Many suspected that the Houston Astros were somehow cheating their way to the top. For opposing pitchers, the tendency for batters to lay back on certain pitches was uncanny. And as Major League Baseball’s premier teams, their ability to stay atop the game’s leaders in recent years was remarkable. But none could prove it, or perhaps were willing to do so. That is, until one brave MLB player chose to break what was previously perceived as an unbreakable code of silence. Since then, it has become painfully evident that all is not well within Major League Baseball today.
Identified under the name “Codebreaker,” the Houston Astros used a combination of electronic technology and old-school signals to cheat. But this part of the story is only the tip of the iceberg. More troubling is the fact that all the Astros players, managers, and operations staff likely knew about the scam. Yet, none chose to break MLB’s code of silence and speak out against the injustice and deceit. And even more disturbing is the punishments that have since been handed out by the MLB commissioner himself. Given this chain of events, it is clear that MLB has much bigger issues than simply one team going rogue. MLB has a serious code of ethics problems ingrained within its culture. And unless it chooses to do something about it, the game as we know it may truly suffer irreparable damage.
“At the beginning of the 2017 season, employees in the Astros’ video replay review room began…to decode and transmit opposing teams’ sign sequences. One or more players watched the live feed [and would] bang a nearby trash can with a bat to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter.” – Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Major League Baseball
How the Houston Astros’ Codebreaker Came to Be
Though some of the details remain elusive, it appears Codebreaker was devised something late in the 2016 baseball season. Reportedly, Astros’ front office general manger, Jeff Luhnow, presented the Codebreaker concept to some of the operations staff. In essence, the team’s operations and video staff would start recording pitches and information using video equipment. This information was then entered into an Excel database where algorithmic analyses could be performed. And eventually, Codebreaker would “crack the code” allowing the Astros to know what pitch was coming next. Without question, the process was quite simple. And without a doubt, it was also both illegal and unethical.
By 2017, Codebreaker was in full force. Not only were the opposing team’s pitching signs being decoded. They were also being communicated to the batter on a pitch-by-pitch basis. Players in the dugout would watch the opposing catcher’s signals for the pitch as they would occur. And along with the Codebreaker decoding information, they would bang on a garbage can. The manner with which they banged provided the Astros’ batter what pitch to expect. Naturally, this enabled the Astros to excel, especially at home. And it also led to a 2017 World Series championship. But at no time was the code of silence among the Astros’ team members broken. No one dared to speak up and confront the potential ramifications that breaking the code of silence might bring.
“A number of important issues and questions have emerged from these recent investigations. These matters directly affect all players and the way our game is played, now and going forward.” – Tony Clark, Executive Director of Major League Baseball’s Players’ Association
A Longstanding History for MLB’s Code of Silence
Some perceive the integration of technology into baseball as the cause of the problem. But a big part of the problem is MLB’s history of condoning a player code of silence. While some perceive a code of silence as honoring others in the game, this concept has a dark history in baseball. For example, the failure to report pitchers “doctoring” the ball during a game has been supported by this code of silence. Likewise, the steroid saga that stained the face of baseball for years reflects repercussions from this code as well. And certainly, the current scandal involving the Astros reflects a similar problem where a serious issue is identified long after it began. While this code of silence is grounded in respect, there’s little doubt it’s in conflict with a larger code of ethics.
The primary motivation for this code of silence has been assumed to be respect for other professionals. But concurrently, the failure to report wrongdoing is also motivated by fear. In many instances, there is concern that telling on another player or team could lead to reciprocal threats. In other words, in a game where few are playing by the rules, the risk of coming clean is simply too high. So, player after player, and manager after manager, looks the other way and faithfully keeps this code of silence. This is what happened with Codebreaker, and it’s also what has happened in many other cases in baseball’s history.
“There’s a message to be sent to youth out there…It was awesome to (grow up and) watch [baseball] played the right way. We’ve kind of drifted from that…You don’t have to cheat to get to where you want to go. This kind of stuff doesn’t need to happen.” – Mike Bolsinger, Former MLB pitcher
A Pervasive Culture of Poor Accountability
In addition to the code of silence that facilitated Codebreaker, MLB has a bigger problem with which to deal. In short, it’s MLB’s longstanding culture that fails to hold unethical behavior accountable from the start. Only after major scandals have been revealed to the public does MLB authorities begin to take action. And even in these instances, the punitive actions taken fail to adequately fit the infractions committed. It is this lack of proper accountability combined with a misdirected code of silence that perpetuates this problem. Codebreaker is simple another example of a more longstanding problem that MLB has faced for decades.
Since Codebreaker was revealed in November, 2019, by former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, MLB has conducted their own investigations. In the aftermath of Codebreaker, MLB learned that Fiers’ accusations were indeed correct. And they also learned that the practice was pervasive throughout the Astros organization. Yet, in the punishments handed out, MLB suspended Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for a single year. And the MLB also fined the Astros $5 million. But this hardly compares to the $31 million received in bonuses the Astros received from winning the 2017 World Series. And it fails to hold any player or other staff members for the cheating behaviors in which they were involved. Based on a benefit and risk assessment, one could argue the Astros made the right choice. Of course, that assumes the goal is to win at all costs while leaving ethics on the doorstep. This is the type of culture MLB’s actions are currently cultivating.
Glimmers of Hope Amidst the Darkness
While concerns are significant regarding the type of ethics MLB is encouraging, some hope does exist. For one, the decision for Mike Fiers to come forward against the code of silence is admirable. It took courage in the current MLB culture to do the right thing despite potential risks of being ostracized. Likewise, team owners have terminated contracts with Luhnow, Hinch, and Cora, who were central to the Codebreaker fiasco. While these actions are respectable, they are not going to be enough to fix MLB’s code of ethics problem.
Understanding this, true ethical change for MLB needs to start with punishments that hold everyone involved accountable. And it means rewarding ethical behavior while deterring a code of silence that hides unethical choices. Codebreaker is not the first MLB scandal involving poor ethics, and it’s not likely to be the last. But unless a committed change is pursued that creates a true ethical culture, baseball will suffer. And given the passion and love that millions have for this game, that would be a real shame.