Nationals

Are the Astros’ penalties for sign-stealing a deterrent or blip?

Nationals

A former Nationals player was asked over the weekend about the sign-stealing brouhaha enveloping the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox. He said he wasn’t paying too much attention to the specifics, but suggested what he considered a universal truth about bending baseball rules.

“Just don’t get caught."

The Astros have been caught. A November report in The Athletic was bolstered by social media sleuths before ultimately resulting in a damning report from Major League Baseball on Monday. Houston cheated throughout the 2017 season on the way to a World Series title, when it used technology to decode and deliver information about pitch signs. In essence, the Astros found a way to significantly boost the chance of doing the most difficult thing in sports: hit a baseball.

Who knew? The league says Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow -- once a beacon of his profession and suddenly unemployed following a tone-deaf and ignorant World Series capped by a cheating scandal -- as well as manager A.J. Hinch were culpable in their lack of action as opposed to hatching the scheme. Bench coach Alex Cora and players like Carlos Beltrán, the new Mets manager, were directly involved in the process. Owner Jim Crane was not.

Crane held a press conference Monday afternoon. His themes: my organization did this wrong and will suffer the consequences. He fired Hinch and Luhnow, who had been suspended a year each by MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. Houston continues to look at the possible participation of lower-level employees. Most of the onus was pushed onto Cora and players for the development of a system which stole and relayed signs using a center field camera as the prime source of information. When asked where this was among the tough days he’s had as the Astros’ owner, Crane confirmed the emotions: “It’s a tough day.” His voice broke a tad and he went with a universal tactic of grabbing a quick drink to stall the tears, as if consuming liquid would keep the leaking water around his eyes from getting out.

 

The league also stripped Houston of its 2020 and 2021 first- and second-round picks. A $5 million fine, the largest allowed under the Major League Constitution, rounded out the punishment.

The discipline handed down leads to an unanswerable question: Will any of it matter?

In the moment, Houston has devolved from a model franchise, defining the reboot-and-build era with well-educated staffers in key management positions, to a stained organization, though Crane said, “absolutely not” when asked if this taints the 2017 title. Of course it does. His response was one of his few missteps of the day and reminded of the hubris which helped lead Houston here in the first place.

Those around the league who thought Houston was cheating in the unaccepted way -- distinctly different than the wink-and-nod approach used forever -- are currently texting with smiles born of affirmation. The Astros received a flood of headlines and best-selling book because of their process. Monday rattles their foundation, provides the non-Ivy League graduates around baseball a chance to gloat, and generally knocks a league heavy from its perch.

Further effects will come. How will MLB’s investigation into the Red Sox end? What will happen for Cora in Boston? Will the Mets move forward with Beltran, who was just hired Nov. 1, 2019? Does this put Baltimore general manager Mike Elias, hired in November of 2018, under a cloud?

Sign stealing is a tradition. Alongside the “don’t get caught” mantra is a sentiment that if you do have your sign sequences stolen, it’s incumbent on you, not the thief, to act accordingly. Washington knew of Houston’s heightened reputation for obtaining information -- one way or the other -- when the World Series began. It changed all of its signs to combat the Astros’ watchful eyes.

So, across baseball, from the World Series to the Winter Meetings, Houston was known for this. Other teams were irritated with, though not aghast at, the Astros’ mechanisms. There was even some acceptance. The penalty and fallout carried wonder much more than if the Astros went too far.

Manfred hammered Houston on Monday. Crane followed-up with firings. Mid-February will have a fresh aura in West Palm Beach when the Astros and Nationals arrive at their shared spring training facility. In February of 2019, Houston defined the modern organization. Meanwhile, Davey Martinez’s job status was in question after a middling first season in Washington.

 

Now, the Nationals enter as the defending champions. Houston will likely start with an interim manager, interim general manager and endless questions about why it cheated.

But, is such an in-your-face, irrefutable, heavily penalized scandal enough to stop future shortcuts in sign-stealing? Probably not.

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