Should Astros players fear for their safety after the cheating scandal?

Hunter Felt
Photograph: Rhona Wise/USA Today Sports

The Houston Astros have been punished, but has justice truly been served? That’s the big question hovering around Major League Baseball as commissioner Rob Manfred makes a futile attempt to move on from one of the biggest scandals in league history. Soon, Astros hitters, many of whom were part of that now-dubious 2017 World Series win, will face live pitching for the first time since the league handed down its judgment against the team’s sign-stealing scheme.

So which players were punished by MLB?

None of them!

So they were exonerated from wrongdoing?

Nope! MLB suspended the team’s manager and general manager, who were both promptly fired by Houston ownership. The Astros players involved in the scheme, meanwhile, were essentially granted immunity by Manfred.

Was this fair?

No. While not every Astros player was actively involved in the sign-stealing system, every member of the team during the years in question was complicit in the scandal and they all benefited. There are members of the Los Angeles Dodgers that have reason to believe they were robbed of a World Series, there are countless pitchers and hitters that now know they have been playing on an uneven playing field. Even LeBron James has got involved.

Related: 'They need a beating': Player anger grows over Astros cheating scandal

But, Manfred may very well be right in claiming that there would be no way to conduct a proper investigation without offering player immunity. Furthermore, it’s hard to know exactly what steps the league could possibly take when faced with a scandal quite this big. Maybe a bold, transformative commissioner could have used this crisis as a way to make a bold, transformative move, but Manfred chose the path that he hoped would cause the least resistance: release a report, pin the blame on a few bad actors, and try to quickly move on.

What will happen when the games begin?

Well, when Manfred was discussing how he wanted there to be more drama in baseball, it’s pretty certain he wasn’t thinking about this. Right now, the Astros are the number one topic at the start of Spring Training, for all the wrong reasons.

“It’s sad for baseball,” said the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, nearly universally regarded as the best player in the game, “It’s tough. They cheated. I don’t agree with the punishments, the players not getting anything. It was a player-driven thing.”

The Atlanta Braves’ Nick Markakis went even further, suggesting there may be violence in store. “I feel like every single guy over there needs a beating. It’s wrong. They’re messing with people’s careers,” he said this week.

What could he be talking about?

It’s clear that there are at least discussions of possible in-game retaliation against the Astros. The hottest Spring Training topic has been about whether or not opposing pitchers would throw at Astros batters who were implicated in the scheme. Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling, explicitly discussed the possibility. “I would lean towards yes. In the right time and the right place.”

Is there a precedent here?

Yes, it’s called the entire history of professional baseball.

There are the so-called unwritten rules in the game about proper decorum on the field. Most commonly, perceived infractions will lead to pitchers deliberately hitting opposing batters. Runners have also been known to take out players with dirty takeout slides (Chase Utley, we’re looking at you). These situations often escalate into on-field brawls. Pitchers are known for throwing at opponents for such supposed violations as “admiring a home run for a split-second too long” or “expressing excitement about doing something good to help one’s team win a baseball game.” The Astros’ violations seem to be of a somewhat higher order.

What has been the response to all this talk?

The Astros have spent these last few weeks hiding behind respected veteran manager Dusty Baker, who was brought in to replace the suspended and fired AJ Hinch. Baker, who had zero involvement with the Astros organization during the years in question, has understandably not been happy about talk of revenge against his players. “I’m depending on the league to try to put a stop to this seemingly premeditated retaliation that I’m hearing about,” he said last weekend.

Manfred has put the hammer down. “It is simply not appropriate to express whatever frustration you may have growing out of the Astros situation by putting someone physically at risk by throwing at them,” he said. “It’s just not acceptable.”

Could players actually be hurt?

Maybe, maybe not. But nothing good is going to come out of this either way. Knowing what we know now about the lasting impacts of head trauma, it’s pretty much impossible to justify retaliation by pitchers at opposing batters, regardless of the situation. Manfred is very correct to go on the record as saying that intentionally throwing at Astros players won’t be tolerated.

But some would argue that the league is protecting cheats …

Yes! Also this. There’s a very good chance that the way Manfred has handled the entire scandal has all but guaranteed that there will be some sort of on-field violence coming. Heck, maybe it will be good for the ratings, I’m sure he has number-crunchers working to figure out if that would be the case.

So what happens next?

We won’t know until the games start but Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood has probably mapped out the end game for this scenario: “Somebody will take it into their own hands, and they’ll get suspended more games than any of those guys got for the biggest cheating scandal in 100 years.”