The Houston Astros have admitted to using video technology to steal pitching signs during their 2017 and 2018 seasons, in which they respectively won the World Series and reached the American League Championship (USA Today). The team had a monitor installed outside of their dugout which displayed live game feed from the center-field camera, footage that was intended only for video replay review (USA Today). Players would watch the live feed, decode the sign, and bang on a trashcan to communicate the upcoming pitch to the batter (Id.). Following the sign stealing scandal, managers were fired, the team was fined $5 million, and top draft picks were docked, but the commissioner failed to punish any players or vacate the Astros’ 2017 World Series title (Id.). There is growing criticism that these punishments are not severe enough given the seriousness of the offense, and as a result, lawsuits have arisen against the Astros by those who believe they were harmed by the cheating scheme (Id.).
The first major lawsuit against the Astros is a federal class action brought by daily fantasy baseball players alleging the Astros violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (Sports Illustrated). The action claims that the unlawful sign-stealing distorted player stats they relied on to pick their fantasy lineups, affecting their outcomes (Courthouse News). This lawsuit is the only one to receive a response from the Astros’ legal team (NBC Sports). The Astros defended themselves by arguing that there is an “implied understanding of fans…that rule infractions will occur during the games”, and that viewers have “no express or implied right to an event free of…rules violations” (MSN). They also noted that the Astros’ road offensive performance in 2017 was better than their home performance, supporting the idea that the cheating did not substantially impact game results (NBC Sports).
Another class action lawsuit against the Astros was filed on behalf of season-ticket holders, accusing the team of breach of contract, negligence, and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act (CBS Sports). The claim is that season-ticket holders during the 2017-2020 seasons were deceptively overcharged while the team “secretly put a deficient product on the field that could result (and now has resulted) in severe penalties” (Id.). The action seeks damages of $1 million and an injunction to prohibit the Astros from increasing their season ticket prices for the next two years to account for the previous “inappropriate ticket price increases” (Id.).
The Astros are also facing a lawsuit from former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Mike Bolsinger for unfair business practices, negligence, and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations (USA Today). In August of 2017, after a poor performance pitching against the Astros, Bolsinger was demoted and never pitched in the major league again (Id.). Bolsinger says the game was the worst outing in his professional career and remembers thinking, “[i]t was like they knew what I was throwing…like they knew what was coming” (Id.). An Astros fan discovered evidence that the team did in fact know Bolsinger’s pitches, finding that the greatest amount of trashcan banging in any game took place during the game Bolsinger pitched, and most of the sounds were audible while he was pitching (Id.). Bolsinger claims if the Astros had not cheated, he would have had the chance to prove himself to the Blue Jays and may not have been demoted (Larry Brown Sports). He not only seeks damages for himself, but also seeks to force the Astros to donate the $31 million worth of bonuses they received from the World Series title to children’s charities and a fund for retired players in need of financial assistance (Id.).
Due to a lack of case law in favor of these plaintiffs’ claims, it seems unlikely any of these lawsuits against the Astros will make it past a motion to dismiss; however, they may open the door for a greater examination of the scandal (NBC Sports). These lawsuits are significant because the MLB is a private entity and therefore has chosen which information it wants to share with the public (Sports Illustrated). If any of these actions make it to the pretrial discovery phase, they could uncover information relevant to the allegations that sign-stealing also occurred on the road, players wore electronic buzzers under their jerseys, or additional actors were aware of the cheating scheme (NBC Sports; Sports Illustrated). If such information gathered during discovery became available to the public, it could open the MLB up to further litigation and possible sanctions (Sports Illustrated).