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Analysis: Cheating spoils the results — in baseball, and in Texas politics

What if cheating in politics got as much attention as stealing catchers’ signs on the way to a World Series?

The Houston Astros — and maybe a team or two to be named later — got caught using technology to steal the signs catchers were making to pitchers. Stealing signs is a legal and time-honored form of baseball trickery, but using technology like cameras and smart watches, as the Astros did, is specifically against the rules.

It wrecked the Astros’ reputation. It put a big fat asterisk on their 2017 World Series championship. Every move they make for the next few years will be shaded by the scandal. And if you watch the sports universe, you’ll also find lots of fanatics shouting variations on “Everybody does it.”

Is there a better moment to compare and contrast sports and politics?

Those who really want to tamper, tamper with the rules. Political factions draw cleverly unfair maps of political districts. It’s the reason people already in office are so reluctant to make it easier for new voters to take part in the elections that might threaten incumbents. It’s why Texas won’t let you register to vote online, or on Election Day.

People in politics, like people in sports, constantly tinker to bend rules to their advantage. Maybe they fiddle with the amount of air in a football, as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were accused of doing a few years ago. Or they take the fine art of stealing signs out of the hands of the cleverest players and turn things over to the techies, like Houston did.

Once the Astros were busted, the fallout was quick: Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, the Astros’ general and field managers, can’t set foot in any professional baseball stadium — major league or minor — until after the next World Series, and they were fired immediately after the league suspended them. The team loses some draft picks and has to pay $5 million, too.

The Boston Red Sox parted with their manager, Alex Cora, after Major League Baseball’s official report came out; he was Houston’s bench coach when the cheating took place. The Red Sox are now under investigation to see whether he brought his Astros witchcraft with him. And Carlos Beltran, a former Astros player mentioned in the report for his part in the scheme, is leaving the New York Mets as a result — a rookie MLB manager out of a job before managing a single game.

Their scheme was a combination of high tech and low tech — a camera in center field, trained on the batter and catcher, sending video to a monitor in the hall by the dugout, where an Astros employee signaled batters about what was coming by banging on a trash can.

And what happened to the Astros in the 2017 season when all of this was going on? They won the World Series. Boston, with Cora in charge, won it in 2018.

They might well have won without any tricks. Don’t want to get caught here saying anything nice about the Red Sox, but the Astros team of the last few years would have been phenomenal without the hijinks.

It’s the same with politics. Elections are sloppy things. Just look at the latest school bond election in Midland, which passed by 18 votes in the Election Day count, failed by 25 votes when mail-in ballots were taken into account, flipped again on a recount that put it up by 11 votes, and then failed — finally, and by 26 votes — when a missing election box was counted.

Nothing that we know of was illicit, just sloppy. It’s a great illustration of the maxim, “Every vote counts.”

Texas history is full of instances where ballot boxes went missing, or when enough votes were found after an initial count to flip the result. Or when technology got in the way, like last year’s dust-up between the Texas secretary of state and election officials in Harris County.

History has its share of cheaters, too, with consequences bigger than the outcome of a baseball game. The courts caught Texas cheating over and over during the last decade by changing election laws to benefit one side over the other. The judges often sent the Legislature back to make revisions. But they didn’t raise the kinds of questions about the election results that sports fans are raising about the Astros’ championship.

In baseball, cheating has consequences.

The article was published at Analysis: Cheating spoils the results — in baseball, and in Texas politics.