In 2019, the Houston Astros won 107 games. That lofty record was good enough to win the AL West title, beat the Tampa Bay Rays for the AL Division, and trounce the New York Yankees to claim and AL Championship titles. Then, they took the World Series all the way to Game 7 before ultimately losing to the Washington Nationals.
In 2018 they won 103 games. In 2017 they won 101 games and the World Series.
Oh, and along the way they cheated relentlessly.
But how, you may be asking, does this positively affect our beloved Seattle Mariners? First, it’s important to really understand just what happened.
To be fair, the way they cheated is only half illegal. I say that because the Astros stole signs from opposing catchers to help batters swing at better pitches during home games. And for more than the past 150 years that baseball has been played, stealing signs is fair play. It’s even encouraged as a competitive advantage, but you must do it the old-fashioned way. Without technology.
If a batter gets themselves to second base, it’s commonplace to spy on the catcher sending signs to his pitcher. If they’re clever enough to crack the code and signal their teammates about which pitch is coming next, upping their odds of getting a hit and driving them home, that’s totally fine.
But, that’s not what the Astros did. When playing games at Minute Maid Park, the Astros deployed a sophisticated system for stealing catcher signs and a rudimentary system for communicating them to batters.
First, they leveraged the center field camera. That’s the angle of the game we all usually see on TV where you can see the umpire, batter, and catcher as well as the back of the pitcher. The Astros had a TV installed in their dugout, allowing coaches to watch every signal, every pitch, and quickly decode the opponent’s system.
Once they could reliably determine which pitches were being thrown, the Astro coaches would begin signaling batters about what was coming. The team kept a trashcan and a bat in the dugout, and if the pitch was going to be an off-speed pitch (curveball, slider, change-up, etc.), they would bang the bat on the trashcan, creating a low thud sound and telling batters to hold back. It the pitch was going to be a fastball; no bang, no thud, swing away.
According to reports, this illegal and unethical behavior occurred for multiple years, with several coaches and players transferring in and out of the Astros system during that time. As a result, assigning accountability for these prohibited actions is tricky.
The MLB, in all their magnanimous wisdom, decided to focus their precedent-setting punishments on the coaches and management teams, rather than players, as a way of channeling responsibility toward those at the top. Those whose hands were on the wheel when things went off the road, so to speak.
As a penalty for cheating, the Astros’ general manager Jeff Luhnow and team manager AJ Hinch were both suspended for a full year, through the 2020 World Series. Additionally, the team was fined $5 million (the maximum amount allowed under the MLB Constitution), and they were stripped of their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. Then, Astros owner, Jim Crane, took things further by outright firing both Luhnow and Hinch.
Beyond the Astros, Boston Red Sox manager Álex Cora, a bench coach for the 2017 Astros and manager of the 2018 Red Sox, who won the World Series, was fired.
Moreover, before he could ever manage his team in a game, newly minted New York Mets manager, Carlos Beltrán, a 19-year major leaguer whose last stop was on the World Series winning 2017 Astros, was also fired.
And there’s very likely more to come.
After initial reports about stealing signs and banging on trashcans, there have been additional allegations, specifically surrounding career-Astor José Altuve among others, of electronic buzzers under jerseys. These buzzers are meant to have offered a more discreet means of communicating upcoming pitches to the man standing in the batter’s box. No buzz, no zap, swing away.
We’ll have to wait to see what else comes of any ongoing investigations and/or reporting, but what’s crystal clear today is that this scandal is very real and is very bad for baseball.
In contrast with the steroid epidemic of decades past, the full scope of this cheating scandal is still unknown. However, if we’re judging it merely based on one fan’s trust in the competitive nature of the game, it threatens baseball in its totality. If you want to see an unfair contest with a rigged outcome, watch a WWE wrestling match.
The Mariners Impact
As you already know, the Mariners are in the middle of a multi-year rebuild. They spent all last year purging older players for young ones, calling up inexperienced players to give them time at the major league level, and investing in prospects that show promise.
Anyone hoping for the Mariners to contend this year should reset their calendars by another year at least. By my estimation, they’re pushing to open a 2021 or 2022 contention window, but an evaluation nearer to this season’s All-Star break will probably define which is more likely.
Either way, the fact remains that the Mariners are in the process of constructing a new, competitive franchise and up until this past week, anyone in baseball would’ve told you the model for how to rebuild a playoff-caliber team, was the Houston Astros.
From a baseball perspective, they did it right. Not with deep pockets and high-priced superstars, but with homegrown players. They purged veterans for prospects, they had multiple bad seasons to accumulate draft picks for more prospects, and they synchronized their player’s arrivals at the major league level to maximize success. And it worked phenomenally.
Well, until last week it did. Now, who knows where the talent ends, and the cheating begins.
With the Astro’s model rebuild thrown into dramatic question, there is a new opportunity for Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners to define what a “good” rebuild looks like in a post-sign-stealing era. It will take both the presence of success of the field and the lack of disgrace off the field. Which is no small feat, to be sure, but I believe in the Mariners’ leadership and their ability to not just build a winning team, but a winning team we can be proud of, too.
The Fan Impact
I wonder how Astros fans feel today. Are they ashamed of their team? Are they happy to have won even if this is the price tag? Are they proud of the World Series title? I don’t know…
But if the roles were flipped, and my Mariners were the franchise at the center of this fiasco, I would be utterly heartbroken. For me, loving baseball comes directly from loving the history of my team, the legacy of my players, and the saga of rising and falling championships.
Hypothetically, discovering that my favorite team conspired to cheat others out of a fair game would fracture the purity I find at the center of baseball. One batter facing one pitcher is the essential dynamic at the core of baseball, and in this sense, the game itself has been corrupted.
Fortunately, not only have the Seattle Mariners not been implicated in this humiliating scandal, but they now stand on the precipice of redefining what a successful MLB rebuild can look like.
And I have no doubt that integrity will be at the center of the new Mariners to come.