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.]

3 thoughts on “The Fiers Quandary: How To Approach The Guy Who Spoke Up?

  1. I’ll say what I said on Twitter, combining a couple other replies:

    I just don’t understand the blowback here. People tried to go through the proper channels to get MLB to do something. MLB did nothing. Finally, Mike Fiers stood up, spoke up, and it got the attention of the public. Cheating is cheating, isn’t it?

    And I’m not so naive that I don’t see pitchers using pine tar or sunscreen to give them an advantage when throwing the ball. Fiers has been accused of it, too. Teams usually don’t call that out because so many pitchers do stuff like that and it becomes kind of normalized.

    Sign stealing also goes on all over the place, but until now it has been primarily limited to when you have a runner on second base and then some signs may get switched up. Houston went FAR beyond any acceptable gray area with the video monitoring and trash can bashing.

    I get the clubhouse mentality as well. I haven’t been in clubhouses, but I’ve been around the sport in ways that are a little more in-depth than the average fan gets. I am also an A’s fan, but this is more of an integrity of the game issue to me.

    My feeling is what Houston did went beyond generally acceptable ranges of cheating through the use of technology. If the buzzer stuff is true, that makes it even worse.

    1. I don’t know that that’s true. Fiers has spent nearly half his career in the NL, and is a free-agent after this season. It doesn’t seem prudent to cut his options in half simply to avoid a batter’s box. That said, the A’s host the Astros in their second series of the season; that should be a barn burner.

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