I have been following with great interest the baseball cheating scandal for the last several weeks. Growing up playing baseball, deceit was an integral part of the game, and much of it was within the rules. As a shortstop, one of the most satisfying plays to execute was to catch a runner flatfooted and pick him off second base. All it took was a simple signal and appropriate timing (and a gullible baserunner). Catchers framing pitches for umpires, infielders making tags look like they were in time with a sweeping motion, and first basemen coming off the bag slightly to receive a throw just in time to get the runner were, and are, commonplace to the game.

Of course, the trash can banging of the Houston Astros to tip-off batters about pitches coming, based on cameras following pitchers’ tendencies and catchers’ signs, goes far beyond the functional deceit common to most games. The situation came to light when Oakland A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, who had won the 2017 World Series with the Astros, said publicly that he had warned his new team about the Astros stealing signs. So, while Fiers was technically a whistleblower and has received some of the blowback all whistleblowers get, he primarily used the information only for his own team’s benefit.

While the Astros have been fined and lost draft picks, and manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year by Major League Baseball and subsequently fired by the Astros, nothing has happened to the players involved. Hinch allegedly actually interfered with the cheating by breaking monitors used in the scam on more than one occasion, which were then replaced. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s statement on the issue did not indicate that Luhnow had personal knowledge of the cheating, but held him responsible for oversight of the baseball portion of the organization, as opposed to the financial part overseen by Astros owner Jim Crane. So the hammer came down on the person who tried to stop it and a person who may not have known about it—but nothing has happened to the players.

A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow
Source: click2houston.com

Hinch and Luhnow are familiar characters to anyone who studies fraud. Many people like Hinch have tried to stop frauds but not had the moral courage to reveal them outside the organization, something even more difficult in a culture like professional baseball. Two WorldCom employees involved in that gargantuan financial fraud signed letters of resignation but never turned them in. Both went to prison. Some people in positions of authority, like Luhnow, plead ignorance and indicate that it was lower-level employees who carried out the fraud unbeknownst to them. In financial fraud investigations, enough information is released or comes out at trial to provide insight as to whether those claims are true. The secretive nature of professional sports leagues means that we will likely never know whether it is true for Luhnow, but because of the sanction by the Commissioner, he is being treated like it is. And that may be totally unfair.

Punishing teams is like punishing corporations—it has almost no effect on those engaged in the behavior being punished. (That is an exaggeration—I don’t expect any trash can banging this year.) It is arguable that the cheating had an effect on the Astros’ success in their championship season. We simply will never know for sure. But what would deter players from doing it again if they believed they would not be detected?

Some have said that the league actually was heavy-handed, and did all that it could to punish the Astros. However, it could have instituted additional sanctions. For example, it could have required the Astros to forfeit any compensatory draft picks that would otherwise have been received for free agents who signed with other teams. A sanction like this for, say, ten years could actually alter a team’s ability to keep its free agents.

When cheating can be assigned to an individual, it is easy to punish. Sammy Sosa, that most creative of baseball cheats, not only allegedly tested positive for steroids, but was suspended in 2003 for corking his bat. I assume that the reason the Astros players were not sanctioned is because of the players’ union’s influence, the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and the universal participation in the scandal by team members. You either punish them all, or you punish none of them. In this case, there really is safety in numbers. A real penalty would have been for the players to lose a year of major league service time toward their salary arbitration and their pension. That would change future behavior. But it would never happen in the current labor environment.

The other option that I think would have been impactful would have been to ban the team from the postseason for a year. To spend an entire season knowing that your performance was meaningless is something no player would ever want to go through again. In other words, no one wants to play for the Orioles or Tigers. It would also have a much more significant impact on the franchise financially than the maximum fine of $5 million.

So we should not be surprised if the players cry crocodile tears about the situation and offer thin apologies this spring. What we have seen clearly is that there are behaviors that Major League Baseball is powerless to stop. And the players do not have the sense of duty to honor the game when success, and the money that flows from it, is all that matters.