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Saturday Sports: Baseball Cheating Scandal


And now it's time for sports.


SIMON: Cameras, a trash cans code, maybe even buzzers - the ingredients of a cheating scheme by the Houston Astros, who won the World Series in 2017 and narrowly lost it last year. Lots of allegations tumbling out as we speak, including about other teams. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Tom, thanks so much for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Tom, this could be the most serious scandal in baseball since the 1919 Black Sox through the World Series, couldn't it?

GOLDMAN: I think it could. The Houston Astros broke baseball rules by using technology at Houston home games - technology in the form of video cameras, video replay - to steal the signs opposing catchers were giving to pitchers. Now, the team that won the 2018 World Series, the Boston Red Sox, is being investigated for similar rule-breaking. There's suspicion there could be more teams, as well. So just the scope could be much greater than 1919.

And, Scott, you know, then there's this. The rule-breaking involved here threatens a fundamental relationship in Major League Baseball between the pitcher and the batter. Normally, the pitcher knows what he's going to throw; the batter doesn't. The batter has milliseconds to figure out or to guess the speed, the angle, the spin of the ball. And, you know, that's one of the reasons Ted Williams famously said hitting a pitched ball is the hardest thing to do in sports. And if you successfully steal a sign from the catcher, you know what pitch is coming. Now the batter has the advantage, and that relationship is turned upside down. And the outcome of games can change because of that. It's very telling that several pitchers tweeted this week they'd rather face a player on steroids than a player who knew what pitch was coming.


SIMON: Can you hear that, Tom?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Come in.


SIMON: I'm signaling my next question by banging on a trash can.

GOLDMAN: OK, I know what's coming (laughter).

SIMON: Manager and general manager of the Astros have been let go, manager of the Red Sox and Mets who were on that Astros team. Should the teams have their championships taken away?

GOLDMAN: You know, there's a case to be made for that. But the other side of the argument holds more sway when it comes to professional team sports. That argument is the championship happened. Nothing will change that, even if it's deemed fraudulent. Mostly in the pros, they punish forward. Future draft picks, fines, suspensions. So perhaps an asterisk, but I don't see World Series being taken away.

SIMON: In the steroids scandal, the player's union tried to protect the accused players. The player's union - now, remember that when the Houston Astros and perhaps more teams cheated, they harmed the performance and the records of opposing players.

GOLDMAN: Well, that's a really good point, you know? There's been a lot of talk about the LA Dodgers, who lost to Houston in the World Series in that 2017 season. You remember what happened to Yu Darvish, the...

SIMON: He was humiliated.

GOLDMAN: He was humiliated, yeah.

SIMON: And it turns out they knew what was coming from him.

GOLDMAN: Yeah. And he was famously lit up by Houston batters in that series in games in Houston, where the Astros used the sign-stealing scheme. Now, he's openly wondering, you know, the Astros told him after that series that he was tipping his pitches, you know, kind of giving away with little tics or whatever. But now he's wondering, well, was it their sign-stealing? And what this does to a pitcher's reputation - I mean, it took Yu Darvish - who you know now is with the Chicago Cubs. It took him until the latter half of last season to really recover and become an effective pitcher again.

SIMON: Major League Baseball would like to say the scandal is done. It's not, is it?

GOLDMAN: Well, it's not, you know? There still is the investigation going on about the Boston Red Sox, which could lead to punishment from the league. And, of course, Scott, at the end of this crazy week, it got even crazier. Rumors started flying that last year's Astros, who were not implicated in the Major League Baseball investigation - rumors were that players on the 2019 team wore electronic devices that signaled to them what pitches were coming.

Now, if you remember - Jose Altuve hitting that dramatic series-winning homerun versus the Yankees last year in the playoffs. And as he headed for home plate, he grabbed his jersey, told his teammates not to rip it off. That's the popular celebration with game-winning hits. And the suspicion now is that he did that because if his shirt had been ripped off, it would've exposed one of these electronic wearables. Now, Altuve denies wearing anything illegal. Major League Baseball says there's no evidence of it. But, obviously, it's sent this story into the stratosphere. And people are wondering who's cheating, who's innocent.

SIMON: Yeah. Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in 24 days. I count. Fans going to wonder if what they're seeing is honest?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, I think they already are wondering that. And, you know, the big worry by Major League Baseball is that large numbers of fans won't trust the product on the field if they perceive widespread cheating. It's not baseball season right now, as you point out, so it's hard to survey large numbers. But as you said, spring training starts in about a month. We'll get a first sense then how deep the suspicion runs.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.