As it relates to the scandal surrounding the Houston Astros’ alleged use of electronic equipment to steal signs, it’s clear their entire organization might be in a heap of trouble.
Perhaps the most annoyed person of all is Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. And if the investigation Manfred has ordered reveals deep-seeded complicity to cheat the game, there’s little doubt the organization will face the brunt of the commissioner’s wrath.
Speaking to the media at the MLB owner’s meetings in Arlington, Tex., Manfred referred to the Astros situation as a grave matter relating to the preservation of the game’s integrity. And he couldn’t be more correct.
“Right now, we are focused on the information we have with respect to the Astros,” Manfred said. “I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”
This all began when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic that the 2017 Astros, who went on to win the World Series, had devised a system to steal signs from catchers and relay them to hitters using a camera near the home dugout.
Once the sign was obtained, someone near the Astros dugout would whistle or bang a trash can to communicate to the hitter what kind of pitch was coming. You can only imagine how that could impact the outcome of games.
Since the original allegation was made, MLB has expanded its investigation to see whether any other Astros teams were involved. The 2018 Astros lost to the Red Sox in the ALCS. This year’s team lost to the Nationals in the World Series.
The Athletic also broke some additional news: It obtained a 2017 email from an Astros front-office executive expressing the desire to steal signs before the beginning of the playoffs.
“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout,” the email’s sender wrote in a message. “What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”
There has been speculation about what kind of penalties could be handed out if the Astros are found guilty. It could involve millions of dollars in fines, the loss of future high draft picks, international signing bonus money, and the suspension of many high-profile members of their organization, beginning with manager A.J. Hinch.
The idea teams have been looking for ways to steal signs has long been a part of baseball’s lore. What separates this case, which adds to the severity of a possible punishment, is the use of technology to gather an unfair competitive advantage.
If the Astros are guilty of circumventing rules by using cameras to steal signs, we are in favor of any punishment MLB decides to hand down. Just the smugness of planning and executing the plan should turn the stomachs of anyone who loves the game and values its integrity.
There is precedent for MLB’s handling of issues relating to the illicit use of technology. In 2017, Manfred fined the St. Louis Cardinals $2 million and stripped them of their two top picks in that year’s amateur draft after one of their employees hacked a Houston database.
Partly due to that, MLB installed a series a new rules before this season began to curb the use of technology to steal signs and information. It’s thought the degree of any possible punishment the Astros will receive will depend on when they started cheating and how long it’s been going on.
“I’m not going to speculate on what the appropriate discipline is,” Manfred said. “That depends on how the facts are established at the end of the investigation. The general warning I issued to the clubs, I stand by. It certainly could be all of those [past disciplinary actions], but my authority under the major league constitution would be broader than those things as well.”
Manfred added that he hopes the investigation will be over by the start of spring training.
“Any allegations that relate to a rule violation that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter,” Manfred said. “It relates to the integrity of the sport. In terms of where we are, we have a very active – what is going to be a really, really thorough investigation ongoing. But beyond that, I can’t tell you how close we are to done.”
The greatest fear most observers have is the practice of electronic sign-stealing has become routine in the game. By dealing harshly with the Astros, Manfred can deliver the message that MLB will no longer condone that type of activity moving forward.
Of course, it would do the game well to use its time investigating the Astros to see if any other teams were following their example. You can imagine how embarrassing it would be if MLB discovers other organizations directly ignored the new set of rules established before last season.