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If you’re looking for victims of baseball’s cheating scandal, you can start with fans

Commissioner Rob Manfred is expected to rule soon on allegations of electronic sign stealing by Houston and Boston, and he needs to understand that the game’s integrity is at stake.
Alex Bregman and his Astros teammates had plenty to celebrate against the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, but recent revelations about Houston's potential use of electronics to steal signs could forever taint the team's accomplishments.
Alex Bregman and his Astros teammates had plenty to celebrate against the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, but recent revelations about Houston's potential use of electronics to steal signs could forever taint the team's accomplishments.
Published Jan. 11

ST. PETERSBURG — The Dodgers got cheated, that’s for sure.

They lost one World Series to the crooked Red Sox, and another to the conniving Astros.

The Rays might be victims, too. The year they won 90 games and missed the playoffs, they lost more games to the Red Sox than against any other team. And the next year they were one victory away from the American League Championship Series but lost to the Astros.

American League pitchers definitely got ripped off. And who knows how many contracts were altered by sign stealing.

Yes, baseball’s cheating scandal has many potential victims but one stands above the rest:

The game’s integrity.

In the end, that’s what this is really about. We are told that betting on games is baseball’s worst sin, but it has nothing to do with the morals of gambling. It’s all about the fear that players will deceitfully alter an outcome to ensure a bet is collected. It’s the fear that fans cannot trust the game they are watching.

So how is this cheating scandal any different?

If a team is covertly defying the rules — and our own sense of fair play — isn’t that just as detestable as throwing a game?

That’s why the current narrative seems to miss the point. Everyone wants to point fingers and demand heads, but those are just details. The bigger issue is restoring confidence in the game on the field.

That’s why this upcoming week is critical to the game’s future. The investigation into the Astros, and possibly the Red Sox, is coming to a close and commissioner Rob Manfred is expected to issue edicts and punishments.

Here’s my advice:

The commissioner should overreact.

If he’s decided on an amount for a fine, he should triple it. If he’s going to throw the book at a manager or GM, he should find one that’s hard and large. If he’s going to take away draft picks, he should start with a 2020 first-rounder and not stop until he gets to 2022.

That’s not a joke, and it’s barely hyperbole. This is as serious as Pete Rose betting on games or a generation of players using performance-enhancing drugs. In some ways, it’s even worse because it may involve front offices.

It may seem wonky and high-tech, but it’s really about the game’s honor.

Maybe there were a lot of teams that took advantage of cameras and replay monitors to steal signs when they first started showing up in stadiums in 2014, but the commissioner drew a line in the sand a couple of years ago when the Red Sox and Yankees were first accused.

That means, if the Astros and Red Sox are guilty this time around, they not only cheated opponents and fans but they also mocked Manfred’s authority. There is no scenario imaginable where the commissioner shouldn’t take that as an affront on his office and his own toughness.

That means the punishment is critical. It has to frighten the people in the dugout. It has to put a franchise at a competitive disadvantage for a year or more. It has to convince fans that MLB players and executives got the message loud and clear this time.

The commissioner also needs to beef up on security in replay rooms and clubhouses to make sure modern technology is not tipping the scale between winners and losers once a game begins. Mostly, he needs to address this head-on and not act as if it’s already been corrected.

So did Houston’s sign-stealing help the Astros win the 2017 World Series?

We’ll never know for sure. Did it have an effect on the playoff series against the Rays last October when Tyler Glasnow was tipping pitches in the decisive Game 5? Probably not, but who knows for certain?

And that’s the point.

You should never get to the end of a baseball season and have to wonder if what you just saw was an honest result. And it’s up to Manfred to make sure fans never have to entertain these doubts again.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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