Once again, the Houston Astros are challenging us.
The task: Determining if the potentially systemic toxicity within their organization – a strain that Major League Baseball is investigating and one that defended and possibly enabled a high-ranking executive’s misogyny – can be unpacked from the objective brilliance of their baseball operations.
To a degree, the Astros’ decisions not directly tied to acts of baseball – be it the Brandon Taubman saga or the marginalization of a team president leading to the alienation of baseball legend Nolan Ryan – are intertwined with decisions that affect competition on the field. Culture is culture, after all, and ethics and morals can affect both the concept of fair play as well as the treatment of employees and those who interact with your organization.
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With that, Tuesday’s The Athletic report on the Astros’ elaborate sign-stealing methods during the 2017 season – as detailed in a startling bit of on-the-record chutzpah by former Houston starter Mike Fiers – perhaps best captures what we might call “Astros culture.”
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The short version: Fiers alleges a club employee illegally filmed catcher’s signs from a center field camera and the feed was sent to a monitor in the tunnel above the Astros’ dugout. Once Astros personnel – be it a player, coach or other authorized member – deciphered the opposition’s sign sequences, the employee would then bang on a large trash can to signal to hitters when a specific pitch was coming.
Such chicanery was more specifically banned by MLB in a multi-page memo distributed before the 2019 season, but use of such technology was certainly verboten in ’17 – when the Astros won the first World Series championship in franchise history.
The Boston Red Sox, for one, were disciplined for their use of nascent tech that year – the brand-new Apple Watch – to steal and relay signs. And what Fiers and other sources allege the Astros did is, in a larger sense, nothing new under the sun/retractable roof.
There always has been and always will be a nebulous code to sign-stealing, from the Shot Heard ‘Round the World to the Astros’ creative use of Waste Management products.
It’s just so very Astros to push that code to the edge – and over it.
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“Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time,” the club said in a statement Tuesday.
Any MLB discipline in coming weeks will have to be tied to specifics – such as the Astros’ well-documented bungling of the Taubman situation. Yet that discipline – or the desire of it from fans, media and rival organizations – also comes from a far more visceral place.
After all, the Astros are not the cause, but rather a symptom of the hyper-efficiency that has pervaded baseball. GM Jeff Luhnow is merely carrying out the edict of owner Jim Crane, who like dozens of other billionaires in the game saw how money can be saved – and, on occasion, games won – with a devotion to bloodless economy.
That’s how you go from three straight 100-loss seasons to three consecutive 100-win seasons and a pair of World Series appearances.
If that means turning out loyal scouts and longtime employees, delaying the debut of a future star by offering him a contract that would cost him tens of millions of dollars, or the breakdown of negotiations with a No. 1 overall pick, well, that’s all in the game.
So, too, is sign-stealing, though Fiers alleges that what he says the Astros pulled off is “not playing the game the right way.”
That’s a fair statement, and only a tad disingenuous given the lengths teams will travel to seek an edge. Whether that’s hiring a base coach or bullpen coach specifically for his sign-stealing acumen or placing a bad-intentioned cameraman in the shadow of Torchy’s Tacos beyond the outfield wall, the goal remains the same.
MLB, meanwhile, reacted to The Athletic report with a statement that notes it responded to heightened concerns about sign-stealing in 2017 with its beefed-up and more specific policy before this season.
But also: “After we review this new information we will determine any necessary next steps.”
Translation: “We already dealt with this crap, or so we thought.”
But also: “Add it to the list, folks.”
We’ll find out in coming weeks if MLB sees fit to slap the Astros with fines, docked draft picks or any other specific punishments for any number of offenses, be it specific or systemic.
For now, it just appears they are once again guilty of Being The Astros.
And as the years go by, it seems we get a greater sense of what that actually means.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: With latest sign-stealing revelations, Houston Astros once again toe baseball’s ethical lines
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