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Tue, Jan. 28

Kobritz: Heads could roll in Astros cheating scandal
BEYOND THE LINES

During last month’s General Managers meetings, Jeff Luhnow of the Houston Astros was reportedly shunned by his fellow GM’s. For good reason.

Rumors have been circulating for years that the Astros were stealing the signs of opposing teams. That wouldn’t normally create a stir as sign stealing has long been an accepted part of the game of baseball. The most accomplished sign-stealers mix art and science in an effort to determine what the hand signals and body movements of opposing players, coaches and managers really mean.

Although sign stealing is legal, using artificial means to do so is not. What Houston allegedly – if we can use that adjective, given the number of first-hand accounts by former players describing the team’s actions - did, goes against specific, written rules and makes a mockery of the game.

The team reportedly used hidden cameras, Band-Aid-like wearable stickers, earpieces, pitch-picking algorithms and other illegal methods to gain an advantage. Opponents have reported hearing strange noises – including whistles – during games, believed to be the means by which ill-gotten information was communicated to players on the field.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has promised a thorough investigation going back at least three years, which covers the team’s two World Series appearances and one title. If the complaints are verified, punishment could include steep fines, loss of draft picks and reductions in draft and international signing money. Unfortunately, all those options would punish many innocent current and future players and staff.

What Manfred should do is banish those found responsible for the reprehensible behavior – for life. He imposed the “nuclear option” twice before, both in 2017, against executives Chris Correa and John Coppolella. Correa, the scouting director for the St. Louis Cardinals, and ironically a former colleague of Luhnow’s, was permanently banned for hacking into the Astros scouting database in an attempt to gain a competitive edge in scouting.

Manfred banned Coppolella, former general manager of the Atlanta Braves, for circumventing MLB rules regarding the signing of international free agents. Neither of those instances had a direct impact on the outcome of a game, unlike the facts unfolding in the Astros case.

If the Astros were engaged in illegal activity, it’s difficult to believe Luhnow and others didn’t know about it. If they did, they should be banned for life, like the eight members of the 1919 White Sox who conspired with gamblers to throw that year’s World Series.

Why would Houston, arguably the best team in baseball the past three years, resort to illegal means to steal signs? We may never know, but one theory suggests the sports trend of hiring technocrats - executives schooled in math and analytics who never played the game, a group that includes Correa, Luhnow and most of the Astros’ management team - has led to a lack of respect for the game itself. Any advantage, by whatever means, can be justified.

Whether the theory is true or merely jealous criticism leveled by “baseball men,” the Astros have left a stain on their team and the game that won’t easily be erased.

Jordan Kobritz is a non-practicing attorney and CPA, former Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached by email at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.

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