I’m willing to assume MLB got this right, not because the sport is so brilliant at investigations or honorable in telling the whole truth about itself but because every owner and official knows what a disaster they would have on their hands if they got this decision wrong. It wouldn’t be egg on their faces; it would be more like acid.
There’s joy and relief in Boston like you wouldn’t believe. If the reputations of the 2018 Red Sox had been deemed to be as dark as the competitive souls of the 2017 and 2018 Houston Astros, the news would have hit all of New England as hard as if the Ted Williams Tunnel collapsed because Ted Williams himself engineered it wrong.
The sound you heard buzzing through the sport is a gigantic sigh of relief, followed by “the video replay system operator did it — and that’s all?”
In January, when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the sins and penalties for the cheating Astros, then said that Boston’s crimes and punishments were still under investigation, the whole sport shuddered. Must be big — right? ― to be announced at the same time and as if the investigations were quite similar. Especially because one mastermind of the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme, which involved players banging trash cans to signal pitches, was coach Alex Cora, who became Boston’s manager after the 2017 season.
If consecutive World Series winners were proved to be teams full of systematic cheaters, what in the entire history of American games would be comparably damaging to a sport? Would it be as if, after the 1919 Black Sox threw the World Series, it turned out the 1920 Fall Classic was fixed, too?
Instead, Wednesday’s announcement was akin to saying that, after a months-long investigation, with players granted immunity to give evidence, the batboy and the ballgirl had pulled off the Boston Brink’s Robbery.
How happy is Boston — and how loopy? There already are trial balloons about bringing back the suspended Cora — he won that World Series, didn’t he? — to manage the Red Sox in 2021. Will they pay him in platinum trash cans?
Fortunately, the Red Sox nixed that.
“All the reasons that we parted ways with him there [when the Astros news broke] are still the reasons,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said when asked whether Cora could return to Boston.
Since you must know, here is what MLB discovered. The replay guy, J.T. Watkins, would study the signs of the opposing team’s catcher by watching the center field monitor. Then, by whatever means, he sometimes would break the pitch-calling code and relay that information to Boston players, who could use it if they got to second base. Instead of decoding the foes’ signs in real time — which has been considered savvy fair play for a century — the base runner on second would have illegal intel from Watkins. That’s cheating.
Watkins was suspended for a year, and the Red Sox must forfeit their second-round pick in the 2020 amateur draft. Will they survive? I have been hit harder than that when my dog nuzzles my hand for an I-did-my-business-outside treat.
The MLB report might as well have been titled: “The Red Sox Almost Didn’t Do Anything Wrong at All, and They Only Did It on Every Third Friday, Anyway.”
See, the Red Sox couldn’t always break the signs. Or the other team changed signs. They could try it only with a man on second. Also, no one really knew where Watkins got his information. (Yeah, right. J.T. must stand for “Just Telepathic.”) Finally, not everyone used the info or not always. So even if they didn’t have immunity to back the truck over Watkins, you wouldn’t penalize them anyway.
Players retire or get traded, and after they do, they tend to talk. This month, retired catcher Evan Gattis, a member of the 2017 Astros, bared his sense of shame in a podcast. Amid many expletives deleted, he became the first Houston player to publicly acknowledge all the damage the Astros did to the game that made them millions, the weight of disappointment and disillusionment they dumped on their fans, especially children, and how for decades they will not and should not live it down.
“I’m not asking for sympathy. If our punishment is being hated by everybody forever, then, like, whatever,” Gattis said. “Nobody made us do [anything]. Like, [players are now] saying, ‘This guy made us do this’ — that’s not it. …
“You work your whole life to try to hit a ball, and — ‘You can tell me what’s coming? What?!’ — it’s a powerful thing. Millions of dollars on the line,” Gattis said. But “that’s not playing the game right. … [Pitching] against the ‘17 Astros — dude, do you think if I was their catcher that I’d be happy? Hell, no. So I understand people’s anger.”
Gattis has talked to current Astros, his ex-mates, and some are angry but “not mad at people hating us — just mad, like, kind of on the fans’ side,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t feel in a position to say anything [to star teammates]. And they’re living with it right now. … I could have done something, but I did not.”
That level of guilty conscience sometimes, eventually, speaks its mind. Let’s assume that no ghosts of the 2018 Red Sox will come back to haunt MLB. The sport has been damaged enough by the haughty but brought-low Astros, as well as by the pandemic that will erase much and maybe all of a season.
MLB picked a convenient day to bury its Red Sox penalties, just before the NFL draft. But that’s where the game is now, head still low. When the 2018 champ didn’t cheat as badly or as often as the 2017 champ, that is baseball’s good news.
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