Those Cheating Astros: Stealing Way More Than Signs

I hate cheaters. I mean, don’t we all? And the Houston Astros cheated. We knew that back in November, but this week’s suspensions of Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch (Astros general manager and manager, respectively) handed down by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred catapults the story back into the headlines. 

Now to be fair, Luhnow and Hinch seem to be unfairly getting all the blame in this whole scandal. It was really the players themselves who were doing most of the dirty business, and apparently Hinch even damaged some of the monitors that the players were using to cheat. Yet, Major League Baseball has punished only Luhnow and Hinch with suspension, and only Luhnow and Hinch have been fired by the Astros. True, the whole organization was fined $5 million, but for an organization worth nearly $2 billion, that’s barely even a rounding error. MLB seems to be saying that the general manager and the manager are the ones responsible for clubhouse culture and the buck stops with them. Are they the fall guys for a larger problem? Absolutely. In this scandal, and in turn in this article, Luhnow and Hinch are stand-ins for the whole team in a kind of blame-game synecdoche.

The context: You likely know that before each pitch, a catcher uses a complex series of hand gestures (signs) to relay what the next pitch should be. Deciding what pitch to throw to a particular batter, in a particular inning, given a particular scenario of on-base runners, etc. is a very complex calculus, and can be the difference between life and death on the mound. If somehow a batter could know what pitch was about to be thrown, he could know where to swing, or even if to swing at all. It gives the competitive edge to the batter and thus could turn the offensive tides of the game.

And here’s what might be most interesting: stealing signs isn’t illegal. It’s not even frowned upon. Any time you have a runner on second base, you can bet your copy of Eight Men Out that he’s trying to crack the code. The pitcher and catcher know that, and so they change things up from inning to inning, batter to batter, and sometimes even pitch to pitch. This kind of sign-stealing is just good baseball. 

So if sign-stealing isn’t illegal, what’s all the fuss about the Astros? Instead of using the smarts of the runner on second, they used cameras to watch the catcher and crack the code and then, somewhat inelegantly, hit a trash can with a bat to communicate with the batter. Now that’s cheating. 

What’s the difference?

In a recent interview sports broadcasting legend and fellow St. Louisan Bob Costas gave to CNN, he said that the kind of cheating the Astros engaged in damages the “credibility of the competition,” and what are sports at their core but competition? Thus, technology–be it cameras and trash cans, or even human growth hormone–can unbalance or even potentially remove genuine competition altogether, leaving it in the hands of machines. It’s not the sign-stealing that’s the problem, it’s making the intelligence required to play the game, well, artificial.

Any of us that played youth sports and were fortunate to have a great coach (mine was Gary Ruder), heard some variety of this unfortunately trite bit of very real wisdom: It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, but how you play the game. 

“How you play the game” is the athlete in peak physical and mental condition dazzling us with feats of human strength, strategy, intelligence, and creativity. How you play is in the eyes of a pitcher and a batter locked in icy combat, athlete against athlete, nothing between them but sixty feet six inches of tension. How you play is the high school wrestler who conceded to his opponent, even though he could have won due to his opponent’s injury. How you play is where all the joy and excitement and interpersonal connection of sports is. Sure winning is more fun than losing (just ask Boston Bruin Brad Marchand), but only when the win is pure. 

I’ve never met Luhnow or Hinch, but I’d bet my last Pete Rose baseball card that they’ve seen The Sandlot. I bet both of them played stickball in the yard on a warm summer’s afternoon. I bet they both skipped school to show up early to the ballpark to watch batting practice. What went wrong? How do you go from watching Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez steal home to banging a bat against a trash can?

I wonder if they never had a Gary Ruder, though I bet they did. I’m not naive. I’m aware that professional sports have become far more a business than a past time. Men like Luhnow and Hinch have to win. A multi-billion dollar industry has grown up around our childhood pickup games, and the pressure to win has become not only the most important part of the game, but perhaps even the only part of the game.

Some people might try to distract from the real issue by pointing to the fact that the Astros still hold the Commissioner’s Trophy, the record books all say that the Astros were the first team to win the Fall Classic in both the National and American Leagues, not to mention the fortune that the championship run made for the team. They got the W, no matter the cost. 

But will baseball-loving kids really grow up wanting to be the 2017 Astros? Or will they make a movie about them like they did about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team?

I don’t think so. Kids want to be heroes, not cheaters. It’s up to us to teach them that how they play is far more important than winning or losing and that losing doesn’t make them losers. They have to learn from us that they can succeed in life, in business, in sports, in whatever without being forever ensnared in the cold, dead fingers of technocratic capitalism.

I think that we play and watch sports because we know that sports are about something much more than winning or losing, and about way more than making money. Sports are all about how you play the game. 

Photo courtesy of  Eduardo Balderas

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