H+K: Win at all Costs – Lessons from Major League Baseball’s Sign-Stealing Crisis

Read the article by H+K’s new SVP, Tech US Chip Scarinzi

Press Release

We’re just a few weeks shy of the start of the 2020 Major League Baseball season – a time when optimism reigns, every team has a shot, and hopeful fans believe this year is the year for their favorite squad. The tenor has shifted in recent months, however. Storm clouds are collecting overhead thanks to a developing story in South Texas that may have reached its most salacious moments, but hasn’t quite reached its conclusion. I’m talking, of course, about the Houston Astros and their foray in the dark arts of cheating.

The Astros, among the most likeable franchises in recent memory during their rise from the ashes all the way to a World Series victory in 2017, have taken quite a precipitous tumble. Revelations of rampant and egregious cheating will do that. According to the allegations, first levied during the Astros’ most recent playoff run this past October, the team deployed a carefully orchestrated sign-stealing effort that included a system of blinking lights, cameras, bat-to-trashcan signals, and – allegedly – buzzers worn beneath jerseys. The GM was in on it, the field manager was in on it, and many players were as well. In fact, the rampant cheating has been described as “player-driven.”

Aftershocks from the Astros’ ruse have not stopped. The first wave hit Houston, naturally, but the Boston Red Sox cut ties with manager Alex Cora shortly thereafter, and New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran recently stepped down as well. And that’s just the ongoing fallout from the situation in Houston, currently viewed as an isolated incident. Is that even possible? And if not, who’s next? Finally, what does it mean for the record books, now blighted by the Astros’ bad decisions? It’s hard to tell. What I can tell you is that amid the turmoil and disgrace, Major League Baseball has an opportunity to do the right thing and set an example for the rest of the sporting world. To do so, a few things must happen.

Be transparent. Finger-wagging and “shame on you” rhetoric won’t be enough. MLB must be committed to stamping out cheating of all kinds and must articulate its plan for eliminating this kind of bad behavior from the game. Punishment is important, but prevention is mission critical. What’s stopping other teams from behaving the same way? How will the league deal with cheaters in the future? There are many unanswered questions remaining before this crisis passes. My fear, as a new season begins, is that the league believes they’ve done enough.

Wield a heavy hammer. I’m not naïve enough to think that the sport of cycling is entirely free of doping, but there was a time in the not too distant past when doping may as well have been part of a regular training regimen. Then, the governing bodies of pro cycling came down hard. Caught cheating? Immediate two-year ban. Past Tour de France winner guilty of doping? Stripped of the Maillot Jaune. Further, the introduction of a “biological passport,” while not without its flaws, is a remarkable step forward for fair competition. MLB must come down on players found guilty of cheating with similar severity – whether that player sits at the end of the bench or had been ticketed for future Hall of Fame enshrinement. The MLB has already granted anyone who cooperates with the investigation full immunity in spite of referring to the widespread cheating as “player-driven,” but perhaps some of the bad actors will be dealt with in a manner that causes players to think twice before traveling the same path.

Set an example. In a twisted way, the Astros almost deserve credit for their “whatever it takes” mindset when it comes to winning baseball games. Almost. Win at all costs – it’s the mantra of every Hollywood depiction of the glory-starved manager, and begs the age-old question: do the ends justify the means? The answer here is a hard no. Baseball must take ownership over not just its own house, but of the entire neighborhood – the minor league system, college and high school ball, right down to Little League, Babe Ruth Leagues, Cal Ripken Leagues, and every softball league across America. People cheat to get ahead; it’s learned behavior that must not be taught at any level of the game and the League needs to do its part to set the standard for fair play.

Consider the role of technology in fair – and foul – play. There’s a lesson in here, too, for the tech industry. Injecting yourself with a cocktail of PEDs is decidedly low tech. But cameras? Blinking lights and “buzzing” monitors? How far off are we from mixed reality contact lenses? Smart fabrics woven into clothing to enhance an athlete’s power? Balls laced with undetectable sensors? It’s not much of a leap at all, in fact. Technology holds great potential to destroy the competitive landscape in sports. However, closer collaboration between MLB and technology companies could lead to a great deal of good. Can we leverage technology to identify bad actors rather than create them? And if so, who among the industry’s intrepid entrepreneurs will step forward and take on the challenge? It’s a dialogue that must begin before the boulder rolling downhill picks up more steam.

Spring Training has yielded a few interesting chapters to this unfortunate tale. Firstly, the 2020 season promises to be a difficult one for Astros hitters. Immunity may save Astros’ players from league discipline, but the batter’s box dance is going to be a tricky one to navigate if early returns are any indication. Secondly, while players around the league like Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Nick Markakis of the Atlanta Braves have aired their grievances, it isn’t clear whether the league is listening. And lastly, the Astros’ initial apology press conference was a nice try, but fell a million miles short of the mark as any crisis communications executive will tell you. To that end, the Astros’ response deserves a separate post all its own.

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