As the Houston Astros scandal has deepened, it’s only grown more upsetting. What began as one executive’s outburst directed toward a group of female reporters ended up engulfing the leadership of the entire franchise in a sign-stealing scandal. And because there’s no ground floor in hell, the conflagration has spread both more widely around Major League Baseball and further into the Astros organization.
Both of those things are worth talking about, but by the end of the week—as rumors swirled that Astros stars José Altuve, Alex Bregman, and others wore buzzers during games to communicate the stolen signs—the question of what this means for the team’s legacy is inescapable.
Major League Baseball found no evidence of wearables, and Altuve denied the allegation that he wore a buzzer during games, releasing a statement through his agent. “I have never worn an electronic device in my performance as a major league player,” he said. The speculation has been fueled by Altuve’s behavior that, at the time, played like a quirk from a quirky guy—after hitting the walk-off home run against the Yankees that punched the team’s ticket to the World Series in 2019, Altuve’s primary concern was that his teammates not tear his jersey—a practice that regularly happens in MLB.
Here's Ken Rosenthal, who broke the news of the Astros cheating scandal, asking Jose Altuve why he was telling teammates not to rip his jersey off after the walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS: pic.twitter.com/xoBGX159QG— Kyle ⚾️ (@Kyle_Kondor) January 16, 2020
It’s possible that some evidence will come out that confirms it, but there’s almost certainly never going to be a way for Altuve or the rest of the Astros to prove a negative here. We know that the Astros were stealing signs, and that Altuve’s behavior around his shirt in 2017 was weird (he had no such compunctions last April). We know that his home/away splits in the playoffs in 2017 were staggering: he batted .472 at Minute Maid Park and .143 on the road (during the regular season, his numbers were consistent irrespective of venue). The possibility that sign-stealing is part of what’s made Altuve so great will likely have adherents for the rest of his career.
That’s a shame, given that he’s a player who embodies the heart and soul of a team, and of a city—the kind of guy who makes us proud to be sports fans. Sure, these are all multimillionaires being paid to play a game, but the best of them inspire us, and reach us on that little-kid level that makes us feel like the players who wear our team’s colors are the good guys. For the past decade, Altuve has been as pure an example of a sports hero.
The scandal taints that idea, probably forever, if evidence emerges that Altuve did make a premeditated decision to wear a device to cheat. Even without that, it’s unlikely that there’ll be people making the argument that Altuve embodies all that’s good about baseball anymore.
But this isn’t just about Altuve, or even just about the Astros. Houston is the organization paying the price for electronic sign-stealing (which is against MLB rules—tracking signs with your naked eye is fine), but they’re hardly the only team to engage in it. The Red Sox were fined in 2017 for the practice, and an unnamed MLB manager told The Athletic that “it’s an issue that permeates the whole league.”
As the speculation about Altuve and the rest of the team spread this week, allegations about other players around Major League Baseball did as well. David Brosius, son of former MLB player and coach Scott Brosius, posted online that one of baseball’s best players, Mike Trout, was using a loophole that allowed him to take human growth hormone. Even the game’s legends aren’t safe, as a former Yankees pitcher claimed on sports radio that Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa engaged in electronic sign-stealing in the eighties. If it’s time to pull José Altuve’s face down from the Mount Rushmore of active Major League Baseball players, it’s probably also time to dynamite the entire facade.
Everything You Need To Know About The Current State Of Major League Baseball As Told By Mean Girls pic.twitter.com/2HrKoY0yJc— Julia (@jquadddddd) January 17, 2020
Fans learned that lesson a few decades ago, during baseball’s “Steroids Era” of the nineties and aughts, when iconic players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and the great Barry Bonds all juiced their way to shattering some of the sport’s longstanding records. Barring new evidence about buzzers or something else that comes out of the chaos that is Major League Baseball in early 2020, the real takeaway of the sign-stealing scandal is a harsh lesson that fans have been learning over and over again for more than a century: Baseball will break your heart.