Press Box: Astros’ punishments need to shift focus

Illustration by Ricardo Rodriguez.

Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor

Sign stealing has been common practice in baseball since the game’s inception. Not only has it been acceptable — it’s been encouraged. 

Well, mostly. It’s been encouraged if players can figure out the pitcher’s signs or his tells when he sets to deliver the pitch. What is against the rules, however, is using technology to assist in stealing signs. 

That’s what the Houston Astros did for most of the 2017 season — a season in which they were atop the baseball world, winning the World Series. 

When The Athletic’s Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal brought the scandal to light, the league opened an investigation. 

The MLB’s investigation confirmed what Drellich and Rosenthal reported and brought more answers to the forefront. The report said the scheme was “player-driven” and it even mentioned former Astros outfielder Carlos Beltrán by name as a participant. The league’s punishment, however, did not reflect that. 

“Approximately two months into the 2017 season, a group of players, including Carlos Beltrán, discussed that the team could improve on decoding opposing teams’ signs and communicating the signs to the batter,” the report said. 

AJ Hinch, Houston’s manager, and Jeff Luhnow, the general manager were suspended for one year. Owner Jim Crane fired both just one hour after the MLB handed them their punishment. The Astros were fined $5 million — the maximum amount the league can fine teams — and they lost their first and second round picks in both 2020 and 2021.

If the scheme were player driven, then the players should have been suspended and fined for their involvement in it. Yes, that means suspending or fining most of the 2017 Astros team, but they broke the rules. The MLB would have suspended them if they found out they all were taking performance enhancing drugs, and both the sign stealing scheme and PEDs are used to gain a competitive advantage. 

But the league neglected to punish the players in any form, and that should be its next step in the scandal. 

Houston was using a camera set up in the outfield that was pointed at home plate, angled right at the opposing team’s catcher. The video feed was sent to a monitor in the tunnel between the dugout and the Astros’ locker room. There, a few employees sat and deciphered the signs the catcher was putting down to see what pitch was coming. 

Once they figured out the pitch, they would bang on a trash can and the sound was heard on the diamond, so the batter knew what pitch was coming. This was real-time sign stealing, which is banned by the MLB. 

What’s missing from the punishments? The players. 

At the Astros FanFest on Saturday, several players were asked about the investigation. All deflected the questions or delivered rehearsed statements. Astros star third baseman Alex Bregman recited the same statement each time he was asked about the scandal. 

“The Commissioner came out with a report, MLB did their report, and the Astros did what they did,” Bregman told reporters. 

Bregman should have answered the questions genuinely, even if it was a ‘Hey, we messed up.’ Instead, he gave reporters the same rehearsed statement. 

The players need to be held accountable for their actions because, like Bregman, they can’t even own up to their mistakes. The main way of holding the players accountable for their actions is the league handing down suspensions and fines — and that hasn’t happened. 

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