Astrogate: Scouts’ dishonour?

2019-11-17 MinuteMaidParkAstrogate went from bad to worse this weekend. As in, it may not have been enough for them merely to train a center field camera toward the plate so someone in the clubhouse could steal signs watching television and send them out to the hitters by banging the can.

Now we learn an assistant to general manager Jeff Luhnow suggested, in a August 2017 e-mail, that not only might advance scouts test out stealing signs from the stands, but that they might have wanted to think about using cameras to do it.

And it’s going to prove what ESPN analyst Buster Olney says: the litmus test for whether baseball commissioner Rob Manfred will prove a strong commissioner capable of securing and truly upholding the game’s integrity or “a white-belted high-school crossing guard either incapable of controlling [teams], or someone they believe will be unwilling to come down with a disciplinary hammer.”

On Saturday night, the two Athletic writers to whom former Astro pitcher Mike Fiers blew the Astrogate whistle last week, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich, reported that they received a copy of the August 2017 e-mail asking the Astro scouts to look into picking up signs from dugouts.

Rosenthal and Dillich emphasised they were sent the e-mail on condition the sender and the author’s identity not be revealed just yet. But ESPN’s Jeff Passan, citing assorted sources in positions to know, wrote Sunday morning that Kevin Goldstein, special assistant to Luhnow, was the e-mail’s author. And the text of the e-mail, in which Goldstein urged Astro scouts to go video in figuring out new ways to steal opposition signs, is damning:

One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.

Both Passan and the Rosenthal-Dillich duo emphasise the idea didn’t exactly receive unanimous approval from the scouts in question. To read their description is to surmiser that many of those scouts probably wanted to throw up.

“Scouts discussed sign stealing with the executive outside of email as well, on phone calls and in a group Slack channel,” wrote Rosenthal and Dillich. “Multiple Astros scouts said they were appalled by the possibility they would be asked to use a camera—and said that some scouts indeed voiced as much to management. Another scout noted a generally confounded feeling amongst the group by the overall request.”

“Some [scouts] were intrigued by the idea, sources who received the email said,” Passan wrote, “while others were bothered by the thought of pointing cameras from the stands toward opposing teams’ dugouts, a plan that could have earned them scorn within the scouting community if caught.”

Once upon a time, as Watergate unfurled further, the question became what did then-President Richard Nixon know and when did he know it. No less than Nixon’s fellow Republican, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, would remember thinking even in the early Watergate going, “This is beginning to smell like Teapot Dome.”

As of Sunday morning, Astrogate unfurls even further and the question now becomes what Luhnow knew and when did the GM know it. Don’t be shocked if a lot of baseball people start saying of Astrogate, “This is beginning to smell like the Black Sox scandal.”

When Astrogate first broke early last week, Luhnow responded with this, as cited by Forbes: “I know in the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot of news surrounding the Houston Astros and it’s not been good news. I’m disappointed in that. I think these incidents and topics are not tied together, but they obviously have come one after another, it seems like. It is disappointing and if there is an issue we need to address we will address it.”

Somehow, calling something like Astrogate merely “disappointing” resonates the same as would someone calling the Hindenburg disaster a little flare-up. And neither Goldstein, Luhnow, the Astros as an organisation, nor Major League Baseball would comment when asked by The Athletic, ESPN, or Yahoo! Sports.

Officially, and also when Astrogate first broke, the Astros said only this in a formal statement: “Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time.”

Teapot Dome was a bribery scandal involving choice Navy oil reserves, a Cabinet official in President Warren Harding’s administration, and a once-fabled oil magnate, not breaking into a major party’s national headquarters. The Black Sox scandal involved players throwing the 1919 World Series for fun and profit, not off-the-field sign espionage.

But they, too, included coverup attempts. It took two years and Harding’s death before Interior Secretary Albert Fall’s Teapot Dome profiteering by bribe was exposed in full. It took almost the entire 1920 season before the 1919 World Series fix was confirmed and exposed. It took a little more than two years to expose the apparent depth of the Watergate coverup.

The Black Sox scandal could have destroyed baseball, which was buffeted long enough by gambling elements including players and even coaches fixing games for fun and profit and not in that order. Astrogate threatens baseball in a time when the Astros probably aren’t the only team engaging in electronic espionage but may just be the most flagrant at it.

What’s missing among other things is who was the Astros’ Alexander Butterfield, who installed but in due course revealed the Nixon White House taping system. Whom among the Astros’ people, at whose instigation, installed the center field camera tied to the clubhouse television set from which stolen signs could be sent to Astro hitters with a bang? And which one of them might become the one to own up to it?

Understand this much: Scouts in the stands can pick off signs on the field any old time they choose, so long as it’s with their own eyes or even a pair of binoculars. They do it on behalf of giving their team an edge in games to come, not the games they’re watching that involve coming opponents. But using cameras for sign deciphering in the stands even for scouts doing advance oppo research is verboten, formally.

When Manfred fined both the Red Sox and the Yankees in August 2017 over high-tech cheating attempts—the Red Sox were caught using an Apple Watch to steal Yankee signs; the Yankees were found using an inappropriate dugout telephone the previous year—he included in his decision, “Moreover, all 30 Clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

That means the Astros got the word about technocheating and continued flouting it anyway. Which means that the Astro Intelligence Agency behaved as a baseball law unto itself, thumbing its nose to Manfred with one hand while flipping him the proverbial bird with the other.

In that August 2017 ruling, Manfred made clear that neither the Red Sox nor the Yankee administrations knew of the chicaneries down below. But the commissioner now has no choice otherwise with Goldstein being a Luhnow aide. He has to step up, step out, and demand to know, for openers, whether Luhnow knew, what did he know, and when did he know. He may even have to ask the same of Astros owner Jim Crane.

Manfred also has to demand a complete accounting elsewhere around the game on behalf of the principle enunciated by his predecessor twice removed—at the time the man was president of the National League—when denying the suspension appeal of a pitcher caught with ball doctoring material in his glove:

[Cheating is] not the result of impulse, borne of frustration or anger or zeal as violence is, but are rather acts of a cool, deliberate, premeditated kind. Unlike acts of impulse or violence, intended at the moment to vent frustration or abuse another, acts of cheating are intended to alter the very conditions of play to favour one person. They are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner—that all participants play under identical rules and conditions. Acts of cheating destroy that necessary foundation and thus strike at the essence of a contest. They destroy faith in the games’ integrity and fairness; if participants and spectators alike cannot assume integrity and fairness and proceed from there, the contest cannot in its essence exist . . . Cheating is contrary to the whole purpose of playing to determine a winner fairly and cannot be simply contained; if the game is to flourish and engage public confidence, cheating must be clearly condemned with an eye to expunging it.

—A. Bartlett Giamatti, “Decision in the Appeal of Kevin Gross,” 1987. (Emphases added.)

It’s not a stretch to imagine Goldstein acting entirely on his own in suggesting scouts wield cameras for sign stealing research. If he did, he put Luhnow and maybe even Crane into the hapless position of knowing no more about the underlings’ chicaneries than Richard Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in that happened the night before he picked up a Florida newspaper at his Key Biscayne retreat to read all about it.

If Luhnow and even Crane knew nothing about the Astro Intelligence Agency until Fiers blew the whistle last week, are the GM and the owner really working in-house to get to the nuts, bolts, and bytes of it? Did they really start the moment Rosenthal and Dillich first sent forth Fiers’ shot to be heard ’round the world?

Who would it be if it went down to that? Scouting director Pete Putila? Manager A.J. Hinch? Former Astros bench coach/current Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who’s already thought to have had a hand in the Astros’ 2017 sign stealing? Former 2017 Astros designated hitter/newly-hired Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who’s also suspected of having a role in setting the system up?

Fiers himself hasn’t named names yet. Cora and Beltran are now said to be cooperating “fully” with the Manfred administration’s probe; Cora was interviewed last week. Beltran is due to be interviewed. It won’t affect the Red Sox unless it turns out they tried a little espionage themselves during the season that ended in their 2018 World Series championship. It won’t affect the Mets unless Beltran is found culpable and suspended to open the season.

“There’s nothing illegal about studying your opposite team,” Beltran told reporters in New York. “We all have the same opportunity to look out for information and tendencies. I love and respect the game. I will be a student of it and apply all the lessons.” Studying the opposition isn’t illegal, but deploying off-field technology to steal signs during the game you’re playing is, according to baseball’s rules.

Someone else is bound to turn a name or two over sooner or later, either to a baseball investigator, to Rosenthal and Dillich, to Passan, to someone. It could be someone still in the Astro apparatus. It could be someone formerly in it. It could be someone else digging as arduously as Rosenthal, Dillich, Passan, and others.

Luhnow and the Astros administration already looked terrible in the Brandon Taubman affair before last month’s World Series, when they first reacted to the then-assistant GM’s taunting of women reporters over relief pitcher Roberto Osuna’s previous domestic violence suspension by trying to shoot and smear the Sports Illustrated messenger.

Now they look even worse regarding Astrogate. The since-fired Taubman is still being questioned by the Manfred administration over being so fornicating glad the Astros got Osuna while still under domestic violence suspension, but he’s also liable to be questioned about what if anything he, too, knew about Astrogate.

Do Luhnow and Crane realise this entire scheme has already compromised their rebuilding of the Astros into the powerhouse they’ve become? For an organisation priding itself on getting in front of several curves, the Astros’ leadership still leaves the appearance that they’re letting everyone else get ahead of the one that could prove their knockdown pitch.

The deeper goes Astrogate, the deeper run perceptions already running amok that the Astros don’t trust even the top-of-the-line players they have to play winning baseball without extracurricular subterfuge. There are probably other teams around the Show watching Astrogate unfurl further and wondering when their in-house intelligence operatives will be caught, if they have them.

And, no, going after those Astro players who accepted the electronically stolen signs won’t really help. It would be the same as New York police legend Frank Serpico once described about his department’s rampant corruption in the 1960s and early 1970s: going after a few flunky cops (players) wasn’t the same as going after a culture that allowed it in the first place.

Astro fans deserve your sympathy. Memory runs to the long, sad years when their futilities and shortfalls provoked even the most stubborn among them to call them the Lastros. Now, in an era when few fans have had as much to savour as Astro fans have, Astrogate and other fooleries are liable to leave them calling the team something else—the Disastros.

Except that it’s not just the Astros’s disaster. It’s baseball’s, too.

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