Baseball’s Existential Crisis

New York Times
January 21, 2020
By Doug Glanville
The Astros cheating scandal calls into question the fundamental values of the game.
We all search for relevance.
To a baseball player, it often begins in a dream. My dream was brought to life in any game against my big brother in Wiffle ball. The bases were always loaded, there were always two outs and the big game was forever on the line. It was about more than just being the hero. It was about reaching the pinnacle of the sport.
In baseball, that pinnacle is the World Series. And it is not just a matter of getting there. You need to win it.
What are you willing to do to be relevant?
Last week, thanks to a Major League Baseball investigation, we learned how the Houston Astros manipulated cameras to steal their opponents’ signs during their World Series-winning 2017 season — a direct violation of Major League Baseball rules around technology-assisted game play.
The Astros, who lost 100 or more games for three straight years in the early part of the 2010s, had marched methodically to a dominant 2017, 101-win season built on patience, draft picks and raw development. Led by their general manager, Jeff Luhnow, who gained a reputation of innovative brilliance with a willingness to dig under every rock to find value and talent, and the charismatic and tactical field manager, A.J. Hinch, they were poised to be a new kind of dynasty.
But on that 2017 team, they had a player whose sensibilities were offended by what he saw from his team. In 2019, Mike Fiers, at this point playing for a different organization, dropped the proverbial bomb on the baseball world while the Astros were seeking their second championship in three years.
He was the first player to publicly accuse the Astros of using cameras to steal signs from their opponents, alleging that the team had perfected ways to relay those signs to their hitters in real time.
Signs are a team’s communication system. The pitcher and catcher use them to call pitches. One finger is a fastball, two is a curveball, and so on. If the opponent knows what is coming, a hitter moves much closer to being that dominant high school player from everyone’s past who was almost impossible to get out. Doubt is erased, the element of surprise removed. Advanced information of this kind during a game is a huge advantage.
True, there is a semi-analog version of sign-stealing that is above board. You can study a pitcher or a catcher and recognize patterns. Patterns that tell you what the pitcher is about to throw, patterns that let you know the catcher is setting up for a curveball. You can even confirm this information by watching video after the game to help you for the next time. If your opponent does not make adjustments, shame on him.
But the Astros went beyond the insights of perceptive players. They relentlessly employed in-game feeds, secret monitors and the video room, which is supposed to be for replay only. Then they formulated a relay scheme by using trash cans to encode sounds to pass encrypted information to their teammates on the field. Fiers, as a pitcher, must have been even more offended, given these schemes almost always benefit hitters.
After results of the investigation were released, the league swiftly issued unprecedented punishments. It knocked over the Astros’ building blocks — stripping away their first- and second-round draft picks for two years. It emptied their pocket change — a $5 million fine for the organization. And it suspended Luhnow and Hinch, their general manager and manager, for a year. Then the Astros’ owner went a step further and fired them both immediately.
But the consequences did not stop there. The Astros scandal also led the Red Sox to “part ways” with their manager, Alex Cora, winner of the 2018 World Series, who had been the Astros’ bench coach in 2017 and whose name was all over the report; Major League Baseball has opened an investigation into whether Cora and others used similar subterfuge with the Red Sox. Carlos Beltran, who played for the 2017 Astros and had just been hired as the manager of the Mets, was also let go.
The scandal is bigger than just personnel changes. Both the 2017 and 2018 World Series titles are now dubious achievements, because the report concluded that the Astros did in fact use technology illegally to steal the signs of their opponents. Given Cora appears to be a common denominator, our perception of the Red Sox’s recent championship also hinges on the conclusion of this investigation. Back to back sullied championships would be a lot for baseball to absorb.
My dreams of reaching that pinnacle didn’t end when I got to the major leagues. When I put on the uniform of the Phillies, the Cubs or the Rangers, it got more intense, even though winning the World Series was less a dream but now a real possibility. Winning a ring would make my career complete.
That dream, which drives every professional player, loses meaning when champions cut corners. Fans doubt the sport’s legitimacy, which clouds subsequent titles and brings into questions previous ones as well. The shiny trophy that my favorite Phillies team won in 1980 when I was 10 years old comes into question. Not because they were responsible for behavior in 2017, but because those who later took the torch decided to forge it with fool’s gold. That selfish act makes everyone question the validity of the future and the truth of the past.
Players grow angry and dispirited to learn that a team beat them for reasons unrelated to talent, hard work, or even a lucky bounce of the ball. We already know that the differences between major league players are razor thin. Small enhancements lead to big advantages in the realm of the elite.
When the game is in doubt from every direction, baseball suddenly faces an existential crisis. There are so many opportunities to cheat; we all know it. Those who chose to play straight and respect the effort to maintain fair play, whether player or organization — and the actions taken to respond to the subversion of fair play — are what gives the game its moral clarity. Of course mistakes have always been made, both accidental and intentional, and the past isn’t perfect — performance-enhancing drugs, gambling, the list goes on. But cheating has ultimately been framed and isolated as the outlier, carried out by bad actors. Scandals like this one, involving entire organizations, sadly make us all wonder whether the good actors are the outliers.
Yet I doubt that the Astros were alone. Given the stakes, the hyper-competitive environment and the rapid escalation of the use of technology, it would be naïve to assume that ethical lapses would occur in isolation. Ones that can be conveniently framed as pushing the envelope. Sometimes these innovations are completely in bounds: shifting defenses, cut fastballs, openers, instant replay. But they will also blur the line between innovation and anarchy, the difference between being a step ahead of an opponent and stealing fairness from the arena. Teams and players cross the line, and at times their only plan is to hope those lines get redrawn to justify their misdeeds; maybe the Astros’ leaders hoped that tech-enhanced sign stealing would be normalized before it was outed.
The cost can be steep when team obsession obscures the importance of the means of realizing that dream. When it is bought and stolen, hacked and spied upon, the trophy loses its shine, hopefully reminding us that at this level, there is only a blurry sliver of daylight between fair competition and unfair advantage.
Yet that’s precisely why baseball needs rules that are deliberate in slowing down or at least aligning with the tidal wave of technology. The rules that the Astros violated were written precisely because, as in every other aspect of our lives, technology is taking over. Calling signs with fingers when there are hundreds of cameras trained on you seems archaic. Yet it is traditional, and the collision of technology and tradition needs a bridge if we want to preserve aspects of the past that are the signature of the game’s heartbeat. The real consequence of the Astros scandal may be to stoke the feeling of helplessness we all feel with technology at times, always a step behind, dismissive of the finger-wagging dinosaur who is lecturing about the past, arrogantly pushing in the new era.
Maybe the values behind the rules, the “love of the game,” are naïve. That it is idealistic to dream of a World Series ring won through pure team and individual effort; maybe we should have realized the temptation of cutting corners for spoils that can more easily be acquired with money, drugs and better technology. A rocket arm, a quick bat, a big heart, a blessing from divine sources or humility are diminished in such a world. What you came with is not enough naturally. If we do not respond by fighting for what we claim to value in fair play, such a scandal makes us beholden to the notion that the prerequisites of success are simply deeper pockets, a better pharmacist and a unethical hacker. And in such a world, humanity is marginalized and no game remains. Just video.
So maybe the top isn’t that shiny simply because it is the top. Maybe the top is just resting high on an ice cream cake, doomed to melt from the heat of “do whatever it takes” ethics.
Still, it has to be about more than the bling. It has to matter how you get there, how you respected the road that was paved before you arrived and how you lay down a foundation for a future game. The pinnacle is meant to be a temporary space because of the spirit of competition and the revolving door of time, but it only is human when you prioritize the importance of ensuring that the game’s greatest achievements can only be acquired through fair play.
The Astros scandal makes me revisit my entire baseball life. Reconsider my career and redefine success. My major league trophy case is barren, true. I cannot claim all-star appearances, nor M.V.P. nods. I cannot claim stolen base titles or Gold Glove awards. My wedding ring is the only one on my finger. And there are many players who can claim only what I claim.
Yet in moments like these, I hope we all recognize that the case full of trophies, brimming with records broken, blinding us with statistical opulence, may sometimes be the one that is actually empty.
Republished from The New York Times
Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images


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