Mike Clevinger, the Houston Astros, and vigilante justice

MLB issued no punishment to the players involved in the Astros’ cheating scandal, which could potentially open up a whole new can of worms for the league.

There are varying and conflicting opinions on whether or not the punishments handed down by MLB to the Houston Astros for their sign-stealing scandal are sufficient. Some contend that lifetime bans are in order for those who oversaw the operation–whether those parties admitted to participating or not. Jeff Luhnow and AJ Hinch received one-year suspensions for their roles, and the permanent excommunication many believe to be appropriate may well be what awaits Alex Cora when all is said and done.

The one unifying sentiment among all onlookers is that the players involved got off easy. In fact, even the phrase “slap on the wrist” does not apply to the players who have resided in Houston’s clubhouse since 2017. They have received no official punishment whatsoever, and barring the emergence of new, concrete evidence, they will likely skate out the other side of this catastrophe unscathed.

That doesn’t sit well with, well, anybody. Shoeless Joe Jackson was banned from baseball forever because his teammates lost a World Series on purpose. Pete Rose is still crusading, however ineffectively, for reinstatement after his gambling habits got him permanently exiled. And yet no Houston Astro will miss an inning of the 2020 regular season for his involvement in one of the most systematic cheating scandals in the history of sports.

The outrage over this lack of consequence has spilled into the MLB player community, many of whom have not minced words when expressing their feelings. Among the most vocal of these players has been Cleveland Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger, whose Twitter activity on Thursday afternoon was eyebrow-raising, to say the least.

Clevinger doesn’t explicitly announce that he intends to buzz the tower of any Astros player, but it doesn’t take a doctorate in the English language to deduce that’s what he’s insinuating. If “throwing hard” at a hitter in Houston’s lineup is in fact what he’s getting at, are we to believe there aren’t dozens of other players–specifically pitchers–who feel similarly?

The bean-ball is as old as the game itself, however diligently the league might be working to eliminate it. Pitchers have found all sorts of reasons to throw at opposing hitters, ranging from trivial responses to perceived slights that may or may not involve bat-flipping after a home run, to genuine retaliation for the endangerment of a teammate.

And now we arrive at a crossroads in baseball history where an entire team was caught cheating the game; cheating other teams out of winning games and championships; cheating individual players who worked tirelessly for years just to play one day in the major leagues–some of whom could have had their careers negatively impacted by one or two bad outings at Minute Maid Park.

Yet all the members of the 2017-19 Astros will be permitted to play regularly going forward; none will even surrender a portion of their salary in the form of a fine. The lone exception, of course, is Carlos Beltran, who is coincidentally no longer represented by the players’ union and will likely have difficulty finding a new job in the near future after terminating his employment with the Mets. Did the commissioner’s office honestly lack the foresight to envision how this all might play out on the field over the course of this season? Did the league see no version of its future that involved retribution from the many teams and players adversely affected by Houston’s flagrant treachery?

What often follows an intentional pegging is a subsequent on-field altercation; the most heated of these turn into full-fledged brawls. It’s safe to believe that any tussle the Astros find themselves in with another team this year is likely to escalate beyond words. I’m not anticipating a 162-game cage match, but there are going to be points of the Astros’ season when things take ugly turns.

At those points, MLB is going to attempt to perform some sort of damage control. Rob Manfred is going to issue strong warnings that teams taking it upon themselves to deliver vigilante justice will not be tolerated. The uncanny irony of it all is that some pitcher is going to intentionally throw at an Astros batter this season, and then receive some level of punishment for it.

Next: Trevor Bauer was right all along

Maybe that pitcher will be Mike Clevinger. Maybe there will be several others. But if and when the Astros’ street-level comeuppance arrives, it should not be forgotten that MLB invited such recourse upon itself. The league admitted to knowing there were players complicit in Houston’s scheme, and it rendered no punishment. Thus, it has no right to be surprised when those on the other 29 teams take matters into their own hands.

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