‘The Smartest Guys in the Room” is the title of a book and documentary film examining the collapse of the Houston-based energy company Enron in the early 2000s, brought about by accounting fraud.
Now it sounds like the Houston Astros, whose ballpark used to be named Enron Field before the energy giant’s demise, might be guilty of perhaps being too smart for their own good. Earlier this week Major League Baseball announced it was investigating reports the Astros turned to technology to devise a sign-stealing scheme, using a camera positioned in center field at Minute Maid Park, during the 2017 season that ended with the Astros capturing their first World Series title.
Tuesday’s report quoted pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for the Astros that season, and three other unidentified people with the club. Two sources told The Athletic website Houston used the system into the playoffs, while another source said the system ended before the postseason.
Regardless of the extent — and the fact sign stealing has been going on in baseball forever — if true, these shenanigans would have crossed a line. Players on second base peeking in to steal a catcher’s signs is one thing, but using electronic means to steal said signs is another.
Using cameras and technology to swipe signs is prohibited by MLB, though there are whispers that many clubs might do it in some form.
The argument that “it ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught” doesn’t suffice. Especially for the Astros, who have been one of the feel-good stories in baseball the past few years for the way they’ve risen to nearly winning a second Series title in three years. The Astros have been noted for their analytics-based, modern approach to building a baseball team, covered in a book by Ben Reiter that came out after the 2017 season titled “Astroball: The New Way to Win It All.”
But Reiter’s book didn’t discuss snooping on other teams with the use of a center-field camera. That would be cheating, plain and simple.
These have certainly been the best and worst of times for the Astros. After winning more games than any other team in baseball during the regular season, they failed to capitalize on a 3-2 lead on the Washington Nationals heading into two games at home in the World Series.
And amid their postseason run, the bloom had already come off the Astros’ reputation after assistant general manager Brandon Taubman directed inappropriate comments at female reporters Oct. 19 during a locker room celebration when the team beat the New York Yankees to win the American League pennant.
The Astros faced backlash after initially issuing a statement accusing a Sports Illustrated reporter of trying to “fabricate a story.” Taubman was fired by the Astros on Oct. 24 and the team has since retracted the statement.
And now the sign-stealing business, in the same week that Astros captured the American League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards. General manager Jeff Luhnow was somewhat vague in his comments about the sign-stealing reports.
“We take the allegation seriously and we’re going to look into it. If you’re not following the rules, it’s a serious matter,” he said Tuesday. “I’m not going to get into exactly what I knew or anybody knew at this point. So I’m just going to have to wait and see.”
Luhnow said he hoped the allegations wouldn’t put a damper on Houston’s success.
“Teams are competing with one another and everybody’s trying to find an edge,” Luhnow said. “But we all have to follow the rules, and the rules are set by Major League Baseball. We all agree to follow them, and if you don’t there’s ramifications to that. We want to follow the rules and we want to compete and win. That’s what every other club does, as well.”
There haven’t been any new developments in the story since early in the week, but the evidence against the Astros is damaging. Regardless of what punishment might come their way, it’s definitely not a good look for the team.