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On stripping awards from the Astros

The real reason why the Astros shouldn’t lose their 2017 championship.

2017 Major League Baseball World Series Game Seven: Houston Astros v. Los Angeles Dodgers

Jose Altuve was otherworldly in 2017, hitting .346/.410/.547 (160 wRC+) en route to nearly 8 fWAR. We now know, of course, that this otherworldly performance was less than legitimate, thanks to the trash can banging scandal which has enveloped the Astros this offseason. As such, articles and petitions have sprung up, arguing that Houston’s 2017 championship and Altuve’s 2017 MVP award be forfeited.

There’s a good argument to be made that the Astros’ accomplishments from 2017 should be stripped away; after all, the team broke the rules to gain an unfair advantage, and therefore its accomplishments are tainted. On the other hand, Rob Manfred’s counterargument, that the World Series trophy is just a piece of metal, seems rather unconvincing. So I decided to do Manfred’s job for him, and explain why the championship and MVP award should not be taken away by the League.

  1. Because nothing about baseball is fair

In 1930, American League MVP Joe Cronin hit .346/.422/.513 with 13 home runs and was named MVP. That same year, Babe Ruth hit .359/.493/.732 with 49 home runs and didn’t win the AL MVP because then, the award could only be given once. Meanwhile, in a far greater injustice, Willie Wells hit .420/.493/.685 in the Negro Leagues and wasn’t allowed to play in the segregated major leagues at all — despite being far better than most of the white players in the majors. Voting Joe Cronin as MVP followed the rules. It was still not the right decision.

That’s the thing. The history of baseball is, for what it’s worth, a history of injustice. Segregation of baseball was injustice in the extreme, giving white players undeserved awards over black athletes who were better than they were, and prohibited from participating. Before the end of the reserve clause, players were paid far less than they were worth, another injustice that led to careers — and lives — ending untimely. In the Steroid Era, some players were using performance enhancing drugs, and some weren’t. Even today, “bonus babies” have a huge, unjust advantage over minor leaguers who are being paid far less, and therefore have less access to the nutrition and facilities they need. Human trafficking remains a problem to this day. And women and non-men still can’t compete openly in MLB.

Nothing about the sport of baseball has ever been fair. Oh, we talk about the integrity of the game. But at the end of the day, baseball has always created a set of racist, misogynistic, and exploitative rules to restrict the talent pool and tilt the playing field in one direction or another. To argue that what the Astros did is new is to ignore history. The only thing different about the Astros is that they got caught and faced backlash in a relatively short time.

2. Because we haven’t done it before

To a lawyer, precedent matters — because it’s precedent that determines what is appropriate. For as long as a commissioner of baseball has been in place, we’ve never had a team stripped of a World Championship.

The analogue of the 1919 Black Sox just doesn’t hold water. For one thing, those White Sox were actually trying to lose, whereas the 2017 Astros were trying to win. MLB Rule 21, enacted after the Black Sox scandal, makes clear that this distinction matters.

(a) MISCONDUCT IN PLAYING BASEBALL. Any player or person connected with a Club who shall promise or agree to lose, or to attempt to lose, or to fail to give his best efforts towards the winning of any baseball game with which he is or may be in any way concerned, or who shall intentionally lose or attempt to lose, or intentionally fail to give his best efforts towards the winning of any such baseball game, or who shall solicit or attempt to induce any player or person connected with a Club to lose or attempt to lose, or to fail to give his best efforts towards the winning of any baseball game with which such other player or person is or may be in any way concerned, or who, being solicited by any person, shall fail to inform the Commissioner (in the case of a player or person associated with a Major League Club) or the President of the Minor League Association (in the case of a player or person associated with an independent Minor League Club) immediately of such solicitation, and of all facts and circumstances connected therewith, shall be declared permanently ineligible.

The Astros didn’t do any of the things prohibited by the Rule. They didn’t try to lose, or give less than their best effort. If anything, they did the opposite! And as for Pete Rose, who I’ve also seen used as an analogue, well that doesn’t hold water either. Rule 21(d) expressly bars gambling on games, whether you give your best effort or not. That’s not what the Astros did here either.

Now, yes, you can certainly argue that what the Astros did violates this catch-all clause in Rule 21(f):

(f) OTHER MISCONDUCT. Nothing herein contained shall be construed as exclusively defining or otherwise limiting acts, transactions, practices or conduct not to be in the best interests of Baseball; and any and all other acts, transactions, practices or conduct not to be in the best interests of Baseball are prohibited and shall be subject to such penalties, including permanent ineligibility, as the facts in the particular case may warrant.

But why this? Why are we stripping the 2017 title from the Astros, and not from a 1986 Mets team that featured as many as three rapists? Why do we not strip Cy Young awards from Roger Clemens? There’s been no talk of stripping the All-Star title from Felipe Vazquez, or of disallowing Gabe Kapler from managing.

I can hear you saying right now that those things are different -- what the Astros did was on-field, and what these players did was off-field. But what the Astros did was try to win a sporting contest. Why is that more worthy of punishment than rape? Why is that more of an injustice than racism?

3. It didn’t actually matter

To be fair, that’s hyperbole -- the Astros’ cheating did matter. But at the end of the day, the Astros’ cheating didn’t have more of an impact on the game than the sport’s own internal prejudices and biases did. For instance, if the Astros hadn’t won, the World Series championship would have gone to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team being probed by a Grand Jury for committing actual crimes, including human trafficking, to obtain a competitive advantage.

If the Dodgers hadn’t won, we turn to the New York Yankees, a team which acquired its closer at a discount by using his domestic violence suspension as leverage to drive down his price. Or maybe we go with the Cubs, a team which simply ignored the Americans with Disabilities Act in renovating Wrigley Field and manipulated its third baseman’s service time and defended its shortstop, Addison Russell, from credible allegations of domestic violence. I could go on, but the point is that as much as the Astros’ cheated to win, so did everyone else, and the fact that the players were the ones doing the lions’ share of the cheating doesn’t make that much of a difference at the end of the day.

And that’s the big difference here. Every single team does what the Astros did in some form or other, skirting the law or the rules of the game, or both, for a competitive advantage that isn’t fairly earned. The difference here is that the Astros made sure to involve the players, too, and the players are therefore getting the backlash. After all, nobody argues for stripping a pennant from a Dodgers team that engaged in human trafficking to win.