The Pen: Reckoning with how bad Astros sign-stealing intrigue is for baseball

I think sportswriters should use the word “sanctity” sparingly and with a heavy dose of self-awareness. It’s a made up game, guys, and one that’s always been as corrupt and full of as much unsavoriness as the latest scandal makes it seem. That’s not to say it’s wrong to take sports seriously — or to recognize how often they serve as a microcosm for more serious issues in society — but in doing so we should be careful to not lose sight of where the real stakes lie.  

There’s no founding father or ultimate arbiter of baseball morality — what’s good for drumming up interest is good for the game. That’s true of bat flips and even bad calls, and this is dangerous logic when we get to the Houston Astros sign-stealing revelations because if you turn on ESPN whenever Major League Baseball’s sanctions are ultimately announced, sometime in mid-January with the NFL playoffs underway, they’ll be talking about baseball.

It’s such a good story, even as far as cheating goes. It’s dramatic and cinematic and no one suffered any bodily harm. It injected the offseason with the sort of intrigue that brought us bombshell reporting, scintillating video breakdowns, trenchant analysis, plenty of punchlines, and this brilliant thread. It gave us something to talk about, ask about, issue opinions about. It gave New York Yankees fans something to sympathetically complain about, which isn’t really a public service as far as most of the population is concerned, but it is impressive.

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(Yahoo Sports illustration/Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

It spurred a still-ongoing reckoning around the sport with the prevalence of grey areas and who is willing to exploit them. It seems that it will also force a forthcoming evolution in communication, a seismic shift decades in the making that will beget untold opportunities for the kind of debates that fuel this whole multi-billion dollar industry. Baseball is a beautiful game, but if we’re being honest, much of the cultural value of sports lies in their ability to serve as a universal stage upon which perpetual mini-dramas play out. Which is a fancy way of saying that controversy clicks.

Baseball isn’t boring, but the offseason sure is sometimes. Not this year. 

I mean, it’s definitely bad that they (allegedly) cheated — right? It certainly was until we all found out. Since then it’s been a whole lot of fun for everyone except the cheaters, and for that, I want to thank the Astros for (allegedly) engineering an entire sign-stealing operation that involved high-tech illegal video feeds and comically lowbrow banging on trash cans. 

I think? 

On the other hand: If the players don’t care about the rules, why should we? Isn’t it insulting that they would even attempt to bastardize this game that we all love so much? Let alone influence the ultimate outcome and call into question the validity of the sport’s highest achievement. Insulting to the other teams who thought they had a fair shot or at least a level playing field, and insulting to the fans who paid to watch a game played in between the white lines. What is there to buy into with baseball if not the agreed upon, publicly available rulebook and a belief that the better team will win?

The argument (as eloquently advanced by Baseball Prospectus editor Craig Goldstein, responding to the similar Boston Red Sox cheating scandal) that we should expect ethical behavior, and feel comfortable operating under the assumption that the people and corporations around us are behaving ethically until proven otherwise, is a compelling one. It is fair to be outraged when this trust — upon which not just baseball but basically all of society is built — is broken and to think that the net effect is negative even if some metric of engagement benefits. Not that long ago I specifically railed against cynicism as a default, even when merited — cautioning against becoming so steeped in the so-called Galaxy Brain mode of operating that you find yourself arguing that something that is self-evidently Bad (literal cheating) is Actually Good. 

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is facing scrutiny as MLB investigates whether the 2017 World Series stole signs using live video feeds, baseball bats and trash cans. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow is facing scrutiny as MLB investigates whether the 2017 World Series stole signs using live video feeds, baseball bats and trash cans. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

They make award-winning movies about criminals, but that does not make breaking the law any less abhorrent. It’s a stretch, but you could say that applies.

Or else you could say there’s no need to compare the two, that cheating in baseball is not a slippery slope toward more serious infractions, that in fact this sort of low-stakes antagonism is part of the innate allure of sports. They give us bad guys without any real danger or having to concede to kayfabe.

Then again, just because no one got hurt doesn’t mean the Astros’ sign stealing was a victimless crime. Careers were at stake — not just for opposing pitchers whose inability to fool the batter cost them a crucial win or a couple of points of ERA, or the teams that didn’t win the 2017 World Series, but also for future generations of ballplayers who won’t have the chance to play in a sport that retains the same level of public trust.

For the past few years, players have been increasingly vocal about the importance of competitive balance as it pertains to labor issues and tanking teams. For this matter, players set aside their conflicting allegiances and spoke out in unison about how important it is to have a level playing field. The Astros, it seems, were just paying lip service to the idea. How many others were as well remains to be seen, their infractions falling somewhere on a spectrum that requires us to parse the gradations of premeditation and reckon with whether we should just expect locker rooms full of competitive people to push boundaries.

I could do this all day and I’m not sure I’d ever fully reconcile an unwillingness to become indifferent to cheating with an understanding that breaking the rules is as much a feature of baseball as it is a bug. 

Maybe it’s a sign we’ve become desensitized to misbehavior that we’re more inclined to notice how even the sanctimonious benefit from having something to disavow. The wrongness seems simply in keeping with what we’ve come to expect and in that way it’s almost comforting. It’s a relief, really, when it’s just baseball. 

We’re living in a cursed era unfortunately defined by a Darren Rovell tweet that captures, in less than 140 characters (remember when?), the very same paradigm I’ve wasted 1,000 words on. The dichotomy between what is upsetting and what is entertaining is both accentuated and erased by the ability to turn the former into the latter. Because even if you feel bad for the other 29 teams (and I do), you have to admit it’s been tremendous content.

Notes from the baseball internet

How Aubrey Huff Went From Two-Time World Champion to Right-Wing Troll, by Robert Silverman at The Daily Beast 

Last week, Aubrey Huff outdid even his usual ignorant and ignorable Twitter trolling by implying that Iranian women should be kidnapped and sexually assaulted as part of the deteriorating relationship between our two countries. It is tricky to gauge whether this sort of sneering but toothless vitriol from someone who effectively doesn’t matter should be righteously retweeted because abject outrage is the natural reaction or left unremarked upon altogether. Commendation, then, goes to Robert Silverman who simply called Huff at home and relayed his twisted, insufficient justifications without sensationalizing the kind of thinking that has become dangerously mainstream. He did the journalism! Withstanding what sounds like a very uncomfortable conversation for the sake of letting Huff hang himself with his own words. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Players, by Keith Law at The Athletic 

Keith Law is the latest name brand to join The Athletic and as part of his introduction to the platform he breaks down his personal understanding and application of the different scouting tools. Even if you’ve used the terminology, it’s still a revelatory primer on what a prospect’s potential looks like in practice.

Linsanity, A Botched Headline And An ESPN Editor's Journey To The Priesthood, by Martin Kessler for Only A Game 

I don’t know if the ESPN employee who wrote a headline back in 2012 about Jeremy Lin that contained a racist slur deserves forgiveness, he’s long claimed it was completely unintentional. But it’s fascinating to hear what happened next — his lunch with Lin and how he ultimately ended up joining the priesthood — particularly as we’ve become increasingly aware of the reverberations that a single tweet or headline can have in a social media era.

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