Wojo: With Houston Asterisks, baseball fans get scammed again

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — People in baseball are appalled, appalled I tell you. This is disgraceful, unconscionable, the worst scandal in major league history. How could this possibly happen?!

Such a disingenuous question. How could the biggest cheating scandal unfold under the brightest lights possible, tainting back-to-back World Series champions? Because when it comes to the culture of the sport, cheating is the ultimate wink-wink, nudge-nudge endeavor. And this, as the details keep emerging, is another reason the game always seems on the verge of crisis.

Justin Verlander

The Astros at least partly swindled their way to the 2017 championship, and they’ve just been awarded baseball’s honorary symbol, the asterisk. They won’t lose their title because that would muddle the game’s beloved record book, but they’re stained forever.

Throughout 2017, the Houston Asterisks used video replays from the centerfield camera to swipe pitch signs from opposing teams’ catchers. When Houston had a runner on second base, he’d receive the decoded sign from the dugout and flash it to the batter. Eventually, the scam evolved, or devolved, into someone banging on a trash can to alert whether a fastball or off-speed pitch was coming. From sophisticated to simplistic, it was so easy, the Asterisks weren’t the only team to do it.

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The Boston Red Sox apparently did the same on their way to the 2018 championship, as their manager, Alex Cora, took his tactics from the Asterisks — where he was bench coach in 2017 — to Boston. The suggestion, outlined in damning clarity in MLB’s nine-page report, is that the illegal practice was conducted by many, condoned by a few and condemned by virtually no one, until after the fact.

Commissioner Rob Manfred hammered appropriately this week, banning Asterisks GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for a year, fining the team $5 million and taking away first-and-second round draft picks the next two years. To show he was truly aghast — or just relieved his team wasn’t stripped of its trophy — Asterisks owner Jim Crane subsequently fired Luhnow and Hinch.

Mutually parted ways

The Red Sox and Cora mutually parted ways before baseball could even finish its investigation there, and the chance of him working again in a major-league stadium is equal to the chance of Pete Rose throwing out the first pitch in a postseason game. It takes profound punishment to curtail rule-breaking, and Rose’s lifetime banishment has served its purpose, as gambling controversies now are rare in baseball. As legalized betting expands, vigilance is more important than ever.

That’s why more needs to be done, or said, about such outrageous violations. Manfred has taken the stance he won’t punish individual players because the crackdown on misuse of technology was a directive to team management, and thus management’s responsibility to make sure it wasn’t happening.

Mike Fiers

That’s weak, but it’s also difficult to determine which players merit sanctions. It’s apparent plenty knew, but it took the bold words of former Astros (and Tigers) pitcher Mike Fiers to explode the scam. Fiers, who pitched in Houston from 2015-17, detailed it last November to The Athletic, and baseball finally investigated.

But where are the other voices? It would be nice to hear from another Astros pitcher, Justin Verlander. The former Tiger has been vocal about his disdain for cheaters, steroid-abusers and even equipment suppliers, loudly complaining that altered balls contributed to the home run explosion.

While Astros pitchers didn’t directly benefit from the sign-stealing in 2017, the hitters unequivocally did, and thus the team did. Verlander hasn’t condemned the scheme publicly, although Manfred did issue a gag order to keep teams from adding to the controversy. But the reality is, nobody in baseball ever seems willing to condemn anything, for fear of breaking the code.

Pitcher Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame even though he admitted he threw bucketfuls of illegal spitballs. When Jose Canseco detailed the steroid culture with first-hand knowledge in his 2005 book, he was mocked and ostracized. He later said he regretted writing it, even though he was vindicated, as star after star from the heady home-run chases in the ’90s — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa – finally were scrutinized, after the financial windfall, of course.

Those home-run duels were a modern-day scam, and because baseball sold it so well, fans gobbled it up. The numbers literally were unbelievable, yet almost everyone wanted to believe.

Nuances in sports

Baseball proudly originated the “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin'” mantra, and on a certain level, it’s acceptable. Every sport acknowledges those nuances, from the exaggerated penalty-inducing flop in basketball and hockey, to the sleight-of-hand hold in football.

But this is the worst violation of trust and fair play imaginable, not only because two teams basically cheated their way to titles, but because they altered the competitive landscape of the entire sport. Hinch and Cora are respected baseball guys who may never work in the game again, but you know which other careers were irrevocably damaged? The opposing pitchers who suspected something was amiss, but had to endure regular beatings from Houston hitters.

In the Asterisks’ seven-game World Series victory over the Dodgers, ace Clayton Kershaw was rocked in Game 5 and lost a chance at his first championship. Pitcher Yu Darvish lasted just 1.2 innings in each of his starts, and was roundly lambasted and chased out of town.

You can’t argue the Astros, with the third-best record in the majors in 2017, would’ve won anyhow. The disparity in their hitting numbers between home games (when they had access to the technology) and road games was profound, and they won eight of nine home games that postseason.

There’s no plausible deniability here. Yes, sign-stealing has been a fundamental tactic forever, but the use of technology has always been prohibited. Manfred issued a statement to all teams in 2017 reiterating that point, after the Red Sox were accused of using an Apple Watch to swipe signs.

There is a line, believe it or not, in all sports. The Patriots, like the Astros, are renowned for innovation and arrogance, and for years have blurred the two with their various scandals.

Maybe ruthless, driven franchises think it’s worth it, and maybe fans do too. And perhaps players grudgingly accept it, at least when they benefit from it.

More and more in sports, it’s hard to know what’s believable and what’s fair.

Baseball will overcome this as it has every other scandal because the game is bigger than the participants. There will always be those who confuse cheatin’ with tryin’, and deny the difference. Sadly, baseball has more than its share.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski