Delayed and truncated as it was, MLB’s 2020 season nevertheless sustained public disapprobation of the Houston Astros in the wake of their sign-stealing scheme. Not since the Mitchell Report has a scandal so thoroughly rocked the baseball world and brought so much negative attention to the league.
Now, after a brief sabbatical, two of the story’s key characters are back in the game. Just after the World Series, the Detroit Tigers handed over their managerial reins to former Astros manager A.J. Hinch; and last Friday, the Boston Red Sox rehired Alex Cora, the World Series–winning manager and former Hinch assistant they’d fired 11 months earlier.
With the return of Hinch and Cora to MLB dugouts, a question presents itself: Will their reemergence normalize the banging scheme enough to end the hand-wringing over electronic sign-stealing, or will it give a smoldering fire enough oxygen to spit out a new batch of flame?
It took dozens of people to plan and execute the sign-stealing schemes that helped the Astros and Red Sox dominate the AL in the late 2010s. But only four individuals received official sanctions and suspensions from MLB: Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager Hinch, Red Sox manager Cora, and Red Sox scouting assistant J.T. Watkins. Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman would have been suspended for his role in the cheating scandal had he not already been suspended for harassing female reporters at the 2019 ALCS. Watkins was the only one of these five not to be fired along with his suspension. Furthermore, Carlos Beltrán, a veteran leader on the 2017 Astros, became the Konstantin Chernenko of Mets managers when New York fired its rookie skipper before he’d managed a game.
That’s it. Five people faced concrete professional consequences for a monumental scandal that could potentially have swung two championships. Six people if you count Taubman, though he’ll be remembered much more for his clubhouse behavior than for his involvement in sign-stealing. Both teams lost draft picks, and the Astros had to pay a fine, but after tallying up the butcher’s bill, these punishments seem insufficient for the crime—and certainly for the level of outrage that followed. No players were suspended, no championships revoked, and no stockades erected in Hermann Park.
There are good reasons for that. According to MLB, the investigation into the scandal was possible only because players were granted immunity in exchange for testimony. And after a fairly aggressive anti-PED stance led to more than a decade’s worth of bad press for baseball, it was in MLB’s interest not only to wrap this case up tidily, but to limit the damage as much as possible.
That left the sport in a frustrating limbo, one that became worse as the Astros mumbled through some of the least convincing apologies in baseball history. And this year, as the Astros came within a game of their third pennant in four seasons while the likes of Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. blew raspberries at the haters, that frustration boiled over.
But unlike Correa, McCullers, Alex Bregman, José Altuve, and their teammates—or Astros owner Jim Crane—Hinch and Cora actually paid for their roles in the scandal. Whether it feels like it or not, a year’s suspension is a huge individual penalty in baseball: It is more than what’s been issued for PED use, instigating fights, or any number of real-world acts of malfeasance. (There’s limited utility in comparing punishments for crimes against baseball to actual crimes, but the general point is instructive.) Just about the only way to get a bigger punishment than Hinch and Cora got is to gamble on baseball, which is the sport’s cardinal sin and its only capital offense.
Before this scandal broke, Hinch and Cora were two of baseball’s most esteemed managers, two of the very few who could make a positive difference for a team. Those reputations have since taken a deserved hit: The zeal with which Cora pursued an illicit advantage paints him in a bad light; and though Hinch reportedly opposed the sign-stealing campaign, he failed to stop his subordinates from carrying on with it, which is in many respects worse.
Now that Cora and Hinch have served their suspensions, though, it was only a matter of time before teams with vacancies jumped at the chance to hire them. And with their reentry into the game, both men will need to regain the trust of their players and their potential superiors.
Boston CBO Chaim Bloom and Detroit GM Al Avila both seem fairly convinced that their respective managers are rehabilitated. But perhaps the clubs are being overly credulous. Perhaps there’s no longer reason to believe that Hinch is such a huge upgrade over the competition that he’s worth buying plane tickets for just a half-hour after his suspension ended; or that Cora is better than the eight first-time candidates he reportedly beat out for his old job. Perhaps, even though they took the fall for dozens of other bad actors, they still weren’t punished enough and need to serve further penance before being elevated to one of the 30 most prestigious jobs in their profession. It’s understandable, even natural, to find it offensive that they didn’t.
But this isn’t entirely about the managerial hiring processes that brought Hinch and Cora back into the game so quickly. Nor is it really about whether their punishment was severe enough, let alone whether the purpose of that punishment was rehabilitation or merely retribution. It’s about the inability to get the kind of tidy solution that we, as stakeholders in baseball as a competitive sport and cultural institution, want.
However much the Astros and Red Sox benefited from their respective sign-stealing schemes and whether or not they would have won those titles anyway, they cheated, and they took home the big hunk of metal, and they mostly got away with it. There’s no way to change that. Even if MLB had taken the unprecedented step of vacating the 2017 and 2018 titles, it wouldn’t have altered anything materially, or made anyone feel better.
Lance Armstrong is probably the most infamous cheat in modern sports history, and for his misdeeds, he suffered the most severe punishments an athlete can receive: a lifetime ban from all cycling, lawsuits that cost him hundreds of millions of dollars, and the annulment of his victories during the time he was doping. The UCI, cycling’s governing body, took the unique step of vacating his seven Tour de France wins rather than awarding them to the next-highest finisher; it wasn’t enough to erase Armstrong from the record books—they had to leave behind a reminder, like body in a gibbet.
And yet even in disgrace, Armstrong still enjoys a level of celebrity and wealth greater than what he would have had if he hadn’t been such a conspicuous doper. Does taking away his titles actually make his competitors whole?
To answer this question with a question: Have you ever heard of Daniele Nardello?
Nardello is a retired Italian cyclist who finished seventh in the 1999 Tour de France and 10th in the 2000 Tour de France, Armstrong’s first two victories. In both cases, he was the highest-placed finisher who never tested positive for PEDs, admitted to doping, or was credibly linked to a doping scheme. He’s a historical footnote, and pretending otherwise would be a more farcical position than pretending Armstrong’s wins were on the up-and-up.
But sports fans want to believe their champions are not only great, but good; that anyone who ascends to the top of a brutally meritocratic pyramid earned their way there. And the sign-stealing scheme—like Armstrong’s fall from grace—is all the more offensive because it punctures that illusion.
So does the alacrity with which Hinch and Cora were welcomed back from exile. As angry as players across the league were about the banging scheme, they’ve embraced numerous ex-Astros who participated in the cheating and/or helped to cover it up. That grace also seems to extend to Hinch, whose crime apparently turned out to be quite forgivable.
What is electronic sign-stealing, anyway? It’s the use of technology and empirics to seek out every tiny advantage. It’s a perverse extension of the thought process behind sabermetrics, and that win-at-all-costs mentality has led far darker places than an illicit camera and an ad hoc amateur production of Stomp. Teams have turned acts of domestic violence into opportunities for arbitrage. They’ve flouted MLB rules on international player recruitment to scoop up prospects while they’re still children. They’ve covered up or soft-pedaled sexual assault and engaged in bribery and smuggling.
We can’t blame the pioneers of baseball’s empirical revolution for not anticipating this perversion. But this is the kind of behavior that, purposely or not, the sport has incentivized. And without strong industry-wide ethical standards, those incentives are treated as mandates by people who recognize that the league will not adequately police its teams. This isn’t about the Tigers bringing back a manager who’d failed to complete his penance. This is about sports elevating those who fail to uphold its standards, and how that threatens the illusions upon which the very cathedral of meritocracy is built.
But bringing down the cathedral to rebuild it is hard work, and requires the kind of discomfiting ethical audit that does not sit well in an entertainment product. So get as mad as you want about these hires, or don’t. They’re merely a symptom of a much more complex and insidious malady.