Make no mistake: The Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal is bad – very bad – for Major League Baseball.
The tainted 2017 World Series title, the mistrust between fans and a sporting institution, superstar players threatening bodily harm, all because a wildly successful and innovative team nurtured a toxic culture that resulted in players bending the rules way too much?
Still, consider this: It’s the dead of February, the NBA just wrapped up a wildly entertaining and emotional All-Star Game, and shortly thereafter its greatest star – one of the globe’s most recognizable figures – is tweeting about baseball.
There’s very little negative about that.
LeBron James’ two-tweet body slam of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred – “You need to fix this for the state of Sports!” – was certainly a broadside to the central office and the latest blow for the H-Town Trash Can Posse that only now is realizing how heinous its actions were.
And LeBron’s missives also gifted the league more earned media than 50 Mike Trout home runs ever could.
Certainly, this scandal is testing the concept that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But as ugly as this is – the cross-country consternation from MVPs like Cody Bellinger and Mike Trout, to the uncanny ability of Manfred and Astros owner Jim Crane to mistake kerosene for flame retardant and keep this story ablaze – it is still confined to the field of play.
It is not Ray Rice, or Aaron Hernandez, or even Pete Rose. Certainly, there are injured parties in this scandal and they’ve been identified and given a significant platform to air their grievances; you could even make a case that it’s a player welfare issue, for pity the pitcher who has to face a 110-mph liner right back at him, powered by the hitter’s utter confidence in what pitch was coming.
Yet these were not criminal acts, but absurd means of cheating a game that practically claims that act as a birthright. Though many of us are loathe to admit it, there is a relatability to this scandal that resonates.
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Stealing signs from second base – “ethical” sign-stealing, as it’s known – is acceptable in the same manner that going 60 mph in a 55 mph zone rarely earns you a citation. What about 65? Seventy-five? Sending a text while pushing 80? Using binoculars to steal signs? Whistles? A trash can?
Life is nothing but a series of slippery slopes, and we would be wise to embrace the scandal’s didactic elements. The Astros’ apologies may ring hollow, but it will be fascinating to observe both the implicated players’ on-field performances, as well as their actions in and around the sport. They’re baseball players, not the Manson Family.
And the game has survived far worse, from Rose to the steroid era – yes, kids, that was far more impactful and wide-ranging – to its nuclear winter of 1994-95.
Meanwhile, the Astros, through their malfeasance, also managed another improbable feat: Assign significant meaning to otherwise forgettable regular season games.
This isn’t the NFL, which now puts together a prime-time special to release its schedule, the better to alert fans to the most opportune binge drinking opportunities.
Baseball? There are 2,430 regular season games, and the sport’s haters aren’t necessarily wrong when they trot out the ol’, “Why should I care about Marlins-Pirates on a Tuesday night?”
This 2020 season? Go ahead and circle some dates.
Such as the Astros’ first 10 games against the division rival Angels and A’s, the latter employing scandal whisteblower Mike Fiers. Or their mid-May date with the Yankees, who still feel robbed of a 2017 Series shot. They’ll go to Yankee Stadium in September, and don’t think the Bronx denizens will have forgotten.
And just imagine if the baseball gods maintain their diabolical sense of humor and gift us an Astros-Dodgers World Series rematch? Minus the scandal, it would cause barely a ripple among casual fans.
Instead, this NBA-style drama would make the World Series appointment viewing, which hasn’t been the case since, what, Reggie Jackson was clubbing home runs in October? Carlton Fisk waved that ball fair 45 years ago? At this point, Manfred and Crane might as well put on the black hats and embrace the villain roles. It is how they have been cast and likely how they will be remembered, so why not steer into it?
It makes for great drama. And as each presidential candidate or global superstar or late-night talk show host weighs in, it’s clear that baseball’s most notorious trash can has been pretty good for business, too.
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