• Villanova Sports Law Blog

Signs Stolen, Championship Secured, Asterisks Everywhere

By: Ryan Murphy

After a two-month long investigation, the MLB rendered its final verdict on the Houston Astros cheating scheme. And, it’s pretty…disappointing. The MLB handed down one-year suspensions to Astros Manager AJ Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow, as well as docking first and second round picks in the next two drafts and $5 million from the franchise. Pretty steep punishment, right? Well, not really.

The Astros subsequently fired both Hinch and Luhnow – understandably – and the Red Sox and Mets fired their managers Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, respectively, for being instrumental pieces in the 2017 cheating scandal. Cora won the 2018 World Series with the Red Sox – which raises enough red flags on its own in the wake of the investigation – and Beltran had yet to manage a game for the Mets, having only been hired in November. Having any sort of cheating image attached to your organization is about as bad as it gets in baseball. That’s why the firings make sense, but the punishment doesn’t.

The MLB did not punish any of the Astros players in connection with the scandal and will not strip Houston of its 2017 World Series title (the only one in franchise history). The league has battled the grips of the steroid era for the better part of two decades, but yet won’t hand down punishmenst to players for literally cheating the game. The investigation denies any presence of “buzzers” that stars Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman have been alleged to have worn during games to steal signs,[1] but the players were still actively involved in the banging scheme, which involved the banging of a garbage can in the dugout to indicate pitches to batters.[2]

Consider a hypothetical stealing scheme at a restaurant. The supervisor and manager create an elaborate scheme to steal tips from customers. Bear with me. Every time someone pays with a credit card and adds a tip to the bill, the waiters actually charge a 10¢ greater amount when they input the bill into the system. At the end of the year, the supervisor, manager, and waiters split the profits without the owner knowing. It’s only 10¢, though, right? Well, if the restaurant has 500 customers per day, that would equal over $18,000 at year’s end. Not a bad haul for a few people charging 10 extra cents to customers who will likely never notice.

What’s my point, you’re asking? If they were to get caught, the manager and supervisor would obviously get punished. No one would disagree. Hinch and Luhnow gone; check. The restaurant may face further sanctions in the form of a lawsuit. Sounds about right. Four draft picks and $5 million; check. What about the waiters? Does anyone think they would get out of this unscathed? After all, they were the ones actively involved in the scheme. They were the ones up-charging 10¢ each time. Even if it wasn’t their plan originally, they were complicit. They knew what was going on and chose not only to participate but not to report it. Would you be okay if they kept their jobs without any repercussions? I think everyone would agree that they should – and almost certainly would – be punished.

The Astros players were the waiters, here. They didn’t come up with the idea themselves, but many – if not most – of them participated in the scheme. So, in the same way that you probably found the waiters deserving of punishment, you should also find the players. Not only have they not been punished, they have been largely unapologetic.[3] Worse still, they actually got to keep the $18,000*! Imagine finding the waiters actively complicit in the tip-stealing scheme and just letting them keep the money they stole without punishment…That is where we’re at in this situation.

At the end of the day, the players were cleared from having the buzzers in their shirts. Whether or not you believe that is up to you. While it would be unfair of fans to definitively say the MLB is hiding facts from the public, it’s not unfair to question it. Remember, this is a league that has been marred with cheating throughout its history. Just like the teams don’t want to be associated with possible cheating, neither does the league; thus, hiding information might prove more effective than publicizing it. Nonetheless, while the players were cleared on the buzzer front, they still participated in the scheme – this cannot be emphasized enough.

The Astros did not just steal signs; they stole a World Series from the Dodgers. They stole the opportunity for the rest of the teams in the AL to have a fair shake at the pennant. “Frustration is at the floor of my emotions,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, and rightfully so.[4] The Dodgers didn’t lose out on the 10¢, they lost the $18,000. The Astros’ cheating cost teams a fair chance to compete for the game’s ultimate crown, and the league has essentially endorsed it. When you consider the fact that six of 30 teams have never won a World Series – the MLB is 151 years old – and another eight have only won one,[5] the notion of cheating for a championship doesn’t seem so bad, especially if you can get away with it as unscathed as the Astros have.

So, while some may think that the punishment was heavy, it simply does not come close to the severity of the crime. It’s like throwing someone in jail for telling someone else to steal a car, but letting the thief keep the car. Something like this would never be allowed in civilian legal systems, so why should it be allowed by the laws of the game?

*Reference to 2017 World Series win

References:

[1]: Snyder, M. (Jan. 17, 2020). Astros' Jose Altuve denies ever wearing electronic devices; MLB says no evidence to back Twitter rumors. Retrieved from https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/astros-jose-altuve-denies-ever-wearing-electronic-devices-mlb-says-no-evidence-to-back-twitter-rumors/

[2]: Cash, M. (Nov. 14, 2019). Here's a breakdown of the damning videos that appear to show the Astros executing their elaborate sign-stealing scheme with the help of garbage cans. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/how-houston-astros-sign-stealing-scheme-videos-2019-11

[3]: ESPN.com. (Jan. 28, 2020). Clayton Kershaw: Astros haven't shown 'a lot of remorse'. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/28580683/clayton-kershaw-astros-shown-lot-remorse

[4]: Id.

[5]: MLB.com. (Jan. 28, 2020). World Series Overview. Retrieved from http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/history/postseason/mlb_ws.jsp?feature=club_champs