While sports like football and basketball seem to insist that rules be enforced with precision and accuracy across the board, baseball is the one major sport where the competitors seem to approach certain aspects of the game with a wink and a grin. I had the great fortune to interview legendary pitcher Gaylord Perry. For those not familiar, Perry’s a North Carolina native best-known for his alleged mastery of an illegal pitch called the spitball. He never admitted that he threw it, but there were strong suspicions and a trail of frustrated batters that would swear he did. But while Perry’s spitter was legendary, another staple of baseball is the stealing of signs.
Again, for the uninitiated, here’s what that involves. The catcher gives a signal to the pitcher as to what pitch to throw. This usually involves dropping down a different number of fingers that represent each pitch. The pitcher either accepts the signal or he shakes off the sign and the catcher makes another suggestion. It’s possible for players on the opposing team to see these signs. The next step is to figure out the code the pitcher and catcher are using so the batter can be alerted to what pitch the pitcher is throwing. For a Major League player, that information is a huge asset that will most often result in him getting a hit. This has been going on since the game was invented.
No complaints. Until now. You may have heard about the Houston Astros cheating scandal. They just happen to be the parent team of Fayetteville’s minor league affiliate, the Woodpeckers. The Astros have been accused of taking the art of sign stealing into the 21st century. With the help of electronic enhancement, they picked up the other teams’ signs then relayed the information to the batter. So guess what? The Astros won the 2017 World Series 4-3.
The commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, warned the Astros to stop. Apparently, they didn’t.
So, Manfred suspended Astros manager A.J. Hinch and G.M. Jeff Luhnow for a year. The team then fired both men. The dominos continued to fall as Alex Cora, a former Astros bench coach who led the Boston Red Sox to the World Series title in 2018 and New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, a former Astros player, were both implicated in the scandal.
There’s just one problem with all this. That shiny trophy the Astros got for winning the 2017 World Series is still in their possession. The record books still say they are the champions. That’s got to change. Stealing signs is one thing. Adding electronic technology to the mix is taking it to a completely unfair and unacceptable level.
Multiple talking heads on television say that taking the championship from the Astros is pointless. They won the games. They won the championship. No one is going to forget that.
True. But, they will also never forget if the title is stripped from them. When people look in a record book and go down the list and notice that word vacated next to the year 2017, it will recall this incident, how wrong it was and that the penalty exacted for it was steep.
If the NCAA can strip national championships from college teams, there’s no reason Major League Baseball can’t do the same with the Astros. CBS Sports compiled a list of teams that lost their NCAA titles and are no longer recognized as champions for far less than what the Houston Astros did.
San Francisco men’s soccer, 1978 — One student-athlete submitted an altered transcript when he enrolled in the school.
Tulsa women’s golf, 1988 — The golf team did nothing wrong but lost the title because the NCAA put the entire Tulsa athletic program on three-year’s probation after a host of violations by the school’s track and field team.
Syracuse men’s lacrosse, 1990 — Lost the title because the wife of the head coach co-signed a car loan for a player on the team.
Hawaii men’s volleyball, 2002 — One player played on a professional team before playing for the college team.
LSU women’s outdoor track and field, 2012 — One player used a stimulant that’s on the NCAA’s banned list. The stimulant is routinely found in over-the-counter nutritional supplements.
The Astros, Red Sox and Mets took the first step in sending the right message that electronic sign-stealing won’t be tolerated by cutting ties with the people who have been implicated in the scheme.
Now, Major League Baseball needs to finish the puzzle and leave the Houston Astros with an empty trophy case.