The Astros Apology Offensive launched Thursday. As you’d expect from a campaign a month in the formation, it came across as less than heartfelt. We might even call it canned, but we’d beat a joke to within an inch of its life. Here was team owner Jim Crane: “Our opinion is that this (his team’s sign-stealing) didn’t impact the game.”
Shortly thereafter, Crane said: “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.”
Players Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve, who had declined to express remorse, decided that, after further review, they were remorseful after all. “I have learned from this,” Bregman said, the lesson presumably being not to cheat – or, if you do, not to get caught.
MLB announced its sanctions against the Astros on Jan. 13. Many of us media types were tracking developments – general manager and manager banned for a year; wait, now they're fired! – on the bus to the Superdome for the LSU-Clemson championship game. Did MLB seek to soften the story by revealing its findings on a heavy news day? Bang on a trash can once for yes, twice for no.
A month later, we know that those findings were woefully incomplete, thereby rendering this the story that cannot be buried. Jared Diamond, aptly named, of The Wall Street Journal has uncovered so much dirt that it’s clear MLB’s investigation was thorough as you’d expect from a sport that took a decade to grasp that some of its players might have taken more than a One-A-Day vitamin to stay in shape.
MLB's report sought to pass off the sign-stealing as "player-driven." Diamond found internal documents showing that the Astros had an algorithm for their thievery – there's an algorithm for everything – that bore the name "Codebreaker," the plan itself being dubbed "Dark Arts." Many emails discussing this were directed to then-GM Jeff Luhnow, whose principal defense seems to be that he never reads emails longer than one page. (Good business practice!)
Even with the Astros lining up to say they’re sorry – notice that it’s the Astros’ pitchers who seem the sorriest; there was no trash can for them – we’re left to wonder how much more there was to this. We’re also left to wonder what, if anything, MLB should do, and we say that with the full knowledge that MLB, guaranteed, will make a mess of whatever it tries. So here goes:
Should the Astros be stripped of the 2017 World Series title? They cheated – a lot – in the year they won it all. So yes, they should lose the sport's ultimate prize. But if you're thinking, "Just declare the Dodgers the 2017 champ," what about the Yankees, who lost the ALCS in seven games? What about all the teams that were beaten in July and August, not just October? Not that the NCAA gets much right, but when it vacates something, it doesn't proclaim a replacement titlist. There's no official hoops national champ for 2013 – not Louisville, which saw its banner removed, but not finals loser Michigan, either.
Should MLB go back and penalize the players? As Diamond reported, MLB's probe entailed a blanket grant of immunity to those who came clean. Is it legal/ethical to revoke such a thing? The answer's no, and the almighty Players Association would go nuts if MLB even tried. Anyway, how would that work? Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann have retired. Marwin Gonzalez plays for the Twins.
Should everyone hate the Astros forever? A runner on second base is allowed to peek at the catcher's fingers to see if he can discern what pitch is coming. MLB did, however, issue a directive that electronic sign-stealing is verboten. (This after the Red Sox, who are surely facing sanctions of their own, were found using an Apple watch in the dugout in 2017.) Is this merely a question of degree? Or, given the apparent organizational swoop of the malfeasance, is this something anyone with a conscience should have known was beyond the pale?
Should we hate some Astros more than others? As noted by Diamond, Beltran was identified in an internal email as "the godfather of the whole program." This week The Athletic reported that Brian McCann, beloved as a Brave, asked Beltran to knock it off. Does that make McCann the good Astro? Maybe. But Astros fan Tony Adams – this also reported by Diamond – spent 50 hours reviewing footage of the 2017 season and listening for trash-can bangs. Adams has a website: SignStealingScandal.com. On it we learn that McCann heard 45 bangs in 507 pitches. That's a higher percentage (8.9) than for Altuve (2.8), but much lower than for Marwin Gonzalez (18.9), Beltran (18.1), Bregman (16.6), Carlos Correa (16.3) or George Springer (14.9).
How many of the Astros' gains – they won 311 games over the past three seasons – were ill-gotten? Asked this week if the Astros would have won the 2017 World Series without cheating, Gonzalez told USA Today: "That's hard to measure. You're never going to know." Headed into last year's World Series, which they lost, this seemed one of the greatest teams ever. It's doubtful you'll hear anyone saying that out loud again anytime soon.
Can we ever calculate the collateral damage? In a word, no. On Aug. 4, 2017, the Astros beat Toronto 16-7. With two out in the fourth, Mike Bolsinger was summoned to pitch. He faced nine batters. The first eight reached base. Gonzalez homered. Beltran doubled. McCann walked. According to Adams' data, that game featured the most trash-can bangs – 54. Bolsinger hasn't pitched in the majors since. This week he filed suit against the Astros. He seeks unspecified damages, but asks they forfeit $31 million in postseason shares and that the money go to charity. His grounds: "unfair business practices."
The Astros can apologize until the cows come home, and maybe some will even mean it, but this story isn’t going away. What about the alleged buzzers? What about Beltran’s case as a Hall of Famer? How long ago did the cheating stop, assuming it ever did? This story gets worse with every week, every day.
The steroids era came down to individual players making choices. What the Astros did was a systemic effort – not just something the players cooked up, as MLB would have us believe – to subvert the rules and skew the sport. Well, they’ve skewed it.