Lies, betrayal, and seedy goings-on. For the past few months, these have been the running themes surrounding the Royal family, as they’ve lurched from one crisis to the next. Appropriately, then, as we approach the second London Series, MLB’s all-guns-blazing effort to establish a European foothold for America’s pastime, the baseball gods have spied the monarchical mayhem currently embroiling the Windsors and have handed down a commandment that stated simply; “hold my beer.”
After the 2019 winter off-season barely sparked and big name free agents were left out in the cold for months into the season, the 2020 edition could scarcely have been more eventful. Forget hot stove; the entire kitchen is ablaze, and it’s threatening to burn the rest of the house down with it.
In case you’ve been living under an Aaron Judge-sized rock, here’s a quick recap. Days after the end of the World Series, former Astro and current Oakland A Mike Fiers, fresh from a season where his most notable achievement was his exuberant facial hair, alleged his former team had cheated their way to the 2017 World Series title. They did so primarily by stealing signs electronically, thanks to a camera secreted in the Minute Maid Park centerfield.
The most remarkable part? The fact that the Astros, the baseballing behemoth built solely on statistical wizardry, cutting edge sabermetrics and the most marginal of marginal gains, has been brought to its knees not by a sophisticated computer hacking scandal or getting caught advocating hi-tech doping, but by a guy watching a TV and then hitting a bin. The war between the sabermetricians and the baseballing old guard is, by this stage, a familiar one. We all remember, for example, the scenes in Moneyball where Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill’s statistical savvy once again proved the knuckle-dragging traditionalist scouts wrong. Well, chock this one up as a point to the dinosaurs; even with a battery of innovations that make Moneyball look like the Stone Age, the Astros still resorted to a tactic that could have just as easily been pulled off in the days of Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth.
Speaking of Ruth, as the dust slowly begins to settle on the ‘Trashtros’ controversy, it’s worth looking back at baseball’s past scandals and how the authorities have dealt with them. The 1919 Black Sox World Series saw several of the Chicago White Sox’s star players collude to throw the Series in the favour of the Cincinnati Reds, in exchange for a tidy sum. The news, when it broke, shook the foundations of the sport to its core, and briefly threatened the game’s future entirely as disillusioned fans wondered whether they’d ever be able to enjoy baseball while unsure if it was on the up-and-up. If not for Ruth ushering in the live ball era, making every time the Yankees rolled into town appointment viewing, and the lifetime bans dished out by baseball’s first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, baseball may never have recovered the public’s trust.
More recently, events have followed a chain reaction. In 1994, a player strike caused the cancellation of the World Series (and inadvertently led to the demise of the Montreal Expos). Once again, public confidence in the game was shaken. Four years later, however, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire went head-to-head in the greatest home run race since Roger Maris and Micky Mantle, recapturing the hearts and minds of many who had felt the game had lost its soul. As we now know, the great home run explosion of the late-90s was a byproduct of the steroid era, arguably the greatest scandal the sport has ever faced. Thanks to the fastidiousness of baseball’s love of statistics, the idea that so many of them could be tainted irrevocably remains a black mark on MLB’s integrity; earlier this month, two of statistically the greatest players of all time, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, were once again denied entry to the Hall of Fame due to their alleged association with PEDs.
Though the steroid era continues to cast a shadow over baseball, it has slowly receded thanks in part to the sport’s new-found love of sabermetrics. It’s extremely ironic, then, that one of the posterboys for Modern Moneyball has been the one caught cheating in the most embarrassing fashion. The team that many held up as an example of how the brawn of the steroid era had been made obsolete by the brains of recent years is now causing MLB a new headache.
As with the Black Sox, the league have aimed to move as quickly as possible. It would be unfair to say that their sanctions, suspending Astros manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow for a year, have been without consequences. Luhnow, one of the most highly-rated GMs in the game, was fired an hour after MLB announced their findings. Three managers have now lost their jobs; one had yet to take charge of a single game, while the other two had both won a World Series in the last three years. It’s the sort of purge that calls to mind the famous scene from The Godfather in which, as Michael Corleone has his son baptised, his associates brutally murder his high-ranking rivals, except instead of Mafioso, it’s the Mets’ Carlos Beltran, the Red Sox’ Alex Cora and Hinch, and instead of a baptism, it’s Travis Shaw quietly signing a one year deal with the Blue Jays.
And yet, the story refuses to die. Currently players have voiced their disbelief and anger. Rumours of further cheating, this time via electronic buzzers under players’ shirts, have surfaced. Mike Fiers has come in for some bizarre criticism from those who presumably cannot stomach their baseball without a healthy dose of hubris and cheating. Questions have been asked about whether the Astros’ 2017 and Red Sox’ 2018 titles should be vacated. While the Astros’ punishment has been described as historically harsh, there are few fans who wouldn’t trade their manager, GM and $5 million in fines to see their team lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, and this feeling has echoed around the league among owners and executives.
The question of whether the Astros’ punishment went far enough will continue to be asked, but perhaps the bigger conundrum for MLB is how they can fight this fire. Once again, the faith of fans has been shaken. The chances of schemes of this ilk having been isolated to Houston’s class of 2017, or never happening again, seem vanishingly small. Banging a trash can is laughably crude, but we live in an age where technology could enable all sorts of shenanigans. The Red Sox have already been caught using smartwatches illegally; how is baseball going to police things like contact lenses capable of displaying a video screen?
While MLB wrestles with these questions, we can at least be certain of a few things. Wherever Luhnow, Hinch, Beltran and Cora next find themselves in employment, there will inevitably be a great deal of moralistic hand-wringing and a team that is happy to exchange the PR hit for a shot at success. The Astros are now by a distance the most reviled organisation in the sport, if they weren’t already thanks to the acquisition of Roberto Osuna and their botched response to a (now-former) executive’s utterly scumbaggery behaviour to a group of female reporters prior to the World Series. That’s some achievement given that we appear to be on the cusp of yet another era of Yankees domination and they’re, you know, the Yankees.
At the very least, MLB now has a ready-made theme for London Series 3 in 2021; send Houston over, and behold the biggest pantomime villain ever.