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The Astros’ Trash-Can Cheating Scheme Is a Window Onto Human Nature

We did a strange thing when we created professional sports: We invented what is essentially a perfect machine to turn people into cheaters. Then we decided to trust that machine with all our highest ideals of fair play, justice, and integrity. 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I don’t know. I don’t even know what to tell you. What a rickety-ass scandal. What a dollar-store, dive-bar, checkout-lane-chewing-gum bit of old-timey American chicanery. I’m talking about the Astros, of course. Stealing signs and banging trash cans. This whole saga is like the third act of an Elmore Leonard novel. I only wish we’d gotten to see Act I. I assume it involved a guy in a trilby getting off a Greyhound with a duffel bag full of 50-dollar bills. Maybe slipping a cigar out of the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt while deciding to look up his old friend Lester from medium-security prison. What would his name be? Let me think. It’d probably be something like “Rey Penseroso.”

Anyway. Right. The Astros. Rey Penseroso is not a real person, somehow. Apparently, this whole sign-stealing video-room low-wire act came about through a much more boring set of circumstances. An intern made a spreadsheet. Carlos Beltrán saw an angle. God, what a blow to lyricism. Baseball deserved to have its most idiotic modern conspiracy blossom under the influence of a foundational American lowlife. Everything about this tale calls for a puffy little dog-track dreamer with a songbird feather in his hat band and a salmon-pink polo shirt under his brown tweed windowpane jacket. “Pour me another one, sweetheart,” Rey would say, firing his finger gun twice, while clucking.

I mean … let’s run through some of what’s happened here. We’re talking about actual adult employees of a respected (that is, successful) Major League Baseball franchise whanging on the side of a refuse container to alert their colleagues to look out for the changeup. During a season when they won the World Series. Right there in public. We’re talking about cascading sub-scandals involving potentially nonexistent tattoos. We’re talking about the commissioner of baseball dismissing the championship of baseball as “a piece of metal.” We’re talking about baroque alt-historical theories involving remote buzzers cunningly fashioned to look like bandages. It’s perfect for old Rey, only somehow, tragically, the whole thing was just one more case of nerds exploiting a marginal inefficiency. I guess it’s true what they say: Advanced metrics really did kill the soul of baseball.

I’m trying to be mad about the actual cheating component of this. I really am. I dislike the Astros for all the standard am-a-decent-person reasons, and I recognize that cheating, even funny cheating, even hilariously ill-conceived and meme-friendly and good time–Charlie-ish cheating, is generally bad for sports. I’m having a hard time dredging up much actual anger, though, and I’m trying to figure out why that is. I think it’s partly the grandstanding that a story like this inevitably produces. I cannot see very far into the wild heart of the AM talk-radio host, but a lot of it feels insincere. A lot of the anger seems to presuppose that the story is shocking, which presupposes that the story is surprising. And to feel surprised by the existence of rule breaking in sports strikes me as a little far-fetched considering, I don’t know, [waves hand lazily at the state of humanity and the entire outside world].

We did a weird thing when we created professional sports. We invented what is essentially a perfect machine to turn people into cheaters. That’s not the weird part (though it’s weird enough) but think about it for a second. Sports isolates competitive, driven, and obsessive human beings. It attracts the people with the strongest desire to dominate. It tells them that their desire to dominate is a good, even a heroic, quality. It then places these phenomenally competitive and ambitious people inside an environment that’s largely free of true negative consequences, while promising them immense rewards—money, fame, status—for defeating each other.

The weird thing we did was that after creating this machine, we looked it over, thought about it, and decided to trust it with all our highest ideals of fair play, justice, and integrity. We took our corruption algorithm and said, “Let’s use it to make role models.” It’s amazing that this works even half as well as it does, although the PR outlay required to make it work at all has been, um, considerable over the years.

So I think that’s part of it, too. I guess it’s possible to go through life believing that organized athletics really does inculcate the values it says it inculcates, and that all this inculcating produces a culture of highly virtuous celebrity multimillionaires, all of whom are interested, post-inculcation, exclusively in testing themselves at the highest level within the rules. Having left my house in the past 2,000 years, however, I suspect that it’s safer to assume that cheating happens pretty steadily in sports. I have no certain knowledge of this, but I suspect that stories like this one are just the random slip-ups that happen to make it out in public. Consider: Someone was dumb enough to announce their cheating by gonging a baseball bat repeatedly off R2-D2’s forehead, and we still only know about it because Mike Fiers was willing to speak out.

Or consider: A lot of the recent anger around the Astros, both from non-Astros players and from the media and fans, has centered on MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and his decision not to punish any of Houston’s players for the scandal. There are some labor-law complexities involved in that decision. But it also highlights an important aspect of the contradiction between sports-as-corruption-algorithm and sports as an emblem of fairness. There’s no independent arbiter of justice in baseball. Nor is there one in any other major American sports league. There’s only the commissioner, who, as a businessman and an employee of the owners, is ultimately more beholden to the league’s bottom line than any legal or ethical standard. Is it useful for the league to make a scandal go away, even if it shouldn’t? Then the league tries to make it go away. We’ve seen this repeatedly with much more serious issues than sign stealing, issues like CTE and domestic violence: Every investigation conducted by a sports league is at least partly a PR exercise. Why would we expect anything different in this case?

So while I enthusiastically support anyone who disapproves of the Astros, the Red Sox, Carlos Beltrán, Alex Cora, Jeff Luhnow, A.J. Hinch, Rob Manfred himself, etc. etc. etc., I can’t quite find it in myself to be furious about something that comes across as only a more slapstick version of business as usual. (Remember, the issue here, for baseball, isn’t sign stealing itself, which is an age-old and tolerated practice somehow permitted by the game’s code of honor; the issue is only that the Astros used cameras to steal signs instead of human spies.) I’ve watched too many similar scandals play out across too many different sports to believe that each one is somehow an outlier. Even sumo wrestling, a sport so steeped in ideas of honor and rectitude that it views itself as the inheritor of the samurai tradition, has been rocked by major match-fixing scandals in the past few years.

When it comes to sports, though, I find that certain kinds of disillusionment can be liberating. Once you move beyond the need to evaluate everything that happens in the game from a rigid standpoint of good/bad and right/wrong—once you switch over to the FM dial of the heart, so to speak—you can start seeing a league as a window onto human nature. What are we actually like? What crazy things do we get up to? People are capable of extraordinary acts of bravery and grace; sports show you some of them. People are also capable of diving face-first into ill-conceived cons based on trash-can cryptography, and sports shows you that, too. I value it more for the breadth of the gallery it puts on view than for the moral example it offers. Give me a square-jawed hero if you happen to come across one, I guess. But in the meantime, leave a space for Rey Penseroso.