The situation surround Carlos Beltran and his involvement with the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal from 2017 is still somewhat up in the air. Beltran, the only player mentioned in the report, clearly had a major role in the operation, but since he was a player, and not a coach or manager, Major League Baseball did not levy any punishment against him for his involvement. But that hasn’t stopped many from wondering what the Mets would do with their new manager.
Some feel that his punishment should be similar to those of the coaching staff that were implicated, whereas others don’t believe the charges are grounds for termination. We opened up the question to our staff, who share their thoughts below.
In the discussion surrounding Carlos Beltran, there are many people who are eager to draw a great big line between him and the rest of the individuals named in Major League Baseball’s report on the Astros’ sign-stealing operation because he was a player at the time, while the other individuals were not. While that is absolutely a relevant distinction when it comes to punishment on the part of the league because of the protections baseball’s collective bargaining agreement provides to players, this is a discussion that requires much more nuance than that.
It is certainly true that regardless of the extent of Beltran’s involvement, those that outranked him, like A.J. Hinch and Jeff Lunhow, could have put a stop to whatever was going on, player-generated or not. But they did not. And that is why they are now out of baseball, and rightly so. However, Beltran is now the only individual mentioned by name in MLB’s report that has yet to face any consequences for his role in very clearly unethical behavior. (It is worth noting that the behavior is unethical, no matter how many other teams may also be doing it.) To say it is unfair that he was singled out amongst the players is disingenuous when so many contemporaneous articles exist extolling his virtues as a leader in that clubhouse—practically a coach. Those pieces read a lot differently now.
Absent any real managerial experience, that “veteran leadership” (which we now know included cheating) was a big part of why Beltran was hired. For this reason, I am deeply uncomfortable with Beltran being the Mets’ manager. Does this rise to the level of indignance and outrage? No—at least not for me. I’ll save that for the likes of Jose Reyes, who the Mets had no issues bringing back despite knowledge of his much deeper moral failings. Beltran’s Mets legacy as a player is not tarnished for me the way his Astros legacy is tarnished. He remains one of my all time favorite Mets. I will not argue that the Mets have a moral obligation to fire him, but it may be the ethically correct course of action to do so—although I think it is unlikely that they will at this point. But “deeply uncomfortable” remains the best description of my feelings about Beltran’s situation, however incomplete and unsatisfying a description as it may be.
In the bottom of the ninth, the ace showed signs of cracking. Coming into the inning with a 4-1 lead, he allowed the opposing team to plate a run and, making things worse, put men on second and third with only one out. With one of the league’s biggest power threats coming to bat, the manager phoned his bullpen to check on the two relievers that were warming up. As he spoke with the bullpen coach, one of the two right-handers bounced a curve. In such a high stakes environment, the manager needed his reliever to be able to command his pitches; one bad pitch could mean the difference between victory and ignominious defeat. The right-hander who did not bounce his curve was summoned and took the mound. Kicking at the dirt, the reliever settled down, went into his wind up and threw a fastball that the batter took for a strike on the inside corner. The catcher called for something high and in, and once again, the reliever came set, went into his motion, and delivered the ball. With a mighty hack, the batter connected, the ball flying off his bat over the sixteen-foot wall in left field.
In the fifty-plus years since Bobby Thomson hit a home run off Ralph Branca, Russ Hodges’ euphoric “The Giants win the pennant!” call has gone down as one of the most iconic moments in the annals of not only baseball history, but sports history.
As Thomson rounded the bases, the Giants and Giants fans mobbed him at home plate, ecstatic at the turn of events. On the brink of elimination, they were now going to be representing the National League and playing against the New York Yankees in the 1951 World Series, their first Fall Classic since 1937- when they coincidentally played against the Yankees.
In the celebration, nobody noticed coach Herman Franks slink out of the Giants’ center field clubhouse. Nobody thought to ask what he was doing there with a telescope. Nobody thought to ask what backup catcher Sal Yvars had been doing in the bullpen for the entire game, his attention split between the center field clubhouse and the Giants dugout.
“The Giants stole the pennant,” Branca would later comment, both matter-of-factly and tongue-in-cheek. He bore his burden without complaint, even after a freak back injury during spring training in 1952 effectively ended his career as an effective pitcher. In a story that may or may not be apocryphal, Branca asked a priest immediately after the game why God had singled him out to bear such a burden and the priest replied, “God chose you because he knew you’d be strong enough to bear this cross.”
In the years that followed, various members of the 1951 Giants admitted to stealing signs through a convoluted system that involved watching from center field and either relaying the signs to the dugout through messengers or through a buzzer-and-bell system specifically installed in the dugout. The system clearly helped, as the Giants experienced a remarkable turnaround during the last few weeks of the season, going 50–12 over their final 62 games.
It wasn’t the first time that a team used an elaborate scheme to steal signs. At the turn of the 20th century, the Philadelphia Phillies had an elaborate sign stealing system that involved an individual beyond center field watching with binoculars and stomping on the ground, relaying signals to the dugout through telegraph wires running in the ground.
In 1961, Major League Baseball expressly prohibited sign stealing utilizing mechanical devices. In 2001, Major League Baseball issued a memo stating that utilizing electronic equipment to communicate during games was prohibited. At the same time, after the 1920 season, Major League Baseball banned the application of foreign substances on the ball, but despite the ban, it is an open secret that pitchers still use pine tar or other substances, occasionally scuff the ball, and otherwise doctor it. In 2006, Major League Baseball banned the use of greenies and steroids, but that has not stopped players from using these substances to give them similar boosts.
Baseball, perhaps more so than other American sports, has romanticized circumventing the spirit of the rules or outright ignoring them. Gaining an edge through deception is a common practice that has more or less been written into the game: Catchers framing the ball and “stealing strikes.” Batters turning in Oscar-worthy performances for acting like they were hit by a pitch when, in fact, they were not. Fielders confidently selling phenomenal shoestring catchers when, in reality, they caught them on a hop. And to that, I say:
This is a game that has dedicated over a hundred years to perfecting how best to gain every kind of possible advantage over everyone else, rules be damned. I would be concerned, and maybe even a little annoyed if the team I was rooting for didn’t (for what it’s worth, Bobby Valentine admitted to using cameras to steal signs from opponents in the late ‘90s, a time when the Mets were one of the better teams in the National League and eventual National League pennant winners). For every Astros or Red Sox team caught cheating somehow, there are 28 other teams that simply weren’t caught. For every front office executive, manager, or player in on it, there are hundreds of other executives, managers, and players that were too and simply weren’t caught. The moral of the story? Do a better job not getting caught. Major League Baseball can rightfully punish anyone that did, but I have a great big shrug emoji for the fact that they were.
With punishments now being doled out for those involved in the cheating scandal, the next logical question is should Carlos Beltran keep his job with the Mets? He was the only player specifically named, and the two other managers implicated, A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora, have lost their jobs.
Obviously what Beltran did was wrong, and he certainly lied to the media about his involvement. But if he lied to the Mets in the interview, discipline is warranted. If they see fit to let him go, then so be it. That goes for any job interview; if you lie and get caught after you are hired, there will most likely be consequences.
However, he should not be fired for his involvement in the scandal. Those directly involved deserved their punishments and, it could be argued, the organization was not punished enough as a whole. This was Major League Baseball’s investigation and they saw fit to not discipline Beltran or any player on the team.
But more problematic is the fact that Gabe Kapler was hired not once, but twice, after his alleged involvement in covering up a sexual assault while with the Dodgers. Firing Beltran while Kapler still has a job is, once again, sending a message to women what baseball deems the more egregious transgression. Baseball cannot claim any moral outrage when they allow Kapler to continue on without consequence. Punish Beltran. Suspend him, fine him. He deserves it. But don’t fire him until baseball works out its priorities.
A day before Robert Manfred’s punishment for the Astros was announced, Slate published an article which explored a rape allegation made in 1991 against three Mets players, including 1986 hero Dwight Gooden. The piece also recounts the many other sexual assault allegations made against several players who had a defining role in the 1980s era of Mets baseball, including but not limited to Darryl Strawberry, David Cone, Lenny Dykstra, and Kevin Mitchell. While these players contributed to some of the best seasons of baseball in franchise history, our reverence of this time period must be tainted with the knowledge that that success came on the backs of players who were unrepentant abusers.
It goes without saying that sexual assault is a much more severe crime than cheating in baseball games. Nevertheless, this entire era of Astros baseball—successful as it’s been—has similarly been tainted by the illegal and immoral actions of its personnel. The Astros, like the Mets, were able to stand at the top of the baseball world for one glorious season. But ethical fans of both franchises will always be burdened with the knowledge of how the players and coaches for whom they rooted so ardently were operating behind the scenes.
I don’t know how long we’re going to have to wait until we get to see the next championship-winning Mets team, but I do know that I want to be able to feel good about rooting for that team. I want to be able to describe their exploits to future generations of fans without having to include the dark realities of what was going on with them behind closed doors. And while I would love it if Carlos Beltran can be the manager to lead that dream team, he can only do so if he learns from his experiences with the Astros. Winning is important, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of one’s soul.
Does Beltran deserve to be suspended for his role in the sign-stealing scandal? The more I try to come up with a reasonable answer, the more I think it’s altogether the wrong question to be asking. The question we should be asking is this: can Beltran be expected to lead the Mets with integrity after he’s already shown that he is willing to leave his moral compass at the door in the name of winning baseball games? This now becomes the thing—rather than his ability to lead a clubhouse or manage a bullpen—that he most needs to prove about his ability to capably fill the role in which he has been placed.
It is rare that there is a situation where I can see both sides’ points with very little trouble. This is one of those situations; I absolutely understand why folks believe that Carlos Beltran should not manage the Mets in 2020 after being the sole player named in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, and I can also not really care and move on pretty easily.
There is no question that the Astros broke the rules, and that Beltran was, apparently, a major player in that operation. But with all of the shady things that go on, both in baseball and just outside on the periphery, sign stealing is something I can’t get that worked up about. Knowing an off-speed pitch is coming is, obviously, an advantage, but knowing a pitch does not equal success in hitting it. There are a number of times per game that, even without stealing, it is pretty obvious what pitch is coming. People know a 3-0 fastball is on the way, but not every 3-0 fastball is ripped down the line or over the fence. They get fouled off, missed, dribbled to the shortstop or, yes, find the gap.
If you say that Beltran’s participation shows that he is willing to leave his scruples behind to win, I could agree with that. If you tell me that he lied during his interview - something that is likely pure conjecture - and that because of that, he should be fired, I could see your point. If you said that there is a big difference between going along with a plan as a soldier versus being a general who makes that plan, I could nod my head along with you. If you explain that cheating is the last untapped market inefficiency, I’d probably think that is a bridge too far, but I wouldn’t totally dismiss the thought.
Teams cheat all the time, and that legitimately sucks. I’m sure that every player I know and love has done something in the name of ‘winning’ that I would not encourage my kids to do when they play sports. That’s part of the game at that level, and I wish it wasn’t the case.
And so, I would absolutely understand if the Mets felt that Beltran shouldn’t be their manager. I also absolutely understand if they feel that it was enough of an isolated incident to be able to look past it. I just hope that they are decisive and clear about their decision, and don’t Mets it up more than it already is.