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.

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