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.

The Baseball Codes

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

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

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

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

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

From The Baseball Codes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No-Hitter Etiquette, The Baseball Codes

Softball Coach Cares Little For The Code

softball
Ms. Phoenix

Maybe it’s a softball thing.

Check that, given the abundance of baseball players who have done similar things, it’s more universal than that.

In Jefferson City, MO, a softball coach threw decorum out the window, and freely discussed the no-hitter his pitcher was throwing with the pitcher herself, while she was throwing it. Luckily, the pitcher in question, Lauren Howell, doesn’t appear to be much for superstition, shutting down the opposing Battle Spartans—the Battle Spartans!—the rest of the way in a 6-0 victory.

Maybe the softball gods are no more concerned about this kind of thing than the baseball gods.

The Baseball Codes

RIP Tom Clark

champagne and baloneyI got the sad news this morning that poet Tom Clark has passed at age 77 after being hit by a car near his home in Berkeley. Clark was the poetry editor for the Paris Review for a decade in the 1960s and ’70s, and pertinently to my own work wrote Champagne & Baloney: The Rise and Fall of Finley’s A’s, published in 1976. Clark was hardly an insider, didn’t have access similar to sportswriters of the era, but he loved baseball and had a keen eye for observation when it came to the A’s.

I encountered him randomly one day a few months back on Solano Avenue, about two blocks from his house and a half-mile from mine, and we struck up a conversation about the Swingin’ A’s, neither of us having any idea that the other had written a book on the subject. (I knew all about his book, of course, and that he lived nearby—it was just that until he introduced himself I no idea that the guy I was talking to was Tom Clark.)

He was Berkeley to the core, at least on the day we spoke, all mismatched patterns and textures and colors, his speech a patois of beat generation-meets-merry prankster, with an overt willingness to converse with whoever might cross his path. Every story offers a window, after all, and it was easy to see that he enjoyed the process of opening as many of them as he could. Despite the fact that I was running late, we must have talked for half an hour. As I raced home I figured that we could continue the discussion the next time we ran into each other in the neighborhood, now that I knew who to look for. I never saw him again.

Clark was part of a terrific generation of writers, the likes of which is becoming scarcer and scarcer. He will be missed.

 

Retaliation, The Baseball Codes

Acuna Drilled For Being Too Hot: When Will Baseball Be Through With Old-School Nonsense?

Acuna drilled

Jose Urena’s first-pitch assassination attempt on Ronald Acuna’s elbow yesterday brought to the fore an interesting tension for traditionalist lovers of old-school baseball, those who beat the drum loudest for playing the game “the right way” while calling for a return to the approach employed by previous generations of ballplayers. These fans yearn for a return to the time before prohibitions against collisions, when men were allowed to play with unbridled ferocity and vigor. Back then, of course, pitchers were allowed to throw the ball wherever the hell they wanted, with scant repercussion. In bygone eras, what Urena did yesterday was downright mainstream.

Acuna is the game’s hottest hitter, homering eight times in eight games prior to yesterday, including five straight, while leading off three in a row against the Marlins with longballs. Urena didn’t give him the chance for a fourth, planting a 97.5-mph fastball—the fastest first pitch he’s thrown all year, and in the 99th percentile of the 2,125 pitches he’s thrown overall, in terms of velocity—into Acuna’s elbow. It was unmistakably intentional.

There used to be a notion about drilling a hitter who was having too much success. The prevailing wisdom held that if a guy was seeing the ball well, that meant he was comfortable. And if a pitcher wants to get a guy out, part of his job is to remove as much of that comfort as he can. Any attention paid to avoiding baseballs, of course, is not attention paid to hitting them.

That’s more or less what Urena said after the game, when he told reporters in a rambling monologue that he was just trying to move Acuna’s feet—to make him less comfortable.

It was hogwash, of course. Urena led the league last year with 14 hit batters. Acuna was his 11th of this season. But the pitcher’s strategy was rooted in history.

In 1954, Joe Adcock set a record with 18 total bases, including four home runs, in a game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. After he doubled again the next day, Clem Labine drilled him.

In 1969, Willie Stargell homered and singled in his first two at-bats against Bob Gibson, and was very intentionally drilled during his third. At least Gibson, probably the most notorious headhunter of the modern era, understood both sides of the dynamic. Once, when teammate Curt Flood demanded retaliation after Don Drysdale drilled him in the ribs, Gibson offered a simple response: “If you had eight hits in a row off me, roomie,” he said in a Newsday account, “I’d hit you, too.”

Hall of Famer Johnny Mize recalled getting hit in the head by pitchers Harry Gumbert and Harry Brecheen. “Were they throwing at me?” he speculated in the classic book, “Baseball When the Grass was Real.” “I don’t know. But one of them was a sinkerball pitcher; the other one was a control pitcher. And on each occasion I’d hit a home run the time before.”

During Don Baylor’s rookie year in 1972, he reached base in his first five at-bats against Andy Messersmith, including a double and a homer. In his sixth, Baylor told The New York Times, Messersmith “didn’t even look in to take a sign from the catcher. He just wound up and hit me in the back. As I’m walking to first, he calls over, “Well, don’t you think it’s about time?”

In 1987, after Andre Dawson hit three homers and a double in two games against the Padres, Eric Show hit him in the cheek with a pitch, requiring 24 stitches. (The teams ended up brawling, and Cubs rookie Greg Maddux responded by drilling Padres catcher Benito Santiago. After Maddux was ejected, his replacement, Scott Sanderson, threw three pitches at Tony Gwynn, missing each time. “Today was the first time in my life that I’ve been scared to go to the plate,” Gwynn said afterward, in the Chicago Sun-Times.)

After that game, Cubs manager Gene Michael typified the difference in attitude between baseball then and baseball now, saying, “Headhunting and drilling somebody are a big difference. When you risk careers and lives, it has no place in baseball.”

Those stories are fun, in part because they describe a game that is barely recognizable today. In the modern game, throwing at a hitter, even well below the shoulders, is always questionable. When the reason for it is as petty as Urena’s—Acuna was having too much success, so he had to go down—it’s downright unconscionable.

There are many reasons for this evolution, none more vital than the fact that, unlike in its heyday, baseball, lagging behind the NBA and NFL in youth demographics, is a sport that needs marketing. More than ever, MLB needs its young stars to do star-like things, and when one of the brightest of them, in the middle of the best run of his career, is senselessly cut down by a meathead pitcher, it diminishes the entire sport.

People who decry the sport’s unwritten rules as baseless and outdated fail to recognize that the Code shifts with the times—has always shifted with the times—and because something was once acceptable does not make it so today. For those like Keith Hernandez, who uttered the below inanity into a microphone that he knew was live …

… it’s time to realize that the sport you grew up playing is not the same sport that Major League Baseball is trying so carefully to cultivate today. Urena wasn’t playing by the modern version of the unwritten rules, he was playing against them.

There is simply no place in baseball for Jose Urena, or those like him. Suspension—real suspension, not some five-game nonsense under which Urena doesn’t even have to miss a start—is the best way to send a message that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. If Major League Baseball truly wants its players to recognize that times have changed in this regard, it has to start leading the charge.

Update (8-16): MLB has suspended Urena six games. Way to decidedly not make a stand, baseball.

 

Bat Flipping, The Baseball Codes

Oh, That Flip

Franco flips

Ladies and gentlemen, Maikel Franco:

And again:

And the best, from Cut4: