Authors: Ben Donahue
8665 N. Farmdale Street
Spokane, WA 99208
Ben Donahue has worked for over 25 years in sports at the k-12, college, and professional levels. His experience includes athletic director, game-day operations and guest relations, football operations, coach, and baseball scout. Currently, he is a private-school teacher and contributing writer for brownsnation.com and profootballhistory.com
This study used historical research methods to assess how Major League Baseball (MLB) disciplined the Houston Astros in response to the cheating scandal that surfaced in 2019. Furthermore, this study examined how the public reacted to MLB’s sanctions imposed on the Astros and how those sanctions affected public trust (including media and fans). The author researched several responses from the national media and baseball fans that were made during the MLB investigation and following the league’s publicity of the selected disciplinary actions. After interpreting the public statements from various media reports, the author coded the responses into specific themes and then analyzed and interpreted the themes. This analysis was used to better understand how and why the scandal happened in the first place and the public’s visceral reaction to it.
The results of the study show that, while cheating in baseball has long been recognized with a wink by MLB insiders; media and fans have a harsh and negative reaction to cheating. Key to these reactions is how cheating ruins the integrity of the game, how the guilty player or team benefited from their deceptive practices, how guilty parties were disciplined, and if the event was likely to happen again based on how the action was disciplined. The conclusions of this study suggest that MLB administrators should invoke harsher penalties on their players, coaches, and teams who engage in willful deceit. The consequences of lighter penalties run the risk of public alienation and loss of revenue. The applications of this study can be used by other sports organizations as a guide on how to resolve sensitive matters while upholding the integrity of the sport and appeasing their fan base.
Key Words: Major League Baseball, Houston Astros, cheating, historical research, interpretation, meaning of events
In 2017, the Houston Astros won the World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The victory was a boon for the team as well as the city of Houston since the Astros had recently been mired in mediocrity. The previous two seasons had been an improvement for Houston and 2017 was the end of a long climb to return to the pinnacle of the sport. Even more astounding than the Astros’ win was that the event was predicted by Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter in 2014. (15) Savvy drafting, free agents’ signings, and roster management by the Astros front office during the following three seasons are what likely led to Reiter’s prediction coming true.
In November 2019 writers from The Athletic published a story alleging that the Houston Astros had engaged in sign-stealing tactics for years (17). Former pitcher Mike Fiers went on record telling the writers how the team used an elaborate system to steal signs from the opposing team using a center field camera. The camera recorded the signals sent by the opposing catcher to his pitcher along with the pitcher’s response (17). The feed from that camera was sent to the tunnel behind the dugout of the Astros in Minute Maid Park. Then, an Astros player or staff member would bang on a trash can to signal specific pitches to the Houston batter preparing to hit (17). The Athletic article also quoted several unnamed sources who confirmed the scheme detailed by Fiers. The following day after the article appeared, Major League Baseball (MLB) launched an investigation with Houston’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, announcing that the organization would cooperate fully.
It is no secret that MLB has a history of sign stealing, although the behavior has never been investigated or sanctioned at the league level until a 2017 incident with the Boston Red Sox. In fact, members of the media have suggested sign stealing is an art form with a long history of being entrenched in the game. For example, a New York Times article noted,
“Stealing signs is something of an art form in baseball, and is tolerated, even admired, as long as teams do not use binoculars or electronics on the field to try to gain an advantage.” (25)
The writer clearly articulates that as long as teams did not use technology to steal signs, the league has historically looked the other way. In fact, before the 2001 season, MLB issued a memo stating that teams cannot use electronic equipment to communicate with each other during games, especially for the purpose of stealing signs (25). The memo was likely a response to the September incident when the Boston Red Sox were fined for using smartwatches to relay sign signals to teammates and MLB commissioner Rob Manfred promised harsher penalties for subsequent violators (25).
The Astros went a step further than the Red Sox and used a camera that had its feed sent electronically to the Astros dugout. This fact was the impetus of MLB’s investigation into the Astros. The investigation was a relief to several MLB teams that had accused Houston of stealing signs for years. However, as the investigation continued, several current Astros players were either silent about the allegations or denied having knowledge of the scheme.
After two months of interviews, fact-checking, and research, Manfred and MLB announced their findings. Some highlights of the findings included the confirmation that Houston had, in fact, used technology to help them steal signs in 2017 (17). Furthermore, more evidence came to light that Astros players and coaches used other methods of sign stealing in 2018 as well (17). Manfred noted that the team appeared to have stopped the scheme sometime in 2018 and that there was no evidence to support cheating in 2019 (17). After the announcement of the investigation findings, Manfred announced the punishments which included the Astros being fined $5 million, the maximum allowed by the MLB constitution, and forced to forfeit their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021 (17). In addition, Luhnow and team manager A.J. Hinch was suspended for the entire 2020 season, including the playoffs (17). Hinch’s penalty was one of the harshest punishments in MLB history. Surprisingly, none of the Astros players were punished because MLB gave them immunity in exchange for their testimony (17). Manfred later explained that immunity was given because MLB did not believe it could win grievances from the players union if they tried to discipline the players (19). He further elaborated that it was “difficult and impractical” to determine degrees of culpability by players due to the sheer number of players involved (9). He believed the responsibility for the scheme and the actions by the Astros players fell solely on Luhnow and Hinch, saying that the general manager and field manager are responsible for “ensuring that the players both understand the rules and adhere to them” (9). Not long after the penalties were handed down by MLB to Luhnow and Hinch, Astros owner Jim Crane fired both men (17).
MLB’s findings and subsequent penalties received backlash from the media, fans, and a majority of the players in MLB. They felt that most, if not all, of the Astros players were given little more than a stern warning and slap on the wrist (1). As public resentment reached fever pitch, Manfred tried to justify baseball’s decision stating,
“I understand when people say the players should have been punished. I understand why people feel that way, because [the Astros] did not do the right thing,” Manfred also stated. “In [a] perfect world, if I could have found all the facts without granting immunity, I would have done that. . . . (19)
The purpose of this research was to paper examine how the public responded to MLB’s investigation and findings. Additionally, the research explored how trust in MLB and the Astros has continued to erode among fans since.
Historical researchwas used to study the events, responses, and consequences of the Astros cheating scandal. Historical research examines an event, or series of events, and attempts to make sense of the cause(s) (8). At its core, historical research deals with the meaning of events (8). It is not simply a gathering of facts and subsequent organization into a sequence. Rather, historical research involves the systematic interpretation of the facts of an event(s) (8). Furthermore, the task of the researcher is not merely to describe what events took place but to present a factually supported rationale to suggest how and why they may have happened (8). The research herein employs a qualitative analysis using primary resources that included newspaper and online articles as well as interviews of people associated with the Astros cheating scandal. The author has also methodically identified (explicitly and concretely) the assumptions that have guided the interpretations of data (8). Therefore, this historical research provides an analysis and interpretation of specific statements from MLB, the Astros, media, and fans following the sign-stealing scandal and subsequent MLB ruling that ignited distrust among the public.
The following research questions used for this study:
What was the public’s (including fans and media) reaction to the MLB discipline decision?
How have fans continued to respond to the Astros after the MLB investigation and decision?
The author researched, analyzed, interpreted, and assessed the meaning of the media and the public’s responses to MLB’s discipline of the Astros cheating scandal. First, the author searched for newspaper and online articles detailing the decision-making MLB used to discipline the Astros. These articles related to how and why MLB executives arrived at their discipline decisions. Second, the author searched for responses to MLB’s discipline decision made by media and baseball fans. These articles related to the public’s reaction specifically toward the MLB’s ruling in their investigation. Third, the author searched for public responses toward the Houston Astros organization based on the aftermath of the MLB ruling and from the organization’s continued success as a franchise. These articles related to the public’s reaction specifically toward the Astros success in the 2021 postseason. It is evident that fan response to the Astros’ 2021 success has carried over from the 2019 scandal. When analyzing the public’s reaction to the events related to 2019, the author continually reflected on the meaning of events as related to historical research. When interpreting the statements of the public about the events, the author aimed to present a factually supported rationale to suggest how and why the public responded to the scandal and MLB’s decision.
Essentially, the author was interested in making sense of how both the Astros cheating scheme and MLB’s discipline of the team led to a distrust of both organizations by the media and the public. The author’s interpretation of fan and media reactions extracted from published material was the basis for developing a rationale to explain why the public responded the way they did.
Public reaction to MLB’s decision
The first research question inquired about the public reaction to the MLB discipline decision. The results herein include an interpretive analysis of public responses from two primary stakeholder groups: the media and the fans.
Media reaction to MLB’s decision
In interpreting the media’s reaction to the MLB decision, it is initially important to acknowledge the ongoing debate on the media and its role in the public domain. For decades, researchers have questioned whether the media should be considered part of the “public” (3). For well over a century, the media has been viewed as an extension of the public’s voice (3). Specifically, as the population of communities grew, the media (in the form of newspapers initially) were considered the fourth estate (12). As a common definition, the fourth estate refers to the news media (12). More recently, the terminology has evolved to refer to new media under titles such as ‘Networked Fourth Estate,’ which differs from the traditional ‘press’ since it includes the internet and a diverse set of participants, potentially “everyone” who has an ability to text, tweet, or express their views on a platform of choice. (12). Usually referenced when dealing with politics, it has been argued that the media has long been trusted as the primary source of news and information for the public who have relied on journalists to be their voice and ears in important matters (12). In other words, the media has acted as representatives to speak on the public’s behalf (12). Understandably, there has been continued debate about media bias and whether there is a wide enough range of opinions to adequately represent the public’s opinion (12). Some studies have found that interpersonal communication (fan reaction in this particular study) drives public opinion and, therefore, the media (6). Furthermore, researchers have found that discussion of topics at the individual level interacts with media content at the contextual level to fuel perceptions of social reality (6). In other words, do fans and the media have similar viewpoints irrespective of the other or because of the other? Does the media’s influence of an opinion drive personal opinion to form social perceptions and communication? Regardless, according to Dahlgren (1995), the media still acts as the public’s voice and is, therefore, termed as part of the public (3).
Since the media has been established in research as part of the public, the author used numerous examples of how the media disagreed with MLB’s discipline of the Astros. Furthermore, the media also offered suggestions to MLB on how it should have properly disciplined the Astros to regain public trust.
- “A three-year ban for any 2017 Astro — hitter or pitcher — from appearing in the All-Star Game. “ (20)
- “No member of the 2017 Astros should ever receive a postseason share again.” (20)
- “Houston does not get to host the All-Star Game for the next 15 years.” (20)
- “Let the public decide.” (1)
- “Loss of draft picks, specifically first-rounders, for at least two years.” (4)
- “Use fines as a deterrent. Don’t be afraid to fine a team $25 million for cheating.” (4)
- “Take away their right to play in the postseason for at least multiple years.” (4)
- Limits on clubhouse/dugout access (11)
- Limit tv/phone use during games (11)
- Apologize for not acting sooner (18)
- Strip Houston of their World Series title (18)
- Make a definitive plan to prevent similar incidents (18)
- Be more fan-friendly to win fans back (18)
The interpretation and meaning making of the responses from the media regarding MLB’s discipline of the Astros are clear. MLB did not do nearly enough to prevent any team, let alone the Astros, from participating in future cheating opportunities. A deeper dive into any of the referenced articles demonstrates that each media member was shocked at how shallow MLB’s discipline of the team was. The above media comments are only a partial list of ideas provided for better means to deter future cheaters as well as how MLB should have disciplined Houston in the aftermath. Each writer also offered their take on why MLB did not attempt, specifically, to discipline the Astros players involved in the scandal. The immunity deal was met with derision and scoff by the media (11). Additionally, a number of writers outlined how MLB has successfully won grievances against the players union in the past (4). These examples expressed as a means to dismiss Manfred’s claim that MLB would be limited in how they could discipline Astros players.
It is the author’s contention that the media, acting on the public’s behalf, was expressing how trust was lost in MLB as the governing body in its investigation of the Astros. The reactions of the media suggest that public trust in MLB could have improved if the league had done more to deter future cheaters and used Houston as an example. A strong message to the Astros in the form of heavier penalties would have shown the public that MLB was serious in its attempt to remove cheating in the game of baseball. Instead, the ruling did just the opposite.
Fan reactions to MLB’s decision
After Manfred announced his decisions regarding MLB’s discipline of the Astros, fans across the nation became outraged. Fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers were particularly upset because Houston had defeated the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series. It was suggested that the Dodgers should have been retroactively awarded the 2017 title because the Astros were found to have cheated during the 2017 season (4). However, MLB did not honor the request. The author found an abundance of articles with fan reactions that expressed their anger toward MLB’s lack of discipline for the grievous infractions as well as toward the Astros themselves. In a sense, fan reactions to the Astros could be interpreted as an extension of their disdain for MLB.
- “I’ve not yet seen anything that I can point to in my mind that shows they (Astros) are taking full responsibility from a leadership standpoint,” Schreiber said. (21)
- “From a city standpoint, there’s a bit of a pregnant pause of embarrassment,” Schreiber said. (21)
- “Cheaters,” Lucchesi screamed at the visiting Houston Astros. (5)
- “I’ve been patiently waiting a long time for this night,” he said after delivering a full-throated howl at Altuve, one of many profanities delivered by fans in the less-than-PG environment. (5)
- “I’m finally letting it out. All Dodger fans needed this.” (5)
- It’s baffling to hear the words “sorry for what happened ” when literally zero details have been shared by the Astros organization, or its players, on the extent of what actually happened. (23)
- “All of this now puts MLB under a huge cloud of speculation, starting in 2020.” (23).
The interpretation of these quotes are obvious examples of disdain fans have for Houston as well as Major League Baseball as a result of lax and misguided disciplinary measures. It was not enough that MLB did not penalize the Astros players, MLB did not take away Houston’s 2017 world title or playoff victories. Instead, the Astros players were allowed to continue playing (and winning) despite the scandal. The author noted the visceral quotes from many of the fans. Most notably, a number of baseball fans feel cheated and lack trust in MLB for now or the foreseeable future (23). Since they have not been able to address MLB or the Astros personally, the fans have used the media to show their disdain and/or show up to Astros games with the intent to heckle and berate Houston (23). As with the reactions from the national media, baseball fans felt slighted and cheated by how little MLB disciplined the Astros. Therefore, their trust in MLB as an organization has been tainted.
Fans continued response to the Astros
The second research question explored the continued response of fans in the aftermath of the MLB investigation of the sign-stealing infractions and subsequent disciplinary decisions.
Since MLB’s ruling, the Astros continued to be vilified and disparaged in the media and by fans (23). Many of the same Astros players from 2017 have stayed in Houston and the franchise has continued to win. From 2018 to 2021, the Astros qualified for the playoffs and, in 2019 and 2021, the team returned to the World Series. However, there was some public vindication after Houston lost both series to the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves respectively.
As recently as 2021, opposing fans attending Astros games have hurled insults and other epithets at the Houston players (23). Whenever Houston plays the Dodgers in Los Angeles, Dodger fans still become incensed and show up in force to jeer at Astros players (5). Current Houston manager Dusty Baker has taken notice and has shared his displeasure with the fans’ reaction to the media.
“You can tell the amount of hostility and the amount of hatred in the stands,” Astros manager Dusty Baker has said. “How many in the stands have never done anything wrong in their life? We paid the price for it. How many people have not cheated on a test or whatever at some point in time?” (2).
Baker’s reaction to baseball fans has not helped. As the Astros advanced, and ultimately made the 2021 World Series, baseball fans continued to object to their continued success (5). Some media members, although still upset by MLB’s lack of discipline of the Astros, have appeared resigned to the fact that Houston continues to win (13). However, baseball fans attending Astros games can be spotted wearing T-shirts that read “Houston Trashstros” or the word “Cheaters!” set over the Astros star logo (5).
Since MLB did not punish the Astros players involved in the cheating scandal, fans do not believe that Houston has changed (1). If anything, it can be surmised that fans of opposing teams believe the same behavior can be repeated. It is clear to the author that Manfred did not do nearly enough to dissuade current Astros players, or players from other teams, to find ways to find a competitive advantage that skirts MLB rules. Therefore, fans have shown that their faith and trust in MLB and Houston as a franchise has been tarnished. It is plausible to believe that nothing short of the Astros being stripped of their 2017 world title (at the very least) will appease the fan base.
Psychologists frequently counsel patients on how to regain trust after it has been broken. A cursory look at the methods psychologists use to rebuild trust includes the following:
1-Listen to the other person’s anger and hurt feelings
2-Empathize with them
3-Ask what is needed to prevent a recurrence
4-Take full responsibility for your actions. Don’t sidestep the issue or try to shift blame to the other person
5-Make a heartfelt apology expressing your regret
6-Continue to have open and honest communication (7, 14)
With regard to the media and MLB fan base, it can be argued that Manfred and the Astros did not adhere to any of the steps suggested by psychologists. Reviewing the responses by the media regarding how MLB should have disciplined the Astros, it is clear that MLB ignored the first three steps. Manfred’s explanation for why MLB did not discipline Astros players went against the fourth step. Some Astros players, as well as Houston owner Jim Crane, did apologize initially, but MLB’s ruling appeared to undo any meaning attached to the apologies (10). Furthermore, one only needs to read Dusty Baker’s statement to see this condition has not been met. Also, since the Astros have continued to win with the same core group of players as in 2017, it is surmised by the author that the public does not feel there is open and honest communication on behalf of MLB.
Historical research asks the researcher to speculate about possible cause-and-effect relationships among events and then to draw inferences about the effect of the events (8). Contemplating how the media and fans reacted to MLB’s Astros ruling, as well as subsequent treatment of the Astros by baseball fans, it is clear to the researcher that MLB has lost public trust. The cause of the distrust was MLB not disciplining Houston players to an extent that they will be deterred from similar actions in the future. The effect of the league’s disciplinary decision has been a belief among fans that MLB does not intend to curb cheating in baseball. While fans will continue to visit the ballpark and spend money to watch professional baseball, MLB has lost a degree of credibility in terms of trusting that they will appropriately discipline players for egregious practices. Whether MLB and the Astros can ever regain public trust remains to be seen.
When the Houston Astros cheating scandal was first exposed, MLB fans expected specific discipline by MLB leaders including its commissioner, Robert Manfred. The punishments, according to the fans and media, should have been heavy and long-lasting. At the very least, MLB’s discipline of Houston should have deterred future teams from also finding shortcuts to winning. When the commissioner failed to deliver a punishment desired by fans, the trust level toward MLB leadership was severely damaged. Furthermore, the core group of Astros players stayed together and kept winning for the next several years which only exasperated public anger. Now, MLB fans demonstrate their disdain for not only the Astros but MLB itself by taunting and jeering Houston at every opportunity. This media and public reaction should serve as a lesson to MLB and other sports organizations to treat all disciplinary matters of players and staff judiciously. As the Astros’ case has shown, failure to do so could have long-lasting negative ramifications for any sports organization.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
Historical research has been conducted in the past on various aspects of sports as well as players and coaches. For the purpose of this article, it is hoped that MLB, as well as other sports organizations, can learn from the mistakes made by professional baseball in the manner that the Astros were disciplined for the sign-stealing saga. In April of 2022, MLB did take a small step in the right direction by approving the use of PitchCom. The PitchCom device eliminates the need for catchers to send finger signals to pitchers. Instead, the electronic device includes a push-button transmitter, worn on the catcher’s glove-side wrist, that sends the desired type of pitch to bone-conduction earpieces inside the caps of the pitcher and any three other players the team designates (24). It is hoped that PitchCom will eliminate the temptation to steal signs in the future. Although PitchCom is a start, sports fans expect that their favorite teams and players, as well as opponents, will adhere to the rules of the sport they play. If not, fans also expect that the governing body of the sport will respond swiftly and justly. Failure to do so may result in the loss of fan trust in the sport and cause doubt to creep into any future disciplinary action or decision made by the sport’s governing body. Should this doubt continue unabated, the results can likely lead to lower fan attendance, loss of revenue, condemnation by the media, and strained relations with the public.
While valid historical research methods were employed, the preparation and interpretation of the data represents the viewpoints of the author and are not an official position of the United States Sports Academy.
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