The Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal has a little bit of everything. Trashcans. Half-hearted apologies. Buzzer-related conspiracy theories. Threats of violence. Sure, it’s a blight on baseball and will leave the results of the 2017 World Series in doubt forever, but it also makes for a pretty funny train wreck.
I understand why some folks may resist seeing the humor in all this. The Astros steamrolled through the American League during the second half of the previous decade; their success directly impacted rival teams and altered the trajectories of players’ careers. We’ll never know the full extent to which Houston benefitted from its sign-stealing scheme—partly because it’s a tangled mess of hypotheticals, but also because Major League Baseball’s clumsy efforts to control the fallout have produced a heap of contradictory information, obfuscations, and precisely zero punishments for the players involved.
A selection of Associate Press headlines from the past two months reveals just how ridiculous the scandal has become. Even the most measured and staid assessment of the situation can’t hide its ever-increasing absurdity. There comes a point when the only recourse is to laugh.
Things may return to normal, but the Astros aren’t built to slink away. The league’s pantomime villains are projected to win nearly 100 games this season and conquer their division. In thinking about this possible scenario, I can’t help but obsess over one question:
Will it be funny if the Houston Astros win the 2020 World Series?
It’s the outcome Manfred and MLB would least like to see, which helps its case for being hilarious. It also follows the Wile E. Coyote pattern of comic disaster. It’s not enough for him to fall off the cliff. A safe must also crush him … then he has to unlock the safe from the inside and emerge, accordionlike, from the destruction. But who is the Coyote here?
To better predict this scenario, I emailed some of America’s finest baseball writers for their thoughts on the matter.
“I can’t answer whether it would be funny or not, and I wouldn’t really know how to comment on that,” Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, tells me. We may find out the answer come November, though. “A key issue is whether the Astros, by stealing signs, gained a large, meaningful advantage, or whether they were gaining a small, fairly insignificant advantage. Most people apparently believe it is the former. I think it is much more likely that it was the latter—a small, pretty insignificant advantage. If that’s true, then it’s not improbable that the Astros will be there, somewhere near, at the end of the season.”
ESPN’s Sam Miller argues that the Astros’ indisputable talent doesn’t make for great comedy. “This was already the best team in the American League, one of the best of all-time, and when they decided to cheat they were quite predictably polluting the sport’s highest achievement,” he says. “If they win the World Series, it’ll be less ‘that’s so absurd!’ than ‘how annoying.’ ”
“Sure, there would be some dark humor in the Astros winning it—and there would be some real delight for me in that it would get a World Series for Dusty Baker—but beyond that, I wouldn’t say ‘funny’ comes to mind,” the Athletic’s Joe Posnanski says. “I don’t know how many people find it funny when the Patriots keep winning Super Bowls despite the many controversies and storms that rage around them. I suppose Patriots fans find it funny. I think Astros fans will find it funny if they win it all.”
The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh makes a similar argument. “The Astros winning the World Series would force us to talk about it, and relitigate the lack of player suspensions, all over again,” he says. “No one other than Astros fans would take much pleasure in seeing some of the same players who cheated in 2017 celebrating again and, in all likelihood, congratulating themselves on sticking it to the haters and doubters.”
Houston’s behavior in this hypothetical situation must be considered, but Miller has a different prediction for how they’d act. “Even if, in the abstract, it could be funny on either a cynical or emotionally detached level, the Astros will in reality sap it of its humor,” he says. “[M]y guess is that if the Astros are really successful this year, we’ll see them get even more humble about 2017, and more apologetic. It’s often a lot easier to act humble when you feel like you’ve been validated.”
Could a Houston triumph retroactively make the scandal less entertaining? “If the Astros win this year, it may make the 2017 title look less illegitimate,” says Lindbergh. “If the Astros come within a few innings of winning or actually win in two years when they weren’t cheating (as far as we know), it’ll be tough to dismiss the idea that they were just the best team all along, with or without the sign stealing.”
“If they do [win the World Series], a whole lot of people will be ticked off or entirely turned off,” Posnanski says. “There will be many who think they just figured out a new way to cheat. I guess the humor of that will be in the eye of the beholder.”
“[I]t’s not as much fun when the heel gets the last laugh,” Lindbergh adds. Or, as Miller puts it: “All of the funny outcomes here would involve the Astros failing.”
There’s at least one baseball luminary who disagrees. “Funny is not a strong enough adjective to describe the hilarity that would ensue,” ESPN columnist Jeff Passan says. “Angry players. Livid fans. Social-media meltdowns. Randos swearing off the sport forever. Moralists trying to explain What This Says About America. As someone who appreciates sporting chaos and anarchy and has no particular affinity to any team, I relish the very thought.”
Prepare for impact, Mr. Coyote.
Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen that features a segment about fallout from the Astros scandal, in the player below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.