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.

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.

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.

Sign stealing

Astros Spy Scheme Outed By One of Their Own

Photo by Roy Luck.

Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of the Athletic have posted an enormous piece detailing illegal sign stealing within the Astros organization. According to their sources, the club placed a camera somewhere beyond the center field fence in Minute Maid Park to deliver a video feed of the opposing catcher to a monitor in the tunnel alongside the home dugout. When the signal for a breaking ball or offspeed pitch was given, spotters would bang on a trash can loudly enough for the hitter to hear it.

This is not the first we’ve heard of such things. During the ALCS, the Yankees complained about Houston players whistling signals from the dugout. During last year’s playoffs, the Astros placed a representative in a photographer’s well, who kept turning his phone toward the opposing team’s dugout. Neither of these activities is kosher.

We’ve covered the concept of sign stealing extensively in this space over the years, from players nabbing a catcher’s signals while leading off from second base (totally legal), to those like the Astros who (allegedly) utilize devices in their pursuit. (Totally not legal.) To me, the most interesting part of this story is a primary source for Rosenthal and Drellich: A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for the Astros from 2015 to 2017.

“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing,” he explained in the article. “Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s (B.S.) on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared, but most people don’t.”

Fiers said that he informed his teams subsequent to the Astros—the Tigers and A’s—what to look for when traveling to southeast Texas. Perhaps thanks in part to Fiers’ warnings, the A’s went 4-5 at Minute Maid Park in 2019—not bad against the putative best team in baseball, and a better mark than they had while playing the Astros in Oakland.

This all brings up a number of issues, primary among them being why, if Houston has been doing this so obviously for so many years, more opponents have not called them out. The easy answer is that the Astros are hardly alone in this type of pursuit, and if another club has its own skeletons to protect, the prospect of quid pro quo (the term of the moment, it seems) provides sufficient discouragement. It’s why teams so rarely cry about pine tar use from the opposing pitcher: They don’t want to invite examinations of their own staff.

In the early going, the A’s organization has backed Fiers … to a point. GM David Forst, contacted by the San Francisco Chronicle, said that he was aware of “concerns among our staff and players,” and that “our players have voiced concerns about what other teams are doing.” Even then, though, he hedged his bet.

“It’s not about it being Houston or a team in our division,” Forst said. “You want the playing field to be level. I have to trust the people in MLB will get involved and address it.”

A player like Fiers speaking publicly about underhanded dealings by a former team carries real risk. The pitcher is 34 years old and going into the second year of a two-year contract. He’s a nine-year vet coming off his best season, and has shown a willingness to sport the least conventional facial hair in big league history. If he puts up another solid campaign in 2020, it’s safe to assume that his services will be highly valued in the free-agent marketplace. Maybe.

It’s not difficult to picture a team that bears its own secrets—whether it’s pitchers loading up baseballs or something along the lines of the Red Sox Apple Watch scandal from 2017—wanting to avoid potential headaches from a do-gooder gumming up the works with something so silly as morality. Suddenly, Fiers’ ongoing ability to pitch a baseball is not the only consideration for teams that consider signing him.

Baseball has seen this happen before. In The Baseball Codes, there’s an entire chapter on sign stealing via things like spyglasses and cameras. It opens with a story about a pitcher named Al Worthington, whose Giants team was doing that very thing in the 1950s. Worthington disapproved, and took corrective steps by threatening to publicly out manager Bill Rigney if he didn’t correct course. Cornered, Rigney acceded, and it might have cost his team a spot in the playoffs. I spoke with Worthington some 50 years after the fact, and his stance hadn’t softened a bit. “Once [Rigney] quit stealing signs, I felt good about that, ” he told me. “I didn’t think he should be doing that anyway. That’s not honest.”

The resulting story is a great lesson about what can happen to players who place a higher premium on morality than on victories, guys who want only to win the right way. Below is the entire excerpt. It’s long, but it tells a great and very relevant tale.

Allan Worthington was a quality pitcher, a right-hander who came up with the New York Giants in 1953 and moved with them to San Francisco five years later. By 1959, he was not only one of their most trusted bullpen members, but one of the most reliable relievers in the major leagues.

Then, over the course of a single season, everything changed. He was traded twice within a span of six months, playing for three teams in 1960 alone, and shortly thereafter quit the game altogether, at age thirty-one. Worthington was neither a bad character nor a headcase. He was throwing as well as he ever had. In fact, he had only one problem, which was enough to sour him in the eyes of more than one ballclub: Al Worthington wasn’t a cheat.

At the tail end of the 1959 season, San Francisco was battling the Dodgers and Braves for the National League pennant, holding first place into the season’s final week. In an effort to gain an edge on its competi­tion, the club asked former coach and proven sign stealer Herman Franks, who had left the Giants the previous year, to return and set up an espi­onage system. His resulting handiwork had various members of the organization, armed with binoculars, placed in the far reaches of San Francisco’s Seals Stadium to pick up signs and relay them to the dugout. When Worthington first heard about the operation, he was appalled.

The pitcher had seen a similar system over the first four years of his career, when the Giants played in New York’s Polo Grounds before moving west. Although it bothered him, he was never certain enough about his standing on the team to speak his mind. In 1958, however, Worthington found religion at a Billy Graham rally at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, and from that point forward refused to tolerate inequities on the field.

When he found out about Franks’s scheme in ’59, Worthington pulled Giants manager Bill Rigney aside and demanded that the practice cease, threatening to abandon the team if it didn’t. Rigney was stuck: Worthington was a valuable member of the bullpen, and losing him would be a blow. The binoculars were shelved, and the Giants immediately lost three straight to the Dodgers (and seven of their last eight), to finish four games back in the National League.

At that point, of course, Worthington’s fate hardly hinged on the team’s success; when the season ended, the Giants couldn’t get rid of him fast enough, trading him to the Red Sox for spare parts prior to the 1960 campaign. Boston in turn shipped him to the White Sox that September. Chicago, only three games behind the Orioles, was looking to bolster its bullpen, but nobody in the organization bothered to ask the Giants about their new acquisition. This would have been beneficial, considering that the White Sox used a sign-stealing system even more complex than the one in San Francisco. When the team played at home, Chicago’s pitching instructor and former Tigers standout, Dizzy Trout, watched the opposing catcher from inside the recently installed Comiskey Park “exploding” scoreboard—a pyrotechnic exhibition unlike any seen in baseball up to that time. Trout then triggered a light hidden amid many others in the center-field display that signaled hitters to the type of pitch about to be thrown—blinking meant breaking ball, solid meant fastball. It could be seen from both the plate and the White Sox dugout along the third-base line, but not from the visitors’ dugout near first. The scheme was incredibly effective, helping the Sox build a 51-26 record (.662) at home that year, even as they struggled to a 36-41 mark (.468) on the road.

The benefit hardly outweighed the detriment in Worthington’s eyes. It was illicit behavior, and by the time he arrived in Chicago, the pitcher was already practiced in his response. Shortly after learning of the system, the right-hander informed manager Al Lopez in a hotel lobby in Kansas City that he wanted nothing to do with it, that he “didn’t want to play for a team that cheats.”

“As a player it was none of his business what we were doing,” said Lopez. “But I did say, ‘Show me in the rule books where it’s wrong.’ I told him I respected his religious beliefs. I said I hoped he would respect mine, and that my religious beliefs would not permit me to do anything I thought wrong.”

“Al Lopez said that it wasn’t cheating . . . ,” said Worthington. “I thought later, Well, if it’s okay to do it, why don’t they tell everyone?”

Lopez sent Worthington to speak with general manager Hank Greenberg, which only made things worse. Greenberg, after all, freely admitted to his own preferences for receiving pilfered signs during his Hall of Fame playing days with Detroit. “Baseball is a game where you try to get away with anything you can,” he said. “You cut corners when you run the bases. If you trap a ball in the outfield, you swear you caught it. Everybody tries to cheat a little.”

After less than a week with the White Sox, Worthington was fed up enough to quit, going home to Alabama and enrolling at Samford University. The team’s official explanation was that he left over a salary dispute. This was the first time the White Sox had been challenged about a system that had been in use for years. It had originally been implemented by Frank Lane, the team’s general manager four years before Greenberg came along, as a response to the abundant stories about other clubs’ use of similar schemes. According to Sam Esposito, a utility infielder with the Sox, it started when Lane brought his complaints to two of the team’s third basemen—future Hall of Famer George Kell and his backup, Bob Kennedy. Esposito said that the pair devised a system far more devious— not to mention effective—than the then-standard practice of having a coach peer at the opposing catcher through binoculars from the bullpen, and manually signal the hitter by placing (or removing) a towel atop the fence.

That type of system was easily identified. The way Esposito tells it, Kell and Kennedy’s plan to use the scoreboard light couldn’t have been more effective. “It was hump city . . . ,” he said. “You’d be sitting in the bullpen or dugout, the pitcher would be winding up, in his motion, and our hitter would still be looking up at center field, waiting for the light to come on. Sherm Lollar loved the light, Walt Dropo loved it. Nellie Fox wouldn’t use it. Nellie was a slap hitter, and he was afraid if he knew it was a fastball that he’d muscle up on the pitch and end up hitting a long fly ball, one of those warning-track outs.”

“I doubt if there is one club that hasn’t tried it at one time or another in recent years,” wrote White Sox owner Bill Veeck in his autobiography, Veeck—As in Wreck. “There is absolutely nothing in the rules against it.”

Though most ballplayers admit that the stealing of signs is pervasive within the game and accept it as an unavoidable facet of a complex sport, even those who embrace the practice have a difficult time defending those who go beyond the field of play to do it. Any sign deciphered via a mechanical device (usually binoculars or hidden video feeds) is roundly denounced. Don Lee, a reliever with the Los Angeles Angels in the early 1960s, could stand up in some well-placed bullpens and, with his naked eye, read the catcher’s signs from beyond the outfield wall. When he relayed those signs to hitters by placing his hand (or not placing his hand) atop the fence, it was generally considered acceptable because he was picking them up unaided. (“Sounds impossible, but he was able to do it,” said his teammate, catcher Buck Rodgers. “I was there. I was a beneficiary.”) Stick a telescope in Lee’s hands, however, and he’d have a roster full of enemies in the opposing dugout the instant he was caught. “Bootling information to the batter through a hidden observer equipped with field glasses is a dastardly deed,” wrote Red Smith in 1950. “But the coach who can stand on the third-base line and, using only his own eyes and intelligence, tap the enemy’s line of communication, is justly admired for his acuteness.”

Even Al Worthington was willing to admit as much. “Sign stealing is as old as baseball,” he said. “You watch a coach from the dugout and you try to figure out the signs he’s giving to the batter, but it’s the coach’s job to hide them from you. . . . There’s nothing wrong with that. But to spy with binoculars . . . that’s cheating.”

The White Sox, unable to trade Worthington after word got out about his moral stance, banished him to the minors for the next two years. The pitcher was claimed by Cincinnati in the Rule 5 draft prior to the 1963 season, and after being sold to Minnesota in 1964 spent six productive seasons with the Twins, leading the American League in saves in 1968, at age 39.

Here’s hoping that Fiers’ journey, whatever it might be, is smoother than that.

Sign stealing

Astros Whet Their Whistles While Yankees Fume

The Yankees, it was reported yesterday, took exception to some whistling emanating from the Houston dugout during Game 1 of the ALCS. It was, they felt, an ongoing signal to hitters about either the type or location of the upcoming pitch. According to SNY, a Yankees coach—who didn’t come forward directly, but was outed to the network by three sources—called out the Astros about the practice during the game, leading to some back-and-forth yelling across the field.

“The whole dugout was pissed,” SNY’s Andy Martino quoted one of the sources as saying. “Everyone was chirping.”

On one hand, sign stealing is a long-accepted practice around the league, with the clear-cut caveat that it not be technologically aided. A runner relaying signs to the hitter from second base might be viewed by opponents as annoying, but his presence means mostly that the victimized team needs better signs.

Take the practice beyond the fences, however, and real issues arise. Never mind that spying on an opponent’s signals via a ballpark video camera is against the actual rules—it’s also seen as below-board chicanery by people who would otherwise harbor a soft spot for thievery of a more legitimate (ie: non-technically aided) persuasion.

Which is where things grow hazy about New York’s accusations. If the Astros were whistling from the dugout, it almost certainly means that they were getting their information from someplace else within Minute Maid Park. Unless New York catcher Gary Sanchez was dropping his fingers so far below his squat that his signs could be read from the sideline, folks in the Houston dugout would have no legitimate way to figure out what to signal and when.

There’s also the not-insignificant detail that the Astros were accused of this very thing just last season.

Then, a team employee named Kyle McLaughlin was stationed in a dugout-adjacent photographer well (without appropriate credentials, it should be noted) and caught aiming a cell phone into the dugouts of both Cleveland (Houston’s opponent in the ALDS) and Boston (during the ALCS). The Astros claimed that McLaughlin was placed there to insure that their opponents were not spying on them, using then-recent allegations of Apple Watch sign-stealing impropriety lodged against the Red Sox. (Why McLaughlin was snooping on Cleveland remains unclear.)

Last year, it wasn’t whistles that the Astros used to signal their hitters, but claps or audible whacks of a trash can. That info that came from the A’s and Dodgers, both of whom aired similar suspicions about Houston’s shenanigans, the latter during the World Series.

This is hardly the first time that a team has whistled signals to hitters. In The Baseball Codes, I recount an instance in which the Yankees, in a turn, did some whistling of their own. It happened during the late-1950s and early 1960s, and began with pitcher Bob Turley, an extremely proficient practitioner when it came to stealing signs. Turley was so good, in fact, that he was occasionally utilized as a first-base coach for that very purpose. From the book:

Turley’s relay system was simple—he’d whistle whenever a pitch was different from the last one. Hitters would start every at-bat looking for a curveball, and if a fastball was coming, so was Turley’s whistle. He’d then stay silent until something else was called. The pitcher was so good that when he went on the disabled list in 1961, manager Ralph Houk wouldn’t let him go home, instead keeping him with the team to decipher pitches. (Roger Maris, in fact, hit his sixty-first home run of 1961 on a pitch he knew was coming because third-base coach Frank Crosetti, doing his best Turley imitation after watching the pitcher for years, whistled in advance of a fastball.)

Eventually, people began to catch on. Among them was Detroit Tigers ace Jim Bunning, who grew increasingly angry as Turley whistled and the Yankees teed off during one of his starts. Finally, with Mickey Mantle at bat, Bunning turned to Turley in the first-base coach’s box and told him that another whistle would result in a potentially painful consequence for the hitter. Sure enough, Turley whistled on Bunning’s first pitch, a fast­ball at which Mantle declined to swing. With his second offering, Bun­ning knocked Mantle down. The on-deck hitter, Yogi Berra, could only watch in horror. When it was his turn to bat, Berra turned toward the mound, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Jim, he’s whistling, but I ain’t listening.”

Positioning a sign thief in a coaching box is the primary non-technology-aided method the Astros might be able to employ if they are indeed stealing signs. It seems like a longshot, but, needless to say, nobody in that clubhouse is talking about it.

I collected more recent examples of illicit, beyond-the-field-of-play sign-stealing accusations from around the league for my post on the Red Sox smartwatch controversy:

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.

Last year, MLB responded to the allegations from and about the Astros by sending an additional nine staffers—three from baseball ops and six from security—to monitor the next game, including placing somebody in each team’s video-review room. Ultimately they declared that Houston did nothing wrong.

This year, we’re getting more of the same. Suspicions about Houston’s use of surveillance technology in its home ballpark has continued unabated. “They are NASA,” said a major league coach in the SNY report. “If a pitcher is tipping and the players can see from the dugout, no biggie. If they get it from somewhere else, that’s dicey.”

Ultimately, all this subterfuge didn’t help the Astros. New York starter Masahiro Tanaka pitched six shutout innings, and the Yankees pounded Zack Greinke and four relievers in a 7-0 victory.

In Game 2, we saw New York starter James Paxton and catcher Gary Sanchez changing signs throughout the game, even with nobody on base, which is as clear a sign as one can get that a team is harboring some nasty suspicions.

This affair is just getting started. If the series makes it back to Houston and the Yankees suspect that the practice is still going on, expect some bloody hell to be raised.

In the meantime, the Nationals have a good long while to figure out how to handle the situation should the Astros advance. The spy game, it seems, is alive and well in baseball.

Update 10-18: According to Ken Rosenthal, baseball has cleared the Astros of wrongdoing.