Baseball’s Crisis of Faith

The Astros sign-stealing scandal has shaken the faith of some in baseball. (via Keith Allison)

As baseball reflects back on the 2010s, a particular phenomenon stands out among all else: The 24-hour news cycle has taken hold, seeping into the very fabric of the sport. While the burn has been slow—players finding out about trades on Twitter before they’ve even been informed by their teams and other such happenings—never have the embers blazed so acutely hot as in 2019. For many fans, baseball is meant as an escape from the constant bludgeoning that is the political news cycle and endless cable punditry. But in the past year especially, it has become a parallel of that cycle rather than an antidote. “What new scandal will I wake up to this morning?” As we log on, we think, “What fresh hell awaits us?” 

Of course, this is a situation of Major League Baseball’s own making. In seemingly all of the dizzying array of scandals and tensions now plaguing the sport, baseball has either come up with insufficient solutions or simply no solution at all, turning the other cheek to a lot of the more ugly moral failings of the sport’s dealings, such as human trafficking and the exploitation of children.

What sets the current era apart is that in addition to a combination of some of the issues the sport has faced in the past—the sheer volume of problems the game is facing—the integrity of the game itself is under scrutiny in an unprecedented way. While sign-stealing has always been a part of baseball, the systematic use of technology in coordinated efforts that rise to the front-office level is a novel degree of cheating that is, by all accounts, rampant across the sport.

As punishments start to be handed down, it feels as though every day brings a new blow to the fundamental innocence at the heart of fandom. Scorned fan bases cast stones in glass houses at the teams brazen enough to be caught. But there is an undercurrent of dread: What if their team is next? Is even the most fundamental part of the game—the chess match of pitcher against hitter—no longer sacred?

And then there is the matter of the ever-changing baseball—juiced and then un-juiced and then juiced again—with MLB either having little control over the manufacturing process at its own company or making purposefully misleading statements about its involvement. Neither situation is particularly reassuring to teams trying to build rosters or to fans wanting to enjoy the game under the assumption of a basic foundation of fairness and consistency. 

Historically, turbulent times in baseball’s history can be broken down into three broad categories: bribery and betting, labor relations, and substance abuse. One hundred years ago, throughout the 1910s and culminating in the infamous Black Sox Scandal, gambling and game-fixing plagued the game. Betting reared its head again in the 1980s when Pete Rose eventually was banned from baseball for life. The ’80s were also a time of rampant collusion and the deterioration of labor relations, which ultimately resulted in the longest work stoppage in baseball history. Concurrently, the Pittsburgh drug trials shone a spotlight on the abuse of drugs like cocaine and amphetamines that plagued the game in that era. And then, of course, came the abuse of a different class of drugs in the ‘90s and 2000s, which constituted the most infamous cheating scandal in the game’s history—perhaps until now.

As we make our way through another Hall of Fame voting season, the effects of these scandals are being felt more acutely. In every other troubled era baseball has faced, the league has, eventually, cracked down hard. Harsh penalties for infractions on the league’s drug policy were enacted, and lifetime bans were handed down. Rose will never be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and the other faces of the steroid era continue to fall short of the 75% voting threshold because of the ambiguity that will always accompany their names in the record books (although there are deeper moral reasons for keeping Bonds and Clemens out of the Hall of Fame as well).

While no lifetime bans have been issued for the sign-stealing scandal, it is hard to imagine Jeff Luhnow will ever work in baseball again, and the same may be true for A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora. And with Carlos Beltrán’s Hall of Fame fate yet to be decided, it is likely his chances are much more remote now than they were a few months ago. The baseball community comes together to consider the subjectivity of the stain these things have left on the game. 

Decades from now, how will the current times be considered in the greater baseball canon? They have a little bit of everything—a veritable potpourri of scandals that touch every aspect of the game. There is cheating, the pervasiveness of which we are learning more and more about by the day. There is corruption and incompetence on the part of teams and on the part of MLB. There are extremely tense labor relations, as the restructuring of the minor leagues and what feels like an inevitable strike loom in the not-too-distant future. There is substance abuse—and the dread Tyler Skaggs’ death may be a harbinger of things to come. There are moral failings when it comes to issues of domestic violence, racism, and criminal activity in the international market. The baseball world was so completely wrapped up in the rapidly evolving fallout of the sign-stealing scandal that the bone-chilling full story of a credible rape accusation involving former Mets went almost unnoticed.

Dwight Gooden—one of the players implicated in the piece—was a central figure on the 1986 Mets team that defined a generation of baseball fans in New York and remains revered to this day. Beltrán is one of those figures for a younger generation of Mets fans who idolized him. He also was the veteran leader of an Astros championship team that is now forever tainted. Although Beltrán was the only player named in MLB’s report, the perception of players like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman, beloved by Astros fans and baseball fans alike, is now also permanently altered.

Although the steroid era placed asterisks next to the names of previously adored larger-than-life figures in the game, it was perhaps easier to sympathize and forgive. They acted mostly on their own. Sometimes they were simply trying to recover from injury. This feels bigger somehow. These players are willing cogs in a whole machine of dishonesty. And sometimes, as is the case with Gooden, Jose Reyes, Roberto Osuna, and others, they’re cogs in a machine that excuses unspeakable immoral behavior as well.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the main character attempts to erase the tainted memories of his ex from his mind, only to find his mind desperately clings to the good memories and attempts to sidestep the procedure by burying those memories deep in his subconscious. As the tagline for the film says, “You can erase someone from your mind. Getting them out of your heart is another story.” Reckoning with the notion that the treasured memories of our baseball heroes are tinged with the knowledge of their conduct feels much like the battle raging inside Joel Barish’s mind in the film.

This constant test of our fandom feels utterly relentless. Perhaps it is because Twitter did not exist during the Black Sox scandal or the Pittsburgh drug trials, or even during most of the steroid era, but the result of the barrage is a heavy and crushing cynicism, pushing down on our collective chests, making us stay home and tune out rather than engage. Baseball continues to rake in record profits, but one can’t help but wonder how long it will take before this phenomenon descends from something that is simply felt in the baseball fan consciousness to something that has a tangible effect in attendance and ratings.

Although it is not something that can be measured, it is clear fans taking stock of all of this may still be enjoying the game, but they’re enjoying it perhaps differently than before—with an understanding their team is likely not innocent. It becomes harder and harder to revel in the simplicity of the reductive “good guy vs. bad guy” mentality sports provide us when there are fewer and fewer “good guys” left.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Can baseball be an escape from the troubled times we live in when it looks so very much like them? It serves as a stark reminder that sports cannot be insulated from society; they are an integral part of society and a reflection of our values. The 2010s were tinged by a crisis of faith among the game’s fan base, and it remains to be seen how major league baseball will emerge from the storm. 

Allison McCague is a Science Fellow with the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University working in the New Jersey state government. She has a PhD in Human Genetics from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. An avid Mets fan, she writes and podcasts about Mets baseball for Amazin' Avenue.
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4 years ago

Protect Your Faith
As you watch baseball for 40 or more years, you realize as fans, one needs to have a certain perspective and sense of detachment. It’s not “our game,” nor are our childhood memories which were connected to dreams of the big leagues quite reality. It’s a business, and as I have learned thru covering the minor leagues, it’s tough to break through. The pressure motives that make these guys feel like they must retain competitive edges are enormous. Sign stealing fits somewhere in Twitter’s spectrum between a capital offense; and “just a slice of the game within the game.” Hopefully, fans stick around to figure out the subtle nuances, and not allow the hawt taeks of the inexperienced to sway the narrative. Like it or not, baseball has had some unsavory characters, who skirted the rules and made history on the scoreboard — the final word. Most fans embrace that part of its history nonetheless (now with even more checks and balances), and welcome the differences to be settled on the field. A pastime, yes.

One I walked away from in ’98 with the strike. It has a way of bringing the faithful back. Forgive but never forget.

Marc Schneider
4 years ago

This just strikes me as more “the sky if falling” nonsense. By not, I think most people realize that sports is not immune from the kinds of things that go on everywhere else. People aren’t going to stop watching baseball because of sign stealing or football because of injuries or whatever other scandal exists in sports. In fact, I would argue that the sign-stealing scandal enabled baseball to attract attention during a period when little is happening and even took some attention away from the NFL playoffs. I’m not minimizing the seriousness of the problem but I think it has little impact on how people see the game. It’s entertainment; there are much more problematic things going on in the United States than a team stealing signs illegally. Baseball clearly needs to take action and it has, although one can argue whether it was enough or whether MLB should have anticipated the problem. But the notion that baseball is in trouble because of the scandals strikes me as wrong. The only thing that really bothers fans is when the game is not being played because of labor issues, since fans almost always side with capital over labor. The real problems that baseball has from a fans’ perspective, I think, is figuring out how to attract a younger audience. The scandals don’t affect the game’s popularity.

4 years ago

Baseball fans understand that competitive athletes are going to try and get an advantage any way they can. That doesn’t make it right or ok but it would be weird if they weren’t trying.

Only sportswriters seem to be in crisis over this (probably because a lot of them never actually played the sport past little league and don’t understand the mentality)

Marc Schneider
4 years ago
Reply to  jwa05001

While I generally agree with your comment, I wouldn’t exactly call this author a “sportswriter.”

Allison McCague is a Science Fellow with the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University working in the New Jersey state government. She has a PhD in Human Genetics from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. An avid Mets fan, she writes and podcasts about Mets baseball for Amazin’ Avenue.

4 years ago

One other thing. It seems like every season the NFL has cameragate or deflated footballs or egregious missed interference calls….yet no crisis of confidence. Why are baseball writers so sensitive?

Phil Leemember
4 years ago

MLB is full of crap. I’m not a techy by any stretch of the imagination. You would think MLB employs some. What was the memo to Manfred ….
uh Boss you know they can steal signs real time by use of video etc. Great boys I’ll send out a stern memo to be on scouts honor not to do this..
Ya know the front offices and us came down hard on the steroid thingamajg after we woke up some 10 years later.

The Guru
4 years ago

manfred needs to resign.