I’ve thought a lot about this since learning that the Houston Astros, baseball’s best team over the last three seasons and this year’s World Series losing team, has been exposed as cheating by using technology to steal signs during the team’s 2017 Championship season, and perhaps in subsequent seasons as well. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed this week that the Astros deployed a secret center-field camera during home games to help steal signs from opposing catchers, and relaying them to Astros batters. Here is the background to consideration of the ethics question this raises, which is, simply put, “Now what?”
Sign-stealing in baseball is the act of decoding an opponent’s signs, usually the catcher signaling which pitch to throw. Traditional and legal sign-stealing involves a runner on second base decyphering the signs and relaying them to the batter by some kind of physical signal. Using out-of uniform personnel, like employees with binoculars in the stands, or hidden cameras, to steal and relay signs is not legal. It is forbidden, and considered cheating.
Fiers said the Astros had a camera set up in their stadium’s center field with a feed sent to a television monitor in the tunnel next to the Astros’ dugout. Astros players and team employees could watch the live feed and would relay the pitch by banging loudly on a garbage can in the tunnel. Reporters at “The Athletic” confirmed his account. So far, the only part of the scheme that has been proven is the Astros regular season home games in 2017, not the post-season or World Series (although it would be strange if the team suddenly stopped cheating when the games counted most) and not the 2018 or 2019 seasons, though it is a rebuttable presumption that if the Astros were successful doing this in one season, they would continue the practice.
MLB issued a memo clarifying the ban on technological cheating to steal signs in 2019, but no team was under the misconception that using a camera to steal signs wasn’t flagrant cheating long before 2019. Undoubtedly, the Astros will try to use the fact that the MLB guidance came out in 2019, after the team’s 2017 conduct, as a mitigating factor. It isn’t.
A season of cheating in this manner threatens the integrity of the game more far than any single player’s steroid use, for example. Most batters, if told in advance whether the next pitch is a fastball or not, will have a much better chance of hitting the ball hard. The ripple effects of such cheating not only probably affected Houston game outcomes, but player statistics, careers, and salaries. In Houston’s victory against the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, a key factor was the ineffectiveness of Dodger starter Yu Darvish, who was clobbered in his Game #3 start at Houston. Many observers said that it looked as if the Astros batters knew what was coming. Darvish’s poor performance helped the Dodgers decide not to resign him, and it may well have reduced the value of his eventual contract offers.
Of all sports, baseball may be the hardest to unravel when it is found that something corrupted the results. Pitchers have won-lost records and earned run averages; batters have extensive statistics that can’t be retroactively changed. Championships and titles, however, can be voided, though this has never been done, not even when it was discovered that the Cincinnati Reds won the 1919 World Series because the favored White Sox took bribes to throw the games.
Nonetheless, having considered various options, I think that the most appropriate penalty for the Astros regarding their cheating in 2017 is to strip the team of all its titles in that season, and fine the team heavily, including the winner’s World Series share that the team divided up among its players.
Awarding the stripped titles to the defeated teams is confusing and logistically impossible, so I do not advocate that, What was dishonestly accomplished cannot be undone to that extent. Nonetheless, the Astros should not be able to call themselves the winners of the 2017 American League Western Division Title, the 2017 American League Pennant Winners, and the World Series Champions. All of those titles were tainted, and were tainted sufficiently by the Astros cheating to be in a position to win them that my opinion would mot change if it were shown that the team didn’t cheat in the post-season. If it is proven that the Astros continued to cheat in 2018 and 2019, the same punishments should follow.
I have little doubt that MLB will duck doing anything so draconian, but nonetheless, that is what it should do. Stripping a team of a World Series title or a pennant would be embarrassing for the city and the franchise. It would probably have a negative impact on tickets and merchandising. Only consequences so serious would break the cycle; at this point, it is worth trying to cheat if the results of getting away with it exceed the pain of getting caught. For individual instances of illegal sign stealing or for shorter spans than a season, forfeiting games would be the alternative.