The Houston Astros won the 2017 World Series by stealing opposing catchers’ signs to pitchers with electronic surveillance.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred wants to stop cheating, so he took a swing at getting tough. Weak ground ball the other way.
The first rule of correcting behavior is to make the cost of the punishment outweigh the value of the reward. In this regard, we don’t change a hell of a lot from the time we are children until we die. Given a moderate level of sanity, when the consequences are serious, we make better choices. If the consequences are manageable, we plow ahead with questionable behavior. With great rewards and trivial consequences, we sprint to the rewards.
Here are the rewards of stealing signs with electronics:
- Playing in two World Series (2017 & 2019).
- Winning a World Championship (2017).
- Compiling 100+ wins in each of the last three seasons (2017-2019).
- Attendance way up.
- Swag flying off shelves.
- Media ratings soar.
Here are the consequences:
- $5-million fine.
- Loss of 1st & 2nd round draft picks in 2020 & 2021.
- Manager A.J. Hinch & GM Jeff Luhnow suspended.
Following the announcement of Manfred’s mandate, Astros owner Jim Crane fired both Hinch and Luhnow.
Alex Cora, the Astros bench coach in 2017 and current Red Sox manager, is said to have been the architect of the cheating. It’s expected Manfred will punish him severely. It bears mention the Red Sox won the 2018 World Series, Cora’s first as skipper. If Cora is found to have cheated his way into a championship two consecutive years, Manfred will have an opportunity to go all Kenesaw Mountain Landis on him.
Here are the pragmatic effects of the consequences –
- $5M is tip money compared to the cash generated by the Astros success.
- Draft picks hurt a little bit, but this isn’t the NFL or NBA where picks are of huge importance. The Astros would have selected 30th this June. Of the last 15 players selected 30th, only five made it to the majors and none made a major impact.
- Luhnow and Hinch will be replaced by one of the dozens of qualified applicants lining up around the block to be interviewed for two of the best jobs in baseball. For Luhnow and Hinch, they will be snapped up very quickly by teams when their suspensions end – and likely at the higher salary than they have forfeited.
There is paper cut level pain associated with these sanctions. The championship, current roster and franchise popularity remain in place. The tangible cost? $5-million.
No billionaire on the planet would refuse that deal.
When baseball seriously attacked the problem of gambling among players a century ago, commissioner Landis went scorched earth. The 1919 Chicago Black Sox allegedly threw the World Series in exchange for cash promised by gamblers. Baseball exiled the eight offenders forever, and they remain on the ineligible list almost 45 years after the death of Swede Risburg – the last surviving member of the notorious eight Black Sox.
Pete Rose was arrogant/stupid enough to venture into gambling despite the fallout from the previous scandal. He received the same sentence – lifetime ban. Since then – not a sniff of a problem.
Get it? Big hammer = big compliance.
If Manfred wanted to strongly discourage a return to electronic skullduggery, he would have been more serious with the administration of career capital punishment. Maybe he’ll take that option with Cora.
If not, he has given the 29 other franchises the intelligence necessary for a cost benefits analysis as they decide what line they are willing to cross in exchange for wins, profits and a championship.