In the end, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch got what they deserved. But MLB commissioner Rob Manfred missed a chance to be the one to give it to them.
At 2:01 p.m. Eastern on Monday, the league issued its report concluding that Houston had illegally used electronics to steal signs during its 2017 championship run, and Luhnow and Hinch had been aware of the scheme. MLB announced that each would be suspended for one season and the team would lose its first- and second- round picks in the next two drafts and be fined $5 million.
By 2:02 p.m., some people around the game were grumbling that the punishment—the heaviest ever levied against an organization—was too light. A World Series ring, they felt, is worth a yearlong suspension.
And then, at 3:06 p.m., Astros owner Jim Crane took care of that: He announced that he’d fired Luhnow and Hinch. They are each considered among the best at what they do, but given the optics, it will be difficult for them to get prominent jobs when their suspensions expire. They are effectively banned from baseball. The only shame is that they are not actually banned from baseball.
Manfred’s job is to protect the game. And the game is nothing more than fans’ belief in it. Nine innings in October are not inherently more important than nine innings in March; the playoffs only matter because we decide they do. The whole structure is more tenuous than we like to think: As soon as fans begin to wonder whether what they are seeing on the field is real, the foundation collapses.
Houston, the league found, established an elaborate system early in the 2017 season. Staffers in the video-replay room would use the feed from the centerfield camera to decode an opponent’s sign sequence. A player would pass that information to the dugout, and then when a runner reached second base, he would identify the real sign and signal to the batter. Soon they cut out the middleman: Bench coach Alex Cora—now manager of the Red Sox, and still awaiting his penalty as the league investigates allegations of sign-stealing against his new team—began using the replay phone to call the room and get the sequences.
By about Memorial Day, a group of players including DH Carlos Beltrán—now manager of the Mets and left unscathed after Manfred decided not to punish players—wondered if they could improve on the system. Cora had a video technician install, just outside the Astros’ dugout, a monitor displaying the feed from the centerfield camera. As players decoded the sign sequences, they signaled to the batter by banging on a trash can with a bat: noise for an offspeed pitch, silence for a fastball.
This scheme ran alongside the initial one through the regular season, even after Manfred issued a memo clarifying that teams were not to use electronics to steal signs and promising to hold GMs and managers responsible for any violations. It continued as the Astros beat the Red Sox in four games in the ALDS. It continued as the Astros beat the Yankees in seven games in the ALCS. It continued as the Astros beat the Dodgers in seven games in the World Series.
The report concluded that neither Luhnow nor Hinch ordered the illegal sign stealing, and that Hinch disapproved of it. But they both knew of it, and they both allowed it to continue.
Organization-wide cheating to this degree is the second-biggest threat a sport faces, behind only intentionally losing games. So the league must find a way to extinguish it. Ideas have ranged from electronic earpieces for pitchers and catchers to wearable random-number generators to a light panel in the mound. These are creative fixes, and they would encourage teams to be creative in finding ways around them. The culture of sports encourages winning at all costs. The only way to prevent this behavior is to change the calculus. MLB needs to create an environment in which executives, coaches and players do the math and conclude: Cheating's not worth it.
Before Crane finished the job, Manfred got partway there on Monday with his unprecedented punishment. But he underestimated how much people are willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of a championship. Will Luhnow and Hinch work again? That depends on how desperate future teams are.
The 2017 Astros will wear this stain forever. They will also wear their World Series rings.