The grumbling around the game was thick after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred rendered discipline in the Houston Astros' sign-stealing case Monday, because while two individuals got hammered, the institution that stood to glean enormous benefit from the systemic illicit behavior was mostly left untouched, the players who participated left unscathed.
The Astros are still 2017 World Series champions, a title won with cheating. They still possess the financial benefit from their on-field success -- the additional revenue pulled in during and after October runs, with the dollar magnets attached to ratings, sponsorships, memorabilia, swag and the consumer enthusiasm that spilled over into the following seasons.
The $5 million fine of the franchise, the most allowed under the rules, is inconsequential -- and, as one staffer noted, more than offset by the salaries of manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow that won't be paid. The loss of two draft picks in each of the next two years is mitigated by Houston's stature in the standings: The Astros will pick near the back of each round. There is sentiment in the sport that the commissioner should've taken at least one more step to affect the Astros' ability to compete and stripped Houston's spending power in the upcoming international signing market. Even after the loss of Hinch, the Astros will move ahead as favorites to win the AL West again.
In the minds of a lot of peers around the sport, that's not enough to offset the damage they caused with their cheating. Here's a partial list of the scarring, and those scarred.
1. The credibility of recent baseball history. As players from the '90s know, a lot of the accomplishments from that time are met with eye rolls from many fans, because no one has defined -- nor will ever define -- how the saturation of performance-enhancing drugs impacted the game. All records from that time are lumped together in conversation, as if the whole sport was dirty. The integrity of that era is forever compromised.
The Astros' cheating will have the same effect on moments in recent years: The Houston championship of '17, with the comeback against the Yankees and the thrilling seven-game series against the Dodgers, will never be discussed without the qualification that the team was cheating and that the players had an illicit advantage. The other day, when we posted a ranking of the top 10 second basemen in baseball and Jose Altuve was ranked second, the social media responses were immediate, just as they were for Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and others: But he's a cheater.
2. Individual opponents. Aaron Judge finished second to Altuve in the 2017 MVP balloting, and we'll never know how the cheating affected that. Judge cannot recoup that opportunity, or the financial benefit he might've gotten from winning an MVP in his rookie season. Clayton Kershaw gave up a big lead in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series in Houston -- if the Dodgers had won that day, if they had won the World Series, Kershaw's postseason record and legacy would be completely different. How about all of the pitchers Houston pounded that summer with aid from the sign stealing -- what did each of those players lose, in evaluation, in opportunity? We'll never know.
How about Dave Roberts, the Dodgers' manager? The criticism of his postseason decisions is piled against him largely because the team hasn't won a World Series despite repeated attempts, and it turns out the deck was stacked against him.
What about Joe Girardi? The Yankees moved on from him for reasons other than the Yankees' loss in the 2017 AL Championship Series, but if New York had beaten the Astros and won the World Series, would owner Hal Steinbrenner have been moved to keep a manager who had just clinched a title? It's possible.
What about other unknown jobs and opportunities lost because of the perception that the Astros were the standard everyone else had to try to meet?
3. Mike Fiers. Other players have privately complained about his decision to speak to The Athletic about the Astros' sign stealing and his criticism of the cheating. Maybe those unhappy teammates should consider the issue from his perspective. Their decision to break established rules put him and other players who wanted nothing to do with the sign stealing in a terrible position of either going along with the cheating, effectively condoning it -- which is why Hinch was suspended -- or speaking out against it. For the rest of Fiers' career, he'll have to deal with the whispers from some peers angrily complaining about him, when what they should do is reach out to apologize to him for how they compromised his experience.
You could say the same for the other players on the '17 Astros who might not have shared in the sign stealing. Even if he had no involvement, Justin Verlander's one championship in a Hall of Fame career will be forever tarnished.
4. The fans. Forget for a moment the whole issue of squandered cost, of dollars and time spent. How about how the sign-stealing scandal rattles and wrecks the perception of fans, young or old, about what they saw and what they experienced?
Maybe this was inevitable with the Astros, who had worked right to the edge of competitive propriety since Luhnow took over as general manager. Plenty of teams had tanked before, but no club tanked quite like Houston did in Luhnow's first years, stripping the payroll to the bone, not even pretending to care about presenting a major league product. Houston finished the 2013 season with just one player making as much as $1 million, and the Astros became the first team since the 1962-65 Mets to lose at least 106 games in three consecutive seasons. This is how the Astros got Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and others.
In the midst of the sign-stealing paranoia of 2018 -- largely caused by the Astros -- no team placed club employees right next to the opposing dugout, in violation of MLB rules, except for the Astros. Which Luhnow acknowledged, brazenly suggesting his team was playing defense rather than offense.
When the Blue Jays worked to trade closer Roberto Osuna after his suspension under the domestic violence policy, all teams passed other than the Astros. Other teams were appalled by Osuna's case. Not the Astros. What did former Houston assistant GM Brandon Taubman pointedly yell during the champagne celebration? "Thank God we got Osuna!"
Even in the hypercompetitive world that is professional sports, the Astros were willing to be different, sometimes at the direct expense of professional colleagues inside and outside their sphere. As a result ...
5. The Astros and their future. They will be unintended victims of their own crime, unanticipated collateral damage. Because every movement across a visiting ballpark will feel a little like a perp walk, with fans justifiably yelling harsh truth at them. After they won the 2017 World Series, the conversation about the athletic, dynamic Astros was about whether they should be ranked among the greatest teams ever. Now they are on the short list of baseball infamy.