Major League Baseball has been around for more than a century, and it’s endured some major hits to its reputation since the league’s inception in the early 1900s. Two of the most notable scandals in league history are the Black Sox scandal and the steroids era, both of which served as giant black marks on the league’s reputation. The Black Sox scandal occurred in 1919, when a few members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to throw that year’s World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for cash.
More recently, the league suffered through the steroids era, which has no defined start and end date but generally includes much of the 1990s and 2000s. During this period, use of banned performance-enhancing drugs was rampant across baseball. Several of the game’s notable stars during this time were linked to the use of steroids, including Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.
Now, baseball is under attack again, with the league’s most recent scandal rocking the sport and likely to wind up among the Black Sox scandal and the steroids era as a notable black mark in the league’s history. In late 2019, the sporting news site The Athletic first broke news that the Houston Astros, who won the World Series in 2017 and reached the championship series again two years later, had implemented a sign-stealing system for much of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The key source in the breaking of the story was pitcher Mike Fiers, who was on the Astros’ roster in 2017.
On its face, sign stealing in baseball isn’t inherently illegal and has long been considered part of the game. The act of observing, decoding and relaying the opposing catcher’s signs for his pitcher is considered somewhat of an art form by many in baseball circles. The difference in this situation is that the Astros used technology to steal signs illegally rather than decoding signs naturally during the course of the game. Once the signs were decoded, the team relayed them to the batter through a couple different means, most notably by banging a trash can to indicate breaking balls; no banging would subsequently indicate a fastball.
The Astros aren’t the only team implicated in the scandal — the Boston Red Sox are also under MLB investigation and accusations have been levied against a few other teams — but they have undoubtedly drawn the majority of ire from players, journalists and fans. Caelan Debban, a junior broadcasting and sports media and communication major, expressed surprise that the Astros managed to avoid being caught for so long. Francis Forte, a junior journalism and sports media and communication major, suggested the Astros’ success was a key factor in the amount of backlash the organization received.
Forte said he thought the Astros’ scandal was different from the Black Sox and steroid scandals before it; regardless, it seems likely that the Astros’ cheating will carve out a permanent home in the annals of baseball history.