Various news sources reported Monday that the MLB Commissioner’s Office “Dropped the Hammer,” “Lowered the Boom” or imposed “Unprecedented” penalties on the Houston Astros for their illegal sign-stealing scheme in 2017 and 2018. In the words of M*A*S*H’s Col. Potter: “Horse Fritters!” Was this punishment severe? Yes. Was it sufficient for the behavior involved? Not even close. Let’s review, briefly, what happened here:
1. Sometime early in the 2017 season, Astros bench coach Alex Cora and several players devised a scheme in which cameras would be use to detect which specific pitch the opposition was going to throw. That information would be relayed electronically to someone who would communicate the information to the batter (originally by banging on a trash can) so that the batter knew exactly what pitch was coming.
2. Astros Manager A.J. Hinch knew this was going on, half-heartedly objected, and let it continue.
3. Using this information, the Astros won 101 games, led the league in several offensive categories, and every single regular position player on their roster (130 games or more) set career highs in batting average, home runs, or (in many cases) both.
4. The Commissioner’s Office issued a stern warning to all MLB teams in September of 2017 saying that there would be harsh penalties for using electronic means to steal signs. Despite that warning, the Astros continued to use their sign-stealing system.
5. The Commissioner’s Office found specific, conclusive evidence that the Astros continued to cheat throughout the 2017 playoffs. In the American League Division Series, facing a very good Boston Red Sox pitching staff, the Astros scored eight runs in each game at home, and averaged six runs per game during the series. In their four wins in the World Series, the Astros scored, 7, 5, 13, and 5 runs against a Los Angeles Dodgers team that had a 3.38 ERA, second best in the league to only the Cleveland Indians.
6. To repeat: The Houston Astros cheated in the regular season, the Division Series, the Championship Series, and the World Series. At least partially because of their cheating they won a championship — winning each of their last two series by razor-thin four games to three margins.
7. Following the 2017 season, Cora left the club to become the manager of the Boston Red Sox. He took his cheating scheme with him and penalties are forthcoming to the Red Sox. But the Astros continued to cheat in 2018 without him. During that season, the Astros won 103 games. The only team that won more? The Cora-led Red Sox, who won 108 games.
8. Although the Commissioner’s Office does not have evidence that the Astros’ cheating continued into the 2018 playoffs, the Astros swept the Cleveland Indians (they of the league-leading pitching staff), somehow averaging seven runs per game against the league’s top pitching. The only thing that stopped the Astros from winning another World Series that year was that the Red Sox, who now had a manager in charge of their cheating, won it instead.
The logical conclusion here is that the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost both the 2017 and 2018 World Series, were robbed in those seasons by a team that was cheating, and then, subsequently, by a team that was cheating so much more efficiently that they beat the original cheaters at it.
In 1921, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, in suspending eight Chicago White Sox players for life, issued the following statement: “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.”
In other words, where players cheat in such a way as to call into question the public’s confidence that the outcome of a game has been fairly decided, or to raise the question of whether cheating decided the most important of MLB games — a World Series — then those players should be banned from playing the game again.
In 1989, when announcing Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from baseball, Commissioner Giamatti noted that the action was necessary to protect “the integrity of the game of baseball — that is, the game’s authenticity, honesty and coherence.” He said that ban was necessary to preserve the game’s “integrity, of professionalism, of performance, of fair play within its rules.”
Here, players, coaches and managers on two teams were explicitly warned not to do the very thing that have been found to have done, and then continued to do it, and each won a championship, in part because of their cheating. How that could not be deemed to be “sitting in conference with a bunch of crooked players,” or a violation of the “authenticity, honesty and coherence” of the game is beyond me.
The penalties were not “unprecedented” and were not harsh in light of the end result of the cheating involved. If players use steroids to enhance their performance they get half-season, full-season, and lifetime bans for first, second and third violations. How is this attempt to artificially enhance performance any less serious? The Astros (and possibly the Red Sox depending on the findings in that case) should have had their World Series title stripped from them, and the individual players known to have taken part in the scheme should have been banned from the game for significant periods of time. Nothing short of that will protect “the integrity of the game of baseball.”
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. He has written a weekly column on law and history for the Gazette since 2005.