The baseball scandal seems to have generated more genuine outrage than the political scandal, perhaps because we have higher expectations for sports than for government. It’s not as if the Houston Astros escaped punishment altogether for using video monitors to steal opposing teams’ signals, giving their batters an advantage that helped them to win the 2017 World Series. The Astros were fined $5 million and lost four draft picks. Both their manager and general manager were fired — as were the managers of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets, who were implicated in this scheme during their time with the Astros. Trump has gotten a lot less punishment for doing things that are far worse.
But baseball players and fans are apoplectic that the Astros get to keep their 2017 title and that none of their star players — who matter more than any manager — have suffered any consequences. Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees outfielder, called for the Astros to forfeit their championship, saying, “It wasn’t earned playing the game right.” The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger complained that not only did the Astros steal the World Series from his team but that the Astros’ José Altuve “stole” the 2017 Most Valuable Player Award from Judge. Even baseball fan LeBron James spoke out on Twitter: “Listen I know I don’t play baseball but I am in Sports and I know if someone cheated me out of winning the title and I found out about it I would be F*^king irate!” Other teams are threatening to dole out rough justice by having their pitchers target the Astros’ hitters.
This fury is stoked by the Trumpian explanations offered by Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and Astros owner Jim Crane. Within the space of a single minute, Crane managed to say, “Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game” and “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.” Manfred suggested it didn’t matter whether the Astros kept the trophy — which he described as a “piece of metal.” If winning that “piece of metal” doesn’t matter, what is the point of playing?
There is a sense that a fundamental injustice has occurred, and the baseball powers-that-be don’t care. Trump sent a similar signal of injustice and impunity on Tuesday by doling out unearned mercy to a bunch of undeserving white-collar crooks with White House connections.
Trump’s worst act was to commute the 14-year prison sentence of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted on 17 corruption charges, including trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat and trying to extort campaign donations from a children’s hospital. Blagojevich won a “get out of jail” card because he appeared on Trump’s show, “The Celebrity Apprentice”; because his wife pleaded on Fox News for Trump’s help — and also because the prosecutor who put him behind bars, Patrick Fitzgerald (not, as Trump said, “Fitzpatrick”), is friends with Trump’s arch-nemesis, former FBI director James B. Comey. By pardoning Blagojevich, a corrupt president seeks to minimize and normalize political corruption.
Other beneficiaries of Trump’s clemency include junk-bond king Michael Milken, who was pardoned just days after his former business associate Nelson Peltz hosted a $10 million fundraiser for the president’s campaign; former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who was found guilty of tax fraud and lying to the FBI but happens to be buddies with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani; construction magnate Paul Pogue, who was pardoned for underpaying his taxes after his family donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Trump Victory Committee; and David Safavian, a senior official in the George W. Bush administration whose pardon for obstructing an investigation into the crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff was championed by a Republican power couple, lobbyist Matt Schlapp and former Trump aide Mercedes Schlapp.
While helping these high-level crooks, Trump is seeking retribution against dedicated professionals such as Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified truthfully about Trump’s nefarious dealings with Ukraine, and former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, who sought to unravel Trump’s suspect ties to Russia. Trump has the nerve to fulminate against “dirty cops” — his slur against FBI agents — while pardoning Kerik, an actual “dirty cop.”
It is enough to make you despair about the future of America. These twin scandals — one athletic, the other political — make clear that we live in a country where cheating is rewarded at the highest levels and vice pays better than virtue. No doubt it has ever been thus, but I can’t remember a point in my lifetime when the cheaters were as brazen as they seem to be today — or the checks on their misbehavior so weak.