Ask each 2017 Astros player: Where did you learn to cheat? 

— Photo by Bo Lane

A pitcher reads a code from the catcher, telling him what to throw.

Dedicated to Janet Malcolm

When I was in my late 10s and early teens growing up on Staten Island, playing competitive baseball meant you were on a parish team. Every parish had one. There was a citywide league, I think run by the Catholic Youth Organization. Little League didn’t reach the Island until 1953.

I played for St. Mary’s of the Assumption in Port Richmond with my brothers and cousins and other kids in the neighborhood. We lived just blocks from each other.

For three years straight, our team won the Staten Island championship which meant the following week we were on our way to Manhattan or the Bronx to play the winner of that borough, in the semi-finals.

One year we played at Fordham’s Coffey Field, the next at Baker Field at Columbia. There were no backstops, it was like the big leagues.

The other day, I thought of one of the games we played there when I saw an article in the paper that said, during the 2017 baseball season, the Houston Astros cheated during its regular-season home games and that’s why the Astros won the World Series.

I thought of our game because the coach of the other team played an insidiously dirty trick on me, the pitcher, as I was looking for the sign from the catcher. It cost us two runs; we lost the game. The story never made the papers; this is the only report.

With respect to the Astros, the public might never have found out what happened if Mike Fiers, a pitcher for the team from 2015 to 2017, hadn’t told reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of “The Athletic” that, during the 2017 season, the Astros had a spyglass set up in the outfield clubhouse.

By using a telephoto zoom, their mole was able to decode the signs the catcher was giving to the pitcher, and wire the information to the dugout where one of the players signaled to the batter what pitch was coming.

If you’ve played baseball beyond tee ball, you know that knowing what pitch is coming increases your chances of getting a hit. Any ethical hitter or pitcher will tell you the same thing.

That is, when the catcher tells the pitcher what pitch to throw, he doesn’t yell out to the mound: Hey, Al, they’re hitting the fastball, go with the curve!

No, from between his legs the catcher flashes a sign with a confusing flurry of fingers. Only he, the pitcher, and their team know the code that was worked out before the game.

The opposing team knows what’s going on; they do the same thing but, when they are in the field, their job is to break the code. Again, when a batter knows what’s coming, he gets more hits, his job security goes up, his bank account explodes. He becomes a star.

Baseball has an unwritten rule that says it’s OK to “steal” signs the other team is using to outsmart you — but only with the naked eye. It’s a game within a game.

But there’s another rule, written as well as understood, that says superhuman telescopic spyglass equipment is verboten. No James Bond X-Ray glasses allowed.

When Major League Baseball read the piece in “The Athletic,” they went bonkers: another scandal! First steroids, now a Joker with a spyglass?

It’s a strange phenomenon, isn’t it, that a team could feel so insecure about its ability to win that it had to borrow strength from an electronic eye to overcome the deficit. In Freudian terms, it’s the son borrowing strength from the father to withstand the hardships of life, the origin of the superego.

Baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, did not hesitate. He sent his hound dog Department of Investigation out to see out who was responsible. They spoke to executives and conducted preliminary interviews with current and former Astros.

In his report, the commissioner named those responsible for the swindle and what punishment was meted out to each. First, the general manager of the Astros was to be banned from the game for a whole year; the same for the Astros’ manager, A. J. Hinch.

And the Astros’ assistant general manager, Brandon Taubman — who vehemently denied involvement in the scheme — was told that, if he even smelled a baseball for a year, he’d be banned for life.

If you think those penalties harsh, consider that the next day Astros owner, Jim Crane, fired Hinch and his general manager on the spot.

And the ball kept rolling. Alex Cora, the bench coach for the 2017 Astros, and subsequently the manager of the Red Sox — Boston’s ownership fired him on the spot as well. The commissioner’s report said Cora was a ringleader, that he “arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout.”

Then the Mets joined in. On the spot, the Mets fired the team’s newly-hired manager (and supposed savior) Carlos Beltrán who played for the Astros in 2017 and was a known catalyst in the swindle. He was the only player named in the report.

Those who have any baseball memory know what the Astros did the New York Giants did in 1951 when they won the pennant with Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ’Round the World.” The Giants had a coach sitting in the team’s center-field clubhouse working the spyglass.

For his Jan. 31, 2001 article in “The Wall Street Journal,” “Was the ’51 Giants Comeback a Miracle, Or Did They Simply Steal the Pennant?,” reporter Joshua Harris Prager interviewed Al Gettel, who pitched for the Giants that year. At 83, Gettel said, “Every hitter knew what was coming ... Made a big difference.” Thomson, interviewed as well, spoke like a politician. He did not want to tarnish one of baseball’s golden moments.

With respect to what should happen to the players involved in the scandal, the commissioner caved, “I am not in a position based on the investigative record to determine with any degree of certainty every player who should be held accountable, or their relative degree of culpability.”

But you have the power, Mr. Commissioner, to set up Truth and Reconciliation-like hearings and ask each player on the 2017 Astros: Where did you learn to cheat? Did your parents teach you or did you learn that later in life? When did you become an entrepreneurial brand ready to sacrifice dignity for a diamond ring?

By avoiding the healing narrative that emerges from a truth commission, Major League Baseball is avoiding the structural problem at hand and cheating every Little Leaguer of what he needs to know about to how avoid the lure of larceny.

Do Little Leaguers think that golfing great Bobby Jones was a square for calling a one-shot penalty on himself in the 1925 U. S. Open when he said his ball moved as he set up for the shot. The lost stroke cost him the most prestigious golf tournament in America.

When people lauded Jones for his honesty he said, “You might as well praise me for not robbing banks.”

Charles Van Doren — the Columbia prof who cheated his way to a big-money win on the popular TV game show “Twenty-One” in the mid-fifties — died last April; the headline of his obituary in “The New York Times” read “Charles Van Doren, a Quiz Show Whiz Who Wasn’t.”

My sense is that, when every man who played on the Astros 2017 team dies, his obituary will say, “A World Champion Who Wasn’t.”