Omerta Code, Sign stealing

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


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:]

Don't Call Out Teammates in the Press, Omerta Code, The Baseball Codes

Addition By Subtraction: Nationals Thin Out Bullpen Roster For Non-Baseball Reasons


The big news out of Washington at the trade deadline was that the Nationals opted against shipping Bryce Harper out of town for the final two months of his contract. The small news was that they traded reliever Brandon Kintzler—a 33-year-old with a 15-16 record over parts of nine seasons—to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for a low-ceiling pitcher in Single-A.

More interesting than the trade itself is why it was made.

According to the Washington Post, Kintzler became a persona non grata around Nationals Park after speaking to the media about what came to be described as a “dysfunctional” Washington clubhouse. (What he actually said, or even whether he even said it, is less important than the team’s feelings about the situation.)

From Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

“The clubhouse is a mess,” said one source, whose account was corroborated by three others who spoke to Yahoo Sports on the condition of anonymity out of fear the organization would punish them for speaking publicly. While the sources pinpointed a number of causes for the internal acrimony, they agreed that it was not purely a function of the Nationals’ underachievement but something that has festered throughout the season.

Never mind that at least four people—the source and three corroborators—spoke to Passan. Kintzler seems to have been fingered as the fall guy.

The internal reaction to this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. A sign that has hung in many big league clubhouses over the years reads: “What you see here, what you do here, what you say here, let it stay here.” Excommunicating those who choose to ignore it is nothing new.

“Players who are foolish enough to discuss what went on in a closed clubhouse meeting, or reveal that two players almost killed each other after the game, often turn up on other teams the next year,” wrote former pitcher and coach Tom House in his 1989 book, The Jock’s Itch. “That kind of behavior just isn’t acceptable. You must be loyal to your teammates, even though you may hate every last one of them.”

The notion is pervasive. For just one example, in 2011, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who had led the franchise to its first championship since 1917, looked on as his son spilled a variety of clubhouse secrets via Twitter. Guillen didn’t make it through the ensuing season, and apart from an aborted run in Miami in 2012, hasn’t managed since.

“Everybody wants to know what the team meeting was about,” said Dusty Baker. “Well, that’s the team meeting. If you are on the team, we’ll tell you. It’s not being anti-press, it’s not being secretive, it’s just how it is.”

Washington’s party line is that the team has a stout back end of the bullpen even without Kintzler, and wants to give a shot to rookie Wander Suero. Maybe this is the case. Then again, GM Mike Rizzo also said this:

In semi-related news, Washington also designated reliever Shawn Kelly for assignment after his sub-Little League reaction to giving up a homer in a blowout win.

The connective tissue between these moves, other than that both players pitched for the Nationals, was that they were both seen as expendable. Nats closer Shawn Doolilttle may be the least likely guy in the league to throw his glove in such a manner, but if he did, or if he’d leaked things to the press, you’d better believe that the team would give him every opportunity to make things right.

Kintzler and Kelley are not on that level. And when it comes time to shake things up on an underperforming roster, they’re just the type of players who can be easily thrown into the line of fire.


Omerta Code, Oney Guillen, Ozzie Guillen

Oney Tweets, Ozzie Deflects, Baseball Stews

The primary reason that more players don’t talk about baseball’s unwritten rules is the first one on the list prohibits just such action. The clubhouse is a sanctified space, the rare—the only—place that ballplayers can communicate with each other, air grievances, goof around, act like teenagers and not worry a bit about repercussions from the outside world.

Unless, of course, one of their own starts blabbing.

We’re speaking of course about Oney Guillen, who last week took up for his father, White Sox manager Ozzie, when former Chicago closer Bobby Jenks (who recently signed with Boston) made mildly disparaging remarks to

I want to play for a manager who trusts his relievers, regardless of what’s going on. With the way Ozzie was talking this winter and the way he treated me, I don’t want to fight with the guy. How many times did he question my ability, and then saying how he would love to have me back, but I would have to come to spring training and fight for the closer’s role like anyone else?

Why would I come back to that negativity? I’m looking forward to playing for a manager [Terry Francona] who knows how to run a bullpen.

Necessary? No. But mild enough. People in all walks of life are usually well served to avoid burning bridges, but as far as Jenks statements are concerned, they could have been a whole lot worse.

Like Oney’s response, for example. In a stream of tweets, the younger Guillen didn’t just weigh in on Jenks’ quotes, but proceeded to spill many of the beans, real or imagined, he had on the guy. Several items from a wide selection:

•    hahah memo to bobby jenks get a clue u drink to much and u have had marital problems hugeee ones and the sox stood behind u
•    they did not air out ur dirty laundry, u came to srping not drinking and then u sucked and started srinking again be a man
•    u cried in the managers office bc u have problems now u go and talk bad about the sox after they protected u for 7 years ungrateful.
•    and u self diagnosed urself bc u didnt want to pitch un real i hope the sox let this guiy fucking have it
•    oh and yes i remember clearly u blowing a hugee game in 09 and u laughing ur bearded ass off while everyone busting there tail
•    one little story remember when u couldnt handle ur drinking and u hit a poor arizona clubby in the face i do. and later u covered it with

He also called Jenks a “fat ass,” a “yellow beard dipping idiot” and wished that AL pitchers came to bat so “they” (assumed to be members of the Chicago staff) “can drill that ass.”

This is bad. Very, very bad. Oney Guillen doesn’t have to answer to anybody, but he has to realize that his father could well absorb negative repercussions  for this, both within the clubhouse and from around the league.

This isn’t to say that Ozzie Guillen will lose the trust of his own players going forward, or that every free agent who gets an offer from the White Sox will let this incident color his decision on whether to play there, but it would hardly be surprising if those things happen.

If Ozzie was discussing sensitive clubhouse business with family members—and drinking problems and assault on clubbies fall under that category—he was entirely out of line.

The one thing that Ozzie has going for him is the fact that Oney Guillen was employed by the White Sox until March, and could well have picked up all his information first-hand, without a word from his father. (That said, Oney was forced out of his job in the scouting and video department after tweeting disparaging remarks about White Sox GM Kenny Williams.)

Oney again tweeted criticism of Williams in August, for having too few relievers available during a series with the Royals. Even then fingers started pointing toward Ozzie in response to his son’s behavior.

“What am I going to do, get fired because my kid said something?” the elder Guillen told USA Today at the time. “Anybody can say whatever they want. I never talked to Oney. I understand his point. He’s a fan. As my kid, sometimes you wish he doesn’t say that. But how many times do I say something people wish I don’t say it?”

(Oney defended himself on Chicago radio station WSCR Wednesday, saying that “there are millions of things that happen [in the clubhouse] that haven’t ended up on his kid’s Twitter account. You can’t say, off one minor incident, that everything that happens is going to end up on his kid’s Twitter account.” That’s not necessarily a threat to divulge more, but it could certainly be taken like one.)

Ultimately, whether Ozzie gave too much information to Oney, or whether Oney gathered it himself; whether Oney is telling the truth or making things up simply to lash out at Jenks; whether Ozzie should be culpable, even if he had nothing to do with it . . . none of it matters.

What’s left after the details settle is the impression that Ozzie Guillen can’t control the information coming out of his clubhouse, and his own son is the primary reason for that. White Sox pitcher Matt Thornton said as much on Chicago’s ESPN 1000.

“Anytime you bring clubhouse stuff out in the open, I don’t care what it is, it’s that person’s personal business and also the clubhouse’s personal business,” he said. “That’s the first time all this stuff has really irritated me. It doesn’t matter what’s true and what’s not true, I don’t care about that. The fact that anything was said at all is ridiculous. It’s definitely gotta be addressed and taken care of real quick around here.”

Thornton is an Ozzie Guillen guy (at least as long as they’re both employed by the White Sox).

One can only imagine what non-Ozzie Guillen guys are saying.

– Jason

Ken Griffey Jr., Omerta Code

Griffey Junior Naps (or Not); the Real Story is, Why Do We Know About it?

Much has been made during the last few days of a nap that Ken Griffey Jr. may or may not have taken in the clubhouse during the eighth inning of a recent game. If it happened as alleged by a source to the Tacoma News Tribune, it kept Griffey from being available to his team as a pinch-hitter.

Griffey and Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu deny that was the case, although Griffey has yet to unequivocally shoot down questions about whether he might have been sleeping in the clubhouse at any other point during the game.

Clearly, this is not the way he wanted what are likely his last months as a professional ballplayer to play out.

The prevailing unwritten rule in this case can be summed up by a sign, some version of which has shown up in big-league clubhouses for decades:

What you see here, what you do here, what you say here, let it stay here.

It’s a code of omerta, a concept popularized by the Italian mafia to highlight the tradition of silence when it comes to conversation with outsiders. Ballplayers are expected to honor that silence when it concerns things that happen behind clubhouse doors.

Which is why it’s so shocking that “two younger players” filled News Tribune writer Larry LaRue in on Junior’s sleeping habits. The reaction of the rest of the team is no different than that of the Yankees after Jim Bouton came out with his groundbreaking Ball Four account of their daily activities while they were still active players.

Wrote Mickey Mantle in All My Octobers: “If the players resented the press for digging into our private lives, how were we supposed to feel when a teammate did it?”

Unless a teammate didn’t do it.

There are grumblings that it wasn’t “two younger players” at all, but somebody in the front office who spread the rumor, in a deliberately mis-attributed fashion.

The motivation would be clear: at age 40, Junior is hitting .200 for the M’s, with only two extra-base hits—both doubles—in 80 at-bats on the season. The same story that broke the news of his napping habits suggested that he was days away from losing his position as the team’s left-handed DH, if not his roster spot entirely.

The trouble is, the guy is so iconic in Seattle that the prospect of negative fan reaction should the team cut him can’t be easy to stomach for General Manager Jack Zduriencik.

This isn’t to suggest that it was Zduriencik who got into LaRue’s ear, or a member of his staff, or anyone other than the young players as claimed—only that a little PR hit like this for Junior, with no lasting repercussions to his reputation, might grease the skids just a touch, and make an eventual parting a skosh more painless for the guys doing the cutting.

This, of course, is sheer speculation, and completely unfounded. ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian reported that the responsible players were admonished during a team meeting “for taking it outside of the clubhouse.” (Ironically, somebody had to tell Kurkjian about the goings-on of the clubhouse meeting for that news to break.)

That the front-office rumor is even able to exist, however, speaks to the insidiousness that can permeate a ballclub when confidences are compromised.

No matter which way it happened, one thing is certain. “People talk far too much,” said Dusty Baker, speaking in general terms about clubhouse leaks, although he could well have been talking specifically about this situation. “There’s always a leak, there’s always a Judas. Always. Judas is more alive now than ever.”

– Jason