The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Astros Manager AJ Hinch talks to the media during a news conference during the World Series. (Eric Gay/AP)

The Houston Astros cheated during the 2017 season when they won the World Series. After an exhaustive investigation, Major League Baseball itself said so Monday. The Boston Red Sox are under investigation for cheating during the 2018 season, when they won the World Series.

Do you void the Astros’ 2017 title? Do you award it to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost that World Series? Even if you did, what Dodgers player or fan would truly feel that they suddenly had been transformed into champs by fiat? What are the reparations to the New York Yankees, who were beaten in the American League Championship Series by the Astros?

If the Red Sox are also found guilty and punished as dramatically as the Astros already have been — with suspended executives, lost draft picks and multimillion-dollar fines — do we void Boston’s 2018 title? Or do we forever think of the Red Sox as an asterisk champion?

Such questions can, and will, be asked and argued for years. And no one will approach a satisfying answer.

This scandal is a perfect illustration of why cheating in professional sports is so bad. It ruins everything. There is no way to fix the damage. And that scar across a sport’s visage is permanent, as with the World Series 101 years ago that is still known by just two words: Black Sox.

Barry Svrluga: The Astros were disgraceful, but MLB should have seen this coming

That is why it is so important to make every effort to catch cheaters and crush those who get caught with penalties that get the attention of the next person who is tempted to do the same. We never seem to understand the true weight of the phrase “integrity of the game” until some team or player tries to rip it to shreds to win.

At moments such as this, we vaguely realize that the entire construct of organized pro sports is artificial, almost a tenuously balanced house of cards. You don’t have to knock down much of the edifice before fans, also known as customers, have reason to say, “Remind me again why am I paying attention to this.”

If an MLB, NFL, NBA or NHL contest isn’t on the square — or if we can’t at least assume that there is a 99.9 percent chance that it is on the level — then that game is nothing. It merits zero attention.

MLB’s punishment of the Astros — and Houston’s subsequent firing of successful general manager Jeff Luhnow and much-praised manager A.J. Hinch — has been a giant boulder heaved into the center of the lake of our pro games. The ripples of consequence extend toward the shores in all directions.

Once we are reminded of the great damage that cheating does, we are forced to see the cheaters not as mere rascals and rule-benders but as profoundly selfish and destructive people whose lack of a moral compass cannot be shrugged off with rationalizations that make us feel comfortable. Such as “everybody does it” — when we know they don’t. Or “why punish only the ones who get caught?” — when that’s exactly what we do in every area of daily life, from murder to insider trading.

The Astros just added a dark, ugly underline to the résumé of every cheater, big and small, who has been nailed.

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

Let Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens into the Hall of Fame? Never. If this Astros ugliness doesn’t convince moral relativists to find some backbone and admit that sometimes there really is a “right” and a “wrong” — and that the wrong must be punished — then what will?

This is not even a comfortable day to be Ted Leonsis, the owner of NBA and NHL franchises in D.C. who can’t wait to bring gambling — right down to prop bets on the next free throw attempt — into his arena and straight to your seat.

Sports gambling and corruption go hand-in-glove or are perceived that way. And with the Astros in the dock, we’re reminded just how important the perception of honesty is — if you’d like to stay in business.

There can hardly be a more vivid illustration of the hardship that cheating, or the belief that a foe is cheating, places on every opponent than the 2019 World Series. Two months ago, in the wake of the Nationals’ victory in seven games over the Astros, with all four wins in Houston, my colleague Barry Svrluga wrote a riveting story about the extreme lengths to which Washington went to prevent exactly the kind of sign-stealing Houston has now been convicted of.

Every Nats pitcher was given five sets of signs to indicate his pitches. For example, one finger for a fastball, two for a curve, three for a change-up and so forth. But the Nats went further. Each of their 12 pitchers got five different set of signs. Perhaps in “Sign Set 1” a single finger would mean a slider to Max Scherzer, but the same one finger might mean a change-up to Stephen Strasburg.

A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow fired by Astros after MLB suspension, fine in sign-stealing scandal

How on earth could a pitcher keep so many sets of signals straight in his mind, especially under World Series pressure? Each Nats pitcher had his own five personal sign sets pasted under the bill of his hat. And both pitcher and catcher had to coordinate which set they were using.

On every pitch.

No one knows exactly what the Astros did in exactly what games of exactly which seasons, including 2019. But here’s what we do know: The Nats used their six days off between clinching the pennant and starting the World Series to institute a system worthy of “Hidden Figures.” It’s nice to have a smart, veteran team.

But you sure as hell shouldn’t have to have the ghost of Moe Berg, the linguistic genius and World War II spy, as your catcher just to play in Minute Maid Park.

MLB threw the book at the Astros. If it had thrown two or three more books, that would have been fine.

But one central point lies beneath this entire episode: Cheating or the perception of cheating attacks baseball, or any sport, at its very heart, threatening its viability as an entertainment, as a business or even as an American institution that runs back to 1868.

Those who are too dumb or venal to know the damage they are risking must be slapped awake in simple terms they are capable of understanding. Every attempt will be made to catch you, and if you are caught, you will be severely punished.

It took baseball almost 20 years to learn that lesson during its PED era. To this day, and forever, no one will ever be able to make sense of the game’s record book, now smeared with phony honors. It’s unfixable. If any good whatsoever came from that period, perhaps we finally saw it Monday. Baseball woke up, investigated and caught its cheaters, even if it meant tarnishing one title and perhaps another.

Keep it up.

Read more:

Sign-stealing in the World Series? The Nationals had a plan, just in case.

A.J. Hinch met with reporters in December and said little about sign-stealing

From the archives: MLB aims to crack down on the game’s tradition of sign stealing