Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 14, 2019

Cheating The Game Is Cheating The Fans

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling the next two weekends, so there will be no post either this Sunday or next. Thursday posts will continue as usual, and the regular twice weekly schedule will resume over Thanksgiving weekend. As always, thanks for reading!

Smart people do stupid things. Fans everywhere would readily acknowledge that truism, and more than a few of above average intelligence would, if pressed, concede that they have personally taken a less than brilliant action a time or two. Or ten. That also applies to teams, which are groups of people united in a common cause.  So perhaps no one should be surprised by this week’s story at The Athletic in which former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who now toils for the Oakland A’s, alleged that when he wore a Houston uniform in 2017 the team used a combination of modern high tech and the most rudimentary of old-fashioned noisemakers to steal signs from the opposing pitcher and relay that information to batters at the plate.  But “unsurprising” is not a synonym for “acceptable.”

As Fiers told the popular sports website, when playing at home the Astros utilized a center field camera aimed at home plate to obtain the signs given by visiting catchers. The video feed from that camera was sent to a monitor just off the dugout, and a team member would then bang a trash can to alert the Houston hitter when the catcher had called for an off-speed pitch. Shortly after the story was published the Astros released a statement saying that an internal investigation had begun “in cooperation” with Major League Baseball, and that no further comment would be forthcoming until that investigation was complete.

The most telling aspect of the press release is what it didn’t say. Unlike manager A.J. Hinch’s tirade to the media during the American League Championship Series against the Yankees last month, when he adamantly denied that his team was stealing signs, the franchise’s statement did not include a denial of Fiers’s charges. That alone is likely enough to ensure that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred will not allow Houston to handle this issue as if it were some internal matter.

That the Astros are a smart franchise is beyond debate. Houston was one of the pioneers of the currently popular strategy of asking fans to endure several years of losing badly in order to build up prospects and clear salary space so that in time a winning roster can be put on the field. Heralded by Sports Illustrated as a future World Series winning team early in that process, the Astros made the magazine’s writers look prescient by rolling to the title in 2017. Since that 101-win season Houston has won two more AL West titles by twice more winning more than 100 games, while going to the ALCS in 2018 and back to the World Series just last month.

Yet for all that success this is not the first time that the Astros have been the subject of an unflattering story for which they can only blame themselves. It’s not even the first such controversy this autumn. During the playoffs the franchise suffered a well-deserved black eye from its response to the news of locker room taunting of female reporters by an assistant general manager. The Astros first statement was an attack on the reporter who broke that story. Then the team dawdled through gradual backtracking to eventual acknowledgement, so that by the time the employee was fired and an apology was issued the contrition felt forced.

It would be foolish to suggest (though that hasn’t stopped a few fans of other franchises from doing so), that Houston’s success on the field is simply attributed to cheating. Still, it is worth noting that during the 2017 postseason the Astros won eight of nine games at Minute Maid Park. Even the best hitter will have a better chance of putting his bat on the ball if he knows what kind of pitch is about to be sent his way. But more important than whatever edge the sound of a bat banging against a trash can might have given Astros hitters is what not merely this story, but the emerging pattern self-inflicted damage says about the culture of the Houston franchise. Astros fans might want to use the time they had planned to spend celebrating a second championship pondering that question instead.

This story also raises a broader issue for the Great Game, and for that matter almost all our sports. Technology, and the reference here is to the real time video feed into the dugout, not the use of a trash can as a cymbal, advances at a lightning pace while becoming every more imbedded in our games. That is helpful in so many ways, but it also presents new opportunities for those who believe breaking the rules is the best way to get ahead. That includes not just those playing a sport, but also the many who might stand to gain from a particular outcome. If, for example, MLB moves to computerized scanning of the strike zone in the near future, supplanting human umpires for calling balls and strikes, will there be real and reliable safeguards against hacking the computer driving the technology? That includes protections against outside parties like gamblers, and not just the efforts of a clever nerd in the home team’s front office.

In any sport, a basic element of the compact with fans is that those who sit in the stands or subscribe to a cable package can trust the integrity of the game. We should never have to doubt that the playing field is level, both literally and figuratively. The Astros are a great team. But the Houston franchise does baseball a disservice when that becomes a question, rather than a statement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: