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Astros scandal evoking more league-wide vitriol than steroids scandal

Houston Astros' Alex Bregman delivers a statement from the podium as teammate Jose Altuve, seated at right, listens along with manager Dusty Baker, left, and owner Jim Crane, second from left, during a news conference before the start of the first official spring training baseball practice for the team Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The steroids era of Major League Baseball lasted about two decades. Steroids were banned in 1991 but the league did not begin testing until 2003. The first player suspension occurred in 2005 and the final in 2012.

Despite the widespread use and long time period of the PED scandal, many around the league believe there has been more public vitriol from players toward the Houston Astros for cheating than there was in the mid-2000s.

“I’ve been around a long time and I’ve never seen the kind of commentary from players about other players in the entire time that I’ve been involved,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday at Cactus League media day.

The year the Houston Astros won the World Series in 2017, the team stole signs electronically and relayed the pitch to hitters by banging a trash can.

Since spring training began, reigning National League MVP Cody Bellinger has said Jose Altuve stole the 2017 MVP from Aaron Judge and the Astros stole a ring from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Reigning American League MVP Mike Trout said players should be punished.

Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant called it a “disgrace” while 14-year veteran Nick Markakis said it’s “damaging to baseball” and he feels “every single guy over there needs a beating.”

Chicago Cubs manager David Ross entered the league as a player in 2002, shortly before the league started taking tangible steps to prevent steroid use. He thinks the players’ reaction to the Astros has been stronger than league-wide response to steroids.

“The Astros scandal is a little bit more public, I would say,” Ross said. “One, just dealing with a championship, and two, the era that we’re in with social media and technology — I mean it’s everywhere, whether it’s on your phone or on your TV or computer. I think the access to the outside world, everybody’s hearing about it and they’re hearing the details of it.”

Craig Counsell, the Milwaukee Brewers manager who played in the MLB from 1995-2011 and had two stints with the Arizona Diamondbacks, said there are more overt reactions than during the steroids era.

“Things just happen faster,” he said. “News cycles faster, comments are faster, the news gets processed faster. It’s just kind of a reflection of the times, really … There’s been a little bit more of a flood here.”

Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo was in and out of the majors between 1988 and 1999 and became a minor league coach in 2001.

“I think a lot of people were aware that steroids were in the game that were playing the game,” he said.

Former MLB pitcher David Wells estimated in his 2001 autobiography that 25% to 40% of MLB players used steroids. Former Oakland Athletics star Jose Canseco told 60 Minutes it “wasn’t like you gave a lot of thought. It was something so common.”

While the Astros cheating was an “open secret,” according to the Washington Post, this investigation was focused on one team. MLB’s report of the Astros took one offseason to complete; the steroid inquiry was league-wide and took years.

“The steroid situation went on for a long time because more got uncovered day by day, week by week and year by year,” Lovullo said.

With the MLB’s full report released shortly before spring training, the entire league’s focus can center around this one colossal, history-altering story as every team gathers in one of two locations across the country.

“The team that won the championship, has been really the iconic organization for the last couple years, you find that out, just stinks,” Ross said.

Mike Matheny, the Kansas City Royals manager who played in the MLB from 1994-2006, said the fact there’s one central culprit gives others a target.

“It’s obviously just more focused on one team at this point, more so than a league-wide problem,” he said. “Unfortunately both are not good for the game, so, how do we handle it?”

Ross echoed this:

“It was more spread out with individual players rather than organization and team,” he said. “There’s true differences there, so you’re able to point the finger at one group and then everybody in that group gets clumped into one category whereas the steroid thing was a little more spread out.”

Manfred said the Astros’ use of technology relates more to fans than past scandals, specifically the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which a group of players were bribed to throw the World Series in a gambling scheme.

“Fundamentally, this activity relates to the play of the game on the field in a way that is tangible for our fans and has touched a chord of unfairness with our players,” he said.

Because Manfred and the MLB Players Association agreed to grant immunity to players for access to interview them about the scandal, no players were directly punished by the league.

It will be up to the MLB to create explicit rules, share them more effectively and establish punishment moving forward for breaking them. One of Manfred’s findings was that the Astros’ front office didn’t pass the rules regarding use of electronics on to players.

Even if other teams may have found these rules more clearly-defined.

“There are rules for a reason. Anytime you break those rules you realize there are possible repercussions,” Matheny said. “They’ve spent a lot of time going through what the expectations were, what has been communicated with the players … just easiest for us at this point to trust that it’s been a thorough process and that they’re handling it the best way they know how.


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