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Photo Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The rotting, layered onion that is the Astros sign stealing scandal

Anybody who says “baseball is boring” hasn’t been paying attention this offseason.

What typically is a dormant period for Major League Baseball has been a tire fire of epic proportions, stoked by the Houston Astros sign stealing scandal. And just when it seems like things are dying down, new revelations are unearthed on a weekly basis.

In the words of the great 20th century philosopher George Costanza: “This thing is like an onion. The more layers you peel, the more it stinks.”

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Earlier this week, Rob Manfred thought he closed Pandora’s box by levying hefty suspensions upon Jeff Luhnow, A.J. Hinch and the Astros organization. Yet, in the matter of mere days, the lid flew wide open again after the firings of Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran. And the latest rumour about buzzers potentially being used by Astros hitters to gain an edge against opposing pitchers sent baseball into a total frenzy.

This is the biggest scandal in baseball since performance-enhancing drugs in the early 2000s. In fact, the Astros sign stealing scheme might eclipse the PED scandal, because eventually, Major League Baseball got to the bottom of PED’s by aid of the Mitchell report. But with the Astros and Red Sox’ cheating scandals, it feels like we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.

The Blue Jays were no strangers to the Astro’s garbage can “banging scheme”, as Manfred put it in his nine-page report detailing the Astros’ wrongdoings. During this Marcus Stroman start at Minute Maid Park in 2017, the Astros were all over his offspeed pitches thanks in part to banging noises originating close to the Astros dugout.

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The fact that the Astros were blatantly cheating in front of everyone’s eyes (and ears) is a slap in the face to anyone who calls themselves a Major League Baseball player.

But the Astros soon realized that other teams were catching on, like Danny Farquhar of the Chicago White Sox, for example. If the trash can banging noise was picked up by the field mics, surely, opposing players heard the same and suspected the Astros were scheming something. But teams couldn’t go public without circumstantial evidence.

That’s what makes the whole Blue Jays “man in white” rumour from 2011 even more ridiculous. ESPN released a report about opposing players seeing a “man in white” in the stands at Rogers Centre, relaying signs to Blue Jays hitters. As suspected, there wasn’t one shred of evidence of the Blue Jays having spotters in centre field relaying signs to hitters.

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Conversely, the Astros left a distinct breadcrumb trail of auditory cues linked to their sign stealing scheme. They weren’t coy about the whole exercise. They didn’t take all the necessary precautions to hide their transgressions. The Astros were brazen because they knew they would get away with it.

In retrospect, it makes sense this stayed under wrap for over two years. Other teams reportedly well knew of what the Astros were up to, but without an active player willing to go on the record and become the whistleblower, nobody wanted to the be the “rat”.

Enter Mike Fiers: one of the two active players who bravely put his name on this scandal, pointing the finger at his former teammates in Houston. Fiers said he went to Major League Baseball with this information prior to going public with The Athletic, but the only reason this story kicked overdrive was because it blew up in the public eye. Within baseball’s inner circles, many players surely knew they were guilty of similar practices as Astros players or knew someone else who was.

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Baseball has a way of policing itself in certain instances, but in this case where the Astros were cheating blatantly, and frankly, acting cocky about it, players like Fiers were fed up with this supposed “model franchise” running amok and costing players their livelihood. Kudos to Fiers for lighting the match that brought this whole damn thing down.

And Manfred has yet to announce which players, coaches or front office staff are involved in the Red Sox’ 2018 scandal. That’s an entirely separate can of worms, although it’s hard to imagine things getting any messier or crazier than what’s been unearthed about the Houston Astros already.

This latest buzzer accusation has put the Astros organization even further under the microscope. It’s reached the point where one has to question the recent success of the Astros dating all the way back to the 2015 season. Did they draft and develop their way from one of baseball’s basement-dwellers to MLB’s model franchise in earnest, or did they have some help?

Why were the Astros’ home/road playoff splits remarkably different? How did pitchers’ spin rates suddenly spike as members of the Astros pitching staff? How is it that the Astros hitters had the lowest strikeout numbers in baseball last year while their pitchers had the highest strikeout rates in baseball?

The Astros no longer receive the benefit of the doubt on any of these questions. Everything from hereon out related to the Astros is tagged with an asterisk. Manfred may not vacate the 2017 World Series title, but it may as well have a giant asterisk next to it.

The Astros cheated in 2017 and they won the whole damn thing. They were three wins away from returning to the World Series in 2018, but ran into another team that manipulated the rules: the Boston Red Sox.

And then the Astros were *this close* to winning the 2019 World Series, too. If the Washington Nationals weren’t so prudent about changing their signs, maybe the Astros win another World Series and subsequently, another tainted title lands in Houston.

Nobody knows how far or how deep this conspiracy goes. But with each passing week, a new layer of this rotting onion is peeled away. Hinch, Cora and Beltran were the latest casualties, with surely more to come in the weeks, months and years ahead.

The Astros’ sign stealing scandal has transformed baseball as we know it. For a sport that’s seeking to find its identity and trying desperately to gain any sense of credibility, baseball’s integrity is murkier than ever.