Houston only heightened the controversy in October, when a team executive appeared to gloat about the signing to a group of female reporters, at least one of whom was wearing a ribbon to raise awareness of domestic violence. (Ironically, the incident occurred after a playoff game in which Osuna gave up a late game-tying home run to the New York Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu, threatening the Astros’ eventual trip to the World Series.) That, too, was part of the story of the 2010s: The league and those around it debated the efficacy of policies toward players’ off-field transgressions as part of a conversation about the trade-offs between the ruthless pursuit of success and the game’s underlying humanity.
The sign-stealing scandal recasts the Astros’ decade in a harsher light, underscoring their missteps and calling into question their successes. What once looked like a triumph of player development and a validation of the deepest tank job the league has ever seen is now swamped by a team-wide plot to violate MLB’s rules. Just as Spygate and Deflategate cast shadows over the New England Patriots’ dynasty, the Astros’ 2017 title will forever be suspect—especially given that Houston had to edge out two teams in hard-fought seven-game series to win their 2017 title.
Just as Barry Bonds’s home-run records and MVP awards are arguably tainted by allegations of performance-enhancing-drug use, there will be questions about whether the team’s sign stealing gave Altuve the edge he needed to beat out the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge for 2017’s American League MVP award. Even once seemingly benign threads, such as a 2017 story about the Astros shifting the angles of their TV cameras, look sinister with the revelation that those changes were key to their illicit activities.
But because the team so thoroughly typified baseball’s 2010s, the scandal has deeper ramifications. The Astros’ winning seemed to vindicate the controversial, decade-defining strategies they employed to get there, especially their apparent commitment to tanking. Article after article heralded how their decision to bottom out ultimately led to their coronation, memorably encapsulated in the juxtaposition of two Sports Illustrated cover stories: The first, from 2014, mused that the outfielder George Springer, drafted as Houston approached its nadir in 2011, could one day lead the team to glory and become the 2017 World Series MVP; the latter, from 2017, celebrated the prediction coming true. The Astros’ success was even cited to give succor to other fan bases wondering why their teams seemed to be taking the same path.
The same will no doubt hold true for the other tactics the team employed. The edges the Astros obtained on offense by employing advanced statistical analyses and tinkering with how hitters swung the bat are now arguably inextricable from the edge they gained by filming opposing pitchers and banging on trash cans. That’s not to mention the ever-present possibility that the scheme could be merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the prevalence of sign stealing within MLB or other unfair tactics the Astros may have used to gain an advantage.