More than any other sport, baseball’s a game where numbers take on mythical resonance. Even the most casual fans know what numbers like 56, 714 and 755 represent. For as long as there are baseball fans, the institutional knowledge of digits like Jackie Robinson’s uniform number (42), the New York Yankees’ greatest team (1927) and Ken Griffey Jr.’s first Upper Deck card (1) will live on.
It’s time to add another number to that list: 2017.
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has decided that the Houston Astros won’t be stripped of their 2017 World Series championship. This, despite overwhelming evidence of a sophisticated sign-stealing scheme, first detailed in The Athletic, that vastly tilted games in Houston’s favor. The Astros mounted a camera to view the opposing catchers’ signs, deciphered those signs, and relayed that intel to batters by banging on a trash can. (OK, not all of it was sophisticated.)
That, folks, is cheating, plain and simple, on a franchise-wide scale.
Let’s be clear: sign-stealing in baseball in itself isn’t the problem. If you can figure out what pitch is coming before it arrives, nice work; it’s like picking up tells in poker. If your opponent isn’t clever enough to hide his groans when he’s holding garbage, he deserves to give you his money.
But there’s a difference between picking up tells and getting a look at your opponent’s exact cards — which is, in effect, exactly what Houston was doing, game after game, pitch after pitch. Picking up tells gets you chips. Sneaking looks at cards gets your legs broken.
Stats are circumstantial evidence, but even so, there are some screaming deviations in the Astros’ home and road performances in that 2017 postseason:
Home: .472 BA/.513 OBP/1.028 SLG, 17 hits, six homers, 12 RBIs
Away: .143 BA/.268 OBP/.229 SLG, five hits, one homer, two RBIs
Home: .371 BA/.421 OBP/.743 SLG, 13 hits, three homers, 10 RBIs
Away: .211 BA/.231 OBP/.395 SLG, eight hits, two homers, four RBIs
Alex Bregman, Brian McCann and Evan Gattis also showed gaps in their home and road splits. As a team, the Astros were 8-1 at home and 3-6 on the road en route to their 2017 championship. That’s an awful lot of circumstantial smoke.
The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke made the argument several days ago that baseball ought to strip the Astros of the 2017 title, and given the weight of evidence — and in absence of any mitigating circumstances — it’s tough to mount a convincing counterargument. When getting caught just means a couple guys losing their jobs and a team paying a fine it can easily afford, well … how many teams and fans would make that devil’s bargain in a heartbeat?
But pull down that championship flag from Minute Maid Park, wipe out the results of that World Series ... and all of a sudden, swiping signs doesn’t sound quite so appealing.
Technology will only become more sophisticated and easier to conceal in the coming years. A decade from now, teams won’t need covert cameras, special monitors installed in the dugout and designated trash can bangers — they’ll just need one dude with an iPhone 20 in the center-field bleachers. Manfred needed to act decisively on a personnel level, and he did exactly that. It’ll be up to history to decide if he did enough on an institutional level.
For a league that gets itself wrapped up in knots about unwritten rules like whether a batter trots too slowly to first base, we’ve got some pretty damn flagrant violations of, you know, written rules. This isn’t just a smoking gun, this is a typed and notarized confession.
But even if clubhouse omertà prevents players from speaking up, that code of silence doesn’t extend to fans. It’s on baseball, and those who revere its history, to treat the Astros’ 2017 championship fairly: by attaching a glowing neon-orange asterisk to it, metaphorically if not literally.
It’s not like baseball doesn’t already pound certain unsightly numbers down the memory hole. After all, everyone knows how many home runs Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron hit, but almost no one can remember how many Barry Bonds finished with.
So, fine: let the Astros keep their flag. But never let them forget how they got it.
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