For as long as sports have been around, athletes have done anything they can to try to get a competitive advantage. However, the line between competition and cheating becomes blurry at times, as the Houston Astros scandal has recently shown us.
First broken by The Athletic, the story has quickly captured the baseball world. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, as well as others in the organization, has admitted that the team has been filming the signals made from opposing catchers, a practice known as stealing signs. Using a camera in center field, the team was able to communicate to the batter what kind of pitch was coming before it was even thrown. He said this had been going on for years, including when the team won the World Series in 2017.
While teams routinely try to read the pitcher to find tips about what pitch they will throw, this felt different. The utilization of technology took out smart, competitive gamesmanship and replaced it with the mantra of cheating. Much in the way the Deflategate, or perhaps a more apt comparison, Spygate, turned the narrative of the NFL against the Patriots, this has the potential to tarnish the legitimacy of the Astros’ victory.
While this news has caught many fans by surprise, notable players such as Aaron Judge and Trevor Bauer appeared relatively unfazed by this news. As the digital age has taken over sports, teams will often have people poring over film, trying to find the subtle nuances in how a pitcher moves when he is throwing a curveball versus a heater. If this is so prevalent in sports, it is only logical that teams would start trying to figure out ways to get live, in the moment pitch calls.
Baseball and cheating have a complicated history. In the late 1990s to early 2000s, jacked superstars crushed countless home runs in pursuit of records. This was the result of the incredibly fun but complicated “steroid era.” As a result, the heroes of this age have been denied their spot in baseball history. This is most noticeable in the Hall of Fame, as no confirmed steroid user has made it into the Hall, despite having comparable numbers to the players already inducted. This is because as fans, we like to feel that we aren’t being cheated. We want our heroes to have done it the right way on the field.
The hypocrisy of the sports fan reaches almost unmatched levels when faced with the question of cheating. I will go to my grave as a Boston sports fan convinced of Big Papi’s clean steroid history and that Brady never deflated the footballs, while simultaneously shunning the accomplishments of Alex Rodriguez. Likewise, I feel cheated by the Astros, despite the high likelihood that my own teams have bent the rules more than a few times.
As fans, we not only like watching others’ accomplishments be marred by cheating, we relish it. Like we have the childlike tendency to blame referees for our losses, nothing brings us pleasure quite like seeing a team we hate break rules and get caught.
What fans like myself do not appreciate is that these micro-advantages barely change the tide of the game. You don’t need a camera to know that Aroldis Chapman’s favorite pitch is his heater, and yet he is still virtually unhittable. Small differences in the air of a football, the pine tar on the bat, or the recording of the pitcher are just examples of trying to get a small competitive advantage. This is not the Black Sox of the early 1900s, betting against themselves to make money; instead, these are athletes doing anything to propel their team to victory. In the end, you still need to be able to hit a fastball out of the park by putting the bat on the ball.
So where does this all leave us? A muddled case of a small-market franchise cheating to get a competitive advantage in a sport that makes it very difficult for small-market clubs to compete.
Cheating will never be eliminated from sports. Only catching a small percentage of the cheaters misleads fans into believing the integrity of the game is truly compromised. Why don’t we just be honest? Let everyone take steroids, put cameras all over the stadium, dare a juiced-up pitcher to fire a 105-mile-an-hour fastball past the behemoth batter who knows it is coming. Let us quit our fairytale world, and accept the reality that in sports, everyone fights for the smallest advantage they can get, and maybe we can sit back and just enjoy the show.
John Vernaglia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.