Cheating Their Way to the World Series

From a Wall Street Journal television review by John Anderson headlined “The Astros Edge: Triumph and Scandal in Major League Baseball Review: Cheating Their Way to the World Series”

With the regular MLB season winding down and the playoffs about to start, the autumn air may soon be filled with cries of “Play ball!” “Beer here!” and “Cheaters!”—the last of these being aimed at the Houston Astros. Should things go their way, the Astros might well be en route to their fifth World Series appearance in seven years, the first of these—2017—being the source of their infamy.

“They’re going to get booed in perpetuity,” says one of the many insiders whom writer-podcaster Ben Reiter interviews during “The Astros Edge: Triumph and Scandal in Major League Baseball,” a “Frontline” presentation that autopsies the game’s darkest episode since the Black Sox threw the series in 1919.

Carlos Beltrán, then an Astro, now with the Mets organization and one of the principal villains of this major-league melodrama, is shown giving thanks to “God for this moment,” as Houston celebrated its first-ever Series win. He never mentions the guy banging on the garbage can: By taking authorized camera technology to unethical lengths, the Astros stole pitch signs throughout the 2017 season, relaying them to the dugout where someone would bang on a can, or not, to alert batters that the next pitch would be a fastball or that “something soft was coming,” as one ex-Astro explains it.

Mr. Reiter is not the most electrifying narrator, but what he shows us is shocking, given what it says about the game, the managerial mentality, the use of analytics (the “Moneyball” strategies) and the disillusionment of both players and fans in learning that the glorious victory of 2017 would forever be affixed with an unofficial asterisk.

“I wanted to know the truth,” says Astros fan Tony Adams. A web designer by profession, Mr. Adams shows Mr. Reiter how he used an app he created to review the approximately 8,200 pitches the Astros faced at home that season. He detected 1,143 bangs (no bang signified a fastball), which ended on an August night when the White Sox were in town and Chicago pitcher Danny Farquhar put it all together and conferenced with his catcher. “No more banging after that,” says Mr. Adams; Mr. Reiter dubs it “the moment of panic.”

But why panic? The point of “Triumph and Scandal” isn’t just a review of Houston’s on-field crimes, but how little they cost anyone. Unlike Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball commissioner who banned the eight Black Sox from baseball for life, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred began his investigation by giving all Houston players immunity. The club was fined $5 million, which Mr. Reiter describes as “a drop in the bucket.” (He makes this point obliquely during an interview with Antonio Padilla, Houston’s former director of video operations, who says his cut of the Astros’ World Series money was in the neighborhood of $450,000.)

General Manager Jeff Luhnow and team manager A.J. Hinch were suspended and then fired by Astros owner Jim Crane, whom Mr. Manfred’s report went out of its way to exonerate. (“The commissioner works for the owners,” says former commissioner Fay Vincent, whose perspective is priceless.) But “in the long run it didn’t affect them at all,” sports-business journalist Maury Brown says of the Houston organization. Except for their being “vilified.”

“The rules are what make a game a game,” says Mr. Vincent, who is quite aware he’s talking about something greater than baseball. It is a game of statistics and traditions, which have been known to clash: The Astros organization became successful by employing what Mr. Reiter rather predictably calls “‘Moneyball’ on steroids,” but the players also cheated. And no one’s career really suffered—except that of Blue Jays pitcher Mike Bolsinger, who on an August night in 2017 was badly beaten by the Astros, to the sound of a hammered trash barrel. He was let go by Toronto after that contest. It was the last one he pitched in Major League Baseball.

John Anderson is the Journal’s TV critic.

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