When considering the Houston Astros cheating scandal, one must, of course, also consider Cesare Beccaria, the father of modern criminal justice.
Beccaria was an 18th century Italian jurist who enjoyed the charming life of nobility in the age of the Habsburg Monarchy. His interests and energies, however, were concentrated on a philosophical quarrel that would define his legacy: that of punishment.
In Beccaria’s day, torture and execution were commonplace. Especially in his home of Italy, where divided states often used criminal justice as a means of war against one another rather than as a means of preserving order in a state.
Beccaria thought the school of criminology needed heavy reforming, so in 1764, he published “On Crimes and Punishments,” a treatise advocating for comprehensive reform of criminal justice in all societies.
Broadly, Beccaria’s text argues that criminal justice in his day was a farce, only serving for appearance’s sake or to satisfy more nefarious and covert ends. The privileged got away with crimes. The innocent were scapegoated as symbols of a just society. It was a facade to maintain the appearance of a functioning state.
Beccaria asserts that punishment should instead be focused on maximizing society’s overall benefit by making it desirable for the people of a state to abide by the laws.
This means that, in his eyes, punishment should be first and foremost a deterrent, making people think twice before breaking a law. But deterrents alone are not enough when pursuing justice. Wrongs will be done unto the state and its people in some way regardless, and proper corrective action necessitates that when those wrongs occur, the perpetrators are made to pay. There needs to be a dosage of retribution. That which was stolen must be repaid.
Which brings us to the Houston Astros. The Astros, one of the most successful organizations not just in baseball but in all of sports for the latter half of this decade, defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017 to win the World Series. The title was the first in franchise history.
The Astros returned to the World Series, but came up short in 2018 and 2019. Despite those near misses at further success, the organization was still respected as the dominant entity in the sport. Until this summer.
This summer, extensive coverage broke that the Astros had, throughout their 2017 championship season, used a system involving a camera and a trash can to steal signs and know what pitch was coming. The story quickly gained national attention, and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stepped in to conduct an official investigation.
In short, the results of Manfred’s inspection were disappointing. He found extensive evidence of cheating, but was light on the punishment. The Astros chief executive and manager both got one year suspensions (they were later fired by Astros owner Jim Crane). The Astros players, the people who benefited most from the sign stealing scheme, received no official punishment.
Perhaps Manfred would say that the public shame the players will have to endure for their careers would be enough to satisfy the deterrent aspect of punishment. No athlete ever wants an asterisk on their legacy. But there is still a clear deficiency in Manfred’s actions. The Astros stole. What should be repaid?
Stripping the team of its 2017 World Series title would be a start, but Manfred has shown resistance to the idea of setting that precedent. The Dodgers, the team defeated in that series, have also resisted being awarded the trophy three years later.
But by examining Beccaria’s principles of punishment that are the foundations of modern criminal justice, I believe there is a solution that satisfies all qualms: the Astros must be forced to play the 2020 season with miniature souvenir bats.
You know the kind. They can be found in any ballpark gift store. This punishment would invert the advantage the Astros gave themselves in 2017 by stealing signs. Not only would it put the 2020 Astros at a deserved disadvantage, it would also be comically entertaining. And baseball is, according to Commissioner Manfred, in dire need of relevancy and entertainment value.
The Astros scandal is a shame on the sport, and it must be confronted fiercely. If Major League Baseball wants to be taken seriously, they should take inspiration from Cesare Beccaria’s teachings and force the Astros to play with miniature souvenir bats.
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