It’s at times like this when I remember that I was one of Lance Armstrong’s last suckers. Armstrong; he was the man. Seven Tour de France wins in a row. Who does that? Turns out, a cheater does that. I was a Lance defender right up until the time that the wheels came off Lance’s victories and he became indefensible. Disappointed – yes. Surprised – not really. Crushed – oh hell no, I was way past those days of looking at sport as a builder of character.
And so when Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros got busted for cheating during the 2017 season I wasn’t at all surprised. Just another day at the ballpark/stadium/arena/track, you pick the venue. This particular infamy involves the Astros using video equipment to steal the opposing catcher’s signs and relaying the upcoming pitch to the Astros’ hitters. When a hitter knows exactly what pitch is coming he’s given a tremendous advantage.
The point of this isn’t to replay the minutiae of the Astros’ cheating. Anyone who wants to know the sordid and at the same time ridiculous details can just Google, Houston Astros to come up with a veritable library. No, this is about cheating in sport and the notions that get batted around every time someone gets caught trying to “get an edge.”
“Get an edge.” You hear that often from athletes and coaches. It might mean anything from legally taking advantage of an opponent’s weakness, to trash talking, to being a euphemism for flouting the rules.
Here’s where I bare my soul and make an admission. I often listen to sports talk radio. There I said it. I know it’s sort of like admitting that your favorite movie of all time is Paul Blart: Mall Cop or that you sniff test yesterday’s socks and then wear them. Okay, I’ll cop to the latter but I never considered Paul Blart.
When l’affaire Astros blew up, cheating became topic number two on sports talk (because it’s football playoff season and anything short of football being outlawed doesn’t trump the playoffs). On one particular midday show one of the hosts decried the whole notion of cheating in sports while his two partners took the opposing view that cheating is part of “getting an edge” and is as integral to sports as keeping score and so in the end it’s much ado about nothing.
I’ll admit to flashes of naivete (Lance Armstrong) but I’m not so green as to think that cheating isn’t present in sports. Years ago I held fast to the whimsical idea of the purity of sport. I guess it was a combination of disappointments and the wisdom of aging that made me take a more pragmatic view of sports. Sports may be fun to watch but there’s a lot of smarmy stuff going on; greed, graft, exploitation, bribery to name a few, and of course good old fashioned cheating.
Still there is that unsophisticated part of me that always asks, “Why?” Why cheat? To win of course and to collect all that goes with victory; glory, prestige, adulation and reaching the pinnacle of your sport. Wait, did I leave out money?
There’s an old bromide that you hear athletes toss out every now and again that they play “for the love of the game.” Jose Altuve of the Astros who won the Most Valuable Player award during the tainted 2017 season has probably said it. I’ve little doubt that Lance Armstrong probably said it. There’s a logical thread attached to “love of the game,” and that is if you love the game, you respect the game and if you respect the game you follow the rules. The biggest affront that comes with cheating isn’t the stolen money or awards, the tainted victories or the undeserved defeats suffered by opponents. The game is always supposed to be bigger than the individual and so the greatest injury that comes with cheating is disrespect of the game. Cheaters inflict a historic blemish that will never be completely erased.
The two sports talk hosts then went a step further and offered the old saying that “It isn’t cheating if you don’t get caught.” Which begs the question, is it murder if they don’t find the body? There’s no moral question here, wrong is wrong whether you get caught or not.
The other bromide that comes up with cheating scandals is, “Everybody does it.” Well, everybody doesn’t do it but if we go ahead and accept the theory then let’s just take the next logical step and throw away the rule books. It would certainly make the games more interesting if a forward in soccer could simply pick up the ball and run with it, or instead of rounding second base to get to third the runner could simply take the short route across the mound. And just imagine NASCAR without rules. Think of all the money and time saved and controversy averted if we could dispense with the no longer required officials. Chaos would ensue but at least we wouldn’t have to be bothered with cheating scandals.
And what about the message that’s being sent to youngsters? It’s a common refrain when these sorts of things happen but I call “bullshit” on that. That horse left the barn a long time ago and is over the hills and far away. Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones (busted for PED’s and sent to prison), Tonya Harding, and the New England Patriots and their peccadillos. And then you have sports talk show hosts trivializing rule breaking as “gamesmanship.” Even the current President of the United States is known for flagrantly cheating at golf. Little League Baseball has been tainted with cheating by the adults who are supposed to be the game’s stewards. I’ve seen it myself. When I was coaching cross-country I was leaving the course with my team when I overheard an opposing coach reminding his team that there would be a mandatory practice on Sunday (Sunday practice was forbidden by league rules). If you want to teach your kids integrity, don’t turn to sports.
Still I keep coming back to the same basic question. Why cheat? I realize that in even considering such a question I’m exposing myself as a hopeless chump. Would anyone like to sell me the Golden Gate Bridge or some farmland in Chernobyl? But seriously, why? If your cheating results in victory, then what’s to celebrate? You may have defrauded the world but you’ll forever know that your victory was a scam. The stories you regale your grandchildren with will always be lies even if you allow the years and your personal revisionist history to clean your slate. All of the medals, trophies and certificates are physical reminders of a self perpetuating lie. Of course we know what happens when cheats get caught. Titles are stripped, monies and medals returned, the record books corrected and the perps and their families disgraced.
Cheaters, despite their best efforts at carrying out worst intentions, don’t always win. But win or lose, they leave a trail of carnage and collateral damage, particularly after they’ve been caught. Catching cheaters doesn’t undo the damage and in the case of the Astros the damage was extensive.
Obviously the opposing teams and pitchers, particularly those who faced the Astros in the postseason. In a game where statistics are everything the stats in every game played in the Astros home park are now left in doubt.
Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees who finished second to Altuve in the MVP balloting.
The fans. For Houston fans the victory has been made hollow except for those who hold with the notion that “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” But let’s face it, those folks have bigger issues. For fans of other teams, particularly those teams that were in the playoff hunt there’s the feeling that their season was stolen.
When the hammer dropped Astros’ Manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were given one year suspensions, the team was fined 5 million dollars and has lost its first and second round picks for 2020 and 2021. The team later fired both Hinch and Luhnow. As the week progressed so did the fallout. Alex Cora who had been a coach with the Astros in 2017 and was the manager of the Red Sox in 2018 and 2019 was implicated and was given his walking papers by the Sox. Carlos Beltran who was a player with the Astros and was just hired by the New York Mets to manage the team stepped down before he even managed a single inning. It was termed a mutual agreement, which probably translates to the Mets giving Beltran an offer he couldn’t refuse.
As for the players? It seems curious that the players aren’t being handed suspensions and fines. Beltran seems to be the only player from the 2017 team who’s getting dinged but more may come later.
Used to be that players would self-police these sorts of things. Dis an opposing pitcher and you might expect some retribution in the form of a fastball aimed at your skull next time up. The rules have largely put a stop to headhunting and throwing at batters in general but that doesn’t mean that Jose Altuve shouldn’t expect to get drilled in the ribs a few times and seeing some very inside pitches heading his way.
This will dog every Astros player from ballpark to ballpark. They will be booed unmercifully for the rest of their careers and rightly so. Justified for those who took part but not so much for those who refused to go along. That’s particularly true of Mike Fliers, now with the Oakland Athletics, who was with the Astros in 2017 and went public about the sign stealing. For some of his peers he’ll always be known as a snitch.
For the Astros and their fans their 2017 World Series “victory” will always be remembered when other victors get lost in the jumble of years. Twenty years from now the conversations will always go something like,
“Who won the series in 2016?”
“Can’t remember but the Astros won in 2017. Remember? That was the team that was stealing signs.”
Lifelong glory turned into historic shame. I’d say just ask the 1919 Chicago White Sox who got caught fixing games and intentionally losing the World Series but they’re all dead now. Still, 100 years later their infamy remains. The Sox’ Joe Jackson is the century old face of that scandal.
Maybe the biggest loser is Major League Baseball which was just seeing the image of the steroid era disappear in the rearview mirror. The game has been taking its lumps for being “too slow,” “too boring,” “too stodgy and not keeping up with the times.” Attendance at games has been dropping.
It isn’t going to help MLB that the offending players are going to be let off the hook. Opposing players and social media have been calling for more severe punishments; forfeiture of titles, both team and individual; fines; suspensions and even lifetime bans. But none of that is going to happen. When it came to issuing punishments to the players, you know the actual perps, Commissioner Rob Manfred spit the bit and declared that “Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can” and that “they knew the scheme was wrong.” He went on, ““assessing discipline of players for this type of conduct is both difficult and impractical.” It’s not like the heads that rolled didn’t deserve it but this is sort of like promoting the bank teller who was tapping the till and then firing the bank manager.