Yes, more teams than the Astros and Red Sox stole signs, but that doesn’t excuse them

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There’s an element to all of this Astros and Red Sox news that keeps coming up that I want to dig in to. Indeed, it’s a thing that comes up every single time a team or a player gets in trouble for something. It’s the “hey, they weren’t the only ones doing it! They were singled out!” defense, almost always mounted by fans of the teams or players who get busted.

First, let’s be 100 percent clear about something: the Astros and the Red Sox were not — not by a long shot — the only teams stealing signs. To suggest that they were is to live in fantasyland. Tom Verducci reported the other day that the investigation of the Astros led to at least seven or eight other teams being mentioned. Last night Michael Baumann of The Ringer linked to stories over the past couple of months in which sources said they believed that the Diamondbacks, Indians, Rangers, Cubs, Blue Jays, Nationals and Brewers have engaged in sign-stealing shenanigans as well.

And hey, from the “it takes one to know one” department, let us not forget this little thing from last summer when, after the Yankees pounded the Red Sox in London, Alex Cora said that the Yankees’ biggest offseason addition was Carlos Beltrán, complete with a wink:

He follows that with “we have to clean our details,” which is an obvious reference to signs. If you think he’s not talking about the Yankees engaging in some sign-stealing, you’re deluding yourself. Which, of course, becomes the jumping off point for that “no fair, we were singled out!” sentiment so many Astros and Red Sox fans have shared in the past few days.

I have two words for that: tough crap. Wait, make it four: grow up.

Just because there may be teams who, at present, are getting away with something does not mean that the Sox and Astros are any less culpable. To suggest that is to engage in the most basic form of whataboutism, which is a fallacy we see in political discourse all too often. It even has a name: “Tu quoque” — Latin for “you too.” It’s a form of reasoning which goes like this:

Fred: “You should stop drinking, Bob, it’s destroying your life.”
Bob: “You’ve been drinking since you were 21!”

The second assertion may be true, but it does nothing to address or refute the first assertion. Indeed, it’s a way of avoiding the first assertion. Bob may be a drinker, but maybe he’s not a problem drinker. And no matter what the case is with Bob, it doesn’t mean Fred isn’t ruining his life.

Tu quoque reasoning is designed to obfuscate and to create the illusion of false equivalency. It’s likewise a form of ad hominem argument, designed to throw attention on the one making an accusation rather than answer for the accusation. As many who lived under dictatorships observed — people like Vaclav Havel — it’s a favorite tactic of demagogues who use it and its superficial appeal to inspire surrogates to turn on their critics. We’ve seen its use positively explode since Trump got elected.

This “what about the other teams” business is a classic example of that. So too is a thing I’ve seen from some or the more disreputable stools at the great sports bar in which we all imbibe: the notion that, because one of the reporters who broke these stories — Evan Drellich of the Athletic — covered both the Red Sox and the Astros in recent years, he’s biased or has an axe to grind or that he’s out to get them and that that somehow discredits him and/or makes what those teams did less worse.

Based on what I read Drellich may very well have a legitimate beef with some people in the Astros’ front office, but so what? That doesn’t change the facts which he reported and which have now been vindicated by Major League Baseball’s investigation. The notion that his reporting has come first and foremost on the two teams with whom he has the best sources is not, as some high-profile media figures have claimed, suspicious either. Indeed, that’s EXACTLY who a reporter should be reporting on. If reporters who have sources with other teams aren’t doing as good a job with this story as Drellich is with the Astros and Sox, that’s a slight on them, not him. To go after him is to put yourself back in ad hominem land. It is also to fundamentally misunderstand how reporting works.

Yes, reporters should be trying as hard as they can to break open the sign-stealing story and report on what, if anything, the other 28 teams have done in this regard. Likewise, Major League Baseball should — as I have argued over and over again — be investigating all of baseball for this, not just looking at Houston and Boston, leveling punishment, declaring the matter closed and walking away. That the league tends not to do that — that it tends to put out fires in response to bad press as opposed to solve problems of which it becomes aware in a thorough manner — is a black mark on its record, even if it’s a longstanding practice under this commissioner and under his predecessors.

But that all of this hasn’t, at least as of yet, come out in uniform, 30-team reports with lockstep discipline does not make what the Astros and Red Sox have done any better. It doesn’t excuse them or make their punishment unjust. It’s simply a matter of the lowest-hanging fruit being grabbed first. Which happens pretty often in life, almost always in situations and settings far more important than baseball and in a way which works far more injustice than a team losing its manager or GM. It sucks, but it happens more often than it doesn’t. If you break the rules you can be mad that others who broke the rules didn’t get caught too, but you still broke the damn rules. Absent some actual evidence of an improper purpose-driven singling out, such complaints are not exactly compelling.

To hear those complaining otherwise puts me in mind of my kids arguing over who got the biggest piece of cake. To them I’ll say exactly what I told my kids: life isn’t always fair, bunky. Grow up. That approach worked pretty well on my kids, who were like five years-old at the time. Let’s see if it works with putatively grown up sports fans.