Assumptions could be made that the Houston Astros sign stealing scandal of 2017 should matter most to those that participate within the game. However, after a shortened year of bluster, conflict and near beanballs, it ultimately may seem that on a grander scale, the players, baseball executives and team owners within Major League Baseball actually view these past infractions as more of a non-issue moving forward than one would think.
To be clear, for at least some within the game, and even some that found themselves in the heart of this scandal, its events have now fully run their course. Nothing could be more emblematic of this than the signings of both former Astros manager AJ Hinch and former Astros bench coach and Red Sox manager Alex Cora to new managerial contracts. These signings both came within two weeks of their re-instatement, at a blinding speed that would suggest all is forgiven. In Cora’s case he has been re-hired to the same Red Sox organization that unceremoniously removed him just a mere matter of months ago. In Hinch’s case he was contacted by the Tigers just 30 minutes after his reinstatement and introduced after just three days.
We must imagine then that either of these hirings would not be the case if not for the support of the players, executives, and owners of the Detroit Tigers in regard to Hinch, and the Boston Red Sox in regard to Cora. Both pilots will be expected to enter the dugout in 2021 and garner the respect of their players and peers. Only time will tell, for all we know team executives are out of touch with the feelings of their players and Hinch or Cora could end up being horrible in their respective clubhouses. With that said, both teams must feel confident enough that Hinch and Cora are still capable of building relationships. The teams have also decided to associate themselves with these men despite any backlash that it could cause among their fanbase, a force to be reckoned with considering the suddenly weaker financial state of many organizations.
And as fans we can sit here and lament the 2017 season. We can view the Astros as having stolen the Commissioner’s trophy that year, call what happened a great injustice to the game and remark on how they distinctly and knowingly cheated. With that in mind, you would think that the players and members of the league would not take this infraction less seriously, but more seriously then us. It was their hard work, their blood sweat and tears, and their wallets that were shortchanged directly by the Astros actions.
So, what gives? How is a team like the Detroit Tigers willing to forgive and forget? How are the Red Sox, who not only have the stench of their own sign stealing violations, but who were negatively effected directly by the positive fortune of the Astros in 2017, so willing to bring back someone like Cora who had a significant hand in beating them to the American League pennant? How is that bridge not burned?
Well maybe, just maybe the entities involved actually know better than us fans. Maybe, there is the chance that while it is cathartic to deride and antagonize the wrongdoers from years past, maybe the men (and women) closest to the league know something that we don’t. For all the negative intent of the Astros cheating scheme, for one reason or another, its not as impactful as we believe it to be. Maybe.
For one, let’s look throughout history. Whether we like it or not, baseball teams have been trying to find an advantage in decoding signs through any means possible for as long as there have been baseball signs. Sure, using primitive means of sign theft like employing the runner on 2nd base to signal to the batter (as seen below) are typically considered kosher throughout baseball at and levels and periods in time. However, that is not what I am talking about here. The real rift usually comes when electronics or devices that are otherwise foreign to a baseball field become involved. Yet, the history of using such devices isn’t a matter of decades in Major League Baseball. It’s a matter of centuries.
Remember the allegations of the Astros using buzzers during the 2019 playoffs, leading to the Jose Altuve walk-off home run in 2019 that sent Houston to the World Series? This would not be the first time a team was accused of using such technology. Way back in 1899, Philadelphia’s own Phillies were accused of using a system that included the use of an observatory beyond the centerfield wall of the Baker Bowl and the linkage for an electronic buzzer that traveled from that observatory to a junction box under the third base coaching box. Buzzers are also alleged to have helped the 1948 Cleveland Indians signal signs with help from an individual that would look for them inside the scoreboard at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Further, the type of cheating that we know the Astros actually did using cameras can be traced as far back as a Yankees-Red Sox game in 1959.
Not only is sign stealing a long-time part of baseball culture but using equipment and electronics that are foreign to the ballyard might be just as engrained as any other meyathod. With this in mind, is it much of a shock if teams are ambivalent to the what the Astros, or specific individuals among their organization did?
Consider the fact that the Tigers in particular weren’t even competitive in 2017, winning a grand total of 64 games. In what way were they really harmed directly in 2017? If they think that AJ Hinch is the best manager for their team, considering his history, the fact he has paid his debt and that if he ever gets caught doing it again it will result in a permanent ban, then I suppose that is their prerogative.
As for the Red Sox, they were in the thick of this. As fans, the thought can cross our minds that a manager with a history of this type of cheating combined with a team that we know was also performing lesser but illicit activities during Cora’s first tenure would suggest that they could be looking back to get into the sign stealing business. I will even go as far as saying Cora’s return is reminiscent to Ray Liotta in Goodfellas being released from prison. Cora did his time, didn’t roll on any of his fellow violators and now is being given his spot back in exchange for his loyalty and silence. Still, I cannot stress enough that this is nothing but speculation based on a series of past events. There is the potential that the Red Sox have been scared straight after the revelation of their lesser misdeeds, but at the very least it seems that they view their past infractions quite casually.
Granted, there are more conclusions we could draw if we had more information. Unfortunately, with the exception of teams that were directly affected by the Astros actions such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, we don’t know the general reactions of most MLB teams in regard to what the Astros did. This is largely because the league directly asked teams not to comment at the time that punishments were handed out.
There is legitimate speculation that the cheating that has happened over the last few years isn’t limited to just the Red Sox, Astros, and New York Yankees. Further, this suggestion isn’t just the reckless thoughts of a mere fan, but rather, such statements have been in the media since the Astros’ scandal broke in 2019. Given the aforementioned history of the game, this could certainly be the case and would be all the more reason why teams would not consider someone like Hinch or Cora a black sheep. After all, it only takes one (or two in this case) organizations of a certain mind to be okay with their histories. For all we know, this type of activity could even still be prevalent in the future, and not just with Detroit or Boston because they have made these hirings. This isn’t a matter like steroids where a test can be administered. We do know that MLB implemented restrictive rules about players using their video rooms during the 2020 season, but those rules were viewed by the players as an overly harsh nuisance. Their continued implementation is questionable. The truth is that we don’t really know the depth of this controversy, and without that depth or the words of the teams themselves, its hard to know how anyone truly feels about it.
What we are able to know though is that in a lot of ways the effect of the Astros particular brand of sign stealing in relation to their own quality of play seems to be overblown. From the statistical work that has been done to this point, we can tell with a fair amount of certainty that despite all the time and effort, and most importantly, intent that was put forth, there is no evidence that any of the sign stealing that the Astros did actually benefitted them at the plate. Not only were the 2017 Astros a worse hitting team at home (where they presumably were able to use their friendly confines to cheat) than they were on the road but they also unperformed in high leverage situations at Minute Maid Park in comparison to other situations.
Ultimately, rule breaking is just as much about intent as it is about outcome. I don’t deny that, but if you consider that the outcomes garnered by the Astros statistically suggest that no benefit occurred from their illegal tactics then it is easy to see how a victim-less crime could be viewed as a non-issue in baseball circles.
Perception is reality. At this moment, the perception is that at least some of the individuals that played a role in the Astros’ sign stealing scandal have not faced such a harsh reality among their peers as one would think. This is all despite the vitriol of many fans throughout the baseball world. Ultimately, this scandal is the type of thing that drives narrative. It gets fans talking and it can be filed under the “All Publicity Is Good Publicity” for MLB. In the end though, perhaps it is just one more item within the game that matters more to diehards than the decision makers.