“Baseball is burning,” wrote ESPN’s Jeff Passan over the weekend, and the estimable reporter certainly reflected the general sentiment around the sport. The Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal has, impossibly, entered its fourth month and shows no hints of abating, with Astros players being accosted (and apologizing terribly) at spring training, opponents rubbing their hands together in anticipation of throwing baseballs at Astros’ heads (including the mascot’s), and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred looking for all the world like he just woke up strapped to the side of a missile headed directly for the sun. Ordinarily, this is the time of year when baseball writers start rhapsodizing about the crack of the bat and the smell of freshly cut grass. Instead, they’re patting down José Altuve for buzzers. We live in amazing times.
Since the scandal first hit, it can feel as if every day brings some new revelation. We know so much more about where this whole thing is headed, and what it means for the sport itself, than we did when The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich broke the story in November. In many ways, the scandal has exposed fault lines in the sport and among the people in charge of it … but it also, oddly, may lead to a way forward.
What we now know:
1. Baseball fans have decided cheating is no longer acceptable in any form. (Or at least they better have.) So you know how when you go to a baseball game and there’s a runner on second base and the pitcher keeps stepping off the mound and eventually calling his catcher to the mound, slowing the game to a crawl? Well, what’s happening there is that the runner is trying to steal signs, and the pitcher and catcher are trying to stop him. This happens nearly every time a runner is on second. Someone is trying to cheat. Baseball players have been trying to evade the rules — and explicitly trying to steal signs — as long as there has been baseball. Initially, I saw this as a reason to pooh-pooh the Astros story; I thought fans were embracing faux outrage to appear shocked that there could possibly be gambling in this establishment. But people (and, specifically, players, though we’ll get to them in a second) really do seem to be very mad! And the length and breadth of the scandal does point to a moment of zero tolerance for any outside-the-rulebook corner cutting, which would be new for baseball. Manfred has said there will be rule changes around video technology, but one can’t help but wonder if there will be widespread revulsion now toward that runner at second base trying to sneak a peek at the catcher’s fingers. If intellectual consistency exists on this, there’d better be.
2. There is literally nothing any Astro can say that will make this better. One of the more remarkable aspects of the quotes from this past first week of spring training is just how much the knives are out for the Astros. Some of their apologies have been horrible (Astros owner Jim Crane displayed the perpetually tone-deaf cadence of the billionaire we’ve all come to know and love), some of them have felt forced and insincere (Altuve’s, namely), and some of them been heartfelt and honest, even to a fault (Astros shortstop Carlos Correa has been forceful, probably too forceful, in saying sorry, trying to put the scandal in context and telling the reigning NL MVP to “shut the fuck up”). But there is nothing any of them could say, short of saying it while committing hara-kiri in front of all those reporters, that would do any of them any good. No apology is enough, no remorse can run too deep, no self-flagellation is ever sufficient. Part of this is because the Astros have a long reputation for a certain efficient soullessness and disregard for public relations; everyone’s enjoying dunking on them because it has been a long time coming. (People also tend to put their suspicions and dislike of analytics and sabermetrics on the shoulders of the Astros these days, too.) But the bloodlust for Astros scalps has been relentless and ever-cascading: People want their heads on pikes, and that’s all there is to it. The Astros have been lambasted for not being willing to give up their 2017 title, for resisting any idea that their success was solely due to sign stealing, for not throwing themselves on the mercy of the court. But even if they had done all those things, it has become increasingly clear that we would all still want more. Nothing less than lashing them in the public square will suffice.
3. There is very little evidence that the Astros won a World Series because of cheating. This is what Crane was trying to say in his press conference. He stumbled and claimed the Astros had gotten no advantage from their scheme, which isn’t true, but the idea that the Astros would have lost the World Series (or not made it to one at all) because of their sign stealing is not supported by the evidence in any possible way. Knowing what’s coming on the next pitch is an advantage, but, as The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh pointed out, just how much of an advantage is likely unknowable — and certainly not as dramatic as the discourse keeps making it out to be. (To hear it today, you would think Alex Bregman needed to steal signs in order to learn which end of the bat is up.) No statistic or study makes any sort of case that the Astros won only because of their rule breaking. But …
4. None of that matters, because people will believe what they want to believe. The Astros cheated. They also won the 2017 World Series. It is reasonable that people would conflate those two entirely separate facts into one linear narrative, but the human instinct to do so does not make that narrative true. Pointing out this fact, though, makes zero difference (and will just get me yelled at anyway). There is very much a parallel here with the PED scandal. Writer Joe Sheehan has rather definitively proved there was no connection between PED usage and a spike in home runs (or even in run scoring), but I suspect you still believe there was a connection anyway and surely always will. The world has decided the 2017 Astros were champions because they cheated, and persuading it otherwise will be a fool’s errand until the end of time.
5. Rob Manfred is having his Roger Goodell moment. For a while, Manfred’s wonkiness and willingness to experiment with rule changes — to float wild ideas without ever implementing them — had a certain let’s-try-it-out-in-the-lab quality; what’s happening in the Atlantic League, in which independent teams are testing potential MLB changes just to see what happens, is the sort of shake-up baseball could use every once in a while. But if Manfred ever had a honeymoon, it is long over. The negative response to his initial punishment of the Astros (which focused on management rather than on players, likely out of a desire to avoid a fight with the players’ union two years before the collective bargaining agreement expires) was overwhelming, but it just got worse during his press conference over the weekend, in which his defense of failing to prevent the scandal was widely seen as inadequate and even potentially nefarious. It did not help that his attitude toward one of the journalists who had broken several stories on the scandal beat seemed downright Trumpian. Even players went after him on Twitter. (Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner laid into him Monday as well.) On a certain level, Manfred can do only so much here if he isn’t willing to take away the Astros’ championship trophy, which seems to be the prevailing desire of the storm-the-castle crowd. (Jeff Passan on Tuesday noted just how impractical that idea, specifically the idea of suspending players, really is at this point.) Manfred just has to sit and take it. But his usual tricks — including floating a crazy playoffs idea to try to distract from this story — clearly are not working, and public confidence in him is at an all-time low. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell survived his lowest moment by putting his head down and focusing on his primary job: making money for the 32 owners who keep him in power. That’s probably Manfred’s best strategy at this point: a new, cynical turn in the job of commissioner, a position once entrusted to Yale presidents and statesmen. (And virulent racists, for what it’s worth.) Expect Barstool to be selling Manfred Clown T-shirts within the month.
6. We’re about to have a big discussion about beanballs. One key point Manfred made in his press conference was that it would be unacceptable for opposing teams to target Astros players with pitches throughout the season. Good luck with that, Rob. Just how often Astros hitters will be plunked is such a major issue that new Astros manager Dusty Baker is raising alarms about it. Perhaps most disturbing is that most fans seem to be as bloodthirsty as the opposing teams: They want to see Astros hit, and hit hard. As pitch velocity has increased over the years, the odds of a tragic incident involving a defenseless player standing only 60 feet six inches away from the mound have shot up dramatically. The dangerous meathead culture of throwing round objects at someone who has displeased you has plagued baseball for a century. Recent moves have helped legislate it more out of the sport; it’s not gone entirely but is less obvious and prevalent. But now every team is expected to throw at the Astros regularly. What happens when someone gets seriously hurt? Because someone will.
7. Players are speaking up and speaking out in a way they never have before. Baseball has a famously conformist culture. Why do you think so many players’ hair looks so ridiculous by the end of the season? You’re not supposed to showboat, you’re not supposed to call out other players, you’re not supposed to be different. But this scandal has brought out the personalities of many players who are still angry at the Astros — in an exciting way. Reigning MVP Cody Bellinger has been particularly vocal and eloquent on the scandal, Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer nearly blew a blood vessel talking about it, and even Mike Trout, the greatest player of this generation, has weighed in.
This is good! Baseball players should show their personalities and speak out more. Their anger has been fuel for this story in an intoxicating way. There have been far fewer “this was supposed to stay within the clubhouse” stories than you might have expected. It’s raging free among the players. We’re finally learning how angry these guys are. And they are angry.
8. The Astros aren’t the only team in the mix here, but that may not matter either. The Red Sox and Mets have already fired their managers, both of whom were involved with the scheme, and the Red Sox are currently under investigation themselves. (Another reason not to vacate titles: The Red Sox would have to give up their 2018 championship too.) At this point, though, the Astros are the convenient first villain and the face of the scandal, and it’s a legitimate question whether we’ll really just burn the game down if it turns out that sign stealing is as widespread and varied as many believe it to be. (Do fans really want to know just how widespread?) It’s much easier to just yell at the Astros, whom everyone dislikes anyway.
9. This is a scandal with no logical end. Every day seems to put more kindling on the fire. Now that spring training is here, every player on every team is being asked about the cheating, and all it takes is one particularly angry interview to get everybody talking again. Then the actual games will begin, and every pitch of every Astros game will be scrutinized. And the Astros, remember, are favored to win the AL West this year, which means that every game they’re in the pennant chase (a.k.a. every game of the season) will remind everyone of everything all over again. This is exactly the type of story that just keeps reinvigorating itself. Manfred thought he was extinguishing it with his initial report; he was very, very wrong.
10. This remains a fun baseball scandal. These days, it’s sometimes lonely to be a die-hard baseball fan. The sport just doesn’t have the crossover quality it once did; before this scandal, I don’t remember the last time anyone had mentioned anything about baseball on, say, First Take. Now? Now all my non-baseball-fan friends want to know what I think about this whole mess. I don’t remember the last time they wanted to know what I thought about anything baseball related (maybe the Cubs winning the World Series?). The nice thing about this story, the thing that initially drew me to it, is that it feels like an NBA scandal. It’s driven by social media, it can be investigated and pored over by fans, it has players fighting with one another, and it turns us all into our own little detective agencies. Yet it still revolves around the game itself. It’s not about labor issues or PEDs or high ticket prices or domestic violence and player conduct. It’s about baseball: how it’s played, how it’s officiated, how it’s legislated, how it’s valued. People are talking about baseball, discussing baseball, choosing villains, taking up sides. It’s an endless story no one can get enough of. Baseball is burning, sure. But you can make a good case that it is burning bright, not dark. This old game still can fire us up after all this time. It’s good to be reminded.