Column: Nekrasov’s Notebook

By now, the fact that the Houston Astros cheated their way to a World Series title is old news. 

The sign stealing allegations against the Astros have rocked the world of baseball like never before. Fines and suspensions have been handed down, condemnations issued and reputations ruined.

The Astros won their World Series title in 2017 by stealing signs to gain an advantage over opposition pitchers – and many fans will be satisfied by nothing less than the MLB stripping away that World Series title. 

But with the ruling by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred Jan. 13, many players and fans have been left frustrated. According to The Athletic, the MLB handed the Astros a $5 million fine, the forfeit of first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021 and suspensions to manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. 

However, the punishments did not stop with the league. The Astros fired Hinch and Luhnow after the MLB ruling. The Boston Red Sox fired Alex Cora, their manager of two years who won them a World Series but also worked as the bench coach for the Astros during their title run. And lastly, the Mets fired their newly appointment manager Carlos Beltran, the only investigated Astros player from 2017. 

But the Astros World Series title still stands on the records.

The saga is essentially over. But it shouldn’t be. 

Cheating in sports is nothing new. Low-grade “cheating” is an accepted part of most sports (such as tactical fouls in soccer and basketball). These tactics exploit the system, and so fans accept them as just another part of the game. 

When cheating breaks the sports system itself,  however, outrage floods the sports world. 

Understanding why cheating in sports rankles with us so deeply requires thinking deeper about the nature of sports. 

From an objective perspective, there’s no inherent reason for sports to exist. Every sport exists because as humans we’ve decided that a set of rules is going to define it.

In soccer, goals are incredibly hard to score, so games often feel like fast-paced chess matches. The stress of 90 minutes of non-stop action combined with the unbridled energy after a goal makes soccer unique – and fans all over the world love it as a result. 

In baseball, on the other hand, the primary challenge comes from the mental matchup between pitchers and batter. Pitchers have spent hours honing their craft to outwit batters throughout the sport’s long history, and batters develop their reactions and anticipating skills in response. 

Rules make sports unique – and that’s why cheating ruins sports.

In the case of the Astros, stealing signs took away the guesswork and anticipation for batters and put opposing pitchers at an unfair disadvantage – one the
Astros exploited. 

As Jayson Stark argues in an editorial for The Athletic, the practical challenges of removing the Astros World Series win would have been too high for the MLB to deal with. 

But letting the Astros keep it sets a dangerous precedent that teams can win by any means necessary and then deal with the consequences afterward. The spectacle of sports becomes meaningless when cheating goes unpunished. 

Sports are like a bubble. As long as we protect the bubble, as long as competitors play within the rules, we have a world of entertainment to enjoy. But the minute that teams start to value winning over integrity, our artificial entertainment world, the bubble we’ve created, pops.  

That’s what the Astros did.  By stealing signs, they didn’t just rob teams of a fair game and win a title they should never have won – they broke sports. 

They popped the bubble. 

And the MLB should have taken a much harder look at the situation before letting the Astros off the hook. 

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