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Ed Willes: What's pro baseball without some peanuts, Crackerjack and cheating?

The Washington Nationals celebrated their World Series championship after defeating the Houston Astros 6-2 in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 30, 2019 in Houston, Texas.
The Washington Nationals celebrated their World Series championship after defeating the Houston Astros 6-2 in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on Oct. 30, 2019 in Houston, Texas.

Last week, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announced the penalties against the Boston Red Sox for stealing signs during the 2018 season and we can safely say this about the decision: If Manfred was trying to establish a clear deterrent, he might have fallen a tad short of the mark.

Manfred ruled the Sox might have used video equipment to steal signs during the regular season but at least they weren’t cheating on the scale of the shameless Houston Astros.

No sir.

The Red Sox, it seems, concocted a scheme masterminded by one J.T. Watkins, the team’s advance scouting assistant, who passed on pitches to a select number of hitters. Watkins’ communications, however, were “episodic and isolated,” and were “less egregious than the Astros’ famed 2017-18 sign-stealing scheme.”

As a result, Watkins, the lone gunman, was suspended without pay for one year and the Red Sox were docked a second-round draft pick, a ruling that was criticized in most sectors for its laughable leniency.

The one holdout? Take a bow David Ortiz, who opined: “What happened in Boston is what everybody is doing in the league right now and I think the punishment was not fair.”

Proving once again all things in life, and sports, are subjective.

The case against the Sox might not have been as sexy, or just plain weird, as the crimes perpetrated by those egregious Astros but, for the 354th time, it underscored baseball’s complicated relationship between the rule of law and the spirit of competition.

On a superficial level, the rule book is black and white and we’re taught from a young age that its enforcement is uncompromising and binding. But, as we grow older, we learn it’s not that simple; that there are many shades between the black and white.

In the game the line between fair and foul is clear and distinct. The line between right and wrong? That’s another story.

It’s a given the Sox and the Astros both gained material advantages through their actions. The Astros’ conspiracy might have been more thorough and wide-ranging. But in the end, both teams ended up in the same place. You just wouldn’t know it from the penalties.

The Astros were fined $5 million and lost their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. Manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year. Both were fired by the club.

Alex Cora, a coach with the Astros in 2017, was suspended for a year and subsequently fired from his job as ta da, the Red Sox manager. Carlos Beltran, a player with the Astros in 2017, was hired, then fired as the New York Mets’ manager after his name appeared in the report.

So given all that, the outrage over the microscopic sanctions against the Red Sox is understandable. Baseball, which has been shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, is clearly trying to move on from this. But there’s a larger issue here, one that has existed as long as ball has been around, and we’ll see some version of it again before too long.

If you perform a Google search with the key words: cheating, gamesmanship and baseball, you get more than half a million hits. There is very serious matter of the steroid epidemic and it’s impact on the game. There is the more whimsical tale of Gaylord Perry, the Hall of Fame pitcher who copped to throwing a spitball throughout his career. There are stories about corked bats, pitchers taking the mound with sandpaper and the early, more primitive attempts at sign stealing.

Baseball, it seems, has only been limited by its imagination when it comes to breaking the rules. The difference has been the game’s reaction to the scofflaws.

Take steroids. Despite incontrovertible evidence juicing was rampant in the game — see Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi etc., etc. — MLB didn’t introduce mandatory testing until 2004 and didn’t enforce meaningful suspensions until the following year.

In 2006, Sen. George Mitchell launched an investigation and published a 409-page report almost two years later that named 89 players, including some of the game’s biggest stars.

Great, except seven years later the Biogenesis scandal broke, involving Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun and others. A-Rod is now rumoured to be interested in buying the New York Mets. Roll that one around in your mind.

Again, we all agree steroids completely distorted the game’s competitive landscape. As for the penalties, MLB has suspended a few big names. But the larger punishment has been reserved for those superstars who, to date, have been denied entry into the Hall of Fame.

Is that just? I used to think so. Now, I wonder. Are the charges against Bonds or Roger Clemens, who were never suspended for steroid use, any more serious than the charges against the Red Sox and Astros? The parties in question were looking for an edge. Both cheated to get it. Hinch, Luhnow and Cora will be rehired at some point.

Where does that leave Bonds and Clemens?

While we’re at it, Pete Rose has been on baseball’s permanently ineligible list for betting on games in which he played and managed. That makes him ineligible for the HOF. Rose maintains he always bet on his own team. Does that punishment fit the crime?

When you start asking those kind of questions, you realize there aren’t any easy answers. You also realize that will always be a part of baseball’s story.

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