Flags shouldn’t fly forever: Vacate the Houston Astros’ World Series title
Patrick McKelvey | Friday, January 17, 2020
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs traded top prospect Gleyber Torres for a half-season rental of New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman. It was a difficult decision for some — Torres was poised to be one of the greatest infielders in the game, and he was just 19 years old. While Chapman was indeed baseball’s best closer, he was unlikely to re-sign with the Cubs.
Most would say it was worth it. The Cubs won the 2016 World Series, their first in 108 years. They lost Torres to the Yankees, yes, but it is unlikely they would have won the championship without Chapman’s stellar late-game performances. And no matter how good of a career Torres has, the Cubs will always have that title. No one can take 2016 away from them. “Flags fly forever,” says one of the oldest baseball axioms.
But maybe they shouldn’t. Since November, Major League Baseball has been embroiled in a massive scandal involving the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros. Former pitcher Mike Fiers confessed that the team had used illegal sign-stealing methods throughout the season and postseason (signs being the signals pitchers and catchers use to communicate to one another). On Monday, the MLB’s Department of Investigation released its findings: the Astros had “a video room technician install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout … One or more players watched the live feed of the center field camera on the monitor, and after decoding the sign, a player would bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter.” It seems the scheme worked well: Not only did the team win the World Series (their first in franchise history), but they won over 100 regular-season games. They had the highest-scoring offense in the Major League, as well as the highest batting average and on-base percentage.
The same day the report came out, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced his punishment: The Astros’ manager, AJ Hinch, and their General Manager, Jeff Luhnow, were suspended from Major League Baseball for the 2020 season. Houston fired Hinch and Luhnow soon after the release of the report. The team was fined $5 million and must forfeit their first and second-round 2020 draft picks. Some think the punishment is fair. I certainly don’t.
For one thing, not a single player was punished, though the report admits that “most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode signs or bang on the trash can” and that “many of the players who were interviewed admitted that they knew the scheme was wrong because it crossed the line from what the player believed was fair competition and/or violated MLB rules.” The team knew — star players deliberately violated the rules of Major League Baseball to gain a competitive advantage. They ignored the integrity of the game. To allow them to get off totally free states that this behavior is acceptable to the MLB. Pete Rose, baseball’s all-time hit leader, received a permanent ban for gambling on baseball, even though he never bet against his own team. It seems the crimes of these Astros players are far worse — and should then merit a punishment equal to Rose’s.
But the issue is far more important than punishment for players. In the weeks leading up to Commissioner Manfred’s report, baseball fans debated what the franchise’s punishment would be. Some, including myself, thought the only logical punishment was to vacate Houston’s World Series title. Of course, that did not happen. The Houston Astros effectively paid a GM, a field manager, three draft picks and $5 million dollars to win a World Series — I think it would be hard to find a team that would say that isn’t worth it. And it seems some of them did. The Boston Red Sox and their 2018 World Series Championship are under investigation by the MLB for use of similar tactics. Their manager Alex Cora served as Houston’s bench coach for the 2017 season before moving to Boston. The Red Sox fired Cora on Jan. 14.
If Houston’s (and, potentially, Boston’s) title is not vacated, there is little harm in cheating. A World Series title can be stolen for nothing more than a slap on the wrist. You’ll lose your manager and find one who can do the job just as well, and your star players will still be able to play in all 162 games. If Houston’s title is not vacated, the integrity of the game is compromised to a degree not seen since the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal. If Manfred and Major League Baseball are serious about preventing cheating and protecting baseball, they would not allow Houston to maintain their status as champions. Flags are supposed to fly forever. But the 2017 flag shouldn’t fly at all.
Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college senior and pretending to be a screenwriter. He majors in American Studies and classics, and will be working in market research in New York after graduating. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @PatKelves17 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.