Sunday, June 14, 2020

MLB Strikes Out, as Usual

Buster Olney's article How shortsighted greed is tearing baseball apart provides a great summary of some of the reasons that MLB is falling apart. It is worth emphasizing that he sees a direct connection between the flawed tanking mentality that has also harmed the NBA and the current mindset that is damaging MLB:
It's the Luhnow mindset as applied to labor relations.
Under Luhnow, the Houston Astros were the sport's supreme practitioners of tanking, becoming the first team since the 1962-65 Mets to lose at least 106 games in three consecutive seasons. In Luhnow's first three seasons as Houston GM, the Astros spent a total of $137.4 million in payroll--$53 million less than the next-lowest team, the Pirates ($190.7 million). The Astros drew a 0.0 in local television ratings for consecutive seasons. They manipulated the service time of some of their best young players, as did other teams. Luhnow's team engaged in ultra, next-level sign-stealing, and traded for Roberto Osuna fresh off his 75-game suspension under the sport's domestic violence policy.

But so long as the math made sense, Luhnow pushed the envelope and the Astros won a World Series in 2017. Of course, in the big picture, Luhnow's management turned out to be a disaster for many reasons besides wins and losses. Under his watch, the Astros helped to drag the sport under a low bar of credibility as other teams tried to replicate his formula, with fans left to wonder if what they paid to see was farcical.

Throughout those years, which included Luhnow giving the OK for a club employee to monitor the opposing dugout from an adjacent camera well, you kept waiting for someone to step up and lead. You kept waiting for someone to acknowledge the astounding accumulation of damage to good-faith competition and operation, just as you keep on waiting for someone on the owners' side to end this embarrassing negotiation with the players' association, rather than engaging in this battle of reconstituted Spam offers.

The house of baseball is burning and somebody needs to put out the fire immediately, by making a deal that moves the sport forward beyond this absurd fight over increments.

The opportunity to own the sporting stage in early July is gone. The potential goodwill (and ratings) all but certain for the first big sport out of the gate may be all but squandered.

Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts talking about a cash-flow problem when tens of millions of people have lost their jobs? Not good. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt, who has seen the value of his franchise multiply by at least a factor of 10, talking about how you can't make money in baseball? Not good.
If COVID-19 had not prevented the 2020 MLB season from starting on time, the focus would have been on MLB's weak, incompetent, and impotent response to widespread cheating. Now, the focus on that fiasco may have faded a bit, but only because MLB seems determined to commit suicide.

MLB has been a disaster for over 25 years; the best thing that the sport did in that time period, paradoxically, is to have a strike that ended Michael Jordan's baseball career; this hastened his NBA comeback, during which he won three more NBA titles, culminating in the "Last Dance" season. The strike was terrible for baseball, but I would gladly give up the World Series in exchange for watching Michael Jordan play in the NBA again.

Bud Selig was a horrible Commissioner who presided over the destruction of MLB's once-cherished record book; it is a travesty and an embarrassment that he is in the Baseball Hall of Fame at all, let alone that he was welcomed while Pete Rose remains banned. Rob Manfred, Selig's successor, may turn out to be even more horrible than Selig was--as bad as Selig was, MLB did not die on his watch; if Manfred and crew do not get their act together, MLB may lose the entire 2020 season, and suffer permanent damage.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Don Shula's Legacy of Winning With Integrity

Don Shula, the NFL's all-time leader in regular season coaching wins (328) and combined regular season/playoff wins (347), passed away on May 4 at the age of 90. Shula is best known for leading the 1972 Miami Dolphins to a 17-0 record and the Super Bowl title, the only perfect season in NFL history (three other teams--the 1934 Chicago Bears, the 1942 Chicago Bears, and the 2007 New England Patriots--enjoyed undefeated regular seasons but did not win the NFL Championship or Super Bowl). The Dolphins repeated as Super Bowl champions in 1973, posting a 15-2 overall record. From 1971-73, the Dolphins went 44-6-1 overall with three straight Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl titles.

Before he became a coach, Shula had 21 interceptions while playing for three teams during his seven season (1951-57) NFL career. Shula spent two seasons as a college assistant coach before becoming an assistant coach for the Detroit Lions in 1960. He then served two seasons as the Lions' defensive coordinator (1961-62) before becoming the Baltimore Colts' head coach in 1963. At that time, Shula was the youngest head coach in NFL history. The Colts went 7-7 in 1962 (the season before Shula arrived), and by 1964 they were a 12-2 team that advanced to the NFL Championship Game before losing 27-0 to the Cleveland Browns. 

During his 33 year NFL head coaching career, Shula made 19 playoff appearances, won 16 division titles (including four straight from 1971-74, and five straight from 1981-85), won five AFC titles (1971-73, 1982, 1984), led Baltimore to the 1968 NFL title (the Colts lost Super Bowl III to the AFL champion New York Jets), and posted a 2-4 record in the Super Bowl. Only Bill Belichick (nine) has been a head coach in more Super Bowls than Shula. Shula is one of 13 coaches who have won at least two Super Bowl titles, and only Belichick (six), Chuck Noll (four), Bill Walsh (three), and Joe Gibbs (three) have won more Super Bowls than Shula. Shula is the only four-time winner (1964, 1967, 1968, 1972) of the AP NFL Coach of the Year award, an honor that has been presented since 1957. Only four NFL coaches amassed at least 250 regular season wins: Shula, George Halas (318), Bill Belichick (273), and Tom Landry (250).

Shula long ago established his position in the NFL coaching pantheon, but during the first portion of his coaching career he battled the stigma that he could not win the big game. He did not win a playoff game until his sixth season in Baltimore, when he took the Colts to the 1968 NFL title, but much of the luster of that accomplishment was wiped away by the Colts' loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III. Shula lasted just one more season in Baltimore before moving to Miami to coach the Dolphins, a 1966 AFL expansion team entering its first season as an NFL team. The Dolphins had not won more than five games in a season prior to Shula's arrival, but they went 10-4 in his first season, dominated the league for the next three seasons, and only posted two losing records during Shula's 1970-95 tenure with the franchise. By the time he retired, Shula--much like former UCLA coach John Wooden--had conclusively overcome the stigma/perception/narrative that he could not win the big game.

Former NFL coach Bum Phillips once said of Shula, "Don Shula can take his'n and beat you'n, and he could take you'n and beat his'n." Shula's record speaks for itself, but Shula was most proud of how he compiled that record: "If I'm remembered for anything, I hope it's for playing within the rules. I also hope it will be said that my teams showed class and dignity in victory or defeat."

In addition to integrity and sustained excellence, Shula's coaching career is also distinguished by the adaptability that he displayed. His early Dolphin teams were characterized by a tremendous running attack plus a stout defense, but in the 1980s Shula opened up his offense to take full advantage of Dan Marino's passing ability. The Dolphins advanced to one Super Bowl with Marino, and they were a perennial playoff team during the early to mid 1980s before having a few subpar seasons in the second half of that decade. Shula led the Dolphins to four playoff appearances in the first six years of the 1990s--including a trip to the AFC Championship Game after the 1992 season--before he retired.

Shula left big footprints to fill. The Dolphins have made just two playoff appearances since 2001, and they have not advanced to the AFC Championship Game since the 1992 season. Hall of Fame Coach Jimmy Johnson inherited a 9-7 team from Shula, and went 8-8, 9-7, 10-6, and 9-7 in his four seasons with the Dolphins.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Refuting False Narratives About the Legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

Tom Brady has publicly announced that he plans to leave the New England Patriots via free agency, though he has yet to announce where he is going. Not surprisingly, Brady's statement has unleashed a wave of commentary about his legacy, and Bill Belichick's legacy, as well as a reexamination of previous all-time greats who could have played their entire careers for one team but elected to see if the grass was greener elsewhere--with Joe Montana, Michael Jordan, and Peyton Manning being perhaps the three most prominent examples.

Both Belichick and Brady have more than secured their individual legacies. Belichick was a key contributor to two Super Bowl champions as an assistant coach before winning six Super Bowls as New England's head coach. Any short list of the greatest football coaches of all-time must include his name, and nothing that happens in the rest of his career will change or diminish that. Belichick is the second oldest head coach in the NFL now, and he is tied with several others as the eighth oldest head coach in NFL history. A career is judged by the overall body of work, with an emphasis on what happened in the prime years; Belichick's career is not going to be defined by what happens in his final seasons. Of course, if he wins Super Bowls as an elder statesman coach that could potentially add to his already established legacy, but no sensible person is going to hold it against Belichick if he does not win another Super Bowl. Don Shula, Chuck Noll, and Tom Landry are three of the greatest coaches of all-time, and their careers ended long after their final Super Bowl victory with no damage done to their legacies.

Brady is a six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback who is nearing the end of his career. If he wins another Super Bowl, he can add to his legacy, but few quarterbacks have even played as long as Brady, let alone won championships at his age; if Brady does not win another Super Bowl, it does not hurt his legacy any more than Joe Montana's time as a Kansas City Chief did.

Speaking of which, without looking it up do you even remember how long Montana played in Kansas City, what statistics he posted, and how the team performed? Unless you are an NFL addict with a great memory or you are lying, the honest answer is "No."

Before revisiting the end of Montana's career, it is worth briefly mentioning Joe Namath, whose name is sometimes brought up in this context. While it may have been painful at the time for NFL fans to watch him finish his career as an L.A. Ram, Namath secured his legacy by leading the New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III. Nothing that happened after that caused long-term damage to Namath's legacy. He will always be remembered as a triumphant Jet, and no one spends much time thinking about his brief time as a stumbling Ram.

Back to Montana, who spent two years as a Chief, making the Pro Bowl in 1993 (his first season with the team) and compiling a 17-8 regular season record (he missed seven games due to injury) in 1993-94. Montana led the Chiefs to the 1993 AFC Championship Game, but the Chiefs lost 30-13, and Montana was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the third quarter. Montana quarterbacked the Chiefs to a 9-7 record and a loss in the Wild Card round in 1994 before he retired at 38. Those two seasons are a solid postscript to a Hall of Fame career, but they had no impact on the legacy that Montana had already forged by winning four Super Bowls as a San Francisco 49er.

Consider an example from a different sport. Michael Jordan had already retired and come back once as a Chicago Bull before he came out of retirement in 2001 to play for the Washington Wizards. Jordan never averaged less than 28 ppg in a full season with the Bulls, and he never averaged more than 23 ppg in his two seasons with the Wizards. Jordan led the Bulls to six titles in six NBA Finals appearances, and he was not able to take the Wizards to the playoffs even once. No, Jordan the Wizard did not accomplish as much as Jordan the Bull, but Jordan the Wizard added some clips to his career highlight reel, and did not harm Jordan's legacy at all.

Brady and Manning spent much of their careers battling for individual honors and Super Bowl titles. Manning won one Super Bowl in 13 seasons as a Colt before finishing his career as a Denver Bronco. Manning earned three Pro Bowl selections as a Bronco while also making the All-Pro First Team twice, and winning another Super Bowl title. Interestingly, his two playoff runs that ended in Super Bowl wins are two of his four worst postseasons statistically (based on the NFL's passer rating system). Winning a second Super Bowl--albeit while no longer a star player (he had nine passing touchdowns and 17 interceptions in his final regular season before the Broncos won the Super Bowl)--perhaps added a bit to Manning's legacy, but certainly no one dwells on how limited a player Manning was by that time, nor would any rational commentator have held it against Manning if his Bronco years had not been capped off with a championship.

Supposedly, next season is going to represent some kind of referendum in a made up Belichick versus Brady competition: Can Brady win without Belichick? Can Belichick win without Brady? Will neither one win?

This is nonsense. If there were to be a genuine, meaningful Belichick versus Brady competition then we would need to pit them against each other when both were in their primes, and we would need to supply them with comparable supporting casts. Give prime Brady a different coach and a solid supporting cast, and how much would he win? How much Brady wins as a past his prime quarterback can only tell us so much.

The other side of the question is how much would prime Belichick win with a different quarterback and a solid supporting cast? 

Actually, we did get a glimpse of that during the 2008 season that Brady missed with an ACL injury, and we saw the Patriots go 11-5 with Matt Cassel as the starting quarterback. Cassel left the Patriots after that season, and went 26-40 as a starter during the rest of his career. During his first head coaching job, Belichick inherited a 3-13 Cleveland team and in four years he turned them into an 11-5 squad that won a playoff game (which is the last playoff game that the Browns have won). So, we do have some evidence about what Belichick can do as a coach without Brady.

All that we know for sure is that the Belichick-Brady tandem is the greatest coach-quarterback duo in NFL history (throw in the AAFC years, and you could make an argument for Paul Brown-Otto Graham, who won seven championships and made 10 championship game appearances in 10 seasons together). Whether or not either of them win any more Super Bowls in the final years of their respective careers does not change the significance of what they accomplished together, nor "prove" that one was more integral to their shared success than the other.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

UEFA's Strong Response to Cheating Emphasizes MLB's Incompetence

The public recently learned The Disgraceful Secret of the Astros' and Red Sox' Success: Cheating, and we also saw Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Rob Manfred set the price that an MLB owner must be willing to pay for cheating to win a World Series title: $5 million. Manfred made it clear that if a team cheats to win the World Series then that team keeps the title and "the piece of metal" (as he dismissively referred to the trophy awarded to his sport's champion). How many MLB owners would pay $5 million to win a World Series title?

Fortunately, not every sport responds so casually to cheating. In Foul Balls and Red Cards: How Baseball and Soccer’s Different Approaches to Cheating Illustrate the Power of Organizational Response, authors Reid Whitten and J. Scott Maberry (both from the law firm SheppardMullin) contrast the punishment that MLB prescribed for the Houston Astros with how UEFA (the governing body of European soccer) dealt with cheating committed by Manchester City, one of the English Premier League's top teams (footnotes omitted):
In both cases, the team's cheating threatened the integrity of the whole sport. In both cases, the integrity of the sport is critical to the business model of the respective leagues. If fans begin to think one side has been allowed an unfair advantage, they will quickly lose faith in the competitive nature of the sport. Fans would then, slowly but surely, lose interest in spending money to support their teams.

For those reasons, in both cases, the governing leagues needed to respond quickly and decisively to reassure fans that the games are fair and to restore the integrity of their respective organizations. Where soccer succeeded in doing so, baseball has failed.

The highest prize in European soccer is the UEFA Champions League trophy. The Champions League is a season-long competition where the best club teams from countries from Ireland to Russia, from Poland to Portugal play in an international tournament of the champions of the various national systems (Manchester City, for example, is one of the most dominant teams in the English Premier League). It is an honor just to make the Champions League tournament and, when a team wins that tournament, it stakes its claim as the best team in Europe.
Among other violations, the UEFA's investigation of Manchester City found that the team's owner, a billionaire from the United Arab Emirates, funneled his own money to companies who had signed sponsorship agreements with the team, which enabled the team owner to evade limits on spending his own money on the team. The punishment, announced in February, is a two-year ban from playing in the Champions League. No trophies, no mid-week competitions on the world's biggest stage for soccer clubs, no ticket sales, television rights, or website clicks for updates. Done. Two years. You cheated, you're out of the Big Dance...

We predict that the UEFA's approach will help lead to a healing of Manchester City's wounds to European soccer, whereas MLB's response has merely magnified the Astros' threat to baseball.
In MLB's missed opportunity is a lesson for all organizations: sometimes it feels too harsh to punish wrongdoers inside an organization. But when the organization's very integrity is threatened by the cheating, the cheaters have to be dealt with.
When the walls of your house have rotten boards, you need to find the rot and cut it away, not paint it over. Cutting out the rot is difficult and sometimes painful. But it may be just the thing that keeps your house standing.
MLB has been a bad joke for more than a quarter century, dating back at least to the 1994 strike that wiped out the sport's crown jewel event, the World Series. We have also witnessed fake home run records (and, in some cases, inflated pitching statistics) created by PED cheaters, and the 2002 MLB All-Star Game ending in a tie as clueless Commissioner Bud Selig shrugged his shoulders impotently on national TV. MLB's simultaneous embrace of Alex Rodriguez--who should have received a lifetime ban--and ostracism of Pete Rose (even as MLB makes millions of dollars now by partnering with legalized betting operations) is bizarre, though not quite as bizarre as the fact that Selg is in the Baseball Hall of Fame but Rose is not.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

What Mariano Rivera Taught Walter Iooss Jr. About Gratitude and Humility

The December 12, 2011 issue of Sports Illustrated included an article by Walter Iooss Jr. and Chris Ballard titled "The Education of Walter Iooss Jr." Iooss' stories about athletes he photographed ranging from Jim Brown to Muhammad Ali to Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods--and many more--provide fascinating insights not only about those athletes, but also about Iooss and the art of photography.

What stopped me in my tracks, though, and inspired this brief article, is an exchange that Iooss had with Mariano Rivera, the New York Yankees' great closer. The conversation began when Iooss asked Rivera how he learned the pitch that brought him so many victories, the cut fastball (or cutter):
Then one time I asked him, "Who taught you that cutter?"

He said, "God."

I said, "God did?" Being an atheist, I said, "God never taught me anything."

Mariano said, "Oh, yes, he did, Walter."

He was very calm. He said, "He gave you your great talent. You should be thankful."

That humbled me. The truth is, I see photos everywhere. I look at someone sitting next to me at lunch, and instantly I'm putting up a background in my mind. That's just churning all the time. If the beauty's there, I want to take a picture of it.
Rivera's gratitude and humility are qualities well worth emulating. Iooss' drive to use his gift to capture beautiful images and share them with others is likewise inspirational.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Dr. Jonathan Gelber Examines The Intersection of Law and Medicine in Sports

Dr. Jonathan Gelber's book Tiger Woods's Back and Tommy John's Elbow: Injuries & Tragedies That Transformed Careers, Sports, and Society packs a lot of interesting information into less than 200 pages. Dr. Gelber begins with the legend of the "Cobra Effect," which is an example of the sociological concept of unintended consequences: as the story goes, an Indian Raj sought to curb the presence of cobras in his territory by offering a bounty for dead cobra skins--but the unintended consequence was that his citizens bred cobras in order to kill them for the bounty, and then after the Raj canceled the bounty the breeders set these cobras loose in the countryside since there was no longer any value for killing the cobras.

There are many examples of the "Cobra Effect" in Dr. Gelber's book, and here is one to whet your appetite to read about the rest of them.

It is well known that L.A. Dodgers' pitcher Sandy Koufax retired in 1966 at age 30 to prevent permanent damage to his left (pitching) elbow. Dr. Robert Kerlan, the Dodgers' team doctor, diagnosed Koufax with arthritis, the result of years of trauma to Koufax' elbow. A few years after Koufax retired, Dr. Kerlan partnered with Dr. Frank Jobe to form the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic, which later became world-famous for treating athletes from a variety of sports.

In 1974, Tommy John--then a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox--suffered an elbow destabilization injury that Dr. Gelber suggests was similar to the one that had eventually forced Koufax to retire. Dr. Jobe, consulting with hand surgeon Dr. Herbert Stark, decided to perform a radical new surgery, taking a tendon from John's forearm and carefully threading it through John's elbow to stabilize the joint. John went on to win more games after undergoing the procedure than he had won before, and the operation is now known as Tommy John surgery.

The "Cobra Effect" here is that Tommy John surgery has gone from being a radical solution to an injury that threatened to end a pitcher's career to a procedure that has become commonplace among young pitchers, many of whom undergo the surgery not to cure injury but based on the false belief that the surgery inherently increases performance levels. As a result of this, Tommy John has publicly stated his opposition to how prevalent his namesake surgery has become among young athletes, noting that over half of such surgeries are performed on patients who are between 15-19 years old, and that one in seven of those kids will never fully recover.

Other "Cobra Effect" stories examined by Dr. Gelber include Magic Johnson and HIV, Lyle Alzado and steroids, Len Bias and drug abuse/mandatory minimum sentencing, Hank Gathers and athlete screening for underlying health issues, Ayrton Senna/Dale Earnhardt and race car safety issues, Duk-koo Kim and efforts to make boxing safer, Tom Brady and measures to protect the quarterback from injury, plus Tiger Woods' back injury and the use/abuse of opioid drugs. 

This book is thought-provoking, and I recommend it with just two caveats: (1) The existence of a "Cobra Effect" is suggested but not conclusively proven in some of the examples and (2) the book would be even better if it had been lengthier so that some of the issues raised could be discussed in more depth.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Disgraceful Secret of the Astros' and Red Sox' Success: Cheating

The Houston Astros have been widely portrayed as a model franchise in terms of utilizing analytics to build a successful team: the Astros tanked to accumulate draft picks, and then they used analytics to decide which players to draft, which veteran players to acquire, and how to maximize the talents of those players during games.

All of that sounds great in theory--but the reality is that the secret edge that pushed the Astros over the top and enabled them to win the 2017 World Series was old fashioned cheating: the Astros stole the opposing team's signs during games and then made noise in their dugout to alert their hitters about which pitch to expect.

If Bud Selig were still the Major League Baseball Commissioner, the Astros would have probably received a slap on the wrist while Selig broke his arm patting himself on the back, which was baseball's version of crime and punisment as Selig presided over the "Steroids Era." Fortunately, Rob Manfred at least has some sense of how serious this offense is: Commissioner Manfred assessed a $5 million fine against the Astros, stripped the franchise of its first and second round picks in both 2020 and 2021, and suspended General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season (the Astros subsequently fired both men, neither of whom will be permitted to work for any other MLB team next season). Many baseball insiders have publicly expressed surprise at these supposedly draconian punishments but Manfred--although he showed more sense than Selig, an admittedly low hurdle to clear--did not go far enough. The Astros still go down in history as the 2017 World Series champions, and not one player who participated in the cheating has received any punishment.

It is becoming increasingly hard to understand why Pete Rose is burdened with a lifetime ban, while cheating players such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez are embraced by Major League Baseball, and cheating teams like Houston and Boston (see below) retain their coveted (but forever tarnished) World Series crowns.

MLB has a lot to learn from other sports. In track and field, cheaters like Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and others are stripped of their Olympic and World Championship medals. In cycling, Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France titles were voided.

If MLB and its leadership had any courage or any sense, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and every other "Steroids Era" cheater would be removed from the record book and banned from Hall of Fame consideration--and the Astros would be stripped of the 2017 World Series title, with every player who was involved in the cheating being disciplined by MLB. Manfred's excuses for not punishing the players--too many players were involved, many of the players play for other teams now, and he did not feel like he could determine the relative guilt of each player--are weak, and provide an open invitation to players to cheat in the future, with the knowledge that if they are caught then they will keep their World Series rings while their manager and GM take the fall.

The investigation into the Astros' wrongdoing revealed that Alex Cora--who played a major role in Houston's cheating as a bench coach--similarly participated in cheating perpetrated by the Boston Red Sox as he served as that team's manager during their 2018 World Series championship season. Cora should be banned for life, and the Red Sox should be stripped of their title--but it is possible that Cora will get off with no more than a one year suspension, and it is likely that the Red Sox will pay a price that does not include losing their championship.

Of course, Boston is another franchise that has been lauded for profitably utilizing analytics.

Analytics have proven their value in many fields, from science to retail to law; law is my profession, and as a Customer Success Manager for Lex Machina--the pioneer and leader in the legal analytics field--I am well aware of the tremendous value provided by analytics that are accurate, complete and relevant. However, this MLB cheating scandal renews the question of just how valuable or reliable baseball analytics are; if the analytics provide a decisive edge, then why would two teams that are deeply immersed in analytics risk getting caught stealing signs?

I have often written about the strengths and limitations of "advanced basketball statistics" and the application of real basketball analytics, but the widely held assumption for quite some time is that analytics work better in baseball than in basketball because baseball is a station to station game of discrete actions, not a free-flowing game of interconnected simultaneous actions.

The Houston and Boston cheating scandals do not "prove" that baseball analytics have no value, but these scandals do legitimately raise the question of how much of an advantage Houston and Boston gained through analytics compared to how much of an advantage they gained by breaking the rules.

Why do I criticize the Astros and Red Sox after previously expressing the opinion that the so-called "Spygate" and "Deflategate" situations involving the New England Patriots were overblown by the media? Simple. The Astros and Red Sox unambiguously and deliberately cheated, and their cheating led directly to the championships that they won. In contrast, the Patriots committed a technical rules violation in "Spygate" that may not have even conferred a significant competitive advantage, and it is not even clear that they did anything wrong in "Deflategate." While baseball pitch signals are concealed, the signals that the Patriots filmed during "Spygate" can be viewed by anyone watching an NFL game on TV; the systematic gathering and collection of those signals for later analysis is not permitted (and that is why the Patriots were punished by the NFL), but this is not the same as intercepting a catcher's signals in real time and banging a trash can in the dugout to let the batter know in real time the exact pitch that is coming. Further, the Astros and Red Sox attempted to conceal what they were doing, while the Patriots' videographers were wearing team colors, and their presence could not have been more obvious if they had been waving semaphore flags. Regarding "Deflategate," independent scientists examined the evidence and concluded that the methodology and conclusions of the infamous Wells Report were flawed.

NFL cheating incidents that should outrage fans include (1) the 2010 Saints putting "bounties" on opposing players en route to winning the Super Bowl, (2) the Denver Broncos circumventing salary cap rules to stack enough talent around John Elway to enable him to win two Super Bowls in the 1990s, (3) the San Francisco 49ers circumventing salary cap rules during the 1990s, and (4) the massive steroid use that fueled the Pittsburgh Steelers' 1970s championship teams (and may be responsible for the sad, early demises suffered by many of the players from those teams).

Of course, the media picks and chooses who to target and who to absolve in these situations. New England Coach Bill Belichick rarely provides useful soundbites to the media, so it is OK for the media to dub him "Belicheat." The Saints were a fairy tale story in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, so their intentional maiming of opposing NFL players is readily forgotten; Gregg Williams, the ringleader of the Saints' bounty scheme, is back in the NFL and is a respected coach, even though some players say that he is still coaching his players to intentionally injure opposing players. Elway's Broncos, and the 1990s 49ers are also popular, so their transgressions are forgotten. The Steelers are part of the NFL's ancient and storied history, so no one cares to examine their widespread steroid abuse.

It will be interesting to see how the media choose to depict the Astros and the Red Sox. For me as a baseball fan, Major League Baseball has not been the same since the strike canceled the 1994 World Series, and then the "Steroids Era" combined with Bud Selig's bumbling (remember the 2002 All-Star Game that ended in a tie while Selig shrugged?) permanently stained the sport and its once-hallowed record book--though, as a basketball fan, I thank MLB for having a strike that lasted so long that it helped push Michael Jordan back to the NBA. This latest scandal just confirms to me that the baseball record book before 1994 was nonfiction, while the baseball record book post-1994 is fiction, replete with fraudulent home runs, fraudulent MVPs and, now, fraudulent champions. This is not to say that other pro sports are pure or flawless, but the past 25 years or so have been brutal for MLB.