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If the Houston Astros did cheat against the Cleveland Indians in the ALDS, can you blame them?

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The question was asked Wednesday that if the Houston Astros are such a good baseball team why do they need to cheat? The Indians filed a complaint against the Astros after being swept in three games in the ALDS earlier this month.

A man connected with Houston was escorted from the Progressive Field camera pit next to the Indians’ dugout several times during Game 3 on Oct. 8 because he was using a cellphone to take pictures/video inside the Tribe’s dugout.

A similar incident happened on Saturday in Game 1 of the ALCS at Fenway Park between the Astros and Red Sox. MLB released a statement on Wednesday night before Game 4 of the ALCS at Minute Maid Park clearing the Astros of any wrongdoing.

Houston GM Jeff Luhnow told reporters that the Astros were casing other ballparks for “suspicious activity” and that they’d found numerous examples. MLB has ordered all teams still in the postseason to stop such activity and report violations to MLB.

“We were playing defense; we were not playing offense,” Luhnow said before Wednesday’s Game 4 of the American League Championship Series in Houston.

So let’s get this straight. The Astros weren’t peering into the dugouts of the Indians and Red Sox to steal signs, they were checking out the opposition dugouts to see if they were stealing signs from the Astros.

Yes, that sounds crazy. But not baseball crazy.

As for the question of why the Astros would cheat – the Indians, Oakland and Boston have complained to the commissioner’s office about them this year – how about this for an answer? In 1994 Albert Belle hit .357 with 35 doubles, 36 homers, 101 RBI and a 1.152 OPS. He did all that damage in only 106 games because a players’ strike.

In July of that year, Belle’s bat was confiscated in a game against the White Sox in Chicago. The White Sox had been tipped off that Belle was using a corked bat. The bat was placed in the umpire’s room at Comiskey Park as the game continued. Teammate Jason Grimsley climbed through the rafters, dropped into the umpire’s room, took Belle’s bat and left a Paul Sorrento model in its place.

Why didn’t Grimsley just leave one of Belle’s extra bats? Because, as a teammate later revealed, all of Belle’s bats were corked.

The next year Belle hit 50 homers and 52 doubles. Why would someone with so much power need to use a corked bat? Competition? Insecurity? An unbridled desire to put up big numbers so he could make as much money as possible?

The Astros won the World Series last year. This year they won 103 games. But their reputation for dealing in the dark arts of sign stealing preceded them into this postseason.

The Indians drove themselves to distraction trying to prepare for the Astros in the ALDS. They changed their signs and the way they delivered them. They made sure catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez hid their signs and changed them whenever a runner got on second.

The preparation didn’t matter. The Astros rolled past them by a collective score of 21-6.

If the Astros did cheat, if they did gain an advantage by using cameras, video or whatever other methods were available to them, is it wrong? Cheating in baseball has been going on forever and by the strict guidelines of the game it is wrong. But is it as wrong as a player taking performance-enhancing drugs, changing the makeup of his body, so he can make the big leagues, put up better numbers and make more money?

In this presidential era of alternate facts, can we have an alternate right and wrong in baseball?

When the Indians won six division titles from 1995-2001, opposing teams swore Progressive Field, then Jacobs Field, was loaded with hidden cameras stealing their signs. There used to be a camera in the visitor’s bullpen, so the official scorer could see who was warming up, but most teams would cover it with a towel.

In the postseason, teams regularly had league officials cover one of the Indians’ center field cameras and measure the mound at Jacobs Field. In one playoff game, Jim Thome homered against the Red Sox, who later complained that somebody whistled from the Indians’ bench, a signal to Thome that a certain pitch was coming, just before he homered. They believed the Indians were cheating.

Lots of ballparks have questionable reputations. During one game at the old Metrodome, Indians hitting coach Bobby Bonds walked the concourses and corridors of the ballpark. Bonds was sure that Metrodome officials turned the air conditioning on when the Twins batted to help their hitters drive the ball and turned it off when the opponents batted. His theory was inconclusive, but it was hard to convince him he was wrong.

The same goes for ballplayers. The rules say a pitcher’s foot must stay in contact with the pitching rubber when he throws a pitch. When Phil Niekro joined the Indians in 1986, he was 47. He went 11-11 and threw 210 1/3 innings. More than a few of the pitches he threw were delivered from a couple of inches in front of the rubber, so his knuckler would still have some flutter to it when it reached the plate.

When Tony Pena caught for the Indians, he was a master at scuffing the ball on his shin guard before throwing it back to the pitcher. He had some veteran pitchers who could take advantage of a scuffed ball. Nowadays that advantage is gone because every ball that hits the dirt is thrown out of play.

As long as baseball is played, teams and players are going to try and bend the rules to their advantage. Who can forget the image of Detroit’s Kenny Rogers, his hand covered with pine tar, as he pitched against St. Louis in the 2006 World Series?

If the Astros went looking for an advantage and found one against the Indians, it’s hard to blame them. MLB has curtailed the use of PEDs, but when it comes to sign stealing and other methods of gamesmanship, little if anything has been done to stop it.

In such a hot house environment, it has grown from Joe Nossek, the noted sign-stealing third base coach of the Indians from 1977-1981, trying to discover a pitcher’s tendencies to teams using sophisticated digital equipment with the same goal in mind — to find out what pitch is coming next.

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