Colin Sheridan: Astros shame a sign of sport’s double standards on cheating

The 2017 World Series Winners, The Houston Astros have been exposed as cheats; and this time the needle is not to blame.

Colin Sheridan: Astros shame a sign of sport’s double standards on cheating

Spring, and as pitchers and catchers report for pre-season training in warm weather locations across the US, the locker room conversation is dominated, not by who got traded, engaged or retired in the off-season, but by the biggest scandal to hit baseball since the shameful steroid era.

The 2017 World Series Winners, The Houston Astros have been exposed as cheats; and this time the needle is not to blame.

Instead, this scandal is more of the ‘Babs Keating with a bathtub full of sliotars’ variety, just multiplied by a thousand.

‘America’s pastime’ has long struggled for relevance in the hearts and minds of the Americana it nostalgically espouses an outdated claim over. Well, it’s front page news these days, for reasons it would rather we didn’t know.

The Astros crime? Sign stealing, an offence that sounds like something one Irish farmer might do to another — but one that has dogged the game of baseball since its creation.

In a November 2019 article, The Atlantic magazine revealed details of an elaborate scheme which alleged the Astros used a video camera to film opposing catchers’ signs to pitchers, mid-game. Astros players and staff, watching the live video feed from the dugout, would then signal to the batter by — wait for it — banging on a trash can to indicate what type of pitch was coming.

The batter would adjust his swing according to the number and types of bang he heard.

To anyone who has stood in a batting cage for fun, the notion that knowing the shape and/or velocity of the rock-like object coming at you might aid you in hitting the damn thing may sound ridiculous. But to a Major League player at bat, it’s game-changing information, so game-changing in fact that it saw the Astros go from perennial losers to the envy of the league.

Over the course of the World Series winning 2017 season and the two that followed, Houston — though only champions for one of them — have been the best team in all of baseball.

In 2013, they were the worst. For the record, it is legal to steal signs, with the naked eye, but not by ‘mechanical or contrived means’.

Being able to intercept this semaphore code has ensured lengthy careers for otherwise disposable players.

In a billion dollar sport, that it should be brought to its knees, not by Silicon Valley technology, advances in performance enhancing drugs or another off-field player scandal, but by a ruse centered around a guy who earns a zillion dollars a year banging on an aluminum bin from the dugout, is somehow as quaint and all-American as the notion of baseball itself.

This is the sport of The Natural and Field of Dreams, for God’s sake!

A sport that had sold its soul to human growth hormone and advanced analytics. Finally, with this Astros debacle, it remembered where it came from.

Since The Atlantic article, an MLB investigation has found that the Astros had indeed stolen signs as alleged. Houston’s general manager and field manager were both suspended for a season (both have since been fired). The Astros were fined the maximum $5m (€4.6m) dollars.

Draft picks were forfeited.

Crucially, no players were punished. This decision — explained Commissioner Rob Manfred, was in part because he wanted to ensure establishing the truth was more important than the punishing individuals, and also, in part, because if you start, where do you stop.

That has drawn the wrath of fans and especially other players, who have taken this scandal far more personally than any other shameful episode that has recently beset the sport.

Why? Well, the honour code of sports, I guess.

Some sins tolerated, others not. It is true of most golfers — from PGA Tour professional to Cecil Ewing wannabe — they would rather be hooked mid-swing than be cheated by an opponent or playing partner erroneously improving a lie, or surreptitiously finding a ‘lost’ ball in the rough.

The current noise around the brazen Patrick Reed demonstrates the honour code supersedes all else.

If, say, a top five ranked player in the world tested positive for PEDs, the fallout for that player would be much less severe than the reputational damage that accompanies the label of ‘cheater’.

Luckily, for Reed, he cares little about reputation.

The same goes for other sports. How many footballers in the Premier League have voiced their disgust at being robbed by the proven financial doping crimes of Manchester City, which saw them win back-to-back titles, depriving supposedly clean teams a fair shot at glory? Zero. The same can be said for the recently humiliated Saracens RFC.

This kind of ‘cheating’ does not elicit the same ire from those most affected — the players — that looking an opponent in the eye, and blatantly doing them over does.

It matters not that one level of cheating — the financial and biomedical kind — has far longer-lasting and more negative effects on a sport than the other — remember Zacchaeus from Donegal (Raphoe, most likely) up a Killarney tree?

It’s like you accept a bank ripping you off for a billion dollars, but you want to go toe-to-toe with the punk who stole your parking spot.

Baseball has had a problem with sign stealing for a hundred years. The ‘shot heard around the world’, struck by Bobby Thompson of the New York Giants in 1951, is perhaps the most storied single swing of a bat in the game’s history.

Revelations of sign stealing a half-century after Thompson bombed the ball out of the Polo Grounds to win the pennant have led many baseball historians to conclude that he ‘definitely maybe’ benefited from the clandestine scheme. Perhaps not on that one pitch, but over the course of a winning season.

So, for all Major League Baseball’s fevered intent to make the Astros the last offenders, they are likely to be but the last before the next.

So long as sport is competitive — professional or otherwise — trash cans will be bet, footballs deflated, GPS units thrown at free-takers.

How long before the GAA has its own version of sign stealing? And, what will the reaction be?

You can bet your last dollar that if one inter-county team were to, hypothetically speaking, share opposition intelligence and scouting reports with another, the outrage at a presupposed ethical oath being broken would be far greater than if the same team was to flout the no training ban and instead decamp to La Manga for a fortnight.

Sometimes, most of the time, breaking an actual rule is easier to swallow than breaking an unwritten one.

The Houston Astros did both. Every sport has its code, though nobody seems to know what it is until it’s breached.

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