The law of unintended consequences is a sociological construct which seeks to explain that outcomes of a purposeful action not intended or foreseen may have an unexpected drawback.
When the smart people of Major League Baseball were devising the rules to govern video replay, if anyone in the room worried about a team maneuvering the system to steal signs from opposing teams, their arguments were either not strong enough to change the emerging consensus, or they bit their tongue.
When big league pitcher Mike Fiers, who pitched for the Houston Astros in 2017, told a reporter his team used the video replay technology to steal signs, a full-blown scandal erupted. One destined to become a sociological case study for unintended consequences.
The Astros manipulated the video replay feeds to capture the signals the catcher puts down with his fingers, the visual cue to the pitcher whether to offer a slider, the wicked curve or bust the hitter inside with some stinky cheese. If big league hitters know what pitch is coming, they have a better chance of hitting it.
I can make a distinction between what the Astros did and the decades-old tradition of a runner on second base, with a direct line of sight to the catcher, peering in to get the sign and relaying it to the hitter.
If the pitcher and catcher don’t change their signs in that circumstance, they can only blame themselves. There’s also reciprocity. When their guy reaches second in the next inning, turnabout is fair play. What the Astros did was gain an unfair advantage their opponents did not have.
There was no turnabout, much less fair play.
How big of an advantage did it give them? They won the World Series that year. Draw your own conclusions.
There were 25 men on the 2017 Houston Astros, plus another dozen or so coaches and various dugout denizens, who were likely aware. No one said anything until Mike Fiers. Two years later.
A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran, the implicated leaders of the ’17 Astros, don’t strike me as criminals. They strike me as men who, since they were boys, have lived and breathed baseball, steeped in competition.
The object of the game is to win. That happens when your team scores more runs than the other team. Athletic skill and talent to hit, pitch and run is a given. Ballplayers also need intellectual capacity to understand game situations and make smart in-game decisions. They need heart, to overcome adversity.
Somewhere in this milieu that might be described as character, the Astros got outside the white chalked lines of the space traditionally defined by shared values, culture and morality.
Before the sign-stealing scandal, my problems with replay in baseball were superficial. It has fundamentally altered baserunning. Guys now have to cling to the bag for dear life which changes their approach.
Replay has also eliminated the emotion associated with managers arguing with umpires. Today, the skipper stays in the dugout, looks anxiously at his bench coach, who’s on the horn with the team replay coach. If his judgment calls for a formal review, the word gets passed on and the manager pantomimes the donning of headphones.
Gone are the days when Earl Weaver would incite the crowd by turning his cap around and getting all up in an umpire’s grill. I miss Billy Martin kicking dirt on an ump’s shoes. Today during a replay, fans yawn, or use the time to flag down the chocolate-drizzled strawberry-brownie-banana kabob vendor.
I read where pitcher-turned-commentator Pedro Martinez is ripping Mike Fiers, calling him a “bad teammate.” While I respect Martinez’ right to say that, I could not disagree more. Fiers contends what the Astros did is not playing the game the right way.
Maybe he had trouble sleeping at night. Maybe he wants to be on the right side of history.
If I’m ever at a game when Mike Fiers, who now pitches for Oakland, comes in from the bullpen to pitch, I intend to stand and applaud.
Just because the technology now exists to make it easier to cheat, doesn’t mean we have to.
Can the unintended consequence lead to a deeper understanding of what’s right?
Mike Matson’s column appears every other Sunday in The Mercury. Follow his blog at mikematson.com.