The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Baseball has a problem, and the Astros are only a symptom

Former Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow was fired in the wake of the team’s sign-stealing scandal. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The biggest problem that baseball faces as spring training begins is also one of the most fundamental and damaging issues any sport can face: an integrity crisis.

We can find warped ethics, lying and placing self-interest above the health of American institutions anywhere we care to look. But Major League Baseball is rocketing up the list of dark spots that illustrate the whole trend. Is that where baseball wants to be?

The kind of existential threat the NFL faces with concussions and CTE is arriving at baseball’s door right now. The 2017 champion Houston Astros come to camp convicted and penalized by MLB for a franchise-wide systematic sign-stealing scandal. The 2018 Boston Red Sox champs have a similar investigation hanging over them.

But that’s not all. As pitchers and catchers report to spring training this week, so will the game’s multiple fundamental stains, which have grown gradually for decades within the sport.

The Post's Barry Svrluga detangles the Houston Astros' cheating scandal and talks about the history of wrongdoing in baseball. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Illustration: William Neff/The Washington Post)

Do a quick 360-degree turn. You can see 20 years of cheating with performance-enhancing drugs that started in the late 1980s. That was preceded by, and probably connected to, an even longer era of bad-faith labor negotiations by owners, including a $280 million settlement over collusion and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

Hey, just hardball. Ethics optional.

Astros players will be asked this week — one by one, maybe — if they were among the cheaters in 2017 and ’18. Why did you do it? Why didn’t you understand how much damage you could do to yourselves, your team, your sport and, perhaps saddest, to your own fans, now disillusioned, who provided most of the revenue for your $400 million in salaries in those two seasons? You robbed them. Not just of the honor of the now-tainted World Series title, but of their faith in you.

Nationals’ Doolittle speaks out on latest report of Astros sign-stealing: ‘We need answers’

MLB hammered the Astros with lost draft picks and suspensions for its general manager and manager, which led almost instantly to their firings. But what did MLB do to the players themselves? Nothing, absolutely nothing. No one has even suggested — or perhaps “dared to suggest” in the presence of the powerful union and agents — that a 10 percent to 20 percent fine of players on those teams might be fair and also “send a message” far better than mere cheat-shaming.

No wonder only one Astro, Dallas Keuchel, has apologized even semi-sincerely. And he waited until he was with the White Sox on a new $55 million deal.

Last week, Pete Rose, with jaw-dropping, tone-deaf gall, asked that his lifetime ban for gambling on baseball, including games he managed, be lifted because what he did was not as bad as what the Astros did. Rose, the eternal 12-year-old with a baseball-saturated view of everything, shows how upside-down that culture can be. Rose argues his ban is “disproportionate relative to other punishments imposed for serious violations that also undermined the integrity of the game.”

At a moment when legalized gambling on sports is trying to come right to our seats in countless venues (including Capital One Arena and perhaps Nationals Park), poor Pete doesn’t realize that, now more than ever, he should never get back into the sport. He’s the poster-tragedy of gambling addiction — and Exhibit A that superior sport-specific knowledge and access to voluminous data simply means you go broke at a different rate. As multiple MLB commissioners have shaken their heads, Rose is still a sports gambler. It’s why he lives in Las Vegas.

If legalized sports gambling had gotten where its proponents want it to be just a few years earlier, imagine the stink, the lawsuits and the aggregate damage when all the bettors with losing tickets that said “Dodgers” in 2017 and ’18 reached full rant, rave and revenge mode as this winter’s scandal hit the news.

The week before Rose petitioned for pity, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, its members also neck-deep in the game’s culture, cast 61 percent and 60.7 percent of their votes in favor of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds getting into the Hall of Fame, even though MLB’s own Mitchell Report in 2007 nailed them for using PEDs. The evidence against Clemens alone took up nine pages.

Some act as if you must be convicted in court before you are kept out of Cooperstown. No one says PED users should go to jail or have salary or awards clawed back. They just shouldn’t be given the game’s top honor after MLB named and nailed them.

Baseball has a 150-year tradition of looking for every edge. The game’s skulduggery has often been romanticized (sometimes by me) as almost-harmless piracy. Do we really want every Gaylord Perry to be caught, greaseball in hand?

When Candy Cummings invented the curveball, probably while pitching for the Brooklyn Excelsiors in 1867, the sport debated whether it should be allowed as a skill or banned as a dastardly, deceitful trick. Since that day, pitchers have found many more “edges” than hitters, plenty against the rules. In fact, having a runner on second base who, by his wits, can decode the catcher’s signals and relay them to the batter is almost the only fair edge hitters have ever found.

See how easy rationalizing is? Those poor victimized hitters; no wonder it didn’t bother them to have “eyes” in center field, computers to help with decoding, TV monitors in the dugout and a designated garbage-can banger.

Did sign stealing taint Astros World Series title? Their former manager says it’s a ‘fair question.’

In 1980, I wrote a story in a national magazine on pitchers and cheating. I focused on the members of the Oakland A’s rotation who, players said, all cheated as soon as Billy Martin and pitching coach Art Fowler arrived and taught them how.

Thirty years passed. Steve McCatty, one of those pitchers, became pitching coach of the Nats. I teased him for years to reveal his technique. We got along well. But he never admitted anything. Code of silence to the grave.

So, don’t expect any Astro — Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa or José Altuve — to confess or even offer a decent apology this week. In 30 years? Probably not even then. They’ll be just like Pedro Martinez, a headhunter in his day, protected by codes, who said the real source of the current sign-stealing scandal was the whistleblower, ex-Houston pitcher Mike Fiers. He had squealed. That’s the wiseguys’ “omerta” code.

And that’s part of the baseball culture that needs to change. But it’ll be hard. Freezing the balls overnight to help your bad pitching staff, sloping the foul lines to help or hurt bunts (as suits your team) and turning the base path between first and second into a swamp with overwatering to inhibit base stealing have been around forever. That slippery slope from brainy to gamesmanship to cheating exists in every sport.

But baseball — the game of detail, the sport where the pitch is flashed from the catcher out to every defender on every pitch so they can lean the right way — is flush with opportunities for the alert, or devious, to gain that edge.

Hank Aaron thinks sign-stealing Astros players should be banned from baseball

It has taken a lifetime (mine) to watch baseball’s ethical issues drift from amusing to troubling to deeply endangering for the game. Sometimes the sport, usually a commissioner, has acted forcefully with his vast, “best interests of the game” powers to slam down discipline on a rogue gambler or a sport chocked with PED users or, now, on whole teams of cheats.

At times, “best interests” gets ignored. Now, we see tanking by teams (a half-dozen in 2019) who try to lose 95 to 115 games to improve their position in the draft. Owners net millions in profit, thanks to revenue-sharing and media deals, then plead “analytics” when fans scream that the product is junk.

Baseball loves to look away, and keep cashing the checks, as long as it can. This is the sport that launched the “chicks dig the long ball” ad campaign just a few seasons after it killed the World Series, then looked away for a decade as players showed up for spring training with 25 pounds of new muscle, as if they had bought ’em off the rack, like a jacket for Christmas. In a way, they had.

What does baseball need to do? Everything it can think of. Establish a policy of severe fines for every player on a club that is ever caught cheating in a team-wide scheme. Ban every monitor anywhere close to a dugout. A dugout umpire to monitor the occupants would be humiliating but maybe necessary.

Automation of ball-strike calls can’t come too soon. Why? If you think fans mutter about the eyes, and motives, of umpires now, just wait until prop bets are available at your seat on whether the next hitter walks or strikes out.

Perhaps most important, with the current collective bargaining agreement coming two seasons from now, players, their union, their mega-agents, the owners and the commissioner need to understand that baseball’s biggest problem — by far — is not exactly how the billions in revenue get divided up or pace of play or whether the designated hitter should come to the National League.

Baseball absolutely cannot have a work stoppage, not even for a day, after the 2021 season. No, not after the awful decades leading up to 1994, when the sport went 8 for 8 with lockouts and strikes every time bargaining failed. There is no bigger “integrity of the game” issue, for players and owners, than being decent stewards of the sport by playing the games, not fighting over the loot.

A country can be endangered by a diminishing of national integrity, whether in individual leaders, entire parties or the collective character of its citizens. But great nations tend to heal with time. Sports, even the once national pastime, are far more fragile. They can lose favor, seem corrupt or degraded, become places where the despondent or the addicted gather and customers seem like marks. Boxing and horse racing shriveled within a lifetime.

Baseball, in many ways, is riding high with new revenue streams and a product that’s almost ideal for a digital data-glutton age. But nothing can upend that glossy, prosperous world like questions about the basic honesty of the game and those who play it. It has taken decades to erode our confidence that baseball, at any level from players to union to owners to administrators, has an accurate and guiding sense of basic right and wrong.

When ethical values die, business value — certainly in pro sports — can die with it. Forewarned is forearmed. We can hope.

Read more on baseball:

What is sign stealing? Making sense of Major League Baseball’s latest scandal.

An Astros fan listened to thousands of the team’s 2017 at-bats. Sign-stealing was everywhere.

Svrluga: Baseball is being practical in not punishing cheating players, but that doesn’t make it right

Boswell: Cheating ruins everything about sports. The Astros got what they deserved.