection was coming.

This gave the Astros a considerable advantage in preparing their batters to swing comfortably knowing certain elements of the pitches they faced. Elements such as how fast or slow the pitch was coming at them or whether it was going to move or swing across the plate, among other things.

The MLB conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegations to be true. The subsequent fallout would rock the Major League system, in more ways than one.

The Astros were fined a measly USD 5 million, which is barely loose change for an organisation worth more than USD 600 million. Manager A.J Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow were both suspended for one year, ultimately leading to their sacking. The Astros were also stripped of draft picks, but in a free agency driven league, this isn’t a worry for them.

Owner Jim Crane is adamant that he was blissfully unaware of the cheating and has recently claimed that he believes his team didn’t benefit significantly by the techniques.

Much to the displeasure of opposing teams such as the Yankees (who the Astros beat in the playoffs in 2017 to qualify for the World Series), his apology press conference had a rather unapologetic tone about it.

“Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game…we had a good team. We won the World Series, and we’ll leave it at that.”

These comments came in the same press conference in which two of his highest-profile players, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, expressed their deepest apologies for their actions.

However the first to publicly apologise was now-Minnesota Twin Marwin Gonzalez.

 

There’s a real smell of “I’m only sorry because I got caught” in the air.

Shockingly, not a single Astros player has seen any discipline, largely thanks to protection from the ever-vigilant MLB Players Association. This is all despite the MLB ruling it as a ‘player-driven’ exercise.

Jared Diamond from the Wall Street Journal claims that ‘the Astros front office created Codebreaker. The players took it from there.’

Once the news broke and the MLB deliver their dissatisfactory ruling, players from across the league have taken to Twitter to voice their displeasure.

 

Manager A.J. Hinch insists he wasn’t a part of it. But, his downfall lies in knowing what his players were up to, and not taking the initiative to shut it down.

When you get past the outrage at the lack of punishment for involved players, the other side of the whole saga becomes clear. The players whose careers’ were drastically altered due to the opposing team having an unfair advantage on them.

Up and coming pitchers, some seeing their first-ever Major League playtime were battered and bruised, being smacked around for countless runs. Put simply, this impacted their stats negatively, making it easy for their organisations to send them right back down to the Minor Leagues, from which some never returned.

This becomes particularly problematic amid building reports of mistreatment of players in the Minor League System, including underpaying, underfeeding and overworking.

Some were older veterans who were trying to prove they still had it in them to pitch at a Major League level, but a fateful outing with the Astros banished them into retirement.

Such was the case for ex-Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Mike Bolsinger who – according to Sports Illustrated –  is suing the Astros in a civil lawsuit, claiming they ended his career.

Some were current stars of the game, who despite being dominant throughout their careers, have never been able to find success in the postseason.

Who knows, maybe Cy Young Award Winner and perennial postseason failure Clayton Kershaw could’ve finally held that Commissioner’s Trophy high had it not been for the Astros’ cheating.

During MLB’s investigation, interviews were conducted with almost the entire Astros organisation. Many players claimed that the sign-stealing tactics gave them no advantage, and in fact, proved to be more of a distraction or hindrance than anything. But no one is buying that.

The list of victims left in the Astros’ dust continues.

The 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers – appearing in their first World Series since 1988 – were beaten by the Astros in 7 games, with a damning Game 7 pitching performance from Japanese Pitcher Yu Darvish being the difference in the series. Darvish faced an incredible amount of vitriol for his performance, giving up 5 runs in 1 and 2 thirds of an inning. The backlash online was unprecedented and took its toll on his mental health.

When the AFL handed out its punishments for Essendon’s drug scandal, they were strict and firm in their ruling. Though they took their time, everyone involved in that operation felt the repercussions, including the players.

Jobe Watson was stripped of his 2012 Brownlow Medal, and it was handed retrospectively to the runners up. However, a host of awarded Astros players from the 2017 season will get to keep their trophies – including American League MVP Jose Altuve – leaving runners up wondering why they’re punished for playing the game fairly.

Essendon was thrown out of finals contention. And, after finishing 8th that season, were forced to watch their bitter rivals Carlton end Richmond’s season in an elimination final.

Yet the MLB decided the best course of action – amid the earth-moving repercussions of the Astros’ cheating – was to sanction them pocket money and suspend their coach and GM for a year. They never deemed it appropriate to strip the Astros of their 2017 championship, instead opting for them to forever have an asterisk planted next to their name.

To quote the commissioner Rob Manfred, “asking for a piece of metal (the trophy) back seems like a futile idea”.

The MLB and its commissioner Rob Manfred can try all they like to brush this under the rug but it’s not going away. Their efforts to deter people from focusing on the story – such as announcing a possible new playoff format, – have been in vain.

The story continues to unravel each day, with new developments further cementing the Astros guilt. It’s a damaging and frankly embarrassing outcome for the credibility of baseball.

 Image by Jarrod Pettit

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