Spy vs. spy?

SpyVsSpyDuring the World Series, the eventual world champion road rats—er, the Nationals—reminded themselves that the Astros, whom they finally vanquished, have a Show-wide reputation for sign stealing and for catching on quick if and when opposing pitchers tip their hands. And, the Nats did something about it.

Sign stealing on the field by the men on the field is old fashioned gamesmanship. The Nats, according to The Athletic, simply met gamesmanship with gamesmanship: “They instructed their catchers to utilize a more complicated system communicating the signs to the pitchers, behaving in every situation as if there was a runner on second base.”

A sound proposition, that. Nats relief pitcher Sean Doolittle told the magazine Nats coaches handed out cards with five different sign sets, with Nats pitchers “rotat[ing] through those if there was a hitter on base for more than one at-bat.”

They also paid such close attention to pitch tipping that Game Six winner Stephen Strasburg was caught and corrected tipping early in the game, and Game Seven starter Max Scherzer “altered the way he manipulated his glove when there were runners on base, as there were in all five of his innings.”

The Nats elected not to meet gamesmanship with gamesmanship by going high tech about it, though. The Astros may well have. And baseball’s government is investigating the prospect. Seriously.

The Red Sox were caught redhanded and disciplined accordingly when they were caught using cell phone cameras to try a little sign stealing in 2017. When the Red Sox accused their accusers, the Yankees, of starting it, the Yankees were disciplined concurrently. And while such espionage is spread wider around the game than fans like to think even now, the Astros are believed almost as widely to be two things when it comes to high-tech heists: 1) Expert at it. 2) Shameless about it.

Baseball’s rules ban technological theft formally, but as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich now write, “[T]he commissioner’s office hears complaints about many different organizations—everything from mysterious people in white shirts sending signals from center field to elaborate systems involving television cameras and tablets.”

And there are former Astros either singing now or preparing their arias. One is former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who pitched baseball’s 300th no-hitter for the Athletics in May. Another is purged assistant general manager Brandon Taubman. This may or may not prove to be baseball’s version of the Watergate tapes, pending the emergence of baseball’s Alexander Butterfield, but it may prove that cheating is still baseball’s oldest sub-profession.

Rosenthal and Dillich concentrate on 2017 because that’s the only Astro espionage they can confirm—for now. Fiers has told Rosenthal and Dillich that, that regular 2017 season, the Astros stationed a real-time camera behind center field to steal signs. We’ve come a very long way from Wollensak spy glasses and buzzers to the bullpen from the center field clubhouse, the technique Leo Durocher applied for his 1951 Giants’ legendary pennant race comeback.

The two writers say that, early that season, a struggling hitter who’d been helped by sign stealing before he became an Astro, and a uniformed Astro coach, “started the process” for the James Bonding ritual. “They were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good,” write Rosenthal and Dillich.

The system is believed to involve the aforesaid camera trained on opposing catchers’ signs and a television screen planted just before the steps from the clubhouse to the dugout, which players and team workers would watch to decipher the opposing signs. Then, write Rosenthal and Dillich, the decoded signs would be sent to the dugout with loud noises, usually a bang on a trash can.

White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar, now a minor league pitching coach, apparently caught on during two September 2017 appearances in Minute Maid Park. “There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting the bat rack every time a changeup signal got put down,” he’s quoted as saying. “After the third one, I stepped off. I was throwing some really good changeups and they were getting fouled off. After the third bang, I stepped off.”

“That’s not playing the game the right way,” they quote Fiers, who didn’t pitch in the 2017 postseason and was non-tendered by the Astros after their 2017 World Series win. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”

Some of the Twitterpated accuse Fiers of “bitterness.” Others tried suggesting his 2015 no-hitter as an Astro was suspect. Shades of the old Soviet Union when it came to dissidents and defectors from Mother Russia and her satellites, too. Except that the Astros aren’t likely to try having Fiers or his wife assassinated. We think.

A man might be less than thrilled about being left out of the postseason fun and sent on his merry way to follow, but bitterness isn’t the only reason whistleblowers choose to reveal their purgers had their own Navajo Codetalkers in place. Especially those willing to attach their names to their public whistling. Rosenthal and Dillich cited four Astro-connected people thus far, but Fiers was the only one willing to be named as a source so far.

Rosenthal and Dillich think the real cause of any bitterness between Fiers and the Astros, which Fiers acknowledged to them, comes from his having told his teams to be—he pitched for the Tigers in 2018 and the A’s this year—all about the Astro Intelligence Agency:

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. Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s (bovine excrement) on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared. But most people don’t. That’s why I told my team. We had a lot of young guys with Detroit trying to make a name and establish themselves. I wanted to help them out and say, “Hey, this stuff really does go on. Just be prepared.”

Taubman was purged after his disgrace supporting domestic violence-attached reliever Roberto Osuna, after the American League Championship Series triumph, in earshot of women reporters one of whom wore a domestic violence awareness bracelet. And, after the Astros’ public relations mess when they first tried to smear the Sports Illustrated reporter who revealed Taubman was just so fornicating glad they got Osuna.

Baseball government may want to question Taubman about more than just the Astros’ initial doubling down on smearing Stephanie Apstein. (For which Astros owner Jim Crane apologised—a week later, in a personal note.) They should want to question him about what and how much he knew about the AIA. They should also want to dig deeper enough to discover just how alone the Astros aren’t when it comes to electrotheft.

The Astros are frisked often enough but have yet to be arraigned, never mind indicted. Either the evidence is too scant to send a baseball grand jury, or the Astros have become as good at burying the evidence as their accusers say they are at electrotheft in the first place.

Taubman himself has bumped up against baseball’s spy wars before. In May 2018 he confronted a Yankee Stadium worker when he suspected the Empire Emeritus was up to no good. The bad news is that Taubman was accompanied by Kyle McLaughlin—an Astro worker both the Indians and the Red Sox suspected was up to no good with his photography during the early 2018 postseason rounds.

And Astroworld’s memory won’t soon forget Chris Correa, who hacked into the Astros’ computer data base while he ran scouting for the Cardinals a few years ago. Correa got nailed, tried, convicted, jailed, and banned from baseball over that one.

There’s another factor in play that must not be overlooked: It’s one thing to catch then-Dodger pitcher Yu Darvish tipping pitches in Game Seven of the 2017 World Series and to slap him silly accordingly before he gets out of the second inning alive. But even the Astros’ staunchest accusers don’t believe every Astro player accepts stolen signs.

When Durocher implemented his 1951 telescopic espionage, he was amazed that at least two players—Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Willie Mays—refused outright to accept stolen signs. And Irvin plus “Shot Heard Round the World” pennant-winning hero Bobby Thomson denied that either the Wollensak spyglass and buzzer were used in the fateful third playoff game or that Thomson accepted a stolen sign.

Even Ralph Branca, whose post-career friendship with Thomson may have been soiled by the confirmed revelation, could never be entirely sure the fateful three-run homer wasn’t hit fair and square. “He still had to hit the ball, ” Branca reflected ruefully.

But the Dodgers suspected enough down the stretch that they took a pair of binoculars into the dugout in a bid to catch the Giants in the act—which was confiscated by an umpire. As Thomas Boswell snorted upon the final affirmation of the Giant plot, “Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”

Just as was the case with Durocher’s ’51 Giants, the Astros aren’t suspected of sending their AIA on missions on the road. If they were trying anything cute at Minute Maid Park during last month’s World Series, it failed miserably: the Nats beat them there by a combined 30-11 score over those four games.

And it isn’t likely that they could have gotten away with their camera-to-TV electrotheft during the postseason in general or the World Series in particular for one very sound reason: You have to be able to hear the trash can banging through the stadium racket.

The last I looked, the Astros didn’t send a pack of Labrador retrievers onto the field. Or was that the reason why, as some Yankees suspected, if any Astros wanted stolen signs during this year’s ALCS, all they had to do was just whistle?

If the Astros are actually guilty of electrotheft, they may be the least embarrassed about it but they’re probably not even close to alone. The Red Sox and the Yankees proved that in 2017. For openers, possibly.

Just as when those in the political (lack of) class caught with their fingers in the cookie jars cry “whatabout” because “the other guys” did it before, the proper response is, “Whatabout stopping it, already?” Murder’s been done since Cain but it doesn’t mean we stop prosecuting freshly minted murderers.

The Astros may be as admired for their winning on the field as they seem to be loathed for their front office culture. They’re right when they say—as Rosenthal and Dillich mulcted from an unidentified Astro source—that they shouldn’t “become the poster child for sign stealing,” but that doesn’t mean it’s kosher for them to do it in the first place.

The Black Sox weren’t the only players trying to throw games for profit in 1919; Cincinnati fans weren’t (by a long shot) the only fans who ever thought of stuffing All-Star ballot boxes; and, the Astros probably aren’t the only team playing Spy vs. Spy. Thinking they’re the only ones in baseball continuing to prove that boys will be boys is thinking inside a very tiny box.

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