Did Baseball’s Biggest Unwritten Rule Get Broken With the Astros’ Cheating Scandal?

The Houston Astros were the biggest success story in baseball, but the ongoing cheating scandal shredded the organization’s reputation. The reveal of these infractions confirmed the suspicions of the players who played against the Astros, but not everyone is happy that Mike Fiers publicly admitted Houston used illegal means to win. By revealing that the Astros broke league rules to steal signs, did Fiers break a rule of the clubhouse by talking about their actions?

The Astros were MLB’s model franchise

The scene is Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS. Tension fills the October air as the Astros and the New York Yankees compete for a spot in the World Series. The game is tied at four in the bottom of the ninth inning. Jose Altuve steps up to plate against the flamethrowing Aroldis Chapman. Altuve cocks back and hits a two-run walk-off home run to win the game and the series for the Astros, sending them to the World Series for the second time in three years.

The victory is another point of vindication for how Houston has built their team over the past few years. Under the control of new management, the team underwent a drastic rebuilding process that saw the franchise go from worst to first in five years. Their offense was one of the best of all time. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow was lauded for his vision. Many franchises attempted to copy the Astros’ way of doing things. 

Emulating the methods of the Astros is not as appealing now as it was then, or even a few months ago. The franchise that used to be the model for the league is now engulfed in a scandal that seems to get bigger by the day. 

Is the greatness of the Astros entirely based on cheating?

A November 2019 story from The Athletic revealed that the Astros were using a center-field camera to steal signs. The claims were confirmed by the pitcher, Mike Fiers, who played for the World Series-winning team in 2017. A video feed from the camera was piped into a monitor in the dugout so the team could decode the signals during the game. 

Fiers decided to talk about this practice because he felt sorry for players who had their careers hurt by these actions:

“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing,” Fiers said in the story. “Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s [B.S.] on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared. But most people don’t. That’s why I told my team. We had a lot of young guys with Detroit [in 2018] trying to make a name and establish themselves. I wanted to help them out and say, ‘Hey, this stuff really does go on. Just be prepared.'”

An investigation conducted by the MLB proved the Astros used this system during the 2017 and parts of the 2018 seasons. In combination with the technology, Houston would also hit a trash can with a bat to indicate certain pitches. As punishment, the Astros were fined $5 million, lost their first and second-round draft picks for the next two years, and the team’s GM and coach, Luhnow and A.J. Hinch respectively, were suspended for a year.

The completion of the investigation has only led to more and more negative fallout for the league. Luhnow and Hinch quickly lost their jobs, as did managers Alex Cora and Carlos Beltrán, due to their roles in the Astros’ scheme. Other teams were reported to be using some sort of technology to steal signs. Fans first called for more serious punishments, and then alleged that Astros players had buzzing devices under their shirts to relay signals. 

Is Fiers a hero or a snitch?

Not everyone is pleased about the way this scandal was revealed. ESPN commentator Jessica Mendoza was critical of Fiers for going public in the way that he did, as was Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez. Both of their comments came from a similar point of view: that what happens in the clubhouse should always stay in the clubhouse, and that Fiers had broken an unwritten rule of baseball by coming forward.

Fiers probably was an imperfect messenger for the situation. He had a championship ring for his time with the Astros. He profited from Houston’s infractions in real time, and waited two years after leaving the team to admit that the team was breaking the rules to win. 

But Fiers was also just the messenger. The Astros’ conduct made an impression on the entire league. We might think about Clayton Kershaw or Yu Darvish differently if their games against Houston had different results. The integrity of the sport has to be protected, and Fiers deserves credit for contributing to that cause, even if he took some time to do so.