Major League Baseball should strip the Houston Astros of their 2017 World Series title and force them to take down the flag. And the Boston Red Sox, too, if the league can produce proof — if it is willing to reveal evidence — that Alex Cora brought his sign-stealing scheme north when he signed on as manager in 2017.
And they it should suspend every manager, coach, player, or employee who touched the trash can or even looked at the center-field video monitor.
Because for the last two years, Major League Baseball has been at the forefront of arguing that one of its key pillars is protecting the integrity of the game. In the U.S. sports betting arena, MLB has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the NBA and the PGA Tour in trying to convince lawmakers to pay a royalty and force operators to buy “official league data” all in the name of protecting the integrity of the game.
And yet here we are, the integrity of baseball is in shambles, a result of its own doing and negligence at headquarters, and Rob Manfred’s answer is to fine the Astros a paltry $5 million, suspend a general manager and a manager, take away some end-of-the-round draft picks and let the morally bankrupt players and employees who perpetrated this scandal (not to mention the owner of the team) walk away scot free. Consider deterrence: that sounds like a reasonable tradeoff for a World Series title, especially for one of the teams with a decades-long drought.
For goodness sake, if outright cheating isn’t the very opposite of maintaining integrity, then I don’t know what is.
MLB doing anything but maintaining integrity
— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) January 13, 2020
To recap, baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred made a statement about its investigation into allegations that the Astros stole signs during their 2017 World Series run. In the statement, which is full of lots of strong language, Manfred explains how Astros players, coaches and employees used a video monitor positioned near the dugout to steal signs and then relay them to batters by banging on a trash can. Reports surfaced Thursday alleging that some batters may also have been wearing buzzers under their jerseys and an employee would signal by buzzer what the next pitch would be. Manfred then meted out punishment … but not to the players involved.
As an example of the flagrant hypocrisy, consider MLB’s presentation to the Washington State Gambling Commission in October, during which the league, along with the NBA and PGA Tour, all but demanded money and protection from lawmakers. Among the requests were the right to prohibit bets on certain parts of the game, the data mandate and an integrity fee (now called a royalty). The league, represented by Marquest Meeks, senior counsel for sports betting and investigations for MLB, argued that the league needs the money to “protect the game from additional risk of sports betting related corruption and fraud.”
While @MLB is fighting for a sports betting "royalty" and mandated use of "official league data" – a reminder of its own published scare tactics and role in #INTEGRITY.
All this while a cheating scandal unfolds under Manfred's watch– implicating 2 recent World Series winners. https://t.co/jBuCNMWPFP pic.twitter.com/I3YHPYenH0
— Sports Handle (@sports_handle) January 16, 2020
But hey, look, a year before states could even consider legalizing sports betting, the Astros cheated their way to a World Series, and the cheating had nothing to do with sports betting.
Last week, I sat at a conference and listened to Meeks tell an audience of lawmakers once again how important integrity is to America’s past time. He even said things like “when you legalize, you are saying ‘This is regulated, this is safe’,” and that lawmakers need to “protect the consumer from corrupt influence.”
Guess what? The latest corrupt influence isn’t coming from the outside, Mr. Meeks, the bad actors are inside the house. How and why should lawmakers, operators and bettors trust Major League Baseball to better monitor integrity in a regulated sports betting environment when the real threat is the players and managers and MLB brass which turned a blind eye?
MLB’s response weak
“The rest of the organization is celebrating on the field, should I join them? …No I need to go put a different top on. Immediately.”pic.twitter.com/qxsKUqTQuu
— Starting 9 (@Starting9) January 16, 2020
As recently as this week, media reports have surfaced about MLB, the NBA and the PGA Tour attempting to strong arm state lawmakers into paying them to preserve the integrity of their games as sports betting is legalized across the nation. In an investigative report by respected sports journalist Joe Vardon of The Athletic, Manfred is quoted as saying “It contains literally no protections toward the integrity of the sport,” in relation to West Virginia‘s sports betting law. In that state, which, by the way, doesn’t have a single professional sports team, representatives of the professional leagues lobbied hard for cash, but lawmakers said no.
Nearly two years after West Virginia legalized, we have the perfect example of why — the Houston Astros are clearly a clubhouse full of jaunty young men with no moral compass, and even after MLB found incontrovertible proof of this, it failed to “maintain the integrity of the game.” Instead, it offered a wrist-slap to the organization, a year off to the Astros top baseball employees, missed draft picks, and, again, no penalty to the actual perpetrators.
Let’s be real, both GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch will find work in baseball again. Cora, then a bench coach with the Astros, and Carlos Beltran, then a player who was clearly involved, will, too. It’s a proven fact that professional sports leagues look away from what’s distasteful and keep their most talented employed (see: Mark McGwire, Ray Lewis, Allen Iverson, Ryan Braun, Terrell Owens, Michael Vick, or Antonio Brown, to name a few). We’ve become a society that values athletic prowess over all else.
MLB has tipped its hand. It won’t drop the hammer on cheaters. Instead of hitting it out of the park to show just how important preserving integrity is, Manfred bunted. Faced with the 21st-century version of the Black Sox, Manfred proved he is no Kenesaw Landis. Heck, he’s not even Bart Giamatti, who suspended Pete Rose FOR LIFE. Nope, Manfred showed instead that money trumps morals.
Manfred, of course, works for the owners, which adds a wrinkle to all of this and puts him in a tough position. The people who pay his salary are the billionaire team owners, and he clearly must weigh their interests against the best interests of the game. In the end, the interests of the owners always win, though at least Houston’s Jim Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch and Boston’s John Henry fired Cora. In New York, Beltran stepped down before the Mets could fire him.
If you’re keeping score to this point, it’s Astros 1, Managers Lost 3, MLB 0.
History of pro athletes cheating
The Houston Astros enjoying several years of glowing coverage about how they were just smarter than other teams, only to then be revealed as cheating frauds is really a great metaphor for lots in the world at the moment.
— Luke Peristy (@Luke_H_Peristy) January 16, 2020
I recognize that what the Astros did does not involve gambling and that no one (that we know of) paid the players to cheat. But on some level, the idea that athletes want to win so badly they find a way to cheat and then, maybe, to justify why they did it, is even worse. Ok, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, you got your World Series rings, but you also showed the world that you have no respect for the game you claim to love and you don’t know the difference between right and wrong.
And what about Hinch? Cora and Beltran were 100 percent involved in the cheating, but Hinch the manager, the leader of the Astros, the person who should have stood up and said, “Enough!”? Well, he pretty much just stood by and let the cheating happen. Rather than punish his players, he reportedly broke the video monitor that players and employees were using to steal signs. Twice. And then he looked the other way. This is the kind of person we want in charge?
This isn’t the first time professional athletes have cheated — nor will it be the last. From Rosie Ruiz’s subway ride to a Boston Marathon victory to Lance Armstrong’s chronic doping, athletes have proven time again the lengths they will go to to win. But in both of those cases, the sports’ governing bodies said, “No more!” and stripped Ruiz and Armstrong of their titles.
Is there a value to stripping a title? Yes. Consider Lance Armstrong, who has to explain to his kids why he chose doping over competing fairly. He’s not recalcitrant, but he’s also no longer a Tour de France winner, so can no longer claim what appeared to be one of the single most spectacular athletic achievements of all time. Years later, he still believes he did what he had to do to win. He admits it wasn’t legal, but in 2019 also said he “wouldn’t change a thing.”
At the moment, Hinch, Cora, Beltran, et al can still claim their title. And unless the title(s) is stripped, they can sweep this nasty little episode under the rug, and, yes, future generations will forget.
NBA broadcaster Mark Jones calls the Houston Astros the “Houston Asterisks” during the Rockets game. #Astros #Houston #mlb #nba pic.twitter.com/hfmpUq2Sra
— Doug McKain (@DMAC_LA) January 16, 2020
As our major professional sports leagues continue to sound the alarm about protecting the integrity of the game in the face of legal sports betting, they also continue to fail to uphold it. The closest any of the leagues have come to truly penalizing a cheater is when the NFL suspended Tom Brady for four games after the DeflateGate scandal in 2015. Forget the paltry fines and the loss of draft picks, Roger Goodell hit the New England Patriots where it hurt, by taking away possibly the best player in the history of the game, albeit only for four games.
Day after day this week, more and more has come out about this scandal. First it was video monitors and trash cans, now it is buzzers under jerseys. The title is tainted, and as many a journalist have already said, the entry will have an asterisk next to it. But that asterisk isn’t because the players cheated, it’s because MLB failed to stand up for what’s right.
MLB had a chance to make a statement. Instead, it totally whiffed.