The hammer dropped the other day when I wasn’t looking. The long-awaited report and sanctions against the Houston Astros dropped on Monday. Hinch is gone. Luhnow’s gone. Money and draft picks are gone. Any sense of proportion about this whole thing was gone a long time ago, so nothing much changed on that front.
Carla and I are traveling and I wasn’t paying attention to any news. Carla told me later she saw it, but decided to let me find out on my own. That was good. I was having a good day Monday. I was having a good day yesterday, too, but on Monday the news would have been an intrusion while yesterday I was poking my head up to see what was going on in the world. I seldom assume what’s going on in the world is it’s going to be good, so it’s not like I wasn’t prepared. It didn’t upset me. It was never going to.
I read the report (that link is a PDF, by the way). I think it’s fair in the same way I think Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich’s reporting in The Athletic has been excellent (I’m not linking to specific articles because I don’t know what they do and don’t have behind the paywall). I hate what I read, but I’ve never hated that it was written. They did good work. I don’t know if they’ll be recognized for what they wrote — awards are screwy things — but good for them if they do. Rosenthal has been very clear (and studiously ignored by everyone) in his stance that the problem with the use of technology to decode pitcher’s signs isn’t limited to the Astros. The difference between the Astros and everyone else is that Mike Fiers decided he didn’t want to get Christmas cards from anyone on the Astros anymore. This doesn’t happen without Mike Fiers deciding to settle some score he had in his head. (When are you sending back the money Mike? It’s tainted, right?). The cheating isn’t what distinguishes the Astros from other teams, it’s the fact that someone was willing to drop the dime on them.
This, to me, is the most important paragraph in the nine pages:
Some Astros players told my investigators that they did not believe the sign-stealing scheme was effective, and it was more distracting than useful to hitters. I am neither in a position to evaluate whether the scheme helped Astros hitters (who were unquestionably a very talented group), nor whether it helped the Astros win any games. There are so many factors that impact the outcome of games that addressing that issue would require rank speculation. But for purposes of my decision, regardless of whether the scheme was effective or not, it violated the rules and, at a minimum, created the appearance of unfairness, and for that, it necessitates severe discipline.
In re Houston Astros Decision
That really is the crux of the matter. Anyone who lived through that season knows we were a much better road team than home team in almost any meaningful statistic. We could all see something changed when we came home and it’s pretty hard not to argue now that people were changing their approach at the plate. The report says Hinch broke the screen twice. Carlos Correa’s ribs got off easier with his masseuse. He clearly wasn’t happy with it. What I’d like to know is what really stopped him from shutting it down. We’ll never know. I’m most disappointed in him, but I suspect he feels the same way. After the warning came down from the Commissioner’s Office, Hinch and Luhnow should have shut it down (given that it was too late to shut it down before warnings became necessary). They didn’t, and that’s why I can’t get too upset about the consequences. The suspensions were justified and I can’t fault Crane for firing them both. Hinch took the hit. Luhnow blamed the players. I think that says all that needs to be said about their characters. (And Taubman? Fuck that guy. He was employed several days longer than he should have been. And despite Crane’s defense of them, he needs a new Media Relations department).
So what have we learned? Players will seek an edge wherever they can find it (whether it works or not) and senior management can range between spineless and malevolent. When I was younger I saw with my own eyes a senior member of the Baseball Operations Office run halfway across the Astrodome to make the ambulance coming to get the stricken J.R. Richard turn around and come in around the warning track. The guy is literally dying and this jerkwad is worried about the already-worn-out Astroturf. So pardon me if I remain standing when I hear that front offices are a snakepit just before getting hit by a feather.
The thing that has driven me nuts about this whole thing — and is literally the reason I closed all my social media accounts — is the reaction of “fans” that hang out there. This “Say it Ain’t So Joe” attitude is tiresome at best, and sociopathic at worst. They could dissolve the team, burn the stadium to the ground, behead Orbit and plant his head on a pike in the smoking crater where the pitching mound used to be and Joe from East Bumfuck still won’t be happy about it.
“But they knew what pitches were coming!”
“Gee Mr. Psychic, Arnoldis Chapman is going to throw you a fastball. Go ahead and hit it.”
I never knew how easy it was to hit major league pitching until this happened. Apparently it’s pretty damned simple. Don’t get me wrong: knowing off-speed vs. fastball is a good bit of info to know when you’re going to the plate, though in principal it’s OK for you to know that. You can steal signs all day long. There just can’t be any electronics involved. There were and there have been consequences. But STFU with all this “tainted championship” crap. Your head is closer to your taint than you are to any demonstrable evidence that this was more help than hindrance.
They shouldn’t have done it. One of my favorite books from my time teaching in Media Informatics at NKU is Bernard Suit’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. It’s a philosophical exploration of games and how they work written as a dialog between the Grasshopper from the Ant and the Grasshopper fable and various characters who question him about his … well .. lifestyle choices. It’s a serious work wrapped in a playful package (and it occurs to me that I’ve written about it before). Everything in the book flows from his definition of a game:
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs […] using only means permitted by rules […] where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means […] and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity […]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.1Suits, Bernard. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia . Broadview Press. Kindle Edition.
The Astros were guilty of two things: doing something counter to the rules and doing it in such a way that showed contempt for the idea that rules need to be followed in order for the game to be a game. A rap against the Astros front office has long been that it was run by management consultants who didn’t understand that the point of playing baseball is to accept that there are things you just aren’t allowed to do because … The Game. Suits called it the Lusory Attitude and it was the key to understanding the difference between playing a game — any game — and every day life. But for Baseball to start going nuclear — lifetime bans and stripped titles — they’d have to show that routine violations of rules are rare and swiftly punished. I swear on Javy Molina’s chest protector that I have my doubts that would hold up in court. MLB gets to decide how it handles this since they set the rules. And now they have. Feel free to adopt your local independent baseball team if that isn’t pure enough for you. (You actually should adopt your local independent baseball team anyway).
I was an Astros fan before many of the people who were involved in this were born. And they’ll be gone someday, as will I. God willing and the creek don’t rise2, the Astros will still be there. My personalized license plate reads simply “Astros” and will continue to do so. I will continue to wear my 2017 Astros World Series Championship hat with pride, and will politely tell you everything I don’t like about you in excruciating detail if you say a goddamned thing to me about it. I will judge you. And I won’t be nice about it. You wanna play? I’ll play. Bring it.
And get back to me about the sanctity of the rules the next time this happens:
1 What I left out of the quote were his use of terms that he clearly explains elsewhere, but would be more distracting than helpful since they have very specific meanings that can’t be explained quickly.
2 Literally. Global warming? Heard of it?