The Astros sign-stealing scandal has sent shock waves through baseball, and it likely isn’t over yet. After Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich’s piece in The Athletic on the extent of the controversy, Major League Baseball launched an investigation, and it resulted in the firings and/or suspensions of two executives, two managers (and maybe three) across multiple teams. While the Astros took the brunt of the punishment, forced to hand over first and second round picks and $5 million, it’s clear that they weren’t alone.
Alex Cora may have been forced out of the Red Sox for behavior with the Astros, Boston has their own scandal of their own. MLB has a separate investigation into their 2018 season and in particular the use of the replay room, but it falls more under the grey area of merely being more subtle by relaying signs. They, along with the Yankees, were already dinged for similar actions in 2017, setting the the stage for the punishments handed down now.
That might actually be the norm across the league, too. Logan Morrison told NJ.com “that the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros, and Red Sox all have used film to pick signs. Just want you guys to know the truth. I personally think it’s a tool in a tool belt to pick signs.”
Another anomaly was that it was reported that a Rays scout was ejected from a Yankees home playoff game. That means that we know of at least 15% of the league using some kind of tactic like this, with the Astros just being the most extreme and plotted-out example.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t a big deal, of course. Though Rob Manfred’s report says the system was “player-driven,” he concluded that the overall “culture” contributed to its proliferation. There’s really no precedent for a (possibly) few managers being fired at once along with executives, is the first thing I notice. In terms of the history of scandals, there have been higher human costs and the punishments have at times been much more severe, though.
The last big “cheating” scandal of this magnitude was really the Black Sox, and in that case it resulted in nine indefinite bans and the door closed shut on cheating. The scandals later on were more drug-related, and usually drugs of abuse. The Pete Rose scandal was the next integrity of the game issue, and that was just one person. And while steroids in the popular imagination represented a series of individual data points (maybe other than the Mitchell Report, which resulted in no actual punishment), the only “event” that rivals this was Biogenesis in its scope of scandal, featuring a cast of characters like Alex Rodriguez’s testosterone-supplying cousin and an arc where MLB used stolen evidence to get their version of justice.
Nothing really trumps the 1980s collusion in terms of human cost, though, and it isn’t particularly close. The final settlement totaled $280 million, a massive amount that, if broken out into the average MLB salary across the 1980s (let’s say, ~$370,000), that would pay for ~757 player seasons. 757! Yet think of that popular imagination again, and think of what is telegraphed to be the bigger scandal. The public largely stood against the players during the 1994 strike, and this was on the heels of hundreds of millions of dollars directly stolen from the players.
For the most part, and it’s unfortunate, integrity of the game will always grip the imagination more. It’s also the reason why even in recent history, this scandal seems to have captured peoples’ attentions more than, say, the Braves cheating teenagers of bonus money, resulting in a lifetime ban of a general manager.
That’s largely because the Black Sox scandal made a historical point. The sport was really not fully viable at that point, and the idea of the game not holding any intrinsic, competitive value because of gambling would have bankrupted the entire sport, so it had to be nipped in the bud, despite the fact that what is understood now, unlike then, that punishing underpaid players for the crimes of gamblers would be sending the wrong message entirely about who is culpable.
At the very least, MLB understood now was that the only thing standing in the way of cheating were people in positions of authority who were willing to tell players to cut it out. No one can stop a player from trying to decode a sign, but someone can avoid it from becoming an entire system.
So in the historical context, this ranks, in my mind, second place to Black Sox in terms of cheating and integrity. Possibly 10% of the league’s managers will go down, as well as a GM, executive, and it could spiral into more investigations or future penalties. The debate about its legacy in the pantheon of baseball scandals can be debated, but in terms of the number of people in positions of power to actually take responsibilities, it nearly stands alone in recent history.