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The Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal resulted in some of the biggest punishments baseball has ever seen. Jeff Lunhow and A.J. Hinch were suspended for a year — and later fired. The team was fined $5 million, the max amount Major League Baseball can penalize a team.
Despite that, the people at the center of the controversy — the Astros players — walked away with nothing. Though MLB’s investigation found that the players explicitly broke the rules, the league decided to grant players immunity for honest testimony.
While getting players to talk openly about the scandal was important, many wondered why MLB went out of its way to make sure the players wouldn’t be punished. Turns out, it was because the league feared it would lose player grievances, according to Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal.
The league was quick to make such an offer, these people said, in part because it did not believe it would win subsequent grievances with any players it attempted to discipline. That’s partly because of a bureaucratic shortcoming: The Astros’ front office never discussed with players the league’s admonitions against using electronic devices to steal signs, according to Manfred’s statement.
MLB operated under the assumption that the Astros’ front office never informed the players that using technology to steal signs was illegal. Because of that, MLB feared players would get suspensions shortened or overturned by claiming they never knew what they were doing broke the rules. It’s the George Costanza defense.
Whether that’s a legitimate argument is up for debate. Did Astros players really not know using cameras to steal signs was illegal? Did they not read stories about the Boston Red Sox getting in trouble for using an Apple Watch to steal signs?
Ultimately, MLB didn’t want to debate those questions. The league chose to believe the Astros never told players using technology to steal signs was bad.
That approach allowed MLB to end its investigation quickly, but at the expense of not punishing the most guilty parties.
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