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Baseball has got to show the game's not rigged

·MLB columnist
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The chief concern here is not whether some teams illegally steal signs. They do.

Or whether some owners annually present a grossly inferior product. They do.

Whether today’s baseball — the actual baseball, the one they throw and hit and catch — is the same as yesterday’s. That will be determined today.

Or if there are players who scheme to beat drug testing. There are.

Whether there is a conspiracy to limit player wages. Some believe there is.

Or if there is something sinister in the hiring practices for top front-office and field staff positions. The demographic remains jarring.

The chief concern is whether baseball is presenting anything close to the best version of itself. If one of the above is a scandal or a headache or a negotiating lever or an eyesore, then all of them together are enough to wonder if the product is believable. If the competition is legitimate. If the outcomes can be trusted. Worse, if the outcomes can be predicted.

That is why a camera and a monitor and a system run off those is so dangerous. Why it doesn’t matter if the Houston Astros won a World Series or lost 111 games. Why it wouldn’t be enough to know it was the Houston Astros, but which of the Houston Astros, and how, and for how long.

OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 15:  Manager Bob Melvin #6 of the Oakland Athletics takes the ball from pitcher Mike Fiers #50 taking Fiers out of the game against the Houston Astros in the top of the seventh inning at Ring Central Coliseum on August 15, 2019 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Former Houston Astro Mike Fiers claims his former team had an elaborate system to steal signs, a clear violation of MLB rules. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The investigation by Major League Baseball may aspire to determine the integrity of the Astros, from general manager Jeff Luhnow, to manager A.J. Hinch, to a cast of current and past coaches and techies, to the players who knew and/or benefitted, for who knows how long. (One Washington Nationals player said he heard whistles during this World Series, and on it goes.) What the league also chases is the integrity of a game that of course will survive this (alleged) hit, but must continue to address and mend first the areas that operate to maintain the sport’s virtue. If there are a thousand other issues circling, what must be honest are the games. The players. Start there.

The composition of the baseballs, for one, is a problem. At least everyone plays with the same ones, lively or dead or in between. The games get weird and unrecognizable and even, at times, a little drab. But not everyone has a bullpen catcher with a GoPro strapped to his head, or whatever it was that was going on there.

Four losers of at least 103 games, and 14 teams finishing at least 20 games out of first place, nine at least 30 games out and four at least 40 out, that’s a lot of seasons that were over in, like, March. But they all played for six months, they all walked onto a field every night with an opportunity — if not always a reasonable chance — to win. But not everyone had an organization around them willing to risk its reputation for a hit. Or a win. Maybe those other organizations believed more strongly in their players. Maybe they wanted to believe in whatever happened on the baseball field. Maybe they haven’t been caught, if indeed the Astros have been caught.

This is not throwing games, nothing like that. It does rest uneasy, however, in a game that specifically banned what the Astros are accused of, which is a long-running, systematic and reckless violation of that rule. As the franchise’s character is questioned, so too could be the achievements of players who both participated and refused. So too could be the leadership values of those who coached them.

Today, MLB’s investigative arm has thrown a wide net, not for just 2017, not for just the days where there is anecdotal evidence of whistling and banging, and not just for those who manned the cameras and the trash cans. The job is massive. It is for good reason.

People need first to believe in the game.

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