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Why the Houston Astros' cheating scandal could be worse for MLB than the steroid era

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Do Damage. That phrase emblazoned across sweatshirts during baseball's postseason the past few seasons came across as a longing, desperate attempt by marketing sloganeers to find some way, any way, for baseball to return to the cool, Madison Avenue merchandising game now dominated by the NBA. After Reggie, Fernando and Junior, this was a space baseball had left behind. Months removed from the disaster of the previous three Octobers -- at the hands of the Houston Astros, the New York Mets and the Boston Red Sox via the Alex Cora-Carlos Beltran Houston connection -- the milky, homogenized Do Damage catchphrase has acquired an accidental urgency. It is suddenly true. So much damage has been done.
I arrived in Arizona in late February eager to hear embattled Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred attempt for the third time to explain and defend his office's handling of the game's scandal du jour. The Astros had employed an electronic sign-stealing operation using replay cameras and a trash can to signal to the dugout what pitches were coming next. In 2017, the Red Sox and Yankees had been fined -- the Red Sox for using an Apple Watch to steal signs and the Yankees for improper use of dugout phones -- prompting a league-wide warning from Manfred. The Astros ignored the warning. The scandal cost Houston manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow their jobs and raised the question of whether Manfred should stay in his.
I wanted to hear from Bob Melvin, the Oakland A's manager whose team has been denied the American League West championship the past two seasons by the now-tainted Astros. And from Mike Fiers, the current A's and former Astros pitcher who went public about the Astros. And from the rest of the people in a sport that revels in its history more than any game in the U.S. but never, ever, learns from it.
Eventually, the baseball will come. Perhaps the game will do what it has somehow always done best and outrun the cheating, deceit and disdain for its players that lives in its DNA by putting on an irresistible show that returns the most offended fans back to the game. Eventually. But now, as evidenced by Astros hitters being hit seven times during their first three spring training games, baseball is still an angry place, hungry for more answers, more accountability -- and payback.




LET THE PUBLIC DECIDE
"We were successful in finding the facts. It wasn't easy. It took a lot of hard work, and maybe even harder was to write those facts down and to make them public because it wasn't very pretty. We did both those things. I think that transparency is a really important part of the game and the process. It gives people an opportunity to make judgments about what went on in 2017 and 2018. ... I felt and continue to feel the best thing we can do for our fans is to give them the facts, put them in a position to make their own judgments about what happened in 2017, what the significance of that particular World Series is." -- MLB commissioner Rob Manfred
Americans are battered, victims of wealth and gluttony, corruption and manipulation. The presence of money, even though it doesn't often find itself in more hands more abundantly, provides justification for virtually any action. We've been here before. Remember the parry to every call for accountability during the steroid era? Well, you'd do it, too, for $10 million. Technology has created media silos designed to give the public the opinion they want. The ideals of truth and commonality have been bludgeoned and defeated, replaced by the newest get-out-of-jail-free card masquerading as empowerment. Everyone has their own truth. The end result is surrender, then cynicism.
The battered are also the batterers, comforted in knowing that the weapons of destabilization that are sinking society can be used to their advantage to inflict harm on others. Their truth becomes both shield and sword, and the counterargument to the cheating -- everyone does it; it's nothing new -- serves as its own bludgeon. Following Manfred's comments, an old, steroid-era refrain found its way back into the conversations about the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, with baseball people normalizing it. The Cora Red Sox, the Apple Watch Red Sox and the revived stories from old-timers about their various methods to gain advantage were just business as usual. If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying. It all felt like a time warp.
Manfred struggled to answer direct questions prompted by his own report, such as why the game knew teams were cheating from the 2017 Apple Watch controversy, and knew teams had complained about the Astros, and nevertheless approved allowing clubs greater access between the dugouts and replay rooms. He said it was out of expediency for the replay process. But the commissioner's office was well aware of the potential for sign stealing through an increased use of technology. According to sources within MLB, the replay coordinators for each team were told monitoring the review booths for sign stealing was part of the job. It wasn't an unintended consequence. Everyone knew this was going to happen. Pace of play was such a great priority for Manfred that he may have created his own steroid era equivalent.
We have been here before, and the familiarity rests primarily with Manfred and his conclusion that the purpose of his investigation was to uncover the facts and let the people decide.
This sounded much like the unsatisfying release of the 2007 Mitchell report, which was ostensibly to bring closure to the steroid era but felt like the end of "The French Connection," where everyone involved went free and the opportunity for punishment vanished. It was all left to the beholders, not the leadership, to determine their own truth. Then-commissioner Bud Selig -- on George Mitchell's recommendation -- gave the players immunity, and for his part received hundreds of millions of dollars in salary, induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a statue in front of Miller Park in Milwaukee and a building named after him at Arizona State University. Some players, such as Pudge Rodriguez, were implicated and still found their way to Cooperstown. Others, such as Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, are unlikely to see entry.
This is not because of the writers or lack of evidence, but because of a lack of leadership. Selig punted on steroids, pushing the responsibility of punishment to writers, namely in the form of their Hall of Fame ballots.
And now, Manfred has punted on cheating, granting immunity to players in exchange for information. He has left punishment up to the minds of media members, ticket buyers and players who now risk discipline from MLB for retaliating against the Astros and Red Sox. Players are now in greater jeopardy for meting out frontier justice than the Astros and Red Sox players were for committing the original offense.
It was, however, the perfect response for today's times. The cheaters were exposed. The sport has now embedded the great, historical bogeyman of gambling into its business model -- for money. The players feel cheated. Nobody paid. And yet, on Manfred's door, where the buck stops, is a sign, and it reads, "Make your own truth."




THE CIRCULAR FIRING SQUAD
In the spring training clubhouses, ESPN and MLB Network aired on dueling televisions, dedicated to the shrapnel left by the cheating. In a hotel lobby, over the din of clattering silverware from free breakfasts, morning news shows replayed the Democratic primary horse race or showed the Feb. 19 rally in Phoenix held by Donald Trump. When baseball led on the one TV dedicated to sports, the topic was the Astros. Dusty Baker, returned to baseball to restore the Astros' credibility, had asked MLB for protection from retaliation from angry players. The Dodgers, who hadn't won a World Series since 1988, insisted the Astros stole the 2017 World Series, and that the Red Sox stole it the year after that. By the time I arrived in Florida, Astros players and executives were privately going on the offensive, tired of saying sorry but even more tired of the sanctimony of the other clubs, particularly the Dodgers. The Yankees talked about the opportunity to win in 2019, the year after the Astros and Red Sox won titles. And Cody Bellinger talked about how Jose Altuve stole the 2017 MVP from the Yankees' Aaron Judge. In court, there were lawyers from Geragos & Geragos, also the collusion attorneys for Colin Kaepernick, claiming in a civil lawsuit that the Astros stole the career of their new client, former Toronto pitcher Mike Bolsinger.
The culture of the sport was on display, flayed open again not by the brilliance of its athletes but by the historical ambiguity of their ethics -- and the game's. There are indeed green cathedrals, but underneath, baseball has always been a nasty, snarling, dirty game. Nor did it go unnoticed by baseball execs at media day following Manfred's news conference, and by legendary A's executive Sandy Alderson, that baseball leads the sports news only when its habitual cheating culture resurfaces. Manfred's comments days earlier stressed the Astros front office's algorithm scheming -- with its childish terminology of Codebreaker and allusions to Dungeons and Dragons and Harry Potter -- was not technically illegal, opting for the murkiness of sign stealing versus data gathering. His report traced the hatching of the scheme to another group that would go unpunished: Houston's "low level" baseball ops, which is another way of saying the numerous analytics employees in the organization, one of whom is part of Bolsinger's lawsuit.
At Hohokam Park in Mesa, Arizona, spring training home of the A's, Mike Fiers answered questions about his safety, saying he doesn't need protection. He wanted to refocus questions on baseball, but he did not say -- as so many predecessors have -- that his role in this scandal was a media creation. He stood by his words. Melvin took major issue that Fiers did anything but a service to a sport that needed to be exposed. At Tempe Diablo, where the Angels play, Mike Trout said he'd lost respect for the Astros. While efficiently attacking the drudgery of signing baseballs, A's shortstop Marcus Semien, who finished third in MVP balloting last year, looked at both televisions in the A's clubhouse. Both TVs were focused on the Astros, revenge -- and retaliation.
"Nothing else really matters to us. We all have our thoughts," said Semien, a veteran leader on the A's and, for the time being, their player representative to the union. "But in this room, we have one motto: Every game counts." Avoid that one-game playoff. To receive a proper playoff series, the A's have to win the American League West. Semien made it clear: It isn't about revenge. It isn't about Houston. It's about them.
While Manfred attempted to establish authority, the players' association leadership was not in Arizona. It was in Florida, but its presence could be felt in the desert. Indeed, players have been here before, in a circular firing squad, unhappy that it appeared union head Tony Clark made a deal to protect the union from itself by requesting immunity for his players. The truth is that he didn't. Clark was told by Manfred's office that the league -- in line with the existing collective bargaining agreement -- was not seeking to discipline the players. Nevertheless, the players were upset that their brethren were not subject to punishment for their part in the scandal and might very well take the potentially dangerous future step of granting baseball more opportunity to punish players. Manfred said immunity was a necessity to reach the truth, but more disturbing was the feeling from some players, and within the union, that it was Fiers who violated the code of omerta. To them, he never should have spoken.
THE BLUE WALL
In a final, embarrassing moment, this attitude was best and most vocally amplified 2,500 miles away by none other than David Ortiz, who said what the anti-Fiers partisans were thinking. Fiers did not say anything when he was with the Astros, winning a championship. Now, he was "snitching." Ortiz, the legend, Cooperstown eligible in 2022, was a member of the Red Sox during the Apple Watch scandal, his final season in the majors. He was best friends with Manny Ramirez, twice-caught steroids user, in the heart of a Red Sox batting order that demolished its competition on the way to two World Series for a franchise that hadn't won since 1918.
Ortiz himself was implicated in a steroid scandal in 2009 regarding a 2003 test, but could never be considered a reformer. He then, like Fiers with the Astros, said nothing. The embarrassment for Ortiz, however, is in his terminology. Using terms like "snitching," he likens baseball players to an illegal syndicate -- and perhaps he is saying precisely what he means to say. They are a fraternity, even a dirty one, like cops or gangsters or gang members, and he is using the words to describe the people who expose their illicit activities. Snitches know they're dirty, and Ortiz is indirectly copping to the dirt Fiers exposed. None of this is an accident.

The familiarity lingers. The overarching sentiment in Arizona was not curiosity about how the Angels will look with a healthy Shohei Ohtani, the great Mike Trout and newly acquired Anthony Rendon and new manager Joe Maddon, or if the A's can climb the mountain, or if the loaded Dodgers will finally, after 32 years, complete the quest, or if the Nationals will complete it again. All that reigned was a question: In terms of damage done, is baseball's current cheating scandal worse than the steroid era? It felt like a question positioned perfectly for an era of communication that is centered on debates less interested in the cause of the dumpster fires than in comparing which is worse.
There is no question the steroid era is the worst scandal in the history of the sport. Only the national scandal of Jim Crow segregation is worse. The steroid era destroyed more than a generation of players. Bonds, Clemens, Ramirez, Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, Sheffield -- all Hall of Famers if not for the drugs they used or were supposed to have used, accidentally or willfully. Tejada, Canseco, Giambi and other near immortals disgraced their careers. Hinch, Cora, Beltran, Luhnow are the attached names, for now, unemployed, for now, but unlike the steroid era, the championships and records remain intact. Manfred made sure of that. Keeping legends out of its shrine has already occurred. If the cheating is exposed to steroid-level ubiquity, and the Red Sox and others fall as the Astros have fallen, vacating championships would likely have to be next. If baseball will for once learn from a history it says it reveres, it better pray the steroid era has no comparison, infamously in a league of its own.
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