Sport at it’s purest is a reflection of humanity in a way that makes it easier to digest our own lives. In our minds, we often equate this idea of “purity” to mean best. We cheer for the underdog story, the player who overcame tremendous adversity, and the great guy you can’t help but cheer for. Yet sport does not discriminate the traits it chooses to represent and a pure representation of humanity often shows us more than we bargain for. As much as those positive characteristics are part of our human experience, so too is a world that can shift us off of a moral center with dire consequences for a disaster radius that goes far beyond our own often self-centered lives.
We should not be surprised at the Astros scandal any more than we should be surprised to acknowledge to ourselves that bad things happen in the world, caused by both bad people and good people. We want more than that. We hold our athletes to higher aspirations, as if athletes can fall outside of the narrow confines of humanity and lift us up to a higher level of achievement. We want a reckoning when this promise of fairness is broken, and we are rarely satisfied.
The first fact that has to be acknowledged in the Astros’s scandal is that this is nothing new! So if you’ll indulge a quick history lesson for some context…
Since the beginning of organized baseball with the New York Knickerbockers Baseball Club in 1845, baseball quickly found itself embroiled in scandal. Baseball was a social game at this point, with the home team still batting even with a lead because winning wasn’t the point, but it was a social affair. Then a scandal broke, as it was uncovered that some better players were getting paid. Can you imagine? Ruining this great social club game by getting paid? Ruining the innocence! Scandal!
With the Cincinnati Red Stockings becoming the first fully professional baseball team in 1869, followed shortly thereafter by the creation of the National League in 1876, this of course became the complete standard for baseball and elevated the level of play. The early and swift reaction to this was that players took advantage of this new market economy and swapped teams at a whim based on the paycheck offered. This led to obvious concerns of player conflict of interest going to the highest bidder. Would players really play really hard to beat one team – that might just offer them more money in a few months? Players being paid for their talents can be judged “good”, but in paying them it had some negative consequences affecting the competitive balance of the league.
As a way to compensate for this mercenary mentality, teams began limiting player movement by controlling those players rights to change teams. This started with one player at a time, then 5 players, and finally an entire reserve clause became the standard. Again – all with good intentions of keeping the competition true. To keep the fairness spread out among the fledging National League of Baseball Clubs. A common image is the blind scales of justice, yet even scales are balanced and counter-balanced before reaching equilibrium.
Those good intentions led to a system that was later decried as a chattel structure, not so far removed from the system of slavery itself. Players were restricted on their options, their salaries unfairly limited or reduced, and the whims of an owner resulted in careers and lives being ruined. If you spoke up – that was that. A system attempting to keep the sport and competition true became a vice of control and certainly became a negative aspect of working in professional baseball.
In the early 1900’s, baseball became more even, exciting, and compelling than ever with competitive teams with players that stuck together and no thoughts of impropriety as it worked its way to becoming dubbed American’s National Pastime.
Then came the Black Sox Scandal, where 8 players of the White Sox were charged with conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series and at least several who definitely did. Though they were acquitted – that didn’t stop new Commissioner Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis from banning them all from baseball, even poor George “Buck” Weaver who knew about the fix but didn’t go in on it.
Weaver knew about the fix – but didn’t tell about it. He could have kept things fair, but he didn’t.
In his moment of choosing right versus wrong, the moment where he had a choice to keep the competitive balance on baseball’s biggest stage or give in to greed, his non-choice became a choice of wrong, and baseball suffered dramatically.
To not see this story about modern-day codebreakers, advanced video machines, and, uh, banging trashcans, in the larger context of not only baseball but in what this illustrates about our human nature is to be distracted by the mechanics and miss the larger story.
This goes beyond the Astros. Beyond the Red Sox. Certainly beyond the Dodgers.
I wrote not long ago that I had a feeling there would be more, much more to this story. Now a few more items are trickling out, including this talk of the Astros codebreakers and “black magic”. I believe we will see yet more examples of the internal environment that led to this scheme – as well what kept internal muckrakers from reporting it(besides of course, the winning). Now we have players seeking legal compensation and a farcical apology press conference that only deepened the growing scars in Major League Baseball 2020.
In the Commissioners report, Rob Manfred had this to say about the Astros culture:
“while no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in its analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic.”
This is also what makes this case so jarring to the core of what makes sports worth playing and watching. It’d be like if every election we had rumors of a foreign government interfering with our entire election process, or if within political parties we heard about fixes to lean the party one direction. We expect the actions on the field, or in the political arena, to be free of undue and unwanted influence.
Of course the line of cheating has always been a soft line. We accept, even celebrate subtle forms of cheating. From the spitball and sandpaper to pitch framing, the subtle line of cheating is as much ingrained in baseball’s heritage as the Cracker Jack.
The response to the Astros cheating has been as emotional as it has been upsetting. Freddie Freeman of the Braves was in tears as he thought of the time his friend Kris Medlen(and sure, a personal all time favorite), who had battled injuries after strings of incredible success in the major leagues had battled up through the minor leagues and been called up for a start against the Astros in 2018. He was shelled for 7 runs in 4 innings and retired a few weeks later.
Similarly, Mike Bolsinger is suing the Astros after he had worked his way up through the minors to face the Astros in late 2017 as a Blue Jay. His fate was even worse than Medlen’s, allowing 4 runs and getting 1 out while throwing just 29 pitches. He never made it back to the majors. He says this about the sport he loved, “I’ll be the first to say I wasn’t the most naturally gifted pitcher. But I loved the sport and trusted that, if I persevered…I might be able to able to work my way up…and have a major league career.”
After news of the cheating came out, he was angry: “If I failed at my own craft because I wasn’t good enough, that would be on me. I could live with that. But thinking about the cheating and the toll it ultimately took on my family – that was something I couldn’t tolerate.”
Trust was broken in this moment. Performance enhancing drugs have impacted nearly all sports, and with these admissions it is trust that is eroded. Especially when you have key players like Lance Armstrong who try and rationalize away their usage, denying for years until finally admitting to their transgressions. The Astros owner Jim Crane said that he doesn’t think the Astros’ cheating impacted the games, that they still deserve the World Series title and everything that went along with it.
Now the human aftermath becomes as big of an issue as the cheating itself. Accountability people can accept. Lying, denial, and covering up we cannot.
Those of us who love the game are hurt. We want retribution to be done. I personally had felt like the punishments were fair of Luhnow, Hinch, and the Astros franchise overall under the current law of baseball. Jeff Luhnow introduced a dark side of the analytical philosophy to how he ran the entire Astro’s organization, and it appears those roots run deep and don’t dig up so cleanly.
I didn’t see a need to go back and alter history, revoke a World Championship There is always more to be done, but in that moment I was expecting the Astros to be contrite. Now?
Mike Bolsinger points it out at the end of his article for the Washington Post:
“Baseball is at an important crossroads. How the game responds to this scandal will define its credibility and its existence for years to come.”
Baseball has always bounced back. From the Black Sox scandal with the play of Babe Ruth, from Pete Rose gambling with an enforcement of justice, from the 1994 players strike with Cal Ripken Jr in 1995 and McGwire/Sosa in 1998 (at the time it was good!), and baseball will find a way to bounce back again. The game will persevere and overcome. The game is not on trial here.
The people are on trial here. We see in the Astros players what we never want to see in ourselves. A decision at some point was made to take a minor advantage and turn into a larger operation. Careers were ended, lives were altered. Jim Crane was still not admitting that his teams actions actually made a difference. He was only apologizing for breaking the rules. That is a distinct difference.
Until we see that acknowledgement that their actions did impact games and lives, this story will continue on and affect us all who just want to see the truth be told.