Monday afternoon, Major League Baseball came down hard on the Astros for their sign-stealing operation in 2017. The league will likely, in the coming days, issue penalties against the Red Sox -- or at least manager Alex Cora, who was with the Astros in 2017 -- for their reported sign-stealing operation in 2018.
Now, stealing signs has long been part of baseball, notably when the catcher doesn't do a good enough job of hiding the signs to the pitcher. But after the 2016 season, MLB issued a set of new guidelines specifically outlawing the use of technology in stealing signs. At least two teams appear to have gone to great lengths to disobey these rules, and they're now dealing with the consequences.
Is it a scandal? It sure is. By MLB rule, the actions here were legally wrong. Many would argue morally wrong (check social media to see if there's any outrage, if you dare). This is a scandal. But how does it measure up to some of the most notable ones in MLB history?
As far as I'm concerned, there are four major scandals in MLB history. Let's take a brief look and see how they stack up to the wrongdoing of modern-day sign-stealing.
Pete Rose banned for life for gambling
There's little doubt these days that Pete Rose bet on baseball on a regular basis for years, both while as a player and as the Reds manager. Back in 1989, commissioner Bart Giamatti hired John Dowd to investigate and his report found Rose bet on 52 Reds games in 1987. In the last few years, more evidence has come to light that Rose gambled much more often and then he lied about it for years, so who knows how much more he was doing? He has admitted he gambled on Reds games but claims he only bet on them to win. Now, first off, that's still against the rules. Secondly, unless he was betting on every single Reds game, it stains the game due to him possibly not using his best relievers, for example, in games where he did not bet on his team to win.
Rose knew the penalty and bet anyway. He made his bed.
Gambling on baseball in any form carried (and still carries) a permanent ban from baseball, because ...
The Black Sox
Gambling in the 1910s was a big issue in baseball. Most historical accounts have it as a rampant issue and thrown games were all too common. The tipping point was the 1919 World Series. The heavily favored White Sox ended up losing the series to the Reds with several players in on the fix. Most historical reporting agrees that at least five players were absolutely in from the get-go while two players later caught wind and joined in. Shoeless Joe Jackson was lumped in but his involvement has long been in dispute.
The fallout was MLB hiring Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He meted out the punishment, banning eight players for life. The pop culture story comes in the form of the movie, "Eight Men Out." There's much more to the story and SABR has an excellent "Eight Myths Out" look at the scandal.
With everything leading up to the event and the World Series being thrown, this is the biggest scandal in MLB history.
This has been a problem at several different points in MLB history and thankfully MLBPA boss Marvin Miller finally got into the Hall of Fame for his part in fighting against the practice. The specific scandal, though, came in the mid-to-late 1980s when owners were found guilty of collusion against the players in three cases. The owners had to pay a settlement of $280 million. It could be argued the fallout helped lead to the 1994 strike, which ended up with a cancelled World Series.
The steroid era
After the 1994 strike, MLB looked the other way for a bit while the Great Home Run Chase in 1998 helped save baseball. The ensuing "PED" era started with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative tying players like Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi to so-called performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball couldn't separate itself from steroid use and this continued through the 2013 Biogenesis scandal, which included big names like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz, Yasmani Grandal and more.
Do technology-fueled sign-stealing scandals get close to that top four? So far, I'd say no. However, the World Series champions in both 2017 and 2018 were implicated and scandals can grow. We are in the infant stages of learning how widespread this was.
It seems to me we have a few key components for a big-time scandal.
- Someone was knowingly breaking the rules and going to great lengths in order to do so
- On-field results were impacted
On the first point, MLB specifically said technology was not to be used and it was used. It was disguised, too, as to avoid being caught and punished. Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who was fired Monday, reportedly tried to stop the practice and got so angry that he damaged equipment. They knew they were doing wrong.
On the second point, the 2017 and 2018 World Series champions have been implicated. So, yeah, I'd say on-field results were affected by something that the violating parties knew was wrong.
That's a scandal. A pretty big one so far and it's possible it continues to grow. It might not be on the same scale as the four mentioned above, but I feel pretty safe in saying that this is one of the biggest scandals in MLB history.