How really to deal with the sign-stealing scandal
Make cheating hurt
So, the Cincinnati Reds won the 1919 World Series over the Chicago White Sox, and about a year later, eight members of the Black Sox, most notably including “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, were banned from the sport for throwing the Fall Classic.
It was all about the money. With the reserve clause in place — blocking the movement of players and the accompanying bidding for their services — the White Sox rebelled against their notoriously cheap owner, Charles Comiskey.
Pitcher Eddie Cicotte went 29-7 with a 1.82 ERA, throwing 306 innings in 1919, and earned $5,000 for his trouble, according to the Society for Baseball Research. Taking $10,000 to participate in the throwing of the World Series was financial common sense. (Side note: Imagine how much money Cicotte would make today.)
One-hundred years later, it’s still about the money, as the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, the 2017 and 2018 World Series champs, respectively, have been implicated in stealing signs electronically. Both teams’ managers have already been fired, as well as the brief skipper of the New York Mets, Carlos Beltran, who was a player on the 2017 Astros.
We’ll see where this scandal leads baseball. Does Commissioner Rob Manfred restrict the positioning of cameras in stadia and/or the use of video rooms, ostensibly used for video-replay challenges (legal) but also used to crack an opponent’s pitch signals (illegal)?
Were there other teams besides the Astros and Red Sox? (Educated guess: Of course. Only two of 30 clubs were doing this? Nope.) Does this hurt the integrity of baseball? (Yes, but baseball will live. It survived the Black Sox and steroids.)
Yet, to date, Major League Baseball hasn’t hit the offenders where it hurts.
Slap on the wrist
While the Red Sox are still under investigation, Manfred ruled on Monday with regard to the Astros. The team’s manager and general manager were suspended for a year (and later fired by the team). The franchise will forfeit its first- and second-round draft picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, and was fined $5 million.
Managers and front-office personnel are expendable. Managers and GMs come and go, their dismissals under normal circumstances merely a sacrifice in lieu of addressing greater issues within an organization like the fact that the team stinks and no one could have managed said team to any level of success.
The draft picks are costly as young talent — these players are comparatively inexpensive and under organizational control — is the coin of the realm in the game today. The fine of $5 million, though a ton of money to us mere mortals, is an afterthought to the Astros or any other major sports franchise.
This is a mild spanking.
Like its response to steroids, baseball’s response to sign-stealing is toothless. Even when players were busted for juicing — mostly due to journalism not actual testing, be it BALCO or Biogenesis — it never really hit the wallet.
When Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and 2011 National League MVP, Ryan Braun, got popped for roids and was suspended, he lost roughly $3 million of a $140 million contract. Again, $3 million is a ton of money to the average person, but not when there’s another $137 million coming.
The New York Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez also was busted in the same scandal that caught Braun. A-Rod lost $25 million of his $250-million contract. Proportionally, again, this doesn’t hurt a guy’s wallet.
Baseball needed to be able to void the contract of a player who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Had the Yankees been able to release A-Rod, and they tried, he would have been out $165 million.
That, boys and girls, does hurt the player’s wallet and has the added bonus of being a cautionary tale to the rest of the sport.
Why did the Astros cheat? Yes, there is the glory of the World Series trophy. The rings are sweet, but winning one makes a ton of money for all involved.
The value of the Astros franchise increases. Television rights go up, as do merchandise sales and ticket prices. Meanwhile, the players make a ton, as well.
After Houston won the Series, the franchise signed superstar second-baseman Jose Altuve to a five-year, $151 million extension, which kicks in this season. Third-baseman Alex Bregman is due $99 million during the next five years, thanks to an extension.
Astros outfielder George Springer — also the 2017 World Series MVP — went from $3.9 million in 2017 to $12 million each in 2018 and 2019, and just signed for $21 million for 2020. Remember that Springer hasn’t reached free agency when he’s in line to make even more money.
These guys aren’t Eddie Cicotte, who cheated after being abused by his franchise. Already well-paid, the Astros players cheated to win, damaging the integrity of the game, and did so to line their pockets.
Void the existing contracts. Altuve and Bregman lose a combined $240 million. Again, now we have everyone’s attention and are providing 240 million good reasons not to cheat.
If players are coming up on free agency, like shortstop Carlos Correa or first-baseman Yuli Gurriel: congratulations, no free agency for you.
Altuve, Bregman, Gurriel and Correa all go into a supplemental draft with the worst teams in baseball getting the first picks. Meanwhile, all these newly available players also get their salary clocks reset, meaning they start at the Major League minimum, a paltry $563,500, and have to work their way to salary arbitration and free agency, and their financial benefits, all over again.
This would punish the players where they really care, their wallets. It would also pound Astros owner Jim Crane. Losing a manager, a GM, some draft picks and $5 million is superficial. Losing your best players hurts yearly revenue, the value of the franchise and perhaps, most importantly, his ego. Just as we provide cautionary tales to the players, we’re doing the same for the owners.
Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was brought in to clean up baseball after the 1919 Black Sox. He and a young slugger named Babe Ruth — mostly Ruth — saved baseball. In addition to the authority to ban the Black Sox, Landis’ office was allowed to act “in the best interest of baseball.”
Your turn, Commissioner Manfred.