Baseball is crumbling. The Houston Astros, arguably MLB’s most successful team of the past decade, have been exposed as rampant cheaters. Their punishment is next to nothing, as commissioner Rob Manfred suspended the manager (A.J. Hinch) and general manager (Jeff Luhnow) involved in their scheme while letting the players skate. His grand crisis-control strategy was to downplay the importance of the Astros’ World Series win by referring to the trophy as a “piece of metal.” The past is tarnished, as the Astros’ 2017 championship and 2017 and 2019 pennants will forever be considered unfairly won. The present is chaos, as the game’s biggest stars have united in revolt against baseball’s establishment. The future appears lawless, as MLB has revealed itself to be a world where cheating players face no discipline—unless other players take matters into their own hands for vigilante justice. So, yeah, I get why some people might think that the Astros’ scandal has been bad for the sport.
With that said: I have never been more interested in baseball than I am right now. And I don’t think I’m alone! It’s February, and every sports fan I know is locked in on following the latest spring training developments. We are hooting and hollering every time a new baseball player goes in on the Astros. We are eager to debate which teams will bring down baseball’s newest menace. Why do you think my editor asked me, a football writer, to write about baseball? Because we can’t stop clicking on articles about baseball! You’re here, aren’t you?
Baseball is locked in a battle between good and evil—you know, that struggle that’s been the crux of virtually every movie, TV show, and book since the beginning of time. The Astros are the hunted, and MLB’s 29 other teams are the valiant squads looking to bring them down. The sport might seem like it’s self-destructing, but I have three reasons to believe that the Astros’ sign-stealing saga will instead act as a much-needed shot in the arm.
It’s Good for Baseball to Have a Heel
I live in Los Angeles. Last week, I got a text from a friend with the following inquiry: “Any interest in going to Astros vs. Angels on April 4 to boo the Astros? We could get a good crew.”
Let me be clear about just how historic this text was. Out of nowhere, someone asked me to attend a baseball game:
- Two months in the future
- In Anaheim
- Featuring two teams we are not fans of
- In—and I cannot stress this enough—Anaheim. Anaheim!
You probably think that the most important emotion in sports fandom is love. Love for your team! Love for your favorite players! Love for the game! But that’s wrong. I know die-hard fans who wouldn’t even consider driving an hour each way down the accursed I-5 to see their team play. You can love something passively.
But hate? Now there’s an emotion. Hate must be active. Basketball hate got a guy to drive to Temecula. Now, baseball hate is going to get people to drive to freakin’ Anaheim.
There’s a reason scripted wrestling leagues choose not to create large groups of friendly wrestlers who respect each other deeply and dream of the pristine glory of winning the title belt. No, they create wrestlers who hate each other—and whom wrestling fans can hate. When you hate something, you pay attention to it. Ask the Dallas Cowboys.
Baseball now has a team that everybody hates, and what a blessing it is. Fans won’t just tune in to see the Astros lose—they’ll drive long distances to sold-out stadiums to root against them, even if it means sitting in L.A. traffic for an ungodly period of time.
This Scandal Turns Baseball Stars Into Heroes
Back before Manfred stepped into the fray, the biggest complaint fans had about baseball was that it failed to effectively market its best players. Mike Trout might ultimately go down as the best player in MLB history, and yet most casual sports fans are probably more likely to be able to identify several NFL backup quarterbacks than Trout if they were standing side-by-side. Honestly, I think Mike Trout would be more likely to recognize the Philadelphia Eagles’ backup quarterback than some less-prominent MLB stars.
The Astros cheating scandal, though, has given baseball players a chance to distinguish themselves by standing up against baseball’s great evil. Even Trout—the guy who previously only got excited talking about meteorology and SuperPretzels—has gotten Big Mad (by his standards, at least) about what the Astros did. “They cheated,” Trout said. “I lost respect for some of those guys.”
Trout also ordered his teammates to rip off his clothes if he ever sends the Angels to the World Series, a reference to how José Altuve controversially protected his own shirt in the 2019 ALCS. Mike Trout, Anonymous Baseball God, is now taunting his team’s biggest rival and promising public nudity if he succeeds. This is the good stuff. And he’s not alone, either in promises of nudity, on-the-record disgust, or vicious Astros burns. In fact, he’s been pretty tame in comparison to Yu Darvish and Cody Bellinger.
Baseball stars are no longer just local celebrities; they’re fighters in the battle for baseball justice. Let’s put them on billboards.
Creative Cheating Schemes Are Objectively Fun
Who do you root for in heist movies? The cops? The FBI agents who are perpetually a step behind? No, of course not. You root for the people coming up with clever ways to steal money.
While we don’t have to accept the morality of the Astros’ cheating, we can at least agree that they deserve some credit for coming up with a scheme that was both (a) absurd and (b) absurdly successful. Picture the Astros coming up with the trash-can-banging plan, and you’ll grow sick to your stomach. Now picture Matt Damon and George Clooney hanging out in a hideout, racking their brains for ideas on how to transmit opponents’ pitch signals to their teammates, when Don Cheadle (with a British accent) throws a half-eaten sandwich into a trash can, it lands with a thud, and Damon’s eyes light up and lock with Clooney’s—that’s cool, right?
Baseball fans know that somebody has recently concocted an elaborate cheating scheme. They know that elaborate cheating scheme worked and that they must now be on the lookout for other elaborate cheating schemes. Any time the Astros do anything even slightly unusual moving forward, we will start to hypothesize how the thing they did was actually part of a grand and diabolical master plan.
Football fans already have this: It’s called the New England Patriots. Maybe you’ve heard of them? They’ve won six Super Bowls and have been solidly caught cheating at least twice. For the past decade, whenever something goes slightly amiss in New England, we put on tinfoil hats and crawl into our conspiracy corners. Say a ball used by the Patriots is found to be deflated. Did that happen because of the natural laws of air pressure in cold weather, or because of a yearslong ball-deflating program personally commissioned by the most successful player in football history? Were the Patriots actually filming a web series in Cincinnati, or were they using it as a front to spy on opponents? Did that superstar receiver decide to sign with the Patriots by chance, or because of behind-the-scenes tampering?
Baseball now exists in this world, and for that we should be thankful. Otherwise, a baseball player asking his teammates to not rip his shirt off in celebration after hitting a home run to send his team to the World Series would just be weird. Now, it is the spark to a plausible conspiracy theory centered on an ugly tattoo.
Baseball has lost a precious bit of its sacred competitive purity, but in its broken state, it has gained richness. There will be those who try to take advantage of the loopholes in this strange game and the cowardice of its flawed leaders, and there will be those who seek to take them down. The righteous and the wicked are now battling for baseball’s soul—and I can’t wait to watch.