Commentary by Sanford D. Horn
January 28, 2020
Is Jose Altuve the reincarnation of “Shoeless”Joe Jackson? Both vastly popular baseball players embroiled in damning scandals gripping our national pastime by the throat, a full century apart.
Major League Baseball determined Monday, January 13 that the 2017 Houston Astros, winners of that year’s World Series cheated, via electronic means, by stealing signs of their opponents. So-called traditional sign stealing has long been accepted, but the use of electronics has been strictly prohibited since 2018, and the Astros used cameras in their home ballpark of Minute Maid Park to capture signs opposing catchers would set down for their pitchers. Some have even suggested this sign stealing scandal ranks up with baseball’s most infamous of all scandals, the 1919 fix of the World Series by the Chicago White Sox, a.k.a., the “Black Sox.”
Jackson (1887-1951), one of the eight infamous Black Sox supposedly guilty of throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, along with two other Hall of Fame caliber teammates and five additional White Sox, although found not guilty by a Chicago jury, received lifetime bans from the game they supposedly loved and tarnished. Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944) issued that ban in 1921.
As Jackson denied playing in a manner befitting someone part of a game fixing scheme until his last breath, Altuve has categorically denied wearing a buzzer beneath his jersey during the 2017 World Series, during which his Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. While no empirical evidence has been unearthed regarding the use of buzzers, the Astros have been determined to have cheated.
Part of the mythology surrounding Jackson was that after the grand jury retired, as Jackson left the courthouse two young fans in disbelief called out to their hero, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Myth indeed, as this was pure fiction, yet has stuck for decades.
Current Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred handed down punishments of a one year suspension of Astros Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow, as well as a $5 million fine and loss of draft picks this year and in 2021. Astros owner and CEO Jim Crane wasted no time in firing both Hinch and Luhnow an hour following the MLB ruling. By the way, with baseball salaries what they are in this day and age, a $5 million fine is lunch money to Crane. A $50 million fine might garner some attention.
“Neither one of them started this, but neither one of them did anything about it, and that’s how we came to the conclusion,” said Crane. “I have higher standards for the city and the franchise and I’m going above and beyond MLB’s penalty,” Crane added.
Yet none of the current players have suffered a penalty. A deal, in an effort to quickly slam the lid on the sign stealing scandal has granted multiple players immunity in exchange for honest testimony. Was such a deal premature? Should an investigation that lasted but two months, continued longer in an effort to positively identify the miscreant players?
The scandal, which, following the electronic stealing of signs, included signaling the batters, via the banging of trash cans, has had far-reaching tentacles. The fallout has reached Boston as the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox and manager Alex Cora have mutually agreed to part company on Tuesday, January 14. Cora served as the Astros bench coach on that 2017 World Series team and 2018 was his first foray into Major League managing. His link to both the Astros and Red Sox could prove deleterious to all, regarding his involvement in the sign stealing scandal in Houston and whether or not it carried over to Boston under Cora’s leadership. The Red Sox are being investigated for using their video replay room to relay signals to players on the field, explained Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. The stink also reached New York, as the Mets hired Carlos Beltran as the team’s new manager this past November. Beltran, an outfielder who played on that 2017 Astros team, has been implicated in the sign stealing, and also mutually agreed to step down just days later as the Mets manager prior to managing even a single exhibition game in spring training.
Already compared to the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the question regarding punishing the involved players continues to loom overhead a la the Sword of Damocles. After all, eight White Sox players were permanently banned a century ago, why not the current crop of cheaters?
There are continuing debates over whether or not the 2017 World Series championship of the Astros should be vacated. “Baseball does not want to rewrite history,” said Rosenthal, indicating his belief there will be no vacating of the 2017 World Series by the Astros.
If also found to be tainted by sign stealing, both the Red Sox and Astros should vacate their 2018 and 2017 World Series titles respectively. The record books should simply indicate that the two seven-game series had been played, results given, championships invalidated for cause.
This scandal is a microcosm of society. Has cheating become the norm, and thereby acceptable? The college admissions scandal, cheating on the SAT, cheating in high school - either academically or athletically - in order to gain admission into a prestigious college, cheating in college to get into graduate, law, or medical school, cheating on boards or bar exams, cheating in politics as a cable news network contributor fed debate questions to a candidate seeking high office. Think of the messages these “sterling” examples are setting for future generations watching carefully, and in many instances, mimicking the behavior of their peers or elders.
Former Astros hurler Roy Oswalt added some perspective to the ruling as the severity of the “crime,” by his former team, in a Tweet. “So let me get this right. You steal signs and get fired, but you do steroids and get millions of dollars in contracts and inducted into the Hall of Fame? #makesnosense.”
I absolutely agree with Oswalt. Sign stealing is, of course, wrong, but don’t reward steroid users - also cheaters - with a plaque in Cooperstown. The only way steroid/HGH-addled balloteers should be admitted to the Hall of Fame is with a paid ticket for admission to the museum. The after effects of steroid-laden ballplayers is still being felt as far down as the middle school level, in some cases with deadly results.
Strong messages must be sent that cheating is wrong and immoral. It defines a lack of character and oftentimes is a gateway to additional bad behavior. Getting away with cheating on a quiz was easy. How about a test or final exam? How about cheating on one’s spouse or partner? How about cheating on one’s taxes or other people’s finances leading to Ponzi schemes to the tune of millions of dollars being bilked from retirees with nothing left on which to live? Where does it end?
Or does it end as society is now accepting theft as newly elected district attorneys in Philadelphia and San Francisco are social justice warriors already announcing to their beleaguered constituents that theft and other quality of life crimes, such as public urination, will no longer be chargeable offenses. That in and of itself is truly offensive. If the people see no recourse against such crimes, and are left to protect themselves, eventually chaos and anarchy will morph into a real life version of The Hunger Games, making sports scandals a mere distraction and a walk in the park.
Like “Shoeless” Joe, and perhaps pitchers Eddie Cicotte (1884-1969) and Claude “Lefty” Williams (1893-1959), the first, a surefire Hall of Famer, and his two teammates on track for Cooperstown, should potential Hall of Famers Altuve and his teammate Alex Bregman be denied that same opportunity, as they and other players possibly implicated in the sign stealing scandal, be banned from the sport they supposedly love and sullied? If complicit, the sad, but necessary answer should be yes. The eight White Sox players enjoyed a high level of popularity, as do many of the Astros - certainly, the diminutive, yet powerful Altuve, who plays with a level of ebullience on the field and the same off-field personality to match. His dismissal from Major League Baseball, along with other popular players like Bregman, would, and should, resonate with all people, not just sports fans, that cheating at any level, in any walk of life, is unacceptable, and there is a price to pay - perhaps a severe one - based upon the choices made by people with free will and presumably a conscience.
Sanford D. Horn is a writer and educator living in Westfield, IN. He has been a Patron-level member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame since 2007.