I have been struggling to come up with an opinion on the sign stealing saga, which feels weird. In our current cultural climate, how can anyone not have a passionate opinion about a massive media story?
Well there’s a lot of nuance, and new wrinkles are seemingly added to the story every day. I say seemingly because what have we learned in the past week? That other players don’t like it when other teams cheat? Nearly every training camp has produced one notable player to come out and say something, and the scenario goes like this:
1.) Reporter wants quotes to contribute to the biggest story in MLB
2.) Asks someone on team _x_ to comment
3.) Someone comments, because they don’t like that the Astros cheated
4.) DID YOU HEAR WHAT NICK MARKAKIS SAID?
And since players are rightfully upset, it makes sense that some would react strongly. What are they going to say, that they want to move on and play baseball? They can try and say that but the cheating isn’t alleged, it has been confirmed by the commissioner. So they have carte blanche to go off on the Astros, the team that in the past 6 years has:
-Traded for a domestic abuser while he was suspended because y’know, market inefficiency
-Become a perennial World Series contender
It would take quite a force of will to turn down that opportunity. So there hasn’t really been any new information, except the Wall Street Journal article a week ago that pointed to the front office had plenty of involvement, which negates Manfred’s findings. And Carlos Correa saying that the front office program was separate from the trash can scheme, which potentially negates the negation. But then that would require us to believe Carlos Correa, which, maybe we should. He does sound more sincere than anyone else.
Which is all to say, it’s very convoluted. I’ll tell you what happens though.
First, the 2017 title will mean exactly as much as Barry Bonds’ home run records. People will occasionally marvel about what a dominant team they were, and then make a joke like, “well my team could be that good too if they knew every pitch that was coming!” With the microscope on the Astros for 2020 though, there will be whispers that they are still cheating. Every extra base hit where the hitter guessed breaking ball will bring boos and second screen scrutiny. In fact, the stain won’t fully be off of them until they get bad and/or miss the playoffs and then become contenders once again. For reference:
The Yankees sucked in 2014 through 2016 (although they did lose the wild card game to Houston in 2015) and when they were good again, all of a sudden they were almost (nearly) likable (outside the Midwest). Why? New winning means new players, young players and if they’re good, it means beating expectations. Only then can you shed old narratives like (in the Yankees case) the overpaid veterans, the anemic offense and the overproduced farewell tours.
Like it or not, the narrative about this Astros team is about how they cheated and still employ pretty much all of the same cheaters: Springer, Bregman, Altuve, Gurriel, Reddick and Correa. That’s an infield and 2/3 of an outfield. Hard to shed that one, and the team is set to be good for a few years yet.
* Reddick, Springer, Gurriel and Brantley are unsigned past this year and, unless their numbers improve, they will have to accept below market rate offers in free agency because their statistics will be tainted. You can think that isn’t fair, but rival teams looking to spend their money as shrewdly as possible aren’t going to assume that, had the Astros not cheated, the numbers would be better. It’s either the numbers were not affected or they were inflated by cheating. There is a cost to that uncertainty, as well as the fact that Springer has about one year left in center field, Gurriel is 36 and Reddick hasn’t been good in years.
The players are going to stay pissed at the Astros, too. I’ve heard the comparisons to steroids, and some, including Kris Bryant, have even said sign stealing is worse than steroids. Let’s give that statement some attention- how could that be? Both cases of cheating involve getting an unfair advantage, potentially getting jobs taken away from players who didn’t cheat, and putting implicit asterisks in the record books. Surely the players understand that, but if so, why are they attacking each other in a way that never happened in the steroid era?
It comes down to the knowledge that steroids are dangerous, and the idea that you made a sacrifice when you decided to use them. It isn’t guaranteed that your slugging percentage will improve when you inject extra testosterone into your body, but your hormones are affected and there will be weird side effects. Steroid use, even if part of a clubhouse culture, is ultimately an individual decision. If an older veteran encouraged you to use it, you could say in good faith “I am concerned for my balls,” and the veteran would say, “fair enough, my back-ne has its own back-ne. Have fun in triple A!”
Electronic sign stealing is a little different in that you can’t do it alone and your genitalia is almost always not affected. A team that steals signs illegally in real time is more akin to a frat house switching to wine without telling the other houses. It doesn’t matter if Altuve is still drinking Natty Ice; as a whole, what that house did was against the law, and it will take time before they can be trusted again.
So where do we go from here? Well there will be a couple brush ups in spring training, maybe even a couple brawls that result in suspensions, and when the season starts it will ramp up. Every team that hosts Houston will get at least one shot in. By the end of April, it will appear as though a pitcher went too far; maybe he tried twice in the same at-bat to bean somebody, or maybe he’ll give someone a concussion. That pitcher will get a suspension that seems overly harsh, it will get reduced on appeal, and then things will start to die down. By mid-May a new topic will capture our ADHD brains, like someone hitting home runs in 9 games in a row, or the Marlins being in 1st place for 4 whole days.
If the Astros are leading their division, the vitriol will start up again in September, but not as much, because baserunners are expensive that time of year. The fans will raise their obnoxiousness in the playoffs, but the players will be more intent on winning the games, because nobody will want to be the team that let the Astros legitimize their success.
And then slowly the Astros ill-gotten quasi dynasty will die, and as I stated earlier, that’s when the healing will begin. Eventually the holdovers will be down to Altuve (who will always be looked at a little more favorably due to Correa’s comments, since they corroborate the hard data) and Bregman. Yordan Alvarez will never be able to hit as well without knowing what’s coming (and be crucified for it- yes I am implying they cheated in 2019), and Kyle Tucker will discover that he is actually Wil Myers in disguise. Myles Straw will play a lot. Justin Verlander’s performance will die (or he might keep pitching at a high level into his 40’s, but he’s only under contract through 2021, as is Zack Greinke). Forrest Whitley will flame out, the prospects traded for Greinke will blossom and the circle of life will continue.
I can dream.