All Aroldis Chapman could do was smile.
The 6’4’’ lefty from Cuba had just served up a 2-1 slider to the Astros’ best hitter, Jose Altuve, a pitch he immediately regretted. The All-Star second-baseman sent Chapman’s pitch careening off the left-field support structure, sending Houston to the World Series and New York to an early vacation. Houston would end up losing the 2019 World Series, but that appearance made it two World Series in three years. Why did one of the fastest pitchers in the Majors try to fool Altuve with an off-speed pitch when his fastball routinely tops 100mph with ease?
At 31, Chapman’s fastball velocity isn’t what it used to be. In 2017, the Cuban’s fastball clocked in at an average speed of 100.1 mph. Two seasons later, Chapman’s average fastball stood at a notably diminished 98.4 mph. Due to his decline in velocity, Chapman leaned on his slider 31% of the time in 2019, the highest percentage of his career. As a result, Chapman had one of his best seasons, posting a 2.21 ERA, 37 saves, a 3.40 SO/W ratio, while only giving up three home runs. With a dynamic slider in hand, Chapman may have felt empowered, but as any baseball and gambling expert will proclaim, a breaking ball is only effective when the batter isn’t zeroed in on it.
So why did Chapman smile as Altuve rounded the bases? The Yankee closer proclaimed in a later press conference that he was simply in shock. But was Chapman simply the victim of incredible offense, or did he know what the baseball world would know three short months later? The Astros had cheated.
Roughly two weeks after the Astros fell to the Nationals in the World Series, Houston would suffer another blow. On November 12, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers alleged that his team illegally stole signs during the 2017 championship run in an interview with The Athletic. A day later, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic implicated Carlos Beltran and Alex Cora in the sign-stealing scheme. Shortly thereafter, the MLB opened an investigation into the alleged cheating.
On January 7th, The Athletic published a new report alleging that Red Sox manager Alex Cora organized another cheating plot during the 2018 season, one in which the Red Sox would win the World Series. On January 13th, Astros manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were both fired by team owner Jim Crane after the league handed down a year suspension to both. One day later, Alex Cora resigned his position with the Red Sox only one full season removed from winning a World Series what influenced the gambling results worldwide too. The Mets soon followed suit on January 16th by parting ways with new manager Carlos Beltran before he even managed a single game.
While the dust is far from settled (Alex Cora is expected to receive a severe punishment, more heads may roll in the time being), here’s what we know about how the Astros cheated so far:
In what many thought could only play out in a Tom Clancy novel, the Astros relied on various instruments, both low-tech and high-tech, to steal pitch signs and relay them to their star players.
Early on in the 2017 season, Houston fixed a video camera in centerfield on the opposing team’s catcher when the Astros had a runner on second or third base. When the signs were figured out, the next pitch was relayed to the dugout, which was then relayed to the runner on second or third, who then relayed the information to the batter.
Later in that same season under the guidance of Carlos Beltran and Alex Cora, Houston began to utilize a trash can in the hallway behind the dugout to relay the coming pitch. A live feed was pumped into a hallway tv monitor next to the trash can. An Astros employee would then bang on the trash can to relay what the pitch was. The team continued to use both cheating methods during the 2017 season, even after the commissioner warned teams not to illegally steal signs.
Houston continued to cheat during the 2018 season but ceased cheating sometime during the season after players felt the scheme wasn’t effective. The league could not find any evidence that the Astros cheated in 2019, but speculation remains.
Adding more fuel to the fire, multiple damning photos were tweeted out by someone claiming to be Beltran’s niece in which players like Altuve and Bregman can be seen wearing what looks to be a wire on their shoulders. Suspiciously enough in 2019, as Altuve trots home after hitting the walk-off home run against Chapman, he appears to plead with his team not to rip his jersey off, a celebration common in baseball. As some have suggested, several Astros including Altuve and Bregman wore buzzers that would go off when a specific pitch was thrown.
Seemingly caught red-handed, the Astros and now potentially the Red Sox are the two most hated sports franchises in America. Opposing teams and fans feel cheated and players who were cut from rosters feel they were cheated out of millions due to a poor-performance against both teams. Yet, in the wide pantheon of cheating in baseball, where does this scandal land? We take a deep-dive into the multiple MLB cheating scandals below.
Timeline via 12UP
Major League Baseball consists of hundreds of rules, some of which seem up for interpretation every game. Yet Rule 21d remains concrete in its language and is posted on every locker room in the league – Any player, umpire, Club, league official, or employee that bets on baseball will receive a life-long ban. Enter the Chicago White Sox.
White Sox first baseman Arnold “Chick” Gandil was propositioned by a gambler named Joseph “Sport” Sullivan to throw the World Series in exchange for $100,000. Gandil convinced a few teammates including Charles “Swede” Risberg, Claude “Lefty” Williams, and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to throw the World Series against the underdog Cincinnati Reds. When bookies became suspicious of bettors throwing large sums of money on the Reds, the public suspected a fixed World Series.
Pitcher Eddie Cicotte signaled the fix was on by hitting the first batter of Game 1. Cicotte was hammered by the Reds while making several uncharacteristic errors. In Game 2, Lefty Williams gifted the Reds a win by walking three batters in a row. The Black Sox proceeded to throw the next few games until the series stood at 4-1 (a best of 9 series back then). Several players grew tired of the fix in large-part due to a lack of payment. The deal involved five installments of $20,000 – one for each loss, but the payments never came. In protest, Chicago battled back the next two games before losing 10-5 in Game 8.
In the months following the tainted World Series, the notion began to catch steam that the Black Sox intentionally lost. When evidence surfaced that regular season games involving other teams were fixed by gamblers, pitcher Eddie Cicotte confessed to the plot in front of a grand jury in 1920. More players would come forward over the next few days and weeks.
Even after the gambling paper trail mysteriously disappeared and all eight players were acquitted by a grand jury, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner, permanently banned the conspirators from ever playing in the MLB again. Sadly, this would not be the last time a player would gamble on games.
Pete Rose will likely go down as the greatest baseball player to never make the Hall of Fame. Arguably the greatest hitter in history, Rose notched an MLB record 4,256 hits, a .303 batting average, 2,165 runs, and 1,314 runs batted in. Dubbed “Charlie Hustle” for the high octane way in which he played, the two-time World Series champion symbolized everything a baseball player aspired to be on the field. The trouble would come off the field for Rose.
In 1989, the MLB conducted an inquiry into whether or not Rose not only bet on baseball, but his own team as well. Through hundreds of hours of testimony, the MLB found that Rose had a severe gambling problem for years, including his time as manager of the Reds from 1984-1989.
Although Rose proclaimed his innocence after the MLB’s findings, the once shoe-in for the Hall of Fame accepted a no-contest plea and was banned from the MLB forever by Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti. Rose eventually confessed to betting on games in his 2004 book, My Prison Without Bars.
Perhaps the most exciting era in baseball, the Steroid Era is certainly the most controversial. Although Congress added anabolic steroids to its list of banned substances in 1988, the drug thrived for over a decade. From the late 1980’s to the early 2000’s, offensive statistics flourished. In 1988, only one player hit more than 40 home runs – Jose Conseco. In 2000, 16 players hit over 40 home runs. By the end of the Steroid Era in 2006, 42 percent of all 40-plus home run seasons occurred in an 11 year span beginning in 1995.
Performance Enhancing Drugs including anabolic steroids and testosterone supplements make it easier for players to build muscle, recover, and improve bat speed among other advantages. The era is synonymous with gigantic, muscular players like Jose Conseco, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa who seemingly hit home runs with ease.
McGwire slugged a combined 135 home runs in ‘98 and ’99 while Bonds broke the record for most single-season home runs by slugging 73 in 2001. Bonds would go on to break Hank Aaron’s career home run record in 2007 with his 756th and went on to finish his career with 762.
Although the MLB would not begin to crack down on steroid use until 2004, it’s important to remember that the secret had been out since its inception. Trainer Curtis Wenzlaff was arrested in 1992 for steroid distribution and Padres GM Randy Smith was quoted in the mid-90s as saying “we all know there’s steroid use, and it is definitely becoming more prevalent.”
In 1998, the steroid androstenedione was found in McGwire’s locker. McGwire admitted to owning the jar but did not receive any punishment. In 2002, Ken Caminiti admitted to using PEDs, the former Padre won the NL MVP in 1996. Players and owners agreed to a league-wide drug program beginning in 2003. During spring training in 2003, Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed on the field and died – the substance ephedra was found in his system. In December of 2003, several notable players including Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds were called to testify about possible steroid use through the Bay-Area lab BALCO.
Furthermore, Jason Giambi testified to a grand jury that, in 2003, he knowingly used steroids for at least three seasons and injected himself with human growth hormone. A day later, Bonds testified that he used a clear cream that his trainer Greg Anderson gave him, but did not know it was a steroid. Anderson was convicted a few months prior to distributing steroids to multiple professional athletes. When the MLB began a full season of drug testing in 2005, multiple major and minor leaguers were caught doping and forced to serve suspensions.
Now in the wake of the Steroid Era, sure-thing hall of famers like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Jose Conseco… the list goes on, will likely never be inducted. As a result of countermeasures taken against steroid use, offensive statistics have dramatically faltered to pre-Steroid averages. It’s no coincidence that baseball continues to lose fans in large part due to diminished offensive production.
In the wake of the Astros and Red Sox cheating scandal, many in the baseball world argue that some retribution should befall owners who allow illegal activities to take place. Although the Astros did receive a 5 million dollar fine and the loss of a few draft picks, Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, did not personally receive any punishment. Some pundits believe Crane should be forced to sell the team.
Check out our list of the best sport franchises for sale below:
Within the NFL and the city of Los Angeles, the Chargers are largely an afterthought. Although the Chargers new 70,000 seat stadium is set to open next season in Inglewood, the Chargers have reported a dismal 25,000 season tickets sold so far. Even though the Chargers made the playoffs last season and have experienced some sustained success due in large part to franchise qb Phillip Rivers, the team has simply failed to draw fans. In a city where people have an unlimited amount of activities to choose from and the weather is always perfect, most choose to forego watching the Chargers play altogether.
There is hope in the distant future for this NBA franchise. First round draft pick Ja Morant has provided a jolt to the ailing fan base and a $24 billion tv deal the league signed with ESPN in 2014 has helped to ease the pain. But, the Grizzlies still find themselves in dire straits. According to Nielsen, the Grizzlies have the smallest market in the league, not surprising for a team that has never won a championship. The Grizzlies are also one of the few teams to have lost money last season. Faced with a franchise going under, will owner Robert J. Pera sell the team? The better question may be who wants to buy it.
One of the main indicators of a franchise’s success is fan attendance. Unfortunately for the Denver Nuggets, fans seem to hardly notice the team. The 2010s were a rough decade for the Nuggets fan-wise, especially after franchise player Carmelo Anthony was traded to the Knicks in 2011. According to the Denver Post, the Nuggets have lost a higher percentage of fans over the last decade than all but nine professional sports teams. Yikes. Denver seems to be a victim of the availability of choice. There are simply far better options to choose from in the winter months of Denver than watching a basketball game
It’s hard to say if this latest scandal is worse than any of the other proceeding sports and gambling scandals, but the MLB will need to keep a more watchful eye over its teams. In a league that seems to meander from one scandal to the next, the sign-stealing saga certainly stands out as one of the most bizarre. In the coming weeks, sports pundits will debate whether the Astros and Red Sox should have to forfeit their wins, but one thing is for sure, baseball could certainly use the press.