Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Major League Baseball, via commissioner Rob Manfred, made a statement today: enough of the technology bullshit. But was it enough?
The news broke at The Athletic, and the punishment for the Astros, at least the punishment handed down by Major League Baseball, was the following:
The nine-page report released by Major League Baseball is damning. Perhaps the most damning piece of new information, besides Manfred ripping to shreds the baseball operations culture Jeff Luhnow created like a disgusted old socialite from South Carolina sipping expensive wine at her party and eloquently berating an overserved wannabe socialite, is the Astros continued their cheating scheme in the 2017 playoffs. While that alone is significant because Houston won its only world series in 2017, it’s even more significant because it came after Manfred and MLB warned all teams about using technology to steal signs.
Make no mistake, today will be remembered in MLB history as one of this era’s most important dates. That’s not a hot take or being prisoner of the moment; finding comparable examples of punishment in the history of the sport is rare, although the Braves were hammered hard not too long ago, and the links to the Black Sox feel fair. The last manager to face this punishment was Pete Rose. Pete. Rose. Yeah, that’s significant.
It got worse for the Astros, A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow when Jim Crane stepped to the podium, and delivered another blow. The Houston owner fired Hinch and Luhnow. Before we move away from this, consider for a second their status. Not only were they architects of one of the greatest cellar-to-champion transformations in professional sports, but they also unquestionably ranked at the top of their respected position lists in baseball, and maybe even at the very top.
What happens to Hinch and Luhnow from here? According to MLB’s report, Hinch at least showed signs of resistance against the sign-stealing scheme by doing his best Brett Gardner act, but he didn’t do enough to stop it. He’s also liked in baseball and is probably going to get another opportunity eventually after his suspension is complete. Luhnow is trickier. Manfred basically credited him with creating a culture that put winning at all costs above people, rules and ethics, which aligns with whispers around baseball for years. Generally, he’s not liked in baseball. All it takes is one desperate organization, but his road ahead is foggy.
What happens to the Astros? Crane has many difficult decisions to make given the stench of Luhnow’s culture still lingers. Tear it down? Make promotions and see how it works? We’ll see. Fortunately for Houston, it has a bunch of really good players and prospects and they matter more than anything. It will have difficulty adding to the latter for a few years after MLB eliminated its first and second-round picks for two years, a significant and overlooked part of today's news. Good organizations often nail those picks and at the very least they become prospect currency.
Speaking of the Astros players, they avoid any discipline. Why? Back in September 2017, Manfred essentially warned the manager and general manager they would be the one to face sentencing if rules were broken, and not the players. Plus, we can probably assume many of the current Astros were interviewed, and they were assured truth would be traded for immunity.
A tricky part in today’s news is players were indirectly told they’re not accountable for cheating if their superiors are also involved. Major League Baseball needs to make it clear they too can enter the crosshairs.
How history views those Houston players is to be determined. Considering the number of players that have already spoken out and the back-and-forth in the past between Astros players and opposing players, most notably Trevor Bauer, opposing players already had their suspicions or knowledge. Imagine if half the Astros lineup experiences a slow start. Fair or not, the majority will immediately link those performances to the removal of cheating. Reality is Houston's numbers probably won't change significantly, but someone will dig up a correlation somewhere, like Tom Verducci did on MLB Network with Houston's chase rate against offspeed pitches.
While Luhnow and Hinch were the biggest losers today, they won’t hold that title long. Alex Cora’s punishment is coming, and it’s going to be more significant than Hinch and Luhnow’s. Frankly, Cora could be looking at a lifetime ban from baseball, and it would difficult to argue against it. I’m writing this at 4 p.m. on Monday, and Boston has yet to fire Cora, which is mildly surprising. What are they waiting on? edit: Tuesday evening, Boston announced it and Cora mutually parted ways.
It’s impossible to read MLB’s report and not see Cora’s name constantly, and now he’s going to be repeat offender after The Athletic’s most recent report included sources describing Boston using the video replay room to aid sign-stealing from second base. What Boston is accused of doing isn’t as serious as Houston’s elaborate scheme and lack of institutional control. However, Cora is now a part of sign-stealing at two separate organizations in back-to-back seasons. Surely, that’s not a coincidence.
Back to an original question: was it enough?
Excuse the political nature of this response, but we won’t truly know until a long time has passed. If today’s statement successfully deters the use of technology to steal signs, it was enough. On one hand, the punishment was severe relative to the history of the sport. There has never been anything like this. Even though MLB was, once again, too slow to react to issues inside baseball, like PEDs, it did go above and beyond punishment of the past.
On the other hand, many people in baseball are wondering why a player-driven scheme that many felt played some role in wins and losses didn’t result in punishment for the players or removal of wins. And that’s fair. Many people would trade a championship for a fine, loss of draft picks, and needing to hire a new manager and general manager.
Like PEDs, it’s impossible to know how results, statistics, and careers were impacted by Houston’s scheme. Would the Dodgers have won the World Series in 2017 if Houston wasn’t doing this? I don’t know. How could anyone? And that’s the type of hypothetical that caused the kettle to start screaming on the stove. Players were beginning to feel their colleagues’ careers were negatively impacted by what Houston was doing, and they had enough of MLB not doing anything about it.
Maybe the most maddening thing about today’s news is it’s fair to wonder if it ever would have occurred if not for players and personnel – some from championship teams - speaking up about the cheating, and the work of sports journalists, chiefly the duo of Ken Rosenthal and The Athletic. Hell, MLB’s nine-page report today begins with crediting the work of those two writers, which is an incredible accomplishment. While Manfred will get to take a victory lap today, you’re a naïve fool if you believe Major League Baseball didn’t know these issues persisted for years.
Will these issues now, finally, stop? We’ll see. As long as there is technology nearby, cheating will be tempting as it has always been, in some form or fashion, in competitive sports. Now, next in the batting order for MLB is altering its rules to make cheating much more difficult. Does that mean eliminating the use of technology during games? Not a bad idea. Sure, the help of looking at a recent swing or a pitch is helpful, whether it’s with an iPad or a monitor. However, all these teams have a bench coach, hitting coach, pitching coach, scouts, teammates, and more. They’re pretty good at assessing and aiding those in-game adjustments too. Print out some pictures or use a MLB-issued iPad that uses an encrypted connection and uploads at-bats with signs blurred.
If Major League Baseball doesn’t at least try to take today’s punishment and extend it into further adjustment to the rules, it’s foolishly assuming temptation won’t win as technology advances and time passes.