Baseball is only as pure as you want to pretend it is in your mind.
We love the national pastime, which for many of us was a first love. We feel a connection to the game, that the game belongs to us, and that we belong to the game. But for whatever brushstrokes we use to paint our perception of baseball, it's simply covering up a perpetual reality: Some ballplayers cheat.
Baseball men cheat to win, cheat to get ahead. They've done it in different facets for different generations, and we only find out about some of it, those schemes uncovered by journalists or investigators. From spitballs to foreign substances to steroids to sign-stealing, the one constant through all the years has been cheating.
News that the Houston Astros electronically stole signs during games is just the latest in a lifetime of reminders that heroes are mortal. Soon, MLB will make announcements about the Boston Red Sox, managed by the same man who instigated the sign-stealing in Houston. We'll likely never know which Astros hitters took advantage of the sign-stealing. We'll likely never know how many or how few. But we know some of them did — men with World Series rings cheated during the World Series. And they'll continue to play in Major League Baseball, while their superiors (manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow) were suspended by the league and dismissed by their team.
And it's up to us to use our minds to compartmentalize. Some people will blame all Astros (“Houston Asterisks” has become a popular line online). Some will say some broad-stroke stuff like “many teams cheat, they're just the ones who were caught.” Some will say the Astros are All-Star players anyway, and they would've won a bunch regardless of teammates sometimes banging trash cans to alert them of certain pitches. Everyone will have an opinion, most everyone will show some level of consternation and everyone will keep watching the sport.
It was very interesting to see the Twitter reaction from David Freese. Sometimes, no matter how well we ask the questions, journalists can't get current athletes to say what they're truly thinking. The athlete happily and politely talks on the record, but won't share honest thoughts about something, for fear of repercussions or feather-ruffling.
But Freese just retired after the 2019 season. So the former Cardinals All-Star and postseason legend said on social media: “Didn’t really expect the punishments to be this harsh. Good for MLB stepping up. Still don’t know what’s more frustrating tho, an ex teammate of the WS title team talking publicly about his team cheating or so many guys being down to use a damn trash can lol. Should take the ring.”
Didn’t really expect the punishments to be this harsh. Good for MLB stepping up. Still don’t know what’s more frustrating tho, an ex teammate of the WS title team talking publicly about his team cheating or so many guys being down to use a damn trash can lol. Should take the ring— David Freese (@david23freese) January 13, 2020
Freese was affected by the cheating. He was on the 2018 Dodgers team that lost to the Red Sox in the World Series. And some of his teammates, of course, were on the 2017 Dodgers team that lost to the Astros in the World Series. His Tweet showed thankfulness for the punishments and Major League Baseball “stepping up.”
He also brought up a fascinating aspect to the whole scandal. Freese wondered which is worse: the cheating itself or the ex-Astros player ratting on his ex-teammates in the media? Oakland pitcher Mike Fiers went public — and credit the reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich for getting the story — about his old club's sign-stealing in 2017. Freese's comment reminds us about the special and almost sacred bond of baseball teammates. That from a ballplayer's perspective, breaking the bond is as “frustrating” as the people actually cheating the game.
Even weeks before Monday's announcement, Astros star Carlos Correa told the Houston Chronicle of the Fiers quotes: “Knowing Fiers, it was surprising, because we were a team. We were a team. We were all together, and we had a bond, and we won a World Series championship. But this is America, the land of the free. You can say what you want to say.”
As for the Astros' cheating itself, it's infuriating because it skewed the playing field and tainted fair play. We learn a lot about players when news like this comes out — and we also learn about ourselves. About what truly makes us mad about the cheating. About what level of cheating is over the line. And about our perceptions of baseball as a pure game.