Cheating, Lent and John Wesley

February 26th, 2020

The scandal in Major League Baseball

On January 13, 2020, the Houston Astros, a baseball team, were penalized by Major League Baseball for using technology to steal the opposing catcher’s signs to the pitcher, thus revealing the type of pitch the batter could expect. Officials ruled that the use of this technology gave the Astros an unfair advantage throughout the 2017 season, which culminated with the Astros winning their first World Series.

While seeking to intercept signs from the opposing teams isn’t strictly against the rules and has a long and storied history within baseball, to do so with the aid of technology is against baseball regulations. The Astros transmitted a feed from a camera in center field to a monitor near their dugout, where players would take turns decoding the signs from the catcher, eventually learning whether a fastball or an off-speed pitch was coming next. They then conveyed this information to the hitter by banging on a trash can with a bat. In video of the 2017 World Series, the banging of the trash can can be easily heard.

The penalties imposed by Major League Baseball included the loss of first and second round draft choices for two years, as well as one-year suspensions of the team’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and field manager, A. J. Hinch. Houston Astros owner Jim Crane responded to the announcement by immediately firing the two men. Though the official report notes that the scheme was mostly player-driven, Crane said that Luhnow and Hinch did not provide appropriate oversight.

In addition to Hinch, two other managers also lost their jobs in the wake of the scandal. Alex Cora, who had been the bench coach for the Astros, was fired from his job as manager of the Boston Red Sox, who had hired him in 2018. The only player mentioned in the report, Carlos Beltrán, had retired after the 2017 season. However, he had recently been hired to be the manager of the New York Mets. As news of his role in the scandal broke, he was relieved of his duties after only two months. 

Gamesmanship or cheating?

Baseball is famous for its many “unwritten rules.” In fact, retired pitcher Gregg Olson came up with a new one every day in April 2018. Most, like number 11 — “Do not show up the other team or a player” — are familiar to baseball fans. In his list, Olson addresses sign stealing twice. Rule number 8 says, “Stealing signs is OK, just don’t get caught. Some books say sign stealing is taboo but it’s not. If your signs are easy enuf to steal, it’s YOUR fault. If you get caught sign stealing, someone gets hit. If you get caught, it’s YOUR fault. Get it?” Then, skipping down to number 18, Olson says, “In an earlier rule, I said stealing signs was allowed. BUT, do not peek in to the catcher’s signs if you are hitting. Do not even try to see where he is set up” (that is, where he wants the pitcher to throw the pitch). Again, Olson says that breaking this rule could result in getting hit by a pitch.

Although stealing signs without the use of electronic equipment has always been a part of the gamesmanship of baseball, the Astros ignored a written rule about the use of technology. Commissioner Rob Manfred stated at the annual owners meetings in November that he was “concerned about the impact of technology in and around the field,” The Athletic website quoted him as saying. “I think it’s a challenge for our sport and all sports to regulate the use of that technology in a way that makes sure that we have the integrity.”

Athletes — and truly all those who compete in any competitive arena — are regularly faced with the question, “Where is the line between gamesmanship and cheating?” Gaining an advantage may be the difference between winning and losing, between success and failure. Trash-talking can get into an opponent’s head. Grabbing an opponent’s jersey in a way that an official isn’t likely to see may give you the extra step you need. In one of the more bizarre stories in sports history, an opposing player once baited then Louisiana State University basketball player Pete Maravich by kissing him on the cheek, hoping that he would overreact by throwing a punch and thus be ejected from the game. Similarly, many of us who aren’t in the sports world might be tempted to spread rumors about a co-worker who is up for the same promotion in order to gain an upper hand. 

Lent is a time of reflection

This discussion of cheating generally, and the Astros scandal specifically, feels appropriate as we begin the season of Lent. As Christians, we’re called to reflect upon our actions and how they reflect the Spirit of Christ in our lives. Our goal is constantly to strive and grow in our imitation of Christ, which includes acting with integrity both in our words and in our actions.

This growth with self-examination helps us to determine where we’ve reflected Christ’s Spirit and where we’ve fallen short of Christ’s example. When we fail, we begin the process of restoration and restitution with confession so that we might receive forgiveness and forge a new way forward. This accountability is critical to our growth as Christ-followers.

Many of us do this alone in our prayers with God, but accountability is also strengthened by our connection with one another in the church, in small groups, and with our friends who hold us accountable. One of the strengths of early Methodism was the small groups, called classes and bands, which were not primarily for education but accountability. This is a tradition we can continue to model today in order to shape ourselves and grow in our faith. 


A. J. Hinch’s apology

On February 7, 2020, A. J. Hinch, the former manager of the Houston Astros, became the first of those involved in the scandal to speak publicly when he sat down for an hour-long interview with Tom Verducci of the MLB Network. In the interview, Hinch spoke about taking responsibility for his lack of oversight and for not doing enough to stop the actions of the team.

Though he didn’t agree with the actions of those involved (and twice used a baseball bat to destroy the monitor being used for that purpose), he said that he knows he didn’t do enough and that he should have done more. In addition, Hinch noted that the commissioner was quite clear that it was the responsibility of the team’s general manager and manager to provide appropriate leadership in such a situation. In the interview, Hinch accepted that responsibility, saying, “I should have had a meeting and addressed it face forward and really ended it. Leadership to me is often about what you preach. . . . Leadership’s also about what you tolerate. I tolerated too much.”

“I’ll take it seriously the fact that I’ve been suspended based on the position that I was in and what went on under my watch,” Hinch said. “I will come back a better leader.” His “hope and desire” is to have a long career doing what he loves, and he hopes to manage in Major League Baseball again after his suspension ends.

Hinch said that for Astros fans, baseball fans, and detractors, “I just want to be real and be relatable in this situation, that I made a mistake. I wish I could it over again.” He pledged to work tirelessly to restore and maintain the integrity of the game. “I believe in baseball, I love baseball.” 


Wesley’s 22 questions

When Charles and John Wesley were at Oxford, they were the leaders of a group of young men called the Holy Club, who sought to live a holy life and were accountable to one another in that quest. The notion of a small accountability group became a key component in the spread of the Methodist movement, which was organized into societies, classes, and bands. The classes and bands, in particular, included weekly questions for honest self-examination, which was a critical part of the process of seeking holiness.

The Holy Club had a list of 22 questions, which they asked themselves and one another on a daily basis in their pursuit of a holy life. Several are pertinent to the story of baseball sign stealing:

  • Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite? 
  • Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate? 
  • Can I be trusted? 
  • Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy? 

The basis of this accountability is found in James 5:16, where the author writes, “For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve.” The confession wasn’t intended so that someone could be browbeaten into obedience but to allow for forgiveness and healing. 

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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