By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – The Houston Astros’ cheating scandal may be hanging over Major League Baseball like a dark cloud but the sign-stealing scheme could actually boost interest in the game rather than turn fans away, experts said on Wednesday.
With the 2020 regular season just around the corner, the sense of optimism that usually surrounds Spring Training has been missing as disgruntled players add their voices to the daily chorus of Astros condemnation.
Houston, who begin their regular season at home on March 26, may be the team baseball fans love to hate this year and that could mean higher TV ratings and ticket sales as supporters of other clubs seek a way to voice their displeasure with the Astros when they come to town.
Both Houston and the MLB have been a large focus of the daily conversation in the sporting world for the last month with no end in sight.
Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now runs his own sports television consulting company, feels there will be a curiosity factor both from fans and media that will result in more people tuning into games.
“There are going to be certain unintended consequences from all of this winter activity,” Pilson told Reuters.
“It will increase the amount of attention, focus and promotion for baseball and that isn’t a headache, that’s good news for sponsors and team owners and television networks and everybody associated with the game.”
MLB in January doled out one of the most severe punishments in baseball history against the Astros over the team’s illegal use of electronic equipment to steal pitch signs during their World Series-winning 2017 season.
The Astros received a maximum $5 million fine, forfeited first and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021, and their manager and general manager were each suspended one year before swiftly being fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.
But no Astros players were punished as MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred promised them immunity as part of the investigation and that is not sitting well with opposing players, including some who feel the team should vacate their 2017 World Series title.
Even NBA great LeBron James weighed in on the scandal, calling on Manfred to listen to the players and “fix this for the sake of sports”.
The scandal also prompted an Astros season-ticket holder to sue the team, alleging the scandal diminished the value of his seats, while a former Toronto pitcher filed a lawsuit against the club claiming the sign stealing system ended his MLB career.
Manfred himself apologised this week for referring to the World Series trophy as “a piece of metal” during an interview with ESPN in which he was trying to make “a rhetorical point” about the possibility of stripping the Astros of their title.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, said the sign-stealing plot, even if it is scandalous, can be a boost for baseball as it means more people are paying attention to the upcoming season.
But Zimbalist, who felt the Astros’ scheme was almost at the level of baseball’s 1990s steroids era but not quite at the level of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” match-fixing scandal, said there is also a negative force at play.
“When the integrity of the game is challenged it can have a very severe impact, particularly in a period of time when all of the professional sports leagues are struggling to keep their traditional fanbases in an era where the number of entertainment options has multiplied manifold times,” said Zimbalist.
“I am not predicting doom for baseball but I think there is a real challenge now and it’s hard to say exactly how it’s going to play out.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)