SEATTLE – So, have you caught baseball fever yet?
Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in a month, which usually is cause for celebration. But the carnage from baseball’s cheating scandal continues to grow, casting a pall on what should be a joyous time of pleasant anticipation.
Instead, the darkest week in recent memory took another victim Thursday when Carlos Beltran departed as rookie manager of the New York Mets, before he had even begun.
There were lots of euphemisms to describe Beltran’s exit, just as there had been with Red Sox manager Alex Cora two days earlier. But the reality, when all the platitudes are stripped away, is they were both fired. Just as Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow had been Monday, for their entanglement in the plot to use center-field cameras and replay-room monitors to steal signs during the 2017 and ’18 seasons. Cora was the Astros’ bench coach in 2017, and Beltran played for Houston that season.
What we have now is a burgeoning crisis that in many ways parallels the steroids scandal of the late 1980s and into the 1990s.
In both cases, the credibility of the sport takes a substantial hit. The most vital element for any professional sport, its lifeblood, is the inherent belief from the public that the competition is on the up and up.
Anything that compromises that trust poses a grave threat – and steroids certainly did that. Fans were left to wonder who was using, who was clean and whether the eye-popping offensive statistics of the era had any validity.
And now, with the World Series champions in both 2017 (Astros) and ’18 (Red Sox) having been implicated in cheating plots, the core integrity of the game again is in question. The pursuit of a title is what fans invest the bulk of their emotional energy into; now, two of the past three titles are tainted.
So, for that matter, are the achievements of an Astros team that is obviously hugely talented. But we will always wonder how much of Houston’s success must be attributed to the benefits of having someone bang a trash can when an off-speed pitch was coming.
As it was with steroids, the collateral damage is substantial. The Dodgers may have been jobbed out of two World Series championships, having lost to the Astros in seven games in 2017 and the Red Sox in five games in 2018. Maybe the narrative that their manager, Dave Roberts, can’t win the big one is based on an entirely false premise.
Dodger pitchers Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw both were accused of choking under pressure after getting thrashed in World Series games in Houston. You have to look at that much differently now. There are young pitchers around baseball who may have had their careers derailed because they had the misfortune to face an Astros team that knew exactly what they were going to throw.
Teams may have missed the playoffs, and managers fired, for the same reason. Joe Girardi was let go as Yankees manager in 2017 just five days after losing the ALCS in seven games to the Astros. In that series, the Yankees dropped a pair of one-run games in Houston. Who knows how much of that was attributable to the Astros’ cheating?
The ripple effect of all this is massive. The tentacles are far-reaching and intertwined. Just as was the case during the heart of the steroids era, there is a deep suspicion that the whole business is far more widespread than just the parties getting the publicity and punishment. There has been much insinuation, in fact, that this kind of sign-stealing goes back further than 2017, and reaches much deeper than just two teams.
In many ways, that is Commissioner Rob Manfred’s worst nightmare. While he no doubt hopes this bestowal of stiff punishment puts the issue to rest, that won’t be the case, anymore than the Mitchell Report ended the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs for baseball. You can bet there will be more eruptions on this cheating topic in the months to come – but Manfred had better hope that at least they deal with past indiscretions, not future ones.
Unlike his predecessor, Bud Selig, who waited too long to act on steroids (for which the Players Association shares much of the blame), Manfred wielded a sledgehammer this week in an effort to scare teams straight. Hinch and Luhnow were suspended for a year, the Astros were docked their top two draft picks for two years, and the organization was fined $5 million, the maximum allowable. The Red Sox’s punishment has not been announced, but it could be just as severe, if not more so for Cora.
There are some in baseball who believe that is still not a steep enough price for the Astros to pay. But I feel Manfred made his point forcefully enough to be a deterrent to teams that might have been motivated to start up their own sign-stealing program – or were already engaged in one. I would guess every manager and general manager will be far more vigilant in policing such plots, if for nothing else than to save his own hide.
That’s one other key area where this parallels the PED mess – good people got caught up in doing bad things. Certainly, Beltran and Cora had impeccable reputations within the game, but couldn’t keep from crossing an ethical line when it came to sign stealing. Manfred’s report portrays Hinch as a tortured man who knew the trash-can-banging campaign was fundamentally wrong, to the point he smashed the Astros’ monitors a couple of times.
But Hinch never came out and told his players, and his bench coach, Cora, to knock it off. For that, he’ll have to search his soul to figure out why he didn’t listen to his conscience. And I dare say there are players from the previous generation who always will be plagued by guilt for boosting their careers through chemicals.
Baseball will get through this, because the game itself is so great and so entrenched in our national psyche. But that hold has unquestionably waned in recent years. And this is another body blow it didn’t need.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.