Baseball's sign-stealing ringleaders are gone. The suspicion is just beginning.

And just like that, all four of the men named in commissioner Rob Manfred’s decision on the Houston Astros’ illegal sign-stealing investigation are gone from the game. A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow, slapped with one-year suspensions, were fired by the Astros before most media outlets could even process what a single season missed would mean. The Boston Red Sox “mutually parted ways” with Alex Cora based on his role as the Astros bench coach, preempting any official punishment for Boston’s 2018 sign-stealing under his skippership. And Thursday, Carlos Beltran “stepped down” from his position as Mets manager even before it had meaningfully begun.

As an active player in 2017, Beltran was not subject to official sanctions from the league. However in his new role, without the protections of the Major League Baseball Players Association, the Mets were free to distance themselves from a scandal they didn’t even benefit from (which, a moment of appreciation for their ability to remain true to form even now).

“We agreed this decision is in the best interest of the team,” Beltran told ESPN. “I couldn’t let myself be a distraction for the team.” And regardless of whether he actually stepped down of his own accord, that explanation is absolutely true.

The Mets — certainly more so than the Astros or the Red Sox — had a chance to undo some of the damage that this offseason wrought on fans’ faith in their team and restore some of their root-ability. Publicly, the Mets said “this was not an easy decision,” but at least they had a choice. The game at large can’t quite so easily sever ties to unsavory elements. Or, more importantly, the pall of suspicion they leave behind.

More than four men cheated baseball by stealing signs. It’s almost certain that more than two teams did as well. It’s ethical for Major League Baseball to punish the people who got caught, but it’s also a convenient way to try to make it look like the problem is in the past. Not a cover-up, of course, but certainly an attempt to put a story to bed before we’ve gotten to the bottom of it.

So far, the public-facing part of the sign-stealing drama (as opposed to the behind-the-scenes paranoia that has been brewing for years within the game, despite what Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen would have you believe) has all played out in the offseason. The games called into question were long ago decided. That’s part of why it’s so frustrating — two World Series championships tainted — but also gives the whole thing a sense of predetermination.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 22:  A fan holds a sign during the seventh inning in Game One of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Minute Maid Park on October 22, 2019 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
With the results of two recent World Series marred by a sign-stealing scandal, the suspicion around potential cheating could now live in fans' minds in real time. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The specter of illegitimacy never weighed over the viewing experience itself. But baseball is coming back in a matter of weeks. The players who were spared by the league won’t be by the swarm of reporters descending on spring training, and the suspicion that signs are being stolen out from under our noses has gone from being the purview of a whisper network to the presumptive dominant narrative of the games that are yet to be played.

For every team that starts the season 4-0, accusations will fly. For every pitcher who feels exposed on the mound, a simmering sense that he never had a fair shot. For every Astros hitter who sees his on-base percentage plummet, the obvious snickers and snide tweets.

Despite the asterisks in the history books, the 2017 season and the 2018 season weren’t the sign-stealing seasons in real time. The 2020 season will be.

Perhaps the severity of the punishments levied against the Astros, the domino effect those inspired, and the forthcoming punishment for the Red Sox will serve as a deterrent to future sign stealers. But Manfred’s stern warning back in September 2017 failed to do so. And if you ask the owners at the top and the players on the ground with their rings and their continued careers in baseball if it was worth sacrificing the jobs of a couple guys in the middle, I’m not sure they’d say that was much of a deterrent at all.

And even if teams are deterred, how to convince fans that the game is clean?

It’s tempting to compare this latest scandal to the rash of performance-enhancing drugs that undermined the integrity of the sport in the late ’90s and early aughts. It’s a handy parallel, what with the cheating and the way it begets more cheating — lest you or your team fall behind — coupled with the league’s seeming desire (initially) to suppress the story rather than suss out even more impropriety.

But I’m not sure the analogy can tell us anything about what to do next. It’s not a silver bullet and maybe it was implemented later than it could have or should have been, but the league does test for steroids. Guys who hit for power and guys who don’t. The league will tell you in a press release if they’re caught cheating and until then, well, speculate if you must, but there is a stamp of legitimacy to their feats. Sign-stealing isn’t so simple, because you can’t prove the negative. Not without scouring tens of thousands of electronic messages and interviewing dozens of individuals. Unless MLB undertakes similarly rigorous investigations of the remaining 28 teams, their names will never be fully cleared — not for the seasons that came before and not until preventative measures are firmly in place.

In a span of a few hours on Thursday, we saw how sign-stealing conspiracy theories can take over Twitter, forcing denials as old screenshots are studied for signs of wearable tech or even a suspicious fold in a uniform. Baseball is blessed with a legion of armchair detectives who can find a Band-Aid in a ballpark and they’re about to have a whole bunch of new footage to mine.

(Frankly, it sounds frustrating to spend the length of the baseball season and then some questioning the ethics of every guy with a good eye at the plate, but hey, at least it’s something to tune in for?)

This is the crisis MLB has to deal with — not how to punish the people who perpetrated the cheating but how to convince fans that a meaningful majority of the guys still in the game did not. Maybe stricter sanctions will suffice, maybe it’ll take overhauling how pitchers and catchers relay pitch calls so there are no signs to be stolen. Although probably the latter will simply usher in its own era of hacking scandals and the natural suspicions borne of unseen communication. And eventually it will just come down to whether or not you want to believe, or buy in, or buy tickets.

Or else the sport will irreparably suffer — a victim of its own hubris and the anything-for-an-edge mentality that made the Astros and the Red Sox and certainly some other teams so great.

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