An excellent forthcoming book fully reminds us of their deeply evil 2017 duplicity
I came to Cheated, a soon-to-come book by journalist Andy Martino, as a fan of one of the 29 other teams in Major League Baseball not the Houston Astros, which means I came to the book ready to hate the Astros. The team had cheated throughout the 2017 season, which concluded with their win of game seven of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In 2019, MLB started an investigation that offered immunity to any player involved in the scheme to get them to speak on the record, and in early 2020, MLB announced a round of managerial-level suspensions for the Astros’ unprecedented real-time sign-stealing system. Their system was multifaceted, but a prominent aspect involved the use of a live video feed of the game to decode the opposing catcher’s signs and banging on a clubhouse trash can to alert their hitter when an off-speed pitch was coming. If a hitter knows what kind of pitch is coming, he hits better.
Sign stealing is part of baseball. Players spend decades cultivating naked eye techniques to decode catchers’ signs, and they pass their findings onto their teammates. Using technology such as a live game video feed for the same process is against the rules, and with the help of such a feed, the Astros won the World Series. The pandemic was the only thing that saved the franchise from being booed during 81 away games in 2020. Still, many pitchers took matters into their own hands, and Astros hitters spent a good part of the truncated 2020 season taking pitches off their body parts.
So, how delicious! A book called Cheated about the cheating cheaters the Houston Astros. I looked forward to reading author Andy Martino’s evisceration of millionaire baseball players not on my favorite team for stealing a world championship.
Luckily, Martino is smarter than that, and he instead uses the book as a tool to expand discussion of the issue beyond Twitter-level vitriol. Most notably, the author takes the time to explore the careers of the chief members involved in the cheating scheme, such as Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who disliked the scheme but didn’t have the fortitude to stop it. It’s hard to remember now, but Hinch’s first managerial job was with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who hired him in 2009 as young (for a major league manager) and ambitious 35-year-old with no previous managerial experience to lead their team. Martino recounts Hinch’s failure in this attempt at managing as he fell victim to a clubhouse of veteran players and coaches who openly disrespected him.
Through Martino’s account, it’s easy to imagine Hinch going out of his way in his comeback managerial attempt with the Astros to let MLB veterans such as DH Carlos Beltran and bench coach Alex Cora do what they wanted—even when it extended beyond Hinch’s own moral framework. Through Martino’s recounting, I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who similarly struggles with ambition to the point of crossing well beyond his own sense of right and wrong. The author’s explorations of the Cora, Beltran, and general manager Jeffrey Luhnow also focus on their careers, their drives, their weaknesses. I came to the book expecting to indulge my fury, but Martino takes the time allotted in the form to paint the incident not as a hate-fest but as a tragedy: ambitious characters with personal flaws giving in to baser desires and getting caught.
Still, at no point does Martino let the Astros off the hook. Despite baseball’s colorful tradition of breaking the rules, there was something noticeably missing from the Astros’ approach to sign stealing in 2017: discretion. Most every example Martino lays out of the sport’s cheating past includes the sense that the people involved were trying to keep their chicanery from, at minimum, the other team, but more broadly from the fans and world at large—and maybe a little from themselves.
What’s tasty about the cheating process, as anyone who’s ever done it knows, is pulling one over on the world, getting away with something that’s your secret. The Astros banged on a trash can just beyond their dugout to indicate which pitch was coming to their hitter. This wasn’t a hidden buzzer, though there may have been one or two of those involved as well, or a nonchalant whistle from a coach or player easily explained away. Something in those trash can bangs screamed, “Yeah, we’re breaking the rules. What are you gonna do about it?”
MLB did something about it. They suspended Hinch, Cora, and Luhnow from the game for a year. The Boston Red Sox hired Cora as manager in 2018, and he won his own World Series in 2018. With his suspension, baseball forced him to resign from this position in 2020 but Boston rehired him for the 2021 season. Astros club president Jim Crane fired Hinch and Luhnow, still Astros employees at the time of the suspension. After serving his suspension, Hinch became the manager of the Detroit Tigers. Luhnow hasn’t yet continued his baseball career. The Mets hired Carlos Beltran, who had since ended his playing career, and then fired him before he led his first game.
Martino is largely mum on whether he feels these suspensions are enough, so let me help him. They’re not. Beyond the individual punishments, MLB needs to rescind the Astros’ World Series win and trophy. The team cheated, they admitted it, and there’s no way to go back to see if they would’ve won without it. Anything else, and you’ve pretty much told the other 29 organizations that you can cheat, get caught, and—after a blimp of suspension—retain your income and glory.
As recounted by Martino, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about taking the Astros’ World Series trophy away, and Manfred said nothing would be solved by taking back this “piece of metal.” He later apologized for the comment. During my lifetime, I’ve never thought of the World Series winner as anything but legit, even when the teams I hate win. So rescinding the Astros’ victory means something to me. Without it, the World Series winner follows the path of the home run records that were all shattered during the steroid era and few care about anymore. Are we ready to not care who wins the World Series? Is it just another rigged system? I’m not ready to concede that, and for its own good, MLB shouldn’t be either.
Martino does well to paint the Astros sign stealing their way to a World Series win as a tragedy, but every tragedy needs an emotionally-appropriate ending. If not, the audience won’t experience catharsis, and nothing ends. If MLB doesn’t step in a take back the title, the fans, and the opposing pitchers, will make sure the Astericks never forget it.
(Penguin Random House, June 8, 2021)