Tough Love

I love baseball. The problem is the game doesn’t always love you back.

By Kellyn Brown

I am one of a shrinking number of Americans who still likes baseball. Watching a three-hour game, which can bore a generation that often seeks instant gratification, is still time well spent in my book.

Growing up, I played the game. I was an average fielder and a slightly worse hitter. I watched my beloved Cubs on WGN Chicago with my father and brother. Back then, the team lost far more than it won. And recently, I’ve tried to return annually to my childhood city to catch a game at Wrigley Field.

I love the game. The problem is the game doesn’t always love you back.

This week, America’s eyes turn to the Super Bowl, the biggest sporting event of the year. Meanwhile, the top storyline in Major League Baseball is a cheating scandal that involves the 2017 World Series Champion Houston Astros using technology to steal signs.

Stealing signs — those cues catchers and pitchers exchange before each throw — has long been part of the game. But it’s never been this brazen, with a camera apparently set up in the outfield and a monitor in the home team’s dugout. In the Astros’ case, once the signs were deciphered, a player would indicate to the batter what pitch was coming next using a variety of methods, including banging a trashcan.

The league began an investigation after The Athletic published an interview in November with former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who confirmed the sign-stealing method. That opened a floodgate of allegations against the team, which had just lost to the Washington Nationals in the 2019 World Series.

Earlier this month, the league released a devastating report that accused the Astros of cheating. Its general manager and manager were fired. Then the scandal encompassed the managers of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, both of whom had previous ties to the Astros and lost their jobs. The league is now investigating whether the Red Sox illegally stole signs during its 2018 World Series run.

All of this came to light just weeks after MLB began floating the idea of essentially eliminating pro baseball in Montana. The “preliminary offering,” as reported by Baseball America, would reduce the number of minor league teams from 160 to 120 beginning in 2021. If adopted, the Great Falls Voyagers, Billings Mustangs and Missoula Paddleheads (formerly the Osprey) — all members of the Pioneer League — would likely be on the chopping block.

The story drew criticism from Montana’s congressional delegation. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines wrote an open letter to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred opposing the proposed cuts. Members of the U.S. House did the same and announced the formation of the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force.

Tester pointed out that it is vital for the MLB, which continues to see a decline in younger viewers, to “invest in rural communities.” Daines described the significant investments that Montana cities have made to upgrade their facilities.

It may not matter. Pro baseball doesn’t exactly have a track record of ceding to fans’ wishes.

When the owners and players couldn’t reach a collective bargaining agreement during the 1994 season, the players went on strike, resulting in the cancellation of that year’s World Series for the first time in 90 years.

A decade later, fans would find out many of the game’s biggest stars were on performance-enhancing drugs and a few of them would be forced to testify as part of a congressional investigation.

I still love baseball, but the game doesn’t need to make it this hard.

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