Carlos Beltran (center) in 2017. Photo by Keith Allison.
On a historic October day in 1951, Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca threw a fastball to New York Giants batter Bobby Thompson, who swatted it into the Polo Grounds’ left-field stands for a pennant-winning three-run homer.
On another October day, 55 years (and for New York’s National League baseball fans, about 100,000 heartbreaks) later, New York Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran stood frozen as a curveball from St. Louis closer Adam Wainwright caught the outside corner for a game-ending strikeout, delivering the pennant to the Cardinals and leaving three Mets base runners stranded on the wrong side of a 3-1 score. Beltran’s failure also cost his teammate Endy Chavez a bit of baseball immortality. If the Mets had won the game, a spectacular catch Chavez made in the sixth inning would have gotten much of the credit.
What was the difference between these two memorable games, apart from the outcome for the teams that wore caps with “NY” logos? A big one is that while Beltran obviously expected a different pitch than the one he got from Wainwright, there is a very good chance that Thompson knew what Branca was going to throw (although he denied it until his dying day, nearly 60 years later).
Fast forward to 2017. Beltran was playing the final season of his highly successful career with the Houston Astros. The Astros won 101 regular season games that year, and went on to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a seven-game World Series. At age 40, Beltran appeared in 129 games for Houston, batting .231 and hitting a respectable 14 home runs. But he was also a major player in a teamwide effort to steal opposing teams’ pitching signs using off-limits technology, baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred recently concluded in a scathing report.
Beltran had been hired to make a triumphant return to the Mets as their manager for the 2020 season. Instead, he was let go last week before he had the chance to manage a single game.
Beltran is neither the only professional casualty of the scandal nor the highest-profile firing. There is a distinct possibility that he will not be the last, either. Manfred imposed one-year suspensions on Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow; they were subsequently fired by team owner Jim Crane. In short order, the Boston Red Sox also fired their manager, Alex Cora. Cora was the Astros bench coach in 2017 and, according to Manfred, another central figure in the sign-stealing enterprise. In 2018 Cora managed the Red Sox to a World Series victory. Now the commissioner’s office is looking into whether Boston engaged in illegal sign stealing during that championship season.
The Astros organization received a $5 million fine, the maximum permitted under Major League Baseball rules. The team also lost their two top picks in each of the next two rounds of amateur drafts. Press reports indicate that other teams believe the Houston organization got off lightly.
Or maybe their punishment isn’t quite through. Late last week the baseball world was buzzing, so to speak, about new allegations that several Astros stars wore electronic buzzers beneath their uniforms to tip them about incoming pitches during the 2019 postseason. Manfred’s office quickly said it had heard such rumors but was unable to corroborate them. Still, the story seemed unlikely to go away any time soon.
Cheating was not even the first scandal to afflict the Astros after their otherwise successful year. In October the team fired an assistant general manager, Brandon Taubman, after an ugly clubhouse incident in which he taunted three female journalists about the team’s decision to sign Roberto Osuna, a relief pitcher who had been suspended for assaulting the mother of his child while he played for the Toronto Blue Jays. Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein wrote about the incident, arguing that it represented a systemic problem in the way the sport addresses domestic violence. The Astros initially defended Taubman and accused Apstein of fabricating the story, though other correspondents who witnessed the scene corroborated it. Manfred has suspended Taubman for the 2020 season, with a warning that future clubhouse misconduct could earn Taubman a lifetime ban.
Baseball, more than any other professional team sport, reveres its history and tries to connect its past to its present. Others might disagree with this assessment. Yet I don’t see nearly as much interest in comparing, say, Wilt Chamberlain to LeBron James in basketball, or Johnny Unitas to Tom Brady in football, as there is in debates about the relative performances of Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds. Every playoff and World Series is also played against the legends of the past – and every scandal threatens that continuity of faith that binds fans to the game and its players.
When as many as eight players on the Chicago “Black Sox” conspired to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds, the game took the threat of gambling so seriously that it banned the eight for life and installed its first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. When Pete Rose, the sport’s all-time hits leader, bet on games, he was banned for life too.
The sport has only barely recovered from the stain that performance-enhancing drugs left on the reputation of some of its brightest stars and their achievements from the mid-1990s to the early 2010s. Season and career records set by Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and others were once stunning but now command little respect due to the players’ connections with doping. None are in the Hall of Fame, and I don’t expect to live to see any of them enshrined there.
Now the accomplishments of the 2017 Astros and the 2018 Red Sox are tarnished, too. Nobody will take away their titles – this is not college athletics, where teams can retroactively lose games they actually won. But a considerable number of current and future fans are likely to give the teams less respect than their records merited, and probably less than they genuinely deserve.
Think back to those 1951 New York Giants. They were 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in August, when they went on an amazing hot streak – especially at home. It later emerged that they had installed a coach, Herman Franks, in the center-field clubhouse just below the scoreboard. Franks was placed to watch home plate with a powerful telescope. He later acknowledged to journalist Joshua Prager that he was equipped with a buzzer he could use to signal the incoming pitch to players in the Giants’ bullpen, who would wave a towel to tip off teammates who were batting about what to expect.
If the scheme gave the Giants even one victory they would not have otherwise obtained in their amazing stretch run, they would not have caught the Dodgers and forced the three-game playoff that decided the pennant that October. Thompson would never have come to bat against Branca in the bottom of the ninth inning of the third game, with his team on the brink of losing.
Thompson acknowledged having received tips about other pitches in other games, but he denied that he was alerted to Branca’s fastball. Yet in an article in The Wall Street Journal last month, Prager said Franks made a startling comment to him in what amounted to a deathbed confession at their final meeting in 2009. Franks, who had never before admitted to the scheme, reportedly told Prager that he sent the fastball sign to the Giants bullpen – and that through his spyglass, he could see Thompson shift his eyes to pick up the signal, just before Branca threw the final pitch of the Dodgers’ 1951 season.
“The shot heard round the world,” as it came to be known (and which it really was, thanks to Armed Forces Radio carrying the broadcast to U.S. troops as far away as the battlefields of Korea) has lost quite a bit of its thunder thanks to what we now know. Fans expect games to be decided by a team’s effort on the field, not in the laboratory or the video replay room or the center-field scoreboard. Competing players deserve to have games decided there, too. We’ll have to wait to see what other steps baseball will take to identify those who cheated in the past and to keep the playing field level in the future.