Baseball’s failure to exact a price for cheating could destroy the game––and damage all professional sports

Armstrong Williams | 3/5/2020, midnight
Nothing creates a moral hazard more than exposing corruption and yet failing to punish those responsible.
Armstrong Williams

Nothing creates a moral hazard more than exposing corruption and yet failing to punish those responsible. That’s what happened in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, and that’s what’s happening in baseball today. The rationale for failing to punish Wall Street corruption in 2008 was that big banks were ‘too big to fail’ and had to be propped up––executive bonuses and all––in order to save the world economy. The rationale in professional baseball in the aftermath of the Houston Astro’s sign-stealing scandal, is that by fully exposing the scandal and holding those responsible accountable, baseball risks losing credibility and popularity.

The moral hazard here is that sweeping the problem under the rug with no accountability––as Commissioner Rob Manfred seems hell-bent on doing––provides zero incentives for teams to play fair, and creates the risk that the next cheating scandal will be bigger and more destructive. And because the problem has been neither fully brought to light nor appropriately resolved it creates a deep sense of uncertainty among teams now heading into the beginning of spring training that other scandals could be afoot. This lack of trust on the part of the players that the rules will be fairly and competently enforced puts them in a woefully precarious position.

First, pitchers and catchers will have a difficult time preparing for the season because their reviews of their own past performance cannot be relied upon. They won’t know, for example, whether their pitches were hit or intentionally fouled because of the quality of the pitch or the change-up called, or whether the opposing team had advance knowledge of their intended throw. For most professionals, this level of uncertainty is frustrating and wildly distracting. Secondly, and even more impactfully, more teams, believing there is very little downside consequence for being caught cheating, may start to employ similar schemes––that is, their own version of electronic sign-stealing, believing it necessary to maintain a competitive edge. As with steroids in body-building––or for that matter, in baseball––after the governing bodies of the sports failed to effectively regulate the use of illicit substances, even players who were inclined to play by the rules found themselves falling behind the competition and decided well, ‘if you can’t beat ’em, why not join ’em?’

Such is the nature of the drama that brought us the asterisked careers of Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong. They believed in moral relativism; they argued that they should not have been penalized just because they were able to cheat better than the rest of the field, most of whom were also using banned substances. But there is a distinct difference here. While Bonds and Armstrong suffered severe damage to their legacies and post-career reputations, the Houston Astros have not shown the slightest degree of contrition, nor apologized for their cheating. It is almost as if despite being caught, they still got away with it.

The reason why MLB decided not to hold the Astros accountable for their misdeeds by taking what seems to be the obvious punitive measure––stripping the team of its 2017 World Series championship––seems all the more craven in retrospect. One suspects that everyone involved knows that Astros players and managers were not the only ones’ involved in sign-stealing operations. Other teams did it too––but were not as effective in doing so. In essence, it could not definitively say that but-for the Astro’s cheating, they would have lost the series. MLB seems to be hoping that because the Astros cheating was ultimately outed all the bad actors will now suddenly play by the rules. But accountability does not work that way. The mere admission of wrongdoing is not tantamount to punishment. If only shaming the rule-breaker were enough to overcome the other competing incentives––namely the insane amount of money that a winning franchise stands to earn. It dwarfs all other concerns.

The final point is that athletes across the world of sports feel demeaned, not by the cheating itself, which is a part of sports, but by baseball leadership’s failure to effectively address the problem. Deep feelings of hurt transcend baseball and extend to all professional sports. NBA star Lebron James took to twitter to call out MLB Commissioner Manfred by name, imploring him in almost desperate terms to fix the issue. “Listen I know I don’t play baseball, but I am in Sports,” he complained, “and I know if someone cheated me out of winning the title and I found out about it I would be f---ing irate! I mean like uncontrollable about what I would/could do! Listen here baseball commissioner listen to your players speaking today about how disgusted, mad, hurt, broken, etc. etc. about this….Literally the ball is in your court (or should I say field) and you need to fix this for the sake of Sports!” Amen.

Watch The Armstrong Williams Show Saturdays Live on WJLA 24/7 in WDC, 10:30 am - 11:00 am and repeats 6:30 pm EST. Listen to our weekly StrongCast on iTunes, SoundCloud, & Stitcher. Follow on Twitter: @arightside; www.ArmstrongWilliams.com; www.hsh.media