The Houston Astros won only 51 games in 2013, which was a franchise record for lowest wins in a single season. Since then, the team shocked the baseball world by making a stellar year-over-year improvement. In 2017, they captured the baseball world’s attention as the Astros carried a dominant regular season performance into the post-season, eventually beating the Los Angles Dodgers to win the World Series championship. The initial reaction after this world series championship victory was characterized by nothing short of brilliance as many praised General Manager, Jeff Luhnow, for making key acquisitions to bolster its roster, including Justin Verlander, Ken Giles, and Brian McCann. Others shed light on Jose Altuve, a 5’6” Venezuelan who made his major league debut with the Astros in 2011, arguably considered one of the best players in baseball today.
But not all of the reaction to this cinematic success story was positive. In a story published by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich by The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros violated Major League Baseball (MLB) rules and stole signs using an electronic system named “Codebreaker”. The authors stated the Astros strategically placed a camera in center field to steal signs during games in real-time. They employed staff to watch the cameras using a television monitor between the clubhouse and the dugout. The staff relayed the type of pitch that was coming to the batter by instructing players from the dugout to hit a garbage can if there was an off-speed pitch. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers helped corroborate the story, and shortly thereafter the MLB launched an investigation in 2019. Rob Manfred, commissioner of MLB, revealed the findings on January 13, 2020, in a nine-page report that confirmed Astros’ violation of the MLB’s rules that prohibit teams from using electronic equipment to steal signs.
In response to the Astros’ violation of MLB’s rules, Manfred issued five major penalties: (1) Manager A.J Hinch suspended for the 2020 season, (2) GM Jeff Luhnow suspended for the 2020 season, (3) former assistant GM, Brandon Taubman suspended one year, (4) Astros forfeit their first- and second-round draft picks the next two years, and (5) Astros fined $5 million, the maximum allowed under the MLB’s constitution. While some MLB teams, fans, researchers, players, and executives accept these penalties as satisfactory, others are infuriated given that the players involved in this scandal received immunity and Manfred failed to strip the Astros’ World Series Title in the way that other sports organizations do.
Consequently, it has tarnished the reputation of the Houston Astros and the MLB. As one of the most talented teams ever assembled, many admired the Astros’ excellence after winning the 2017 World Series. Particularly, players around the league such as Aaron Judge praised Jose Altuve’s dominant performance which led him to win the American League MVP. But Judge who lost the MVP award to Jose Altuve in 2017, said he lost respect for some players and believes the world series title should be stripped away. Mike Trout, another prominent baseball player, sided with Judge without any hesitation.
Since issuing penalties against the Astros, some members of the baseball community were also disappointed because Article II of the league’s constitution allows the commissioner to impose any preventative, remedial or punitive action. For instance, Yu Darvish of the Cubs said, “In the Olympics, if players cheat they can’t have a gold medal. But they still have a World Series title.” LeBron James, Bernie Sanders, and Mark Cuban did not hold back on letting Manfred know that his decision was wrong and disgraceful. One Astros season ticket holder filed a lawsuit for breach of contract, negligence, and a violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practice Act to show his contempt for the league.
I seriously believe MLB’s future is in jeopardy under the leadership of Rob Manfred. He even blew an opportunity to manage the crisis during his first news conference. Manfred told the media, “The idea of an asterisk or asking for a piece of metal back seems like a futile act.” In my view, he has only succeeded in aggravating the problem. He simply can’t be treating his people like napkins when there are a long history of players and organizations that demonstrated hard work, skill, discipline, and excellence to win the world series. No, it’s not just a piece of metal.
During the press conference, Manfred also made it clear that players involved in this scandal would receive immunity in exchange for their cooperation to share information. I find this to be preposterous because players are already required under the collective bargaining agreement to “provide reasonable cooperation with an investigation, including but not limited to producing documents and information”, irrespective of punishment or no punishment. It is precisely for these reasons why I think the MLB is in trouble moving forward. To not strip the world series because of a long tradition of not changing things and expecting the league to function without future scandals is just an exercise in wishful thinking.
By Vinu Selvaratnam
The views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent any institution.