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The Houston Astros Real Crime Isn’t Stealing Signs

It's worse. Much, much worse, than that.
by Ed Condon
January 20, 2020
The Houston Astros Real Crime Isn’t Stealing Signs
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 14: A television camera focuses on catcher Dioner Navarro #30 of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the dugout before the game with the Houston Astros (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The Houston Astros are the worst, all reasonable people can agree. Unless and until the Boston Red Sox are also found to have done the same thing. Then they, too, will be the worst.

So far, managers have been fired, draft picks forfeited, and millions of dollars in fines levied. The team, in the organizational sense, has been punished. But the team, the actual men on the field who won a World Series thanks to a camera and a garbage can, have not.

Justice has not been done. It must be done. But what justice, and upon who? What, really, is Houston’s crime? It is surely more than the technical chiseling of an illicit advantage. If it were, the fines and firings would satisfy everyone, Houston could serve its time and, like the Martha Stewart franchise it is, move on.

But that’s not possible. Because the crisis facing baseball right now is one of the soul, as much as of the law.

Sign-stealing itself is as old as the game. And, until the last 20 years, the game could effectively police itself. If a runner at second was stealing signs and relaying them to the batter, it was—in a literal sense—part the game. If you got caught doing it, the batter probably took a shot to the back and natural justice was served.

What Houston did with its camera-and-garbage-can routine was not “in the game” though, and as such its real criminal act isn’t committed against the opposing team so much as against the game itself.

To understand this, we have to understand what “the game” is, who it belongs to, and who can restore it.

In his book Infinite Baseball, Alva Noë observes that in baseball the rules of the game cannot be separated either from the act of playing it, or the act of watching it.

The game, the players, the umpires, the spectators—these individuals all exist in a kind of dynamic and fluid communion which bring the game to life, blending the objective fact of who scored with the subjective of who saw what and what it meant.

Strikes, errors, earned runs—these are all products of a subjective consensus judgment. Baseball is a shared experience, a common endeavor, in a way that no other sport really approaches.

Understood this way, sticking a camera in centerfield is less like making a few bucks off insider trading and more like hiding a camera in a married couple’s bedroom. It’s a betrayal of trust, of intimacy. Houston didn’t just break the rules, they broke communion with the game and those that love it. No asterisk by the title, no ban, no fine, can make that feel right again.

And as it is with all betrayals, the rest of us are left looking back and wondering how we failed to see it coming.

The Astros’ sin—and this sign-stealing scheme is better understood as a sin than a crime—was the natural consequence of the vicious habit to which Major League Baseball has become addicted: Because for two decades, the MLB has allowed technology to slowly dehumanize the game, melting the human relationships on which it is based.

Video replays, for instance, have killed the electricity of a close call at first base by introducing slack in the inherent tension between those involved in the play and those who saw it happen.

Or take the strike zone, which has traditionally been a state of mind rather than a clearly defined space: it has historically been worked out, inning by inning, in a delicate negotiation between pitchers, umpire, and fans, each having their own ideas of fairness, and their own ways of imposing accountability.

Now there is a digital white box hovering above the plate for every TV broadcast and the robot umpires are coming. (We can stop the movement for robot umpires a thousand times; they only have to win once.) Pretending that the strike zone is a universal, physical thing—like the height and circumference of a basketball hoop—has broken the basic relationships which underpinned the game, dissolving the human society that sustained it.

Every time you see technology forced into the game, the rationale from broadcasters and league executives is to try to perfect some ideal of “fairness” or “accuracy,” but the hidden cost is the human imperfection which makes the game a living thing. What they don’t understand is that by trying to make “the game” transcend those playing it and watching it, they are, in a very real sense, moving it away from the humans who collectively constitute this thing we call “the game.”

Trying to “transcend” being human is one of history’s great follies. And it never turns out well.

So how do we fix it? By holding everyone involved responsible, not as simple rule makers and breakers, but as violators of a social trust.

Let’s start small. It’s not possible to impose traditional “social justice” on the Astros, unless you think next season’s opener should start with every batter on Houton’s roster getting beaned. (To be clear: I am open to that.)

What can be done is a kind of moral justice: attaching to the 2017 Astros the kind of odium which still haunts the Black Sox of 1919. Don’t put an asterix on their title, spit when you speak of it. The name of every guy on that team with suspect pitch counts should be mentioned in the same breath and in the same tone as Sosa and McGuire.

As for the MLB? Baseball fans can and should vote with the only ballot league executives understand: their wallets.

The best baseball decision I ever made was refusing to pony up for MLBTV last season. Instead, I spent the same amount on season tickets at the local minor league team. Were the pitches a little wilder, the fielders a little slower? Sure. But did sitting in the crowd at Prince George’s stadium beat any regular season MLB game on my TV? Like you cannot believe.

Baseball is a broken society. Our own broken society. We have to rebuild it, and we have to do it by remembering this immutable truth: Baseball is where we choose to watch it, and how we chose to play it.

Ed Condon

Ed Condon is the Washington, D.C., editor for the Catholic News Agency and a former British political staffer.