José Altuve,2nd baseman for the Houston Astros at Chase Field in Phoenix, AZ on Aug. 15, 2017. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KEETON GALE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Jan. 13, 2020. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred releases his report on allegations that the Houston Astros cheated during the 2017 World Series championship season. 

The report found the Astros cheated elaborately en route to a World Series championship but still got to keep the title. Nearly a year after their mild punishment, some fans and players still can’t let go of the injustice as spring training 2021 begins.

Fans online have already weighed in. Following Manfred’s earlier comments stating the Astros punishment could be severe, Reddit user Musivino said: “For [Manfred’s] personal reputation, if it’s true MLB was aware from 2017 forward this was happening, he’s already guaranteed a spot in the future history books. If he can see objectively, he may realize that vacating the title plus his resignation are required to place upon this wound a proper sized bandaid.”

Many fans shared this point of view. Here’s a solution that many would have been satisfied with in response to the scandal. 

Manfred’s sanctions are harsh and sweeping. “We believe there was only one way to handle this punishment in order to make things right:

“For illegally stealing signs during the 2017 and 18 seasons, the Houston Astros have been fined $20 million.

  • They will lose their 2020 and 2021 first and second round draft picks, and will not be allowed to sign free-agents over that time.
  • Manager AJ Hinch, and GM Jeff Luhnow will receive lifetime bans.
  • Lastly, anything awarded to the Astros in 2017 has been stripped, including Jose Altuve’s MVP award, and the World Series trophy.

Manfred continues that “we needed to send a message to the rest of the league that this type of behaviour won’t be accepted.”

As the baseball world knows, that is not what happened. Despite the findings of cheating, the Astros were allowed to keep the World Series title.

More often than not, reality can let us down more than fantasy. With spring training right around the corner, let’s look back on how we got here.

The great scheme in Houston

From 2017 to 2018, the Astros used a system where, through the use of cameras, their hitters would know what pitch would be coming, providing a significant advantage that led the team to the top of the American League and to a World Series victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. After this information came to light in The Athletic, which led to a lengthy investigation, MLB decided to punish the team by not taking the team’s championship away, focusing instead on fines and lost draft picks.

Astros fan Tony Adams created a website, signstealingscandal.com, that garnered attention in the early days of the scandal. The opening page (shown above), details the number of times the Astros stole signs during each home game of the 2017 season.

This has created anger in the baseball community that persists, with fans and players alike expressing frustration. Fans continue to let their cries of rage be heard on social media, and opposing pitchers spent the 2020 season plunking Astros batters whenever the opportunity presented itself.

The lasting legacy of the cheating scandal is showing us that people expect cheaters to suffer punishment. Would it have been better for the Astros and baseball if Manfred had just taken the title away? Perhaps so. Actions this season show us that the Astros illegal activities will stick in the minds of fans and players for a long time.

The origin of the Houston Astros rule-bending ways to help their on-field success goes back to Sept. 2016. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager, was presented by an Astros intern on an idea called “Codebreaker,” which was an elaborate new way to steal signs from other teams.

“The people who were in power, had the power to stop it, didn’t. That points to a really systemic, embedded, lack of ethical conduct”

Sarah Eaton, associate professor university of calgary

Signs are an integral form of communication in baseball, especially between the pitcher and catcher. The catcher gives signs to the pitcher so they are on the same page about what pitch to throw. Theoretically, if the opponent were to figure out those signs, they would be able to know what pitches are coming.

Players have always tried to gain an edge in any way they can. Geoff Freeborn, 39, is a former pitcher based in Calgary. He spent five years playing professional baseball in independent leagues, most of that time with the Calgary Vipers. He also played for two national teams, and is currently an associate scout for the Baltimore Orioles.

Freeborn says that players try to gain an edge in any way they can. “[In baseball] there’s always been runners on second relaying signs to the hitter. Guys in the dugout are trying to pick up the pitcher tipping pitches, that’s been part of the game forever.”

The Astros took the idea of being a runner on second relaying signs to a whole new level.

Early in the 2017 season, with veteran player Carlos Beltran and bench coach Alex Cora leading the charge, the Astros placed a camera in centre field that zoomed-in on the opposing catcher. By June, they had placed a monitor in the tunnel to the dugout with a direct feed to the centerfield camera. An employee would watch the monitor, and when the catcher dropped his signs, a trash can would be banged on to let the hitter know what pitch was coming. Bangs from the trash can would tell the Houston hitter at-bat that an offspeed pitch was coming, while no bang meant a fastball was on its way. With this system, the Astros players had the ability to know what type of pitches were being thrown in real-time.

Drew Miller played 12 seasons in independent league baseball as an outfielder, seven of those seasons on the Calgary Vipers. As someone who batted over .300 five times in his career, Miller knows a thing or two about hitting, and says that knowing what pitch is coming can give a hitter a tremendous advantage.

Drew Miller was an excellent independent-league player, pictured here playing for the Calgary Vipers, He says knowing what pitches are coming made things easy for the Astros, “If you know what’s coming, it’s so much easier to be relaxed up there, to be confident.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF DREW MILLER

“The way I always thought about it when I went up to bat was almost like a poker player, where you’re trying to play the averages, the probabilities. You get a pitcher with 2, 3, or maybe 4 pitches, now you’ve got a 50/50 chance, a 33 per cent chance, or a quarter chance. Then all of a sudden, you get ‘oh, this is exactly what’s coming,’ so now there’s no chance of being fooled by anything. You know exactly what’s coming.”

Miller believes it “was pretty crazy to even fathom that [the Astros] would go that far, and not think that it was almost above and beyond what was acceptable in the game of baseball.”

What is cheating?

The Athletic story was published on Nov. 12, 2019. MLB announced the start of its investigation on the same day. Right away, people online began voicing their displeasure with the Astros.

The official definition of cheating is to “act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination.”

Sarah Eaton is an associate professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in the field of academic cheating. Eaton’s research has been published in over 20 academic journals, and has presented her work all over the world. Noting the similarities between cheating in academics and sports, she said in regards to the Astros that “it points to the need to address behaviour from an ethical perspective, at every level of an organization.”

“There was collusion among the players, so they had to agree that they were going to work together in order to cheat. That the cheating was not only known, but promoted by those in positions of management or authority. So, it becomes systematized.”

She continues: “What gets me about situations like that is that the people who were in power, had the power to stop it, didn’t. That points to a really systemic, embedded, lack of ethical conduct. There are different people involved at a variety of levels, no one’s free of responsibility for how they act, but they’re all part of a larger system as well.”

Looking at why fans and players have been harsh in their criticism for the Astros, Eaton says “I have observed that over the past several years, people in general and particularly in the United States seem to have a heightened sense of social justice and standing up for what’s right. This applies to all facets of American life, including politics, education, and society in general, so sports would be no exception.”

Eaton’s remarks echo the fact that people want to see justice happen. Growing up, we learn that breaking the rules and poor behaviour lead to punishment. Yet, so many people will tell you that the Astros got away with what they did.

Arguably, the ones hurt the most by this news were the fans, which is why they continue to speak out.

“If professional athletes are out there acting in corrupt ways, if politicians are acting in corrupt ways, it really sends a message to the average person that that’s the new normal.”

SARAH EATON, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY

Trevor Fafard is a longtime Oakland Athletics fan from Vacaville, Calif. Fafard has been a baseball fan since he was a child attending Dodgers games in Los Angeles. He became an A’s fan after moving to Northern California at the age of eight. The A’s played a role in helping bring this story to light, as one of the first teams to complain about suspicious behaviour surrounding the Astros in 2018, as well as A’s (and former Astros) pitcher Mike Fiers providing detailed information about the Astros in the initial article from The Athletic. As a fan of the A’s, Fafard was very interested in the scandal.

“As were a lot of real baseball fans, specifically Dodgers, Yankees and A’s fans, I was irate. It completely changed a lot of different possible scenarios and outcomes for both the game and players,” he said over email. 

Many Astros fans also felt a sense of betrayal from their team over what transpired. 

Tony Adams is a web developer in Houston, Texas. He has been a fan of the Astros since his youth, experiencing the major ups and downs the Astros went through over the past few decades. Adams got to see his team reach the top of the mountain in 2017, only to have that come into question following the release of The Athletic article.

“People started posting videos online, where you could hear the banging on the trashcan,” says Adams. “As an Astros fan you’d like to say ‘well that’s not true, that didn’t happen.’ But once you hear the videos, it’s obvious that it’s undeniable.”

“It’s our only championship for the Astros. It was devastating for me.” He adds, “I’m still kind of confused as to how this all happened, and how it got this far. So, I’m very disappointed, and kind of embarrassed for the city and for the team.”

Adams responded to his confusion by using his skills as a web developer to do his own investigation. He examined the Astros 2017 season, and on Jan. 29 posted his findings on signstealingscandal.com. His research breaks down and shows every known instance of banging during an Astros at-bat.

“I listened to 8,200 pitches and there were over 1,100 pitches that had bangs before them.”

https://calgaryjournal.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Astros_Cheating_Example.mp4
Proof that the Astros cheated is easy to find, thanks to the work from people online. In this example from a Sept. 21, 2017 game between the Astros and White Sox, you can clearly hear a loud thud at roughly the six-second mark. Houston batter Evan Gattis then benefits by going up 1-0 in the count, knowing that the pitch was offspeed from the bang.  AUDIO AND WAVEFORM: COURTESY OF TONY ADAMS

The anger gets worse

On Jan. 13, 2020, the commissioner’s report said that the Astros stole signs through 2018. The team received punishments of a $5 million fine, one-year suspensions of Luhnow and Hinch, and the loss of first and second round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. The Astros also remained the 2017 champion. The league pinned blame on the players, believing that the scheme was “player-driven and player-executed.” They didn’t believe that the front office acted in bad faith. Despite this, no players received any punishment, as Manfred offered the players immunity to get information. The Astros fired Luhnow and Hinch in response to their suspensions.

Right away, many thought that the league’s punishments were not hard enough.

Alex Bregman, 3rd baseman for the Houston Astros at Chase Field in Phoenix AZ on Aug. 15, 2017. PHOTO: COURTESY OF KEETON GALE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Fafard said, “I did not feel the punishments amounted to anything that would refrain any team from doing something the same or similar in the future. I feel like the commissioner actually protected them. I feel they needed to vacate the title first and foremost.”

While it was obvious for fans to show their frustration, some of the most vocal outcries against the Astros came from the players.

Los Angeles Angels superstar outfielder Mike Trout said: “It’s sad for baseball. They cheated. I don’t agree with the punishments, the players not getting anything. It was a player-driven thing.”

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer angrily responded: “You guys think you are better than everyone and you don’t have to abide by the rules? F— you. You know? That’s how I feel about their whole operation.”

Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger stated: “I mean, these guys were cheating for three years… Everyone knows they stole the ring from us.”

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa attacked Bellinger for his comments.

“This is America. You can say whatever you want. But Cody Bellinger’s job is to look for information. Get informed. Know the facts, for sure, before he stands in front of cameras to talk about other players. You should get informed. You should be informed before you talk about other players. If you don’t know the facts, then you’ve got to shut the f–k up.”

Commissioner Manfred continued to stir the pot, when in an interview he strongly defended his decision to let the Astros keep their championship.  “The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act.” He later had to issue an apology for the comment.

A shortened 2020 season

As last season’s spring training began, the Astros already had a target on their backs. Many pitchers were already throwing at Astros hitters prompting new Manager Dusty Baker to ask the league to protect his players.

Similar to fighting in hockey, pitchers throwing at batters has been used as a form of players policing the game. If you ruffle feathers in baseball, it’s possible to expect a fastball hitting you in the shoulder.

As the tensions in spring training began to rise, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and baseball had to put operations on hold as they figured out how to safely play a season. Seemingly, it provided the Astros an out for having to face the scrutiny.

As a former Independent League player who still follows the game closely, Calgary’s Miller points out: “I know a lot of people have been saying they were lucky that this season there aren’t any fans to boo them and troll them. They were able to play without fans really heckling them all that much.”

Freeborn echoes this point, “Even myself, I kind of forgot about the whole Astros thing. Whereas right before the season in spring training, there was definitely a lot of hype and guys were already getting thrown at.”

Geoff Freeborn, pictured in his playing days with Team Canada, said “As a pitcher myself, if that advantage [of the batter not knowing what pitch is coming] is taken away from me, it definitely changes the game.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF GEOFF FREEBORN

When the shortened MLB season of 60 games started at the end of July, the schedule saw an early matchup between the Dodgers and Astros in Houston, the first time the two teams had played at Minute Maid Park in Houston since the World Series in 2017. This game showed that the Dodgers’ players hadn’t forgotten what happened.

Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly (a member of the 2018 Boston Red Sox squad that defeated the Astros and Dodgers en route to the World Series title) threw a 96 mph fastball over the head of Alex Bregman. Three batters later, he threw another fastball over the head of Carlos Correa. He would eventually strike out Correa to end the inning, and Kelly gave him a “pouty lip” facial expression when walking back to the dugout. Words were exchanged and the teams cleared the dugouts, however no fight broke out. Kelly was given an eight-game suspension for the incident.

A’s fan Fafard, angry with the punishment handed down to Kelly, bought a “Thank You Joe Kelly” shirt in support of the pitcher, who as many pointed out, received a longer suspension than any of the Astros players (who, of course, were not suspended for cheating).

“His incident was good because he didn’t hit anyone,” said Fafard. “It was a good getback that they deserved all year. Manfred protected them by not allowing people to throw at them and I thought that wasn’t right.”

The sense that justice wasn’t done continues to persist.

An Aug. 9, 2020 game between the A’s and Astros got heated after the Astros hit five Oakland batters, including former Astro Ramón Laureano twice. After being hit for the second time that day, words were exchanged between Laureano and Astros assistant hitting coach Alex Cintron. Laureano then charged the Astros dugout, and a full-on brawl took place between the two teams.

Fafard said the incident was “BS.”

“The Astros had no players hit. Old school baseball where pitchers throw at batters for ‘punishment’ is part of the game and they didn’t receive it so they skated on that one too.”

Following Joe Kelly’s eight-game suspension for his incident with the Astros, people online coined the phrase “Free Joe Kelly.” Oakland A’s fan Trevor Fafard, pictured here on Aug. 7, 2020, at his Vacaville, CA home, showed his support of Kelly. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TREVOR FAFARD

After dominating the American League for the last few years, the Astros struggled to a 29-31 record, with one of the largest year-to-year offensive declines in baseball history. Nonetheless, the team snuck into the postseason with one of the last wild card spots, and went on a run to their fourth consecutive American Leagues Championship Series (ALCS) appearance, losing to the Tampa Bay Rays in seven games.

Before the start of the playoffs, Freeborn commented: “They’re definitely not swinging the bats like they were in the past. They’re in the playoffs, and they kind of snuck in there. I do think it weirdly benefits them to not have any fans in the stands.”

When commenting on the 2020 season as a whole, Fafard says “They didn’t receive any punishment and with no fans allowed this year they really definitely didn’t face any punishment as that was going to be the worst thing that could affect them.”

He added, “The fact they were asking for respect knowing what they did really irked me, and the fact they beat the A’s was the dagger to the heart.”

What is the long-term legacy of this scandal?

It’s hard to find a consensus opinion on how the Astros cheating scandal should have been handled.

Rob Neyer, a longtime baseball writer who has worked for organizations like ESPN and Fox Sports believes, “There is no right answer. There just isn’t. This is an unprecedented situation, essentially” said Neyer during a phone interview. “You have to weigh practicality. What you’re trying to do in part, is to discourage cheating and having players do these things again. But exactly how do you do that? Everyone’s got a different answer.”

“I guarantee you, that wherever on that scale [of punishment] you happen to fall, 85 per cent of the people paying attention will think you’re wrong.”

A common comparison to make between this situation and other sports is in college football, where teams have had championships taken away for involvement in scandals, or the Olympics where medals have been stripped for doping. Miller is on the side that it is too late to take the title away.

“You look at some college football teams that got their National Championship taken away, or even with the Astros, where the Dodgers think ‘okay, we got one taken away from us.'”

Miller continues, “They still got to celebrate, they still got the trophy, they still got all those things, even taking it away doesn’t deter them all that much.”

https://calgaryjournal.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Drew_Miller_Headliner.mp4
Drew Miller believes that the way to prevent another cheating scandal in the future is for MLB to fully examine how teams can use technology illegally and prevent it before it happens. VIDEO: COURTESY OF HEADLINER

Those not involved in baseball have seen it differently.

The University of Calgary’s Eaton says, “The whole idea, that they were able to keep their awards [is] interesting, because as a researcher in higher education, if I’m found to have committed an act of fraud in my research, they take away my money, they take away my research grant. So you have to take away what matters.”

Ultimately, there are many ways this scandal will leave its mark on baseball. Miller doesn’t see this hurting baseball’s image long term.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a long thing. You look at the steroids, you look at some of the other things that have happened in baseball, the strike back in ’94. There’s always something, and as we keep going in our culture, there’s always something that happens next or quicker that we just jump to instead.”

He does see it as a way for baseball to figure out how to limit the use of technology in the game.

“They need to start to look at and govern some of these things. How cameras are put in stadiums, how players have access to stuff, and take a deep dive into it. Not just like, ‘well, we’re just going to let these guys figure it out on their own, and if they make a mistake somewhere down the line we’ll figure out how to police it in a way.'”

“You look at the steroid era, if they would have seen things like that, maybe it wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. When you wait until something happens, and then react to it, then all these worse things come about.”

With constant information on the internet being intertwined with this scandal, Freeborn believes that will allow baseball fans to remind others about what happened. “I don’t think that this will go away though. Social media doesn’t help the Astros situation too, as far as if that were to happen 20-25 years ago. Not that they had maybe the technology to quite do that, it just might not have got as much awareness as it would now.”

Eaton says that this scandal shows how important it is for high-profile people to act ethically.

“People hold athletes up on a pedestal. Athletes are role models, so they really are held to a higher standard than the average person. They become idolized, so when individuals like that are held to account for their behaviour, then it sends a message to the general public that cheating is okay. When we start to send those messages, it becomes normalized in ways that become very difficult to address in other contexts, like schools.”

“So, if professional athletes are out there acting in corrupt ways, if politicians are acting in corrupt ways, it really sends a message to the average person that that’s the new normal and it’s okay. It really is something that one individual can’t solve, but certainly those in positions of power. It takes a lot of backbone to stand up and say ‘no we’re going to do this in an ethical way.'”

University of Calgary’s Sarah Eaton is an expert in academic cheating. She recognizes how important the Astros incident is. “It really sends a message to the average person that [cheating is] the new normal and it’s okay.” PHOTO BY: CLAYTON MACGILLIVRAY

While many Astros fans have embraced the villainous image their team has taken on, Adams hopes to one day see the team come around.

“For me, I feel like the championship is tainted, and that the Astros should acknowledge that. I think I might be in the minority with Astros fans on that.”

Commissioner Manfred had a big decision to make when the results of the investigation came in. It was incredibly clear that what the Astros did was wrong, and if justice is what matters, then the team and players should have been punished in a way that allows us to truly move on from this. Unfortunately, in a sport where billions of dollars are thrown around, things can become complicated.

If cheating your way to a World Series title and getting caught results in a $5 million fine and keeping the trophy, what’s to stop another team from wanting to do the same thing in the future?