In 2017 the Houston Astros won their first World Series title, a particularly uplifting victory for the city following Hurricane Harvey. But two years later, the feel-good energy was gone after The Athletic revealed that the Astros had stolen signs from opposing catchers during their championship season, perhaps even during the playoffs and World Series.
So how did the culture of baseball fandom lead to this scandal? In Astros and Asterisks, Jonathan Silverman collects essays exploring the scandal from historical, journalistic, legal, ethical, and cultural perspectives. Ultimately, the book links the Astros’ choices to the sporting world’s obsession with analytics. What emerges is a sobering tale about the impact of new technology on a game whose romanticized image feels increasingly incongruous with its reality in the era of big data and video.
Below, editor Jonathan Silverman shares a baseball-themed playlist to celebrate baseball season and the release of his book on the Houston Astros cheating scandal on July 18! We also excerpt a portion of his introduction to contextualize why this moment in sports history matters beyond baseball: what do we do with Big Data and the way technological innovations have become entwined in our everyday lives?
Excerpt from the Introduction to Astros and Asterisks
By Jonathan Silverman
On November 12, 2019, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich published a shocking story on the website The Athletic: during the 2017 season, the Houston Astros had stolen signs from the opposing team using a camera that transmitted them to a monitor near the dugout, where players hit a trash can to let their teammates know what was coming: no bangs for a fastball and bangs for breaking balls and off-speed pitches. What followed was outrage from numerous corners of the sports world and beyond. Commentators, fans, and players still talk about the scandal, which has now morphed into a cautionary tale of hubris and given opposing fans a long, perhaps lifetime, cudgel to batter Astros supporters.1
In a baseball game, a catcher, or sometimes a coach in a dugout, usually communicates to the pitcher the type of pitch they think the pitcher should throw, usually with a hand gesture recognizable to the pitcher. But fairly regularly over time, baseball players have tried to decode these signs and convey them to the batter. Typically, after cracking the signs, players convey these stolen signals while on base to a player at bat. That seems like a game within a game, one of many, perhaps questionable but within the spirit of baseball, a game with its share of deception.
However, the Houston Astros crossed a line that has long been considered unethical—taking advantage of new technologies to decode and communicate the signs. Recent work suggests that one of the most famous home runs of all time, Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning homer in 1951 off Ralph Branca to deliver victory to the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers, may be attributed in part to sign stealing using a telescope and buzzer.2 The recent hard turn toward analytical analysis using a combination of traditional and new methods of measurement required more cameras in many different places, which led to two storied Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs’ being exposed for using outside means to convey signals. In recent years, the league punished the Boston Red Sox for using Apple watches to tell batters what pitches were coming and the New York Yankees for using dugout phones illegally. Indeed, one of the Astros’ defenses is that they were reacting to others’ cheating by cheating themselves.
The process in the resulting scandal unfolded like this: As part of the game’s rapid evolution in statistical analysis, MLB allowed teams to use cameras all over the stadium and to install replay rooms where footage could be reviewed in real time. Astros personnel stationed one of the cameras at Minute Maid Park (formerly Enron Field) in the outfield, where it was perfectly situated to capture the catcher’s signs from the opposing team. That footage played on a video monitor in the Astros dugout, near the aforementioned trash can. Previous knowledge of opposing pitchers’ signs aided the effort; Astros personnel collected signs on a spreadsheet called “Codebreaker,” developed late in the 2016 season, which allowed the players to quickly interpret which pitches were coming.3 As Tony Adams writes in this volume, the process lasted all summer at home games—even when the team was way ahead— until September 21, 2017, late in the season, when White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar figured out that the Astros knew his signals and were using them to guess his pitches correctly. The banging stopped for a while, but according to Commissioner Rob Manfred, citing player testimony, it continued during the playoffs, though Adams says later in this book that cheating during the playoffs was hard to confirm. The Astros beat the Red Sox in the American League divisional series and the Yankees in the championship series. The Astros won the World Series, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. The Astros did not repeat their World Series success in 2018 and 2019 but advanced to the ALCS in 2018 before losing to the Red Sox. In 2019, they returned to the World Series, ultimately losing to the Washington Nationals. A few months later came The Athletic exposé: by way of an interview with Mike Fiers, then of the Oakland A’s but a pitcher for the Astros in 2017, Rosenthal and Drellich revealed the signal-stealing scheme to the world. The outrage came from sports talk hosts, columnists, Twitter denizens, and casual fans alike. Many MLB players—especially those for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in a close World Series, and the New York Yankees, who lost to Houston in the American League Championship Series—seemed particularly upset. After the story broke, MLB conducted an investigation, and it suspended Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A. J. Hinch, as well as Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who had been a Houston bench coach in 2017. Their clubs fired all three men (Cora and the Red Sox “parted ways”) as well, and former Astro Carlos Beltrán, considered a ringleader of the scheme, was fired (parted ways) as a newly hired manager of the New York Mets after serving less than three months in the position. Cora was later rehired by the Red Sox and Hinch hired by the Detroit Tigers, and Beltrán worked part-time for the New York Yankees as a broadcaster in 2022. Manfred did not punish individual players, giving them immunity from punishment if they cooperated with the investigation. Most controversial of all, he allowed the Astros to keep their 2017 title, and he did not punish a single player. Commentators broadly speculated that Manfred chose to give the players immunity in hopes of avoiding conflict with the powerful Major League Baseball Players Association.
We are left with a situation that may be unprecedented—confessed cheaters who are going unpunished, at least officially. Some might argue that these cheaters have actually been rewarded. When Olympic athletes are caught cheating, they are stripped of their medals and sometimes their world records. Recruiting violations have caused college basketball teams to retroactively forfeit games. Here Major League Baseball confirmed that the 2017 World Series winner cheated, and yet the record will show that the 2017 Astros were the World Series champions.
In 2020, the sporting world braced for a season of retribution. Commentators speculated that this might include beanballs by opposing pitchers, protests by fans, and tense series between the Astros and Dodgers and the Astros and Yankees. There were only a few games in spring training, and informally the Astros did have a few more beanballs, and fans booed and held up derisory signs. Then COVID-19 hit and postponed the season. The protests continued online, with angry fans and Astros troll accounts on social media, but it wasn’t the same as being in the park and booing or banging on trash cans or holding up punning signs about trash cans.
Like everyone else in the world, I had plans that were scuttled by the pandemic, and these plans included doing in-person research for this book. I wanted to go to Houston to talk to fans of the Astros. I wanted to go to opposing stadiums to see what fans would do and say. I wanted to see the reaction to the scandal in a stadium. But the pandemic muffled any chance of an in-person response, leaving many fans unsatisfied with the scandal on multiple levels. As my friend Abi Cooper said, “I wanted booing.” At the end of 2020, the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series, which seemed to lower the intensity of the Astros scandal, though the Astros’ appearance in the 2021 World Series against the Atlanta Braves brought a slew of reminder pieces about the scandal. The Astros lost. When they won the World Series in 2022, many observers brought up the cheating again.
The echoes of actual trash can banging remain, simply because there has been no cultural resolution. This unresolved controversy propels Astros and Asterisks, which approaches and analyzes the controversy from a variety of angles. We explore this subject in five sections:
- “Histories of Cheating in Baseball,” which covers the period before the scandal came to light;
- “The Scandal Unfolds,” which tells the story of the cheating scheme itself;
- “Fans and the Scandal,” which covers both how the fans reacted and why they reacted as they did;
- “The Scandal and Its Ethical Dilemmas,” which explores some of the ethical issues attached to the scandal; and
- “Technology and the Scandal,” which explains the implications of using technological and informational means to cheat.
The approach is loosely chronological and parallels the way we often process big events, by recounting the story of the event, getting close to the people who experienced it, and then providing multiple contexts in which to understand it. A baseball sign-stealing scandal is a small event in the scheme of things, but it provides a window into so many elements of societal interest: what constitutes cheating and why do people do it, the strange symbols that pop up into our cultural consciousness, and the way Big Data and technological innovations have become entwined in our everyday lives.
Jonathan Silverman is a professor of English at UMass Lowell. He is the coauthor of Johnny Cash International: How and Why Fans Love the Man in Black and author of Nine Choices: Johnny Cash and American Culture.
- The following sources were very useful in composing the introduction: Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, “The Astros Stole Signs Electronically in 2017—Part of a Much Broader Issue for Major League Baseball,” The Athletic, November 12, 2019, https://theathletic.com/1363451/2019/11/12; Dayn Perry, “Astros, Red Sox SignStealing Timeline: Everything We Know about MLB Scandals,” CBS Sports, November 24, 2020, https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/astros-red-sox-sign-stealing-timeline-everything-we-know-about-mlb-scandals/; and Jacob Bogage, “What Is Sign Stealing? Making Sense of Major League Baseball’s Latest Scandal,” Washington Post, February 14, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/01/14/ what-is-sign-stealing-baseball/.
- Tom Jackman, “Baseball’s Cheating History Includes Its Most Famous Home Run, the ‘Shot Heard ’Round the World,’” Washington Post, February 13, 2020, https:// www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/02/13/giants-cheating-home-run-1951/.
- Jackman, “Baseball’s Cheating History.”