It Hurts to Watch Baseball Suffer
How cheating, inaction, and resentment create the perfect storm for Major League Baseball
The Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal needs no introduction. It rocked the baseball world this offseason, and the advent of spring training only put more fuel on the fire as opposing players took turns verbally eviscerating everyone who took part in the scheme. It’s not uncommon for professional athletes to voice their opinions about something, but it’s pretty rare for this many of them to be this unified.
As notable as it is, players speaking up is only one part of this whole debacle. There has also been the commissioner Rob Manfred’s punishment for Houston, which boiled down to suspensions for the team’s leadership, lost draft picks, and nothing at all for the actual team. Many around the league perceive the commissioner’s action as weak or inadequate, which fuels the fire for more resentment and possible retaliation against the Astros during the 2020 season.
What strikes me the most is that the sum of everything that has happened — from Manfred’s response to half-hearted (at best) apologies from Houston — is bad for baseball and painful to watch. It’s bad that the Astros decided to cheat to win. It’s bad that the response from baseball’s front office didn’t address the concerns that players from other teams had. It’s bad that some players might be contemplating throwing baseballs at Astros players this season. MLB is in a crisis right now and there isn’t an immediate end in sight.
Athletes found their voices
Perhaps the biggest reason people are upset about the Astros is that it largely feels like the organization got away with what they did. Houston’s punishment for the 2017 scheme was essentially losing their manager, general manager, and a few draft picks. That’s not nothing, but it’s a small price to pay for a World Series title. Many players from other teams — Trevor Bauer, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, to name a few — have voiced their anger and frustration with the Astros, and it’s easy to understand these sentiments. The Astros players themselves won’t see any punishment at all.
The players who spoke out from other teams are justifiably upset and the degree to which they’ve been willing to share their frustration is impressive. Take Trevor Bauer’s interview with C. Trent Rosecrans for The Athletic, for example. Bauer has always been outspoken about anything he has an opinion on, but the quotes from this article are easily the most forceful I’ve read from any player. Or the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres, who shared his feelings with Lindsey Adler (also of The Athletic). Players know they playing field against Houston wasn’t level and they’re upset.
I love when athletes speak openly and honestly. It rarely happens in any sport, largely because there’s not often a good reason for a player to say anything beyond the usual platitudes about team effort and playing hard. But the level of recent anger and vitriol from athletes shows how poorly MLB has handled this situation and how upset so many players are. And there’s no good resolution. Houston is likely to be a very good team again this year and the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Athletics, and everyone else who has to watch them win a lot of games may just end up even more frustrated. It’s a bad situation.
DResentment, anger, violence?
There’s a temptation for frustrated players to take matters into their own hands, which usually means intentionally throwing baseballs at opponents. Manfred clearly expects that to happen to Houston this year. “Retaliation in game by throwing at a batter intentionally will not be tolerated,” [Manfred] said in an article published by Sports Illustrated. “Whether it’s Houston or anybody else, it’s dangerous, and it is not helpful to the current situation.” And he’s right: intentionally trying to hurt players is vigilante justice and that’s a bad look for any sport.
Imagine this scenario: Houston plays some random team (the Angels for example), and the opposing player intentionally throws a pitch at Astros player Carlos Correa. Correa may get hurt, or he may not, but the Angels pitcher will almost certainly be suspended since Manfred explicitly warned teams about this already. And then an Astros pitcher, like Justin Verlander, will feel obligated to come back and hit someone like Mike Trout on the Angels. Which may lead to more injuries or suspensions and create another cycle of vengeance.
This wasn’t new information
The final piece of this puzzle is the fact that MLB has reportedly been notified about Houston well before 2019 and chose to do nothing. “[One baseball executive] estimated “10 to 12” teams had complained to MLB about the Astros over the years,” Barry Svrulga and Dave Sheinin wrote for The Washington Post. “An executive from another team agreed with that number.” Baseball wasn’t blindsided by the Houston Astros this offseason — Houston’s cheating has been well known by at least a few people for a while.
Baseball is in a crisis now, and all of these things are becoming increasingly painful to watch. Right now, the topics that should be dominating baseball’s collective consciousness should be much better the Reds will be this year, or whether or not the Angels can finally crack the playoffs again while Mike Trout is still in his prime. But those conversations are almost nowhere to be had. And it hurts to see a sport I’ve followed as long as I can remember crumble like this.
How does baseball move on?
Let me be clear: it’s absolutely right that everyone in the sport is obsessed with the Astros cheating scandal. Houston definitively broke the rules and their 2017 championship will always (and should always) be tainted by that fact. What saddens me now is that the sport has been rocked by this scandal so much. A lack of punishment from the top, the fact that MLB could have tried to do more back in 2017, and the fact that the players rightfully feel so upset are all siphoning away baseball’s joy.
I’m sure that the game of baseball will recover. After all, there’s a full season ahead and the beginning of real, meaningful games in late March will do a lot to help shift people’s focus from cheating to the new season. But anyone who says that the sport will forget about the Astros’ cheating is wrong. This scandal is already the dominating the baseball world and the aftershocks will continue for well beyond the 2020 season.
But right now, and for the foreseeable future, baseball is in a bad place in many ways. Players are angry, fans are angry, and that resentment and frustration are just festering right now with no real outlet. Cheating scandals are interesting, and it has been undeniably cool to watch the sports world continue to talk about baseball in the winter months when there usually isn’t much to say about the game. Unfortunately though, the Astros undermined confidence in the fairness of the game, and the commissioner’s response undermined any belief that MLB’s leadership is capable of upholding that fairness when it comes under assault.
The story of the Houston Astros stealing signs in 2017 (and beyond) is far from over. Hopefully, baseball will be in a much better place in a year’s time. Maybe, Houston will miss the playoffs and the collective ire of fans and players will take happiness in that. But for now, the game is struggling to carry the weight of the anger and lack of confidence from so many. Right now, it hurts to watch my favorite sport suffer so much.
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The views expressed are mine alone and do not represent the views of my employer or any other person or organization.