Monday afternoon, the Major League Baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, handed out the stiffest penalties for in-game misconduct in the sport’s recent history. The guilty party was the Houston Astros, who during their 2017 championship season designed a system of stealing opposing teams’ pitching signs and relaying them to their own hitters. Their means of gathering the data were modern (the team used a high-definition camera to beam images to monitors in the dugout), and their means of dispensing them were old-school (players banged on trash cans in a kind of Morse code). Manfred found that both Houston’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and its manager, A. J. Hinch, knew of the plan and failed to stop it; Lunhow and Hinch were suspended for a year by the MLB and, hours later, fired by the Astros themselves. Manfred also took away the team’s top draft picks in 2020 and 2021 and levied a fine against the organization: $5 million, the largest he’s authorized to impose. (In the face of an ongoing investigation involving the Red Sox manager, Alex Cora, a former Astros coach, using similar techniques during Boston’s 2018 title run, the team fired Cora last night.)
Yesterday morning, ESPN.com’s Jeff Passan reported a growing consensus among rival teams that Houston’s punishment hadn’t gone far enough. The Astros won a World Series, after all, and neither the players nor the team’s owner, Jim Crane, faced substantial penalties. “He got his championship,” an unnamed team president said of Crane to Passan. “He keeps his team. His fine is nothing.” Others were more direct and demanding. Calls for Manfred to revoke the Astros’ championship, including from some players, rose on Twitter. Stephen A. Smith, on ESPN’s First Take, amplified the sentiment: “The title is illegitimate … They should be stripped of their World Series crown.”
The impulse is understandable. Every fan, at some point, has wanted to turn back time to correct an injustice. But taking away a team’s championship is a shortsighted and implausible solution. Seasons and games reside in audiences’ collective memory, and in a pact among observers that they matter absolutely; their finality is the crucial thing. What makes them such potent felt experiences also makes them next to impossible to adjudicate—to fix—after the fact.
This is perhaps one big reason, in an era with no shortage of scandal, American professional sports leagues favor forward-facing punishments. In the case of individual transgression, the logic is simple enough; it’s hard to imagine a coherent procedure by which a league could penalize an entire team for the actions of one or two players. Performance-enhancing-drug policies, to take the most familiar contemporary example, discipline players with future suspensions, not with some forfeiture of past wins. Manny Ramirez retains his historic World Series titles, and Barry Bonds still has his place in the record books. (Both, of course, have nonetheless taken hits to their legacy.)
Even in the face of organizational misconduct, leagues are loath to apply retroactive penalties. In 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals’ scouting director, Chris Correa, was found to have hacked into the internal player database of the Astros; despite the FBI’s involvement and a 46-month prison sentence, the MLB penalized the Cardinals in terms of money and draft picks. The NFL’s punishments of the New England Patriots, for Spygate in 2007 and Deflategate in 2015, similarly involved draft picks, cash, and the short-term suspension of Tom Brady. The first penalty was distressingly light, and the second compensatorily heavy, but both sought to balance out past wrongdoing with future hardship. Talk of revoking championships remained confined to the internet and talking-head TV shows.
The logistics of rewriting seasons would be murky, and leagues’ reasons to avoid doing so are sound. There is value in not altering the record of games already finished; it shores up consumer investment, preserving the in-the-moment import of the event. Institutions that are more willing to rewrite record books—often those overseeing individual or amateur sports—can end up damaging their own relevance and reputation in attempts to clarify history. When the UCI, the organization that oversees international cycling, stripped Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles, it marked the beginning of an era in which champions started to seem conditional, pending eventual drug tests, claims, and counterclaims. The NCAA’s vacating of recent titles—most notably USC’s football championship in 2004, for impermissible benefits to the running back Reggie Bush—scans in large part as an effort to protect its exploitative model of amateurism. “Just watch the comments of the players,” the former USC head coach Pete Carroll said in 2011. “They know who won, who didn’t.”
Yesterday evening, CC Sabathia, the former Yankees pitcher, bemoaned a lost opportunity: In 2017, the Yankees lost a tense seven-game American League Championship Series to the Astros, with their four losses coming in Houston’s camera-equipped home park. “We got cheated out of a team kind of doing something that’s not within the rules of the game,” he said. But he also noted the difficulty of a resolution, saying, “We can’t go back and play the games.” He may have had reason to temper criticisms. Over the years, some fans have cast doubt on the Yankees’ 2009 title, Sabathia’s only championship, citing Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use.
The ubiquity of the call to re-litigate seasons might have something to do with a period of social and political life that feels defined by deceit. But it might also resonate with another recent trend, specific to sports, that peddles the promise of true fairness. The rise of replay review, which has broadened its jurisdiction from overt officiating errors to less clear judgment calls, has trained a generation of fans to see outcomes as less than absolute. If plays are reversed all the time, then why not whole games? When the New Orleans Saints lost last year’s NFC championship game after referees missed an obvious pass-interference penalty, protesters called for the result to be changed. The NFL, of course, refused.
It seems inevitable that the MLB’s current sign-stealing scandal will end in a similar impasse. Just as the fan’s job is to voice displeasure, the league’s is to mete out punishment that doesn’t interfere with the definitive aspect of the games themselves. Houston will surely feel the effects of the penalties. An organization known for its shrewd building through the draft now loses both its best selections and the people who proved adept at using them; the damage to the club’s reputation will be even longer-lasting. In the spring, when the Astros take the field again, their wins will still be tallied, and their banner will still fly. Just as surely, fans in opposing parks will let them know what they think of that.