On August 4, 2017, the Astros held a 3-2 lead against the Toronto Blue Jays as they headed into the fourth inning of their home game. Then, as Blue Jays relief pitcher Mike Bolsinger took the mound, the Astros’ bats lit up.
The McKinney North graduate—who played a year of college ball at Grayson County College before transferring to Arkansas—pitched one of the worst innings of his career that day: Bolsinger gave up a home run, a double, two singles, and three walks before ending the inning with the Blue Jays down 12-2. The entire starting lineup of the Astros ended up on base in that inning. Houston went on to win the game with sixteen runs, and the next day, Bolsinger was removed from the Blue Jays’ active roster. The bottom of the fourth would be the last inning of Major League Baseball he ever pitched.
Also during that game, having stolen signs with digital technology, Astros players and coaches banged on a trash can 54 times to communicate to batters what pitch was coming—more than any other game the Astros played in 2017, according to Astros fan Tony Adams, who watched and logged more than 8,200 pitches after the team’s cheating scandal broke in November.
At the time, the Astros’ magical fourth inning was heralded as a story of resilience. Star infielder José Altuve was out of the game, the team was coming off a three-game losing streak, and the playoffs were approaching. The Houston Chronicle report of the fourth inning praised the team for its roster construction. “The offensive clinic that ensued was a testament to the team’s immense position player depth,” it read. There was no way, of course, that anyone watching the scrappy team of underdogs—representing a beleaguered city which, at the time, had been grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey—would have guessed that they succeeded because they had used hidden cameras to capture and relay the visiting team’s signs, and knew the pitches he’d be throwing before they left his hand.
On Monday, Bolsinger announced a lawsuit against the Astros, seeking unspecified restitution for the damage the inning allegedly did to his career, as well as for the team to forfeit its $31 million in bonuses for its World Series trophy (which the suit specifies would go toward charities for children and retired ballplayers). There’s a good analysis of the suit’s prospects over at Sports Illustrated, which notes both that Bolsinger—a journeyman whose struggles in the summer of 2017 began before the game against the Astros—may not have continued his career beyond that season anyway, and that the discovery process in a lawsuit might be unfavorable for the Astros and Major League Baseball. Both are eager to put the scandal behind them.
— Houston Astros (@astros) February 11, 2020
To that end, the Astros hired seventy-year-old Dusty Baker as their manager last month. It’s a good move, at least from a PR standpoint. Baker, who led the Giants, Cubs, and Reds over his nearly thirty-year career as a manager, is a legend of the game, and someone whose old-school approach to baseball is on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from the McKinsey-fied, analytics-rooted, high-finance approach that the Astros exemplified under the previous regime.
I’m not about to wax poetic about the simple joys of baseball suddenly feeling tainted, but the fact that the game was rigged feels very of-the-moment in 2020. Baseball is rigged, and the Astros’ World Series triumph is tainted. Deborah Dugan, the former CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, recently filed a lawsuit against her previous employer that noted, among other things, that the Grammys were rife with “irregularities and conflict.” No witnesses were called in the Senate impeachment trial because witnesses weren’t going to change anyone’s mind. The messiness of the recent Iowa caucuses feels rigged, even to the people whose favored candidate won. Donald Trump rose to the presidency, in part, by convincing his voters that the system was rigged against them. Bernie Sanders did well in the first two Democratic nominating contests, and leads in the polls, by talking about a system rigged in favor of billionaires.
Should baseball feel like a relief from all of that? Sure—but there’s big money behind it, just like there is behind politics, the Grammys, social media algorithms, and every other system that feels like it’s set up to work in favor of powerful peoples’ interests. So why would baseball be an objective place, one where a journeyman pitcher from North Texas can pull out a good inning against a team that’s built a system outside of the rules so they could win more?
On Thursday, Astros owner Jim Crane faced reporters to apologize for the scandal—but his apology refused to address any of these concerns. Asked if he believed the sign-stealing impacted the game, he said that it didn’t, and reminded reporters, “We won the World Series.” When pressed by ESPN’s Marly Rivera on what he was apologizing for, if sign-stealing didn’t provide an advantage to his hitters, he said simply, “We’re apologizing because we broke the rules,” and said the rules the team broke “could possibly not” impact competition, before being ushered off the stage. He sounded, mostly, like someone who wanted to avoid admitting anything specific while being sued.
"So then what are you guys apologizing for?"
"We're apologizing because we broke the rules."
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) February 13, 2020
The idea that sign-stealing isn’t an advantage to the hitter is absurd. If it didn’t create a competitive advantage, the Astros wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to create and conceal a system that was banned by Major League Baseball. And whatever happens to Bolsinger in his lawsuit, the fact that he’s suing at all serves as a reminder that, if a system is rigged in favor of somebody, that means that, by definition, it’s also rigged against someone. The Astros’ cheating scandal isn’t an example of an overexuberant team that just happened to break a league rule on their way to the World Series—it’s also a story about many people’s signs getting stolen, who couldn’t figure out why it took them so many batters to get a simple out, who lost the confidence of their managers (or who lost confidence in themselves), and had careers they’d worked their whole lives for cut short.
While Crane’s responses may not strike the right note of humility and contrition, the fact that he faced reporters and offered an apology is further evidence that the Astros are very ready to move on from the scandal. Dusty Baker is coming to town, after all, and he’s always seemed like the type of guy who would rather swallow an entire box of toothpicks than win in a manner that’s less than 100 percent honest. Their fans want to believe that every team does this (and they might, at least to some extent!), and that, in the grand scheme of things, a scandal about a few stolen signs doesn’t really matter. But if you’re the person on the receiving end of a system that’s rigged against you, it sure as hell does.