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The Houston Astros cheated. Now they're punished — and disgraced

Chicago Tribune • Jan 15, 2020 at 3:30 AM

Cheating is an ever-present temptation in sports. It can spell the difference between winning and losing, or even between making the big leagues and not. In recent decades, Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association have had to cope with players using performance-enhancing drugs to gain an edge.

Strict rules and testing have discouraged such efforts. This past season, four Major League ballplayers were each suspended for 60 or 80 games for violations. But such enforcement has yet to eradicate the pursuit of illicit advantages — or the danger it poses to the integrity of sports and the trust of fans.

The Houston Astros are now stained by baseball's biggest scandal in years. In November, Mike Fiers, an Oakland pitcher who had played for the Astros, told reporters for The Athletic of a system to steal catchers' signs with a video camera in center field — information transmitted to the dugout by various electronic means. Players then used signals to inform the batter, usually by banging on a trash can.

This scheme operated in 2017, when Houston won 101 regular season games and the World Series title. The Astros used similar tactics again in 2018.

After an investigation, Commissioner Rob Manfred came down hard on the club Monday. He suspended general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch for the 2020 season, stripped the team of two first-round and two second-round draft picks and levied a $5 million fine — the highest allowed. Former bench coach Alex Cora also faces penalties, though his fate is in limbo until the conclusion of a probe into similar allegations against the Boston Red Sox since he became their manager. The Astros responded by firing Luhnow and Hinch.

Sports are supposed to be a forum for honest competition, where skill, savvy and grit determine the outcome. The methods used by the Astros are the antithesis of that concept. As Fiers said when he came forward, "That's not playing the game the right way."

Fans may differ on whether the punishment in this case is sufficient for the crime. We would have preferred to see penalties also applied to the players who were most culpable. Officially revoking the team's 2017 World Series title would have been an especially emphatic punishment. But the verdict is stern enough to be a significant hindrance to the Astros in seasons to come. And it should serve as a strong deterrent to anyone who would devise new ways to get around the rules.

The Astros may eventually recover from this self-inflicted wound. But the disgrace will be permanent.