Sign stealing, The Baseball Codes

Why Does This Scandal, Among All Scandals, Have Legs? Let's Start At The Top

Spring training has brought with it a PR shitstorm for baseball the likes of which was all but unimaginable only a few months ago. Despite Astros owner Jim Crane once feeling that the scandal surrounding his team would “blow over” by the time players reported, the opposite has been true. The opening of training camps has meant widespread engagement with reporters for the first time since Mike Fiers sparked this particular tinder last November. As it happens, the players aren’t too happy with how things have gone down. And as long as players continue to talk, controversy continues to reign.

It’s been a nightmare for the sport, and particularly for commissioner Rob Manfred, who would like nothing more than for this particular news cycle to dry itself out. That’s not going to happen any time soon, maybe for the rest of the season and maybe beyond that. There are a number of reasons for this, and Manfred himself is at the center of it all.

Let’s start with the fact that rumors and accusations concerning the Astros have been swirling for years. As I wrote in this space in 2018, first reported by Jeff Passan: “Members of the Oakland A’s ‘noticed Astros players clapping in the dugout before pitches and believed they were relaying stolen signs,’ with the Dodgers airing similar concerns during last year’s World Series. Other players noted various Astros banging a trash can in the dugout during games as a supposed method of communicating pinched signs.”

Let that sink in. The trash-can banging has been on MLB’s radar at least since 2018 and probably since it began, not to mention other accusations concerning an Astros employee literally filming opposing team’s dugouts, and the Yankees crying foul about Astros players whistling from the dugout to signal their teammates at the plate. Rather than react, Manfred cleared the Astros of wrongdoing. His statement at the time:

Before the Postseason began, a number of Clubs called the Commissioner’s Office about sign stealing and the inappropriate use of video equipment. The concerns expressed related to a number of Clubs, not any one specific Club. In response to these calls, the Commissioner’s Office reinforced the existing rules with all playoff Clubs and undertook proactive measures, including instituting a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, increasing the presence of operations and security personnel from Major League Baseball at all Postseason games and instituting a program of monitoring Club video rooms.

With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee [filming the dugouts of the Red Sox and Indians], security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules. All Clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed.

“We consider the matter closed.” It may as well be the epitaph on Manfred’s tombstone.

In the mind of the commish, the less attention he granted Houston’s misdeeds, the less play they’d eventually receive in the press, and the sooner it would all go away. He’d done something similar when the Red Sox were accused of using an Apple Watch in the dugout for nefarious purposes, and it had more or less worked out. Hell, it had been a proven strategy for Manfred and his predecessors alike. I pointed this out back in 2017, during the Red Sox investigation:

More recently, the Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

In fact, those other incidents did disappear, more or less. What was different about this scandal?

For one thing, the Astros did not knock it off. For another Manfred did not respond with requisite gravity. Let’s examine those things one at a time.

Houston was accused of video snooping, and signaling stolen signs with claps, whistles and trash-can banging—not once, but year after year—and Manfred still considered the matter closed. This despite the Astros having either won the World Series or coming very close to doing so for three seasons straight. Which, for many players who have spoken out, is a large part of it.

Should the Dodgers retroactively be crowned the champions of 2017? Should Altuve’s AL MVP Award from that same season be vacated and given to runner-up Aaron Judge? Regardless of your opinion, the fact that these questions are being asked at all, in serious circles, indicates the depth of discontent surrounding this scandal. Manfred’s response—do nothing and hope, followed by comparatively superficial suspensions of GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch; a docking of two years’ worth of Houston draft picks and a monetary fine—was so wildly insufficient that people can not help but discuss what kind of penalty might actually be deserved. Those discussions help keep this scandal alive.

***

Another key to the longevity of the Astros’ drama are the Astros themselves. It begins with sheer arrogance, and it ends largely the same way.

Despite accusations—widespread, continuous accusations, lasting years—Houston appears to have done little to correct its ways. So pervasive is the impression that the Astros have left, that even after the trash-can banging stopped, popular opinion pivoted to the team having simply shifted to more discreet tactics rather than decide to actually play by the rules. Did Jose Altuve really prevent teammates from shredding his jersey because he was wearing a buzzer taped to his chest? In no other context could a player’s allegedly malformed tattoo garner so much attention.

It’s the same arrogance shown when the team gathered for spring training and offered perfunctory apologies, more because they had to, it appeared, than because they believed anything they were saying. Since-ousted GM Jeff Luhnow set the tone last November, shortly after the scandal broke, when he called the existence of the controversy “disappointing.”

I did an interview with a French news agency a couple of days ago (which illustrates exactly how big this scandal has grown) that got me thinking deeply about this topic. Baseball has relatively little context in France, and the reporter’s questions seemed to be aimed at understanding Americans at large as much as what is currently happening within the sporting landscape.

The conclusion I drew is that the United States is by and large a forgiving place. Within most contexts, should somebody mess up in a major way, all it takes for public absolution is a genuine act of contrition and a verifiable change in behavior.

Within this context, Astros players coming clean about what they’ve done and expressing actual remorse, not some half-baked facsimile of it, would have gone a long way toward helping their cause. Instead, fed little but indignation and excuses, and eying what many feel was insufficient punishment, we’re left feeling that Houston brazenly cheated, mostly got away with it, and will brazenly cheat again at the next possible opportunity. Bringing in Dusty Baker to run herd on the clubhouse was a step in the right direction, but giving him only a one-year pact (even while new GM James Click received a three-year deal) smacks of simply trying to ride out the storm.

Even for those who want to forgive them, the Astros are offering precious little with which to work.

***

We must also look at Manfred himself. His desire to minimize Houston’s actions has been pervasive, and not only with his shortsighted clearing of the Astros against espionage charges back in 2018. Over recent weeks we also have his frequently ridiculous comments on the matter.

First, he issued a report that focused primarily on Luhnow and Hinch while omitting the players entirely (Carlos Beltran aside). Manfred said that blanket immunity was necessary for eliciting honest feedback, but in the end he is left looking like he let the cheaters off the hook.

Then he said that “You’re never 100-percent sure in any of these things” when it comes to the testimony he received from Astros players in exchange for said immunity. As concerns the viewing public, 100-percent certainty is a prerequisite for belief that games are played fairly.

In an ESPN interview Manfred denigrated the World Series trophy as “just a piece of metal” and suggested that the simple shame of the matter was punishment enough for the team: “I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have paid a price.” 

So bungled was his response that outraged players have been piling on, to the point that Manfred had to backtrack with an apology about his trophy crack. Which brings us to the final factor in the sustained outrage this scandal continues to generate: Players themselves.

Baseball is known for its insular culture. I discussed this at length in The Baseball Codes. Now, however, we have player after player piling on, to the point that oddsmakers are taking bets about how often Astros players will be drilled this season, and Mike Fiers feeling the need to publicly state that he’s able to take care of himself when facing potentially angry opponents.

The Yankees are discussing Judge deserving the MVP. The Dodgers are discussing their own claim to a title that they never won. We’ve heard players come out in defense of Fiers’ decision to blow the whistle, and also against it. Players in virtually every camp are expressing emotions ranging from displeasure to downright disgust over the scandal and its aftermath.

Opinions vary, but I’ll turn to Trevor Bauer, an original thinker who’s unafraid to speak his mind, to distill some of this. “Personally I think that what’s going on in baseball now is up there with the Black Sox scandal, and that it will be talked about forever—more so than steroids,” he wrote in the Players’ Tribune. “Like the steroid era, you can say what you want about it, but steroids weren’t really illegal at the time. The sign-stealing that was going on in Houston, though, was blatantly illegal. And with the rules that were implemented last year and the year before—that, by the way, were then still broken—it was very clear.”

The tide does not appear to be abating, and the moment that an Astros player is drilled under even remotely suspicious circumstances, it will be ignited anew.

Like Bauer said, this has the potential to be the steroid era and the Black Sox scandal all wrapped up into one. It’s going to take a deft touch, some earnest reactions and a visionary approach not only to punishments but to preventative measures for this to die down.

Early returns are not promising. Let’s play some baseball.

Sign stealing

Spring Training Has Started, And The Astros' Apologies Are Not Yet In Midseason Form. Also: Carlos Beltran

Yesterday was apology day in Astros camp, and the players’ reluctance to face music that they clearly did not want to face was palpable. Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve each stood at a podium and addressed their team’s sign-stealing scandal … barely. They spoke for less than 90 seconds combined, blurted out platitudes like “I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization and by me,” and took no questions.

Players, including Bregman and Altuve, did talk to reporters afterward, repeatedly apologizing for their own bad behavior and that of their team, but the lasting feeling was that they regretted getting caught more than actually doing what they did. (Just look back a couple of weeks to FanFest, when players either denied participation or clammed up entirely, claiming now that they were unprepared for such questions.)

Generally speaking, Houston players said that they regret not doing more to stop the system—without going into too much detail about what the system entailed—and vowed to do better next time. One topic that nobody touched was the idea that sign stealing helped the team to a championship in 2017. To that end, owner Jim Crane set a terrible precedent by actually saying that the team’s cheating “didn’t impact the game.”

“So then what are you guys apologizing for?” ESPN’s Marly Rivera asked. His answer: “We’re apologizing because we broke the rules.”

It’s all a very bad look, especially after The Wall Street Journal reported that members of Houston’s front office developed an Excel algorithm called “Codebreaker” that automated and enhanced much of the team’s video-based sign-stealing capabilities. Still, the reticence should not be surprising; Astros players are on their heels, and will be for some time. Until the day that somebody comes fully clean, our more interesting angles come from former Astros trying to separate from past associations.

At the center of that separation is Carlos Beltran.

As ballplayers have reconvened over recent weeks, multiple Astros have gone on the record about the outsized influence Beltran had on their clubhouse, both in setting up the sign-stealing program and in ignoring any misgivings his teammates might have had about it.

Take Pirates pitcher Joe Musgrove, a second-year player with the Astros in 2017. Speaking to MLB Network about the pressures facing a young player, he said, “You’re around guys like Beltrán and [Brian] McCann, some big names, and I’m not going to be the pitcher to walk up and tell ’em to knock it off.”

So powerful was Beltran in his 20th and final season that even McCann—then 33 years old and one of the most respected voices in the sport—had similarly little leverage when he suggested that his teammate had taken things too far. “[Beltran] disregarded [the advice] and steamrolled everybody,” said an anonymous Astros player in a report in The Athletic. “Where do you go if you’re a young, impressionable player with the Astros and this guy says, ‘We’re doing this’? What do you do?”

Of all the details to come tumbling out about the team’s sign stealing, this one makes the most sense. Veteran players invariably set the tone for a clubhouse, and young players want little more than to earn standing therein. Manager A.J. Hinch has expressed his own misgivings about Houston’s system, going so far as to damage not one but two video monitors in protest, but even he, without championship pedigree at the time and in only his third season at the helm, was sufficiently cowed to avoid putting his foot down too firmly. For a young player to do so would have taken an incredible act of courage. (Players like Carlos Correa and Bregman should hardly be immune from criticism, but they were 22 and 23 years old, respectively; to go up against somebody with the gravitas of Beltran would have been extraordinary. That said, continuing the scheme after Beltran had left and they themselves had achieved veteran status is something else entirely.)

Here’s where things get fun. Both McCann and Beltrán played for the Yankees from 2014 to 2016 before joining the Astros in ’17. It was Beltrán who, according to multiple sources, told the Astros that their sign-stealing methods were “behind the times.”

What hasn’t been fully explained is Beltran’s frame of reference for that claim. The Yankees, along with the Red Sox, are one of the primary teams mentioned frequently in conjunction with the Astros as pertains to sign stealing. The Athletic reported on New York’s own video-room decoding of signs back in 2015. That misstep has received less attention in part because the Yankees didn’t win the AL East let alone the World Series, and in part because, at the time, MLB hadn’t yet cracked down on its rules against electronic sign stealing.

Look no farther than Alex Cora—another former Astro who lost a managerial job for bringing Houston’s dark arts to the Red Sox—for a clue about what Beltran might have provided New York last year in his role as an adviser. After Boston gave up 29 runs in a pair of losses to the Yankees in London, Cora introduced Beltran’s name to the discussion.

What he said:

“I was joking with someone that [the Yankees’] biggest free-agent acquisition was Carlos Beltrán. I know how it works, you know? He’s helping a lot. They’re paying attention to details and we have to clean our details. It was eye-opening the last few days, from top to bottom. And I’m not saying devices and all that stuff, it’s just stuff that the game will dictate and will scream at people and is right there. Throughout the evening, I was looking and I saw it, you know? And right now, they’re a lot better than us, so we need to get better.”

One doesn’t disqualify Beltran’s use of devices from a monologue that’s otherwise devoid of insinuation about Beltran’s use of devices without some sort of reputation already being in place.

Beltran has that reputation, for good and for bad. He has long been known for having a superb ability to decode signs naturally, simply by looking at them, which is a boon to any team he’s on.

Now he has another sort of reputation. It’s already cost him his job as the Mets manager, and we’re likely to learn more as details emerge. MLB has taken a number of hits over punishment for the Astros that’s been consistently lambasted as ineffectual, which makes one wonder whether they might pull fewer punches if it becomes clear that Beltran had a steady hand in helping two clubs flaunt the rules. Other Yankees being dragged down with him is a possibility, not to mention whatever comes of the ongoing investigation into the Red Sox. (For what it’s worth, Yankees GM Brian Cashman said that he doesn’t think Beltran did anything wrong while working for his team.)

In the meantime, players are getting to spring training and speaking out. And suing the team. Soon we’ll see whether opponents are willing to drill Astros players in response to this whole mess. And maybe we’ll find out just how culpable Beltran was, not only in Houston but in New York … and beyond.

The Baseball Codes

Now That The Astros Are in the Capable Hands of Dusty Baker, Let's Talk About Sign Stealing Again

With Dusty Baker hired to right the ship of the Houston Astros—the direct result of a sign-stealing scandal with the previous administration—I can’t help but think about the conversations I’ve had with him about that very topic, both for The Baseball Codes and in the years since.

To be clear, we’ve spoken exclusively about the “acceptable” variety—sign stealing from the basepaths, unaided by video feeds or other mechanical devices. So good was that portion of the interview we did for the book that I opted to begin the chapter called “Sign Stealing” with an anecdote from Baker’s days managing the Giants, which serves to encapsulate his opinions on the subject. It’s excerpted below. First, though, some kudos for Houston.

As an organization trying to move beyond a culture that is widely acknowledged to be damaged well beyond the public scandals of sign stealing and the botched cover-up of an executive’s tirade toward female reporters during the postseason, the Astros couldn’t have picked a better guy. Baker has earned die-hard loyalty from players across every team he’s managed, and commands respect from all corners of the baseball landscape. The guy is an institution based largely on his positive outlook, moral clarity and downright rational approach. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I haven’t encountered a more charismatic figure in my 25 years covering the sport.

Turns out there’s more than one way to win. Great move, Astros.

From The Baseball Codes:

It started with a thirteen-run sixth. Actually, it started with a five-run fifth, but nobody realized it until the score started ballooning an inning later. It was 1997, a sunshiny Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco. By the end of the game, it was 19–3 Expos, and the Giants—the team at the wrong end of that score—were angry, grumbling that the roster of their opponents was populated by thieves.

San Francisco’s thinking stemmed from the belief that it likely takes more than skill or luck to send seventeen men to the plate against three pitchers in a single inning. There was no disputing the numbers: Mon­treal had six players with three or more hits on the day, and in the sixth inning alone five Expos picked up two hits apiece, including a pair of Mike Lansing homers. Montreal opened its epic frame with eight consec­utive hits, two shy of the big-league record, and it was a half-hour before the third out was recorded.

San Francisco’s frustration boiled over when manager Dusty Baker spied Montreal’s F. P. Santangelo—at second base for the second time in the inning—acting strangely after ten runs had already scored. One pitch later, the guy at the plate was drilled by reliever Julian Tavarez. Two bat­ters later, the inning was over. “They were killing us,” said Baker. “F.P. was looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off, pointing with one arm. I just said, ‘That’s enough. If you are doing it, knock it off—you’re already killing us.’ ”

What Baker was referring to was the suspicion that Santangelo and other members of the Expos had decoded the signs put down by Giants catcher Marcus Jensen for the parade of San Francisco pitchers. From second base a runner has an unimpeded sightline to the catcher’s hands. Should the runner be quick to decipher what he sees, he can—with a series of indicators that may or may not come across as “looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off ”—notify the hitter about what to expect. Skilled relayers can offer up specifics like fastball or curveball, but it doesn’t take much, not even the ability to decode signs, to indicate whether the catcher is setting up inside or outside.

If the runner is correct, the batter’s advantage can be profound. Brook­lyn Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen, who was as proud of his ability to steal signs from the opposing dugout as he was of his ability to manage a ball club, said that the information he fed his players resulted in nine extra victories a year.

Baker sent a word of warning to the Expos through San Francisco third-base coach Sonny Jackson, who was positioned near the visitors’ dugout. Jackson tracked down Santangelo as the game ended and informed him that he and his teammates would be well served to avoid such tactics in the future. More precisely, he said that “somebody’s going to get killed” if Montreal kept it up. The player’s response was similarly lacking in timidity. “I just told him I don’t fucking tip off fucking pitches and neither does this team,” Santangelo told reporters after the game. “Maybe they were pissed because they were getting their asses kicked.”

The Giants’ asses had been kicked two nights in a row, in fact, given that the Expos had cruised to a 10–3 victory in the previous game. It was while watching videotape of the first beating that Baker grew convinced some­thing was amiss, and so was especially vigilant the following day. When Henry Rodriguez hit a fifth-inning grand slam on a low-and-away 1-2 pitch, alarm bells went off in Baker’s head. Former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper described the sentiment like this: “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture.” The Expos trailed 3–1 at the time, then scored eighteen straight before the Giants could record four more outs.

Baker knew all about sign stealing from his playing days, had even practiced it some, and the Expos weren’t the first club he’d called out as a manager. During a 1993 game in Atlanta, he accused Jimy Williams of untoward behavior after watching the Braves’ third-base coach pacing up and down the line and peering persistently into the San Francisco dugout.

For days after the drubbing by Montreal, accusations, denials, veiled threats, and not-so-veiled threats flew back and forth between the Giants and the Expos. Among the bluster, the two primary adversaries in the bat­tle laid out some of the basics for this particular unwritten rule.

Santangelo, in the midst of a denial: “Hey, if you’re dumb enough to let me see your signs, why shouldn’t I take advantage of it?”

Baker: “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

Signs have been stolen in major-league baseball for as long as there have been signs to steal, and players and managers generally accept that opponents will try to gain every possible advantage. It’s why signals from the catcher to the pitcher, from the dugout to the field, and from the third-base coach to the hitter can be so complex. And as Santangelo said, if the team from which they’re being stolen isn’t doing enough to protect them, whose fault is that?

Omerta Code, Sign stealing

The Fiers Quandary: How To Approach The Guy Who Spoke Up?

Whistleblower

In the aftermath of the Astros/Red Sox/Mets fallout, and in the wake of a spate of fan-fest interviews from around the country last weekend, we have gained some clarity about certain topics.

We are clear that the Astros needed to be punished, even if we’re still arguing about how much.

We are clear that by stepping down before he managed a single game for the Mets, Carlos Beltran made things easier for everybody.

We’re clear that the Red Sox, already down Alex Cora and waiting further word from the league, are pretty well screwed.

What we’re not clear about is what to make of Mike Fiers, the whistleblower who started it all with an interview in The Athletic last November.

In one camp (let’s call it the Jessica Mendoza Coalition), the party line is that baseball is an insular sport, and a player taking privileged information outside the sanctity of the clubhouse is unacceptable. In the words of Mendoza herself (via an ESPN radio show on Jan. 16):

“[What Fiers did] didn’t sit well with me. And honestly it made me sad for the sport that that’s how this all got found out. I mean this wasn’t something that MLB naturally investigated or that even other teams complained about because they naturally heard about and then investigations happened. It came from within. It was a player that was a part of it, that benefited from it during the regular season when he was a part of that team. And that, when I first heard about it, it hits you like any teammate would, right? It’s something that you don’t do. I totally get telling your future teammates, helping them win, letting people know—but to go public with it and call them out and start all of this? It’s hard to swallow.”

One joke making the rounds has to do with the ovation Fiers received at the A’s fan fest on Saturday. It was the first day of the Chinese New Year, after all, and 2020 is the Year of the Rat.

As somebody who wrote a book about baseball’s unwritten rules, I understand this mentality. Clubhouse culture is privileged, with ballplayers enjoying a degree of closed-door cohesion that in an ideal world builds camaraderie and allows them to better focus on their baseball duties.

The key to that notion, of course, is “closed-door.” The moment that issues leak is the moment that outside opinions begin to form, and things can easily snowball. I described this insular mentality in The Baseball Codes: “Generally speaking, the more fans know, the more they’re likely to misconstrue. So the wall effectively becomes its own set of rules: Don’t expect outsiders to understand baseball’s world, or even give them the chance to form a wrong impression.”

That mindset is the basis for a sign that has graced many clubhouses over the years, which reads, “What you see here, what you do here, what you say here, let it stay here.”

Mendoza’s point was clear: Had Fiers kept things internal, baseball might have had a chance to handle its business without a spotlight that it very clearly does not relish. Last week, Dallas Keuchel—Fiers’ Astros teammate in 2017, now with the White Sox—backed her up.

“A lot of guys are not happy with the fact that Mike came out and said something, or the fact that this even happened,” Keuchel said at the White Sox fan fest, adding that “It sucks to the extent of the clubhouse rule was broken.”

But there’s a twist. Much of the omerta ideal written into clubhouse culture has to do with players themselves: their interpersonal conflicts, their individual demons—the kinds of things that nobody wants aired publicly. When it comes to institutional malfeasance, though, we’re getting into tricky territory.

What happens when somebody feels that clubhouse culture has to change, and efforts to change it internally either aren’t working or are too daunting to even begin the conversation? Recently deposed Astros GM Jeff Luhnow claimed that he never knew about his team’s sign-stealing efforts. If that’s true, it means that Fiers never ran his concerns up the ladder, at least beyond the manager’s office. It’s easy to picture a scenario in which Fiers confided his discomfiture to A.J. Hinch and was subsequently talked down in service of team unity, not to mention winning ballgames.

Given that Hinch has admitted to knowing about the program and did nothing to stop it, this is entirely possible. If so—if Fiers’ own manager dismissed his quandary—what else should he have done? Going over Hinch’s head, directly to Luhnow, might have been the morally defensible position, but it might also have been career suicide. Fiers, after all, was 32 years old and essentially a spare part on that Astros team, somebody to plug into the back end of the rotation, who only a season earlier had barely earned $500,000.

I recently brought up the name Al Worthington in this space, for good reason. In 1959, Worthington was in a position similar to Fiers: a valued but expendable player who was decidedly uneasy about the sign-stealing habits of his team—in his case, the San Francisco Giants. Worthington took his concerns to manager Bill Rigney, with threats to go public if the team didn’t knock off its shenanigans. That began a cascade of increasingly urgent transactions in which the pitcher was dumped repeatedly. He played for three teams during the 1960 season alone, then couldn’t find a big league roster spot for the next two years. (Worthington’s fate was pretty much sealed when he called out a similar scheme in Chicago.)

Ultimately, however—especially in an age in which whistleblowers are so essential to corporate and governmental accountability—I have to side with Fiers on this. Being backed into a corner, nervous about the impact on one’s livelihood yet feeling urgency to act, must be terrifying.

Even in the face of critics who say that Fiers’ time to speak up was before he left Houston—critics whose words carry a great deal of weight—his decision to speak up after the fact nonetheless has merit. There’s no question that Fiers has branded himself one way or another in a way that will last for the duration of his career. That took bravery. That should be lauded.

At this point, let’s circle back to Mendoza’s comments. The part where she said, “This wasn’t something that MLB naturally investigated or that even other teams complained about because they naturally heard about and then investigations happened”—that part isn’t true.

Fiers did not start a single bit of reporting about this scandal. Word about the illicit habits of teams like the Astros and Red Sox have been circulating around baseball for years, both as rumors and as actual complaints from various teams to the league office. Hell, a search of this very blog will find copious information to that end. It was precisely MLB’s lack of action that spurred the pitcher to speak up.

Many of Fiers’ current teammates have come out in support of him, but things will be harder outside of his home clubhouse. Keuchel summed up the situation neatly, saying: “I don’t think anyone is going to come out from other teams. They see what happens now.”

Fiers has kept mostly mum since this story broke. Hopefully we’ll get to hear more about how he feels and why he did what he did, but if he’d rather keep that to himself, that’s his right. His work is effectively done. All that’s left now is to hope it makes a difference and that, for him, it was all worth it.

[Image credit: www.epictop10.com.]

Sign stealing

How Much Sign Stealing Is Too Much Sign Stealing? Never Mind, Heads Are Starting To Roll

We all knew this was coming, and still it’s shocking. Yesterday, the Astros fired GM Jeff Luhnow, the architect of their championship roster, and manager AJ Hinch, for their roles in last year’s video-snooping, sign-stealing, trash-can-banging shenanigans. This came shortly after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred released a nine-page report summary of MLB’s investigation into the affair, and suspended the pair until after the 2020 World Series—plus a $5 million fine for the Astros (the maximum allowable) and the loss of first- and second-round picks in each of the next two drafts.

Luhnow and Hinch, reads the report, failed to “establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behavior as soon as it occurred.”

Still to come: punishment for Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who, as a coach with Houston during the time in question—the only uniformed non-player implicated, in fact—“was involved in developing both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs.” It was Cora who had the monitor installed just outside the Astros’ dugout for easy access to the video feed from a center-field camera.

If that’s not damning enough, baseball is still investigating Cora’s role in similar activities after he took over the helm in Boston prior to the 2018 campaign. Last week, the Athletic reported confirmation from three members of Boston’s 2018 championship club that the Red Sox used the video replay room at Fenway Park in ways similar to the Astros, dedicating a video feed to decoding catchers’ signals, which were then passed to players in the dugout. Because those signs ended up being relayed to hitters the old-fashioned way—by baserunners peering in from second, mostly, and not from within the stadium tunnel by a guy in front of a monitor—it will probably be seen by the league as less egregious than Houston’s efforts. Then again, it’s effectively a second strike for Cora, the only person whose malfeasance spans both teams.

Given the precedent Crane set by firing Luhnow and Hinch—both more established than Cora—it wouldn’t surprise if the Red Sox followed suit and dismissed their manager outright. They have even more reason, in fact, given that in 2017, Boston was caught relaying information from a Fenway Park video room to a trainer via an Apple Watch. John Farrell was manager then, but cleaning house of all offending parties makes a good deal of sense for a franchise looking to divest itself from scandal.

The entire controversy helps to demarcate the differences between what management and players alike view as legitimate sign stealing, and behavior that most everybody agrees is out of bounds. To that end, when Manfred fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount for its smartwatch violation in 2017, he clarified that “the attempt to decode signs being used by an opposing catcher is not a violation of any Major League Baseball Rule or Regulation” [emphasis mine], with the exception, he explicitly pointed out, of those signs stolen or relayed via electronic equipment.

That various degrees of cheating are acceptable in baseball is proving difficult for some people to digest. The sport brought this on itself has been a common theme among columnists recently, who have trouble conceding that simply paying attention on the field can pay off in myriad ways while remaining entirely above-board.

After all, baseball cannot legislate against a runner at second peering in toward the catcher, just as it cannot prevent him from tipping pitches or location to the hitter with as simple a cue as which foot he moves first when taking or extending his lead. It is not baseball’s place to determine what is intentional in this regard and what is happenstance.

If they’re getting my signs, goes the old catcher’s refrain, it only means that I need better signs. This is accepted by every big league ballclub, in part because every big league ballclub has players who steal signs from the basepaths. The model works—has always worked … or at least it did until 2014, when MLB implemented video replay challenges, at which point teams like the Astros figured out new ways to game the system. No matter how much care a catcher takes, should a camera be trained on him, opponents will crack his code. And with no need for a baserunner to relay the signal (which can be done via trash-can banging or, according to reports, finger buzzers worn beneath batting gloves), every hitter, not only those batting with a runner at second, is helped. This is why so many people are now questioning the legitimacy of Houston’s 2017 championship … and, pending the upcoming findings of the league, maybe Boston’s the following year, as well. 

There are legitimate questions about the degree to which such a system helps. Some players are steadfast about not wanting to receive stolen signs (even those pinched appropriately), for reasons that have nothing to do with morals. They feel that they hit better when left up to their own devices, and that advance information can override their instincts. Back in the ’50s, diminutive White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox refrained from his team’s potent scoreboard-based sign-relaying scheme because he felt that knowing what was coming would inspire him to muscle up … and hit a bunch of warning-track flyballs as a result.

There’s also the detail that the Astros discontinued their trash-can practice in 2018 because, reads Manfred’s report on the situation, “the players no longer believed it was effective.” This may have had to do with the advent of a better system (finger buzzers?) or an understanding that the rewards were not worth the risks. Houston’s stats improved against offspeed stuff after the system was implemented midway through the 2017 season, but only marginally. Hinch himself didn’t like it, to the point that he reportedly intentionally damaged the replay monitor. Then again, one reason he’s in trouble now is that he never instructed his players to avoid such tactics.

Regardless, there are ways for opponents to circumvent such espionage. The Nationals reportedly filtered through five full sets of signs per pitcher during the World Series, demarcated on notecards that could be swapped out at a moment’s notice to prevent the types of shenanigans that have since been so carefully detailed. This takes time, of course, which, in a league obsessed with shortening games, is not a good look.

People have talked about a system using flashing lights at the front of the mound that can be seen only by the pitcher, and wearable random-number generators to indicate which sign in a sequence is hot. There’s always the standby idea of earpieces for pitchers. (Ask Billy Martin how that turned out.)

Also feeling some heat is new Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who was in his final year as a player in 2017, and reportedly not only knew about Houston’s system but was active in its conception. Given that no players have been disciplined for this, Beltran will likely skate in that regard. It does, however, put him on thin ice before his rookie managerial season even begins.

MLB was initially reluctant to make a big issue of this—not until former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers came out in the Athletic as a whistleblower did the story gain landscape-shifting traction—and it’s easy to see why. Tainting championships is no fun for anybody. (The league went so far as to clear Houston during the 2019 and 2017 postseasons—mainly, it appears, to avoid controversy.) Also, the Astros and Red Sox were hardly working in a bubble in this regard. According to Sports Illustrated, the commissioner’s investigation includes Astros players detailing eight other clubs that were using technology-aided systems in 2017 and 2018. The Padres were accused of similar extracurricular activity in 2016, the Blue Jays in 2015 and 2012, the Tigers and Marlins in 2014. This list is hardly comprehensive. Now, to maintain credibility, Manfred will have to give due diligence to every incident that might arise.

In the meantime, the next head to roll is certain to be Alex Cora’s. How this affects the rest of the Red Sox organization is anybody’s guess, but one thing about which we can be certain is that Cora’s fate, whatever it is, will hardly be the final chapter of this saga.

Hall of Fame

Miller to the Hall of Fame is Long Overdue

With Marvin Miller’s election to the Hall of Fame on Sunday, baseball righted one of the great oversights in its history. Miller has come up a lot in my reporting, with my two latest books both being set during prime moments during his tenure. “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic” not only dealt with the 1972 players’ strike, but with the advent of arbitration and free agency—Miller’s most lasting legacies. “They Bled Blue” covered the 1981 mid-season strike, which Miller expertly directed.

I’ve spoken to many players about the influence that the head of the Players Union had on their livelihoods, and will let Ken Holtzman’s comments serve as representative:

“To me, Marvin was the smartest man in the world. He foretold everything that’s going on in sports. To exclude Marvin Miller from the Hall of Fame … Can you tell me another contemporaneous person that had even a fraction of the impact that Marvin had on baseball? I can only think of three: Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth—back in the ’20s, he saved baseball’s reputation from gamblers—and Walter O’Malley, for hiring Jackie Robinson. I can’t understand why the owners are so resentful of Marvin. Hell, the value of their franchises has absolutely skyrocketed. I remember when Bowie Kuhn testified before Congress when free agency came in. He said, ‘Free agency is so bad for the game, don’t be surprised if one of the two leagues goes under. I think we’re going to have a league fold.’ Marvin sat in disbelief. Fold. And now we have teams sold for $2 billion.”

One litmus test for Hall of Fame candidacy is whether the story of baseball during a given timeframe can be told without citing the person in question. And baseball during the 1970s is impossible to explain without extensive details about the system that Miller was instrumental in building. “Marvin Miller changed the face of sports,” Steve Garvey told me.

He was right. Miller’s enshrinement in Cooperstown is long overdue.

Sign stealing

That Time When The Cubs Were Stealing Signs And The Giants Wanted To Mix Things Up But Couldn’t Because Their Pitcher Was Easily Confused

What with all the brouhaha surrounding the Astros’ banging of a trash can to alert hitters to upcoming pitches, I’m continually reminded about stories I researched for The Baseball Codes. One of them provides a cautionary warning even for teams who recognize when their signs are being illicitly pinched. That’s because no matter how precautious a team might be, they can only take as many preventative measures as their pitcher will allow.

Somehow, Giants ace Sam Jones—who finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1959—got lit up every time he pitched in Chicago that year. Against the rest of the league that season, Jones was 21-12 with a 2.54 ERA, and struck out a batter every 1.25 innings. At Wrigley Field he was 0-3 with an 8.53 ERA and struck out a batter every six innings. It wasn’t long before San Francisco players identified what was behind the discrepancy.

“We just got wise and looked up, and sure enough, in the scoreboard there was a big empty square,” said Giants pitcher Mike McCormick. “Same scoreboard they have today, where they hand-place the numbers. There was somebody sitting up there in an empty square—one foot in the window was a fastball, two feet was a curveball, no feet was a changeup. You let a major-league hitter know what’s coming and he might not hit it all the time, but it certainly makes him a better hitter.”

That somebody was Cubs traveling secretary Don Biebel, who earlier that season had been installed as the man in the center-field scoreboard. Armed with binoculars, he signaled hitters by sticking his shoe into an open frame used to post scores. Contrary to McCormick’s recollection, it was the placement of his foot, not the number of feet, that bore a message. To the left of the square meant fastball, to the right a curve. Just an inch or two of sole was all it took.

This system particularly affected Jones, who had trouble handling anything but the simplest signs. This kept Giants manager Bill Rigney from making the signals more complex in an effort to stymie would-be thieves. So he had to deal with it another way.

At age 42, Giants outfielder Hank Sauer was the oldest player in the National League and had spent almost seven of his 15 years in the big leagues as a member of the Cubs. He knew the sort of things that went on at Wrigley Field, and, at 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs., was one of the last guys a traveling secretary hidden in the scoreboard wanted to cross. As the Cubs continued to batter Jones, Rigney sent his slugger to the scoreboard to get some answers.

“Between innings, I saw (first base coach Wes) Westrum and Hank Sauer and Bill Rigney get over in the corner of the dugout, and they were chatting,” said Biebel. “Sauer went out of the dugout and up the ramp, and I told the groundskeeper, who was in the scoreboard with me, ‘You better lock that thing up—I think we’re going to have some company.’ About 10 or 15 minutes later, well, here comes Sauer along the back fence of the bleachers. He walks all the way out there and he starts pounding on our little door, shouting, ‘Let me in!’ He pounded for awhile, but when he finally knew he wasn’t going to get in, he turned around and left.”

Part of the reason that the Cubs were able to get away with something so blatant, reasoned Biebel in an MLB.com report, was that “Everybody knew we were getting the signs and we still finished in fifth place.”

The Astros are another story. Two World Series in three seasons will do that for a club. Every day brings new revelations about just how far they’ve been willing to go. Now we just wait for reaction from the league office.