The Astros already have a bruised reputation. A sign-stealing scandal could land the final blow.

Tim BrownMLB columnist
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/houston/" data-ylk="slk:Houston Astros">Houston Astros</a> manager A.J. Hinch general manager Jeff Luhnow will likely be at the center of MLB's investigation into sign-stealing. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch general manager Jeff Luhnow will likely be at the center of MLB's investigation into sign-stealing. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It’s probably too late to wonder how we got here, as cheating at the games goes back to about seven minutes after the games were invented, or as soon as it became clear somebody was going to have to lose.

The ethical high ground was where one might find his teeth after they’d been dislodged by the toe-end of a boot. Hoist a pint for dignity and second place.

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After centuries of trials, it seems we’ve settled on the notion the greater indignity is not the act, but being discovered in the act, a wholly human transaction between one’s deeds and one’s conscience (and, perhaps, one’s paycheck.) So it’s OK to rattle a trash can when a changeup is coming and not OK when a teammate blabs about the trash can rattling, especially when that teammate would appear to have gotten a World Series ring out of it.

So, in the wake of another cheating accusation directed against his baseball team, this a quite detailed account in The Athletic supported by real names (veteran pitcher Mike Fiers) and, later, video, Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow stood Tuesday afternoon and said, “I don’t know.”

He said it a lot.

There were cameras, allegedly, and wires and a television monitor and at least one guy manning the trash can during baseball games in his ballpark. There were allegations in the past that lacked real evidence or real eyewitnesses or real ballplayers who would lend their names and reputations. There were suspiciously confident hacks taken at frightfully unpredictable pitches, all taken by ridiculously talented hitters, and so at the end of most days the only conclusion was, “Huh.”

On Tuesday, the conclusion was to investigate a report the Astros had stolen signs by way of a complex video system during a good portion of the 2017 season, which concluded with the first World Series championship in club history. Luhnow promised an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball so that all parties could learn whether Fiers and others were seeing things or making things up, neither of which seems likely.

Where it would get interesting, assuming the investigation finds wrongdoing, or even intends to find wrongdoing, is in the consequences. In the wake of another reason to wonder about the Astros’ methods and the people who inspire those methods, the question was at the forefront at baseball’s general managers meetings here. Rival baseball operations folks, some of whom might also be dusting the ground behind them with leafy branches, insisted that a warning or fine or mild suspension of the culprits would leave the issue of sign stealing right where it is. That is, don’t get caught. What if it cost a draft pick or two? What if men lost their jobs? What if the fine were significant enough to affect the roster?

What if the answer didn’t always have to be, “Well, change your signs.”

Imagine how the Los Angeles Dodgers feel. Or the New York Yankees. Or the Boston Red Sox. They all lost to the Astros in the ’17 playoffs, when the Astros were 8-1 at Minute Maid Park and 3-6 at Dodger Stadium, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. Two of those series went seven games.

“I don’t think it’s in the institution’s best interest if I comment,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said.

Said Dodgers general manager Andrew Friedman: “I read the article. It sounds like MLB is investigating it. And it sounds like sour grapes for me to comment too much on this.”

Asked if he was suspicious then, he said, “Um, tough for me to say. I’m a person who looks forward more than I look back.”

MLB has tried. It posts officials in video rooms. It inspects stadiums. It examines video. It ensures live feeds are heavily monitored when they are used at all.

The result is more clever cheating. Or, allegations of cheating.

All of which left Luhnow in a familiar posture, on his heels, speaking softly without offering any more than what was minimally required, defending himself and his organization in another swampy situation that could dishonor their tactics and ethics.

“We want to follow the rules and we want to compete and win,” said Luhnow, half pitting those things against each other. “That’s what every other club wants, as well.

“Specifically, I’m not going to get into exactly what I knew or anybody knew at this point. So, we’re just going to have to wait and see. I’m sure there will be an appropriate time to answer that question. I’m not trying to avoid it. I just think at this point we’ll investigate it, figure out what the facts are and we will respond at that time.”

At stake, perhaps, is the perceived purity of that championship, though maybe the Astros don’t view it that way. It’s hard to know. They do what they do, say what they say, win baseball games.

“I hope it doesn’t,” Luhnow said. “We have a lot of good players. We have a really good manager. We have a good fan base. We’ve accomplished a lot. I think that stands for itself. I’m hopeful that we’ll find out exactly what happened and we’ll address what needs to be addressed and we can move on. We won the World Series in 2017, and Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman and Justin Verlander, a lot of great players, they do things the right way. We as an organization, that’s what we aspire to as well.”

Given that, makes one wonder what all the trash can rattling was about.

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