Astrogate’s gut check for Manfred and baseball

2019-11-20 RobManfred
Rob Manfred must broaden the Astrogate probe, even if it means he’s a dead duck with the owners who’ve extended him only through 2024.

Baseball commissioner Robert Manfred says he’s going to throw the book, drop the hammer, lower the boom, and call curtains on the Astros if his investigators find they really did rig a real-time, beyond-center-field camera to a clubhouse television set to steal opponents’ pitch signs in 2017 and beyond. And then he’s really going to get mad.

Except for one little detail. “I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved,” the commissioner said as the owners’ meetings began in Arlington, Texas Tuesday. “We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

Not so fast, warns The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, who first exposed Astrogate with Evan Dillich a week before the owners’ meetings, when through them former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astros’ illegal 2017 surveillance theft.

For one thing, Rosenthal and Dillich wrote in their first story, “Electronic sign stealing is not a single-team issue.” And that, Rosenthal reminds us now, was before they even mentioned the Astros.

I’ve made the point of saying that the Astros may be just the most flagrant about it but they’re hardly the only ones trying it. Last week, I wrote, “Reality check: The Astros—or whomever among them created their [Astros Intelligence Agency]—aren’t the only such electronic thieves, merely the latest to be caught red Octobered.” The Red Sox tried it with an AppleWatch, also in 2017, and got fined for their trouble.

Manfred then said in no uncertain terms that “future violations of [that] type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.” And last February Manfred announced augmented rules clarifying: no off-field electronic camera sign stealing, which was already against the rules in the first place.

Apparently, that part still needs to be made clear to a lot of people. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Stealing signs while running the bases or on the coaching lines or in the shallow outfield* is old-fashioned gamesmanship. Stealing them by way of off-the-field devices was long against the rules and amounted to genuine baseball crime. And that was before anyone though of technology beyond binoculars or spy glasses.

The new rules this year also meant no monitors in clubhouses and tunnels, and every team required to audit every in-house camera, its purpose, its wiring, and where it can be viewed. Rosenthal and Dillich exposed the Astros’ 2017 techno-shenanigans. Manfred’s investigation may well turn up 2018 and even 2019 electro-chicanery.

Astrogate shouldn’t stop with the Astros no matter how brazen their operation or how unapologetic their Twitterpated. Or, no matter how risky it might actually be for Manfred to expand the probe, discover more franchises actually doing something close to the AIA, but make enemies enough among the owners who employ him that he could be dumped in due course.

The commissioner’s official powers to act in the best interest of baseball, installed from the creation of the job in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, aren’t exactly the same as getting away with it when he does act that way. It only began when Happy Chandler’s employers cashiered him in 1950.

You never quite know which unnerved that generation of owners more, Chandler allowing the Dodgers to sign Jackie Robinson and break baseball’s colour line or Chandler inadvertently screwing up baseball’s first big television deal two years later: he sold World Series rights to the Gillette shaving products company for $1 million a year over six years, but Gillette in turn sold the rights to NBC for $4 million a year.

Fay Vincent eventually learned the hard way that acting in baseball’s best interest still meant his head on a plate, or at least resigning before he could be executed. The owners weren’t thrilled over his intervention in the 1990 spring lockout, his direct involvement in labour issues, and (perhaps especially) his bid to strong-arm three Yankee officials including manager Buck Showalter out of baseball over standing up for drug-troubled relief pitcher Steve Howe despite Howe’s seventh such violation.

The owners in Chander’s, Vincent’s, and Manfred’s times still share one trait: the commissioner’s powers to enforce the good of the game won’t always get past the idea that the good of the game means making money for the owners. Or not costing them serious money, if Manfred’s serious about heavy Astrogate fines for now.

There’ve been times Manfred appeared to be in somewhat over his head. He’s cracked down impressively enough on domestic violence involving baseball people, but he hasn’t exactly been a tower of strength when it comes to things like umpire accountability. But if he finds his surety enough to go all the way in finding extra-legal espionage is more rampant than just the Astros or even just one or two other teams, Manfred risks skipping lame duck status (he’s been extended through 2024) and going right to dead duck. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

“To do the job without angering an owner is impossible,” Vincent said as he left office and Brewers owner Bud Selig became “interim” commissioner. “I can’t make all twenty-eight of my bosses happy. People have told me I’m the last commissioner. If so, it’s a sad thing. I hope [the owners] learn this lesson before too much damage is done.”

Another problem is that Manfred’s bloodhounds probably can’t expose every last extra-legal sign stealing operation by every last major league team, as Rosenthal notes. “Is it possible the Astros were the most flagrant violators? Of course,” Rosenthal writes. “But the risk in making an example of the Astros is that other franchises almost certainly stole signs illegally. Baseball potentially would face accusations of selective punishment.”

Why focus so hard on the Astros in the first place, then? “[B]ecause the information we had was on the Astros,” Rosenthal continues. “We also heard—and continue to hear—about possible violations by a number of other clubs. But hearing is one thing; confirming is another. We do not report gossip. We report only what we confirm, from multiple sources with first-hand knowledge.”

To revisit questions I asked early in Astrogate, which players will come to expose which teams’ extralegal sign intelligence in Fiers’s wake? Who’ll be the Astros’ or any other teams’ Alexander Butterfield, the man who installed but subsequently exposed the Nixon White House’s taping system?

Reported whisperings from the Astros’ circles indicate a belief that any Astro espionage was nothing more than countering what the other guys were doing. If that’s why the Astros did it, Rosenthal writes, “their people need to tell baseball’s investigators what they know, or else hold their peace.”

Does it matter, as some Astro defenders suggest in various social media places, that the AIA didn’t produce a better 2017 home record than road record? That they won five less at home than on the road in ’17? That they scored only 61 more runs at home in 2017 than in 2016 against 111 more runs on the road? Actually, it doesn’t matter. Rifle through volumes of history and discover some of its most notorious crimes were committed on behalf of goals that weren’t achieved but weren’t considered crimes any the less.

The Watergate burglaries didn’t deliver the desired results; the burglars’ and their masterminds’ aims remain disputed. But that didn’t legalise burglary or obstruction of justice, either. Whatever the Astros wanted to accomplish as they became the powerhouse they’ve become, the rules then and now say they did it not with old-fashioned, on-the-field gamesmanship but old-fashioned, off-the-field high-tech cheating.

(Remember—baseball’s history is littered with teams attempting off-the-field cheating with binoculars, rifle sights, hand-held telescopes, and hidden-wire buzzers. The 1951 National League pennant race was only the most notorious until now.)

Some think Manfred wouldn’t dare discipline other marquee franchises if he and his investigators discover they, too, tried more than a little applied advanced electronic theft. Except that he did just that to the Red Sox and the Yankees in August 2017 over Applegate, even if it was just a wrist slap. And, to the Cardinals a year earlier, over then-scouting director Chris Correa’s hacking into the Astros’ scouting computer database. Manfred banned Correa from baseball for life and ordered the Cardinals to hand the Astros $2 million and two choice draft picks over Correa’s hacking. (It wasn’t just a baseball violation, either: Correa also went to the calaboose for 46 months for his trouble.)

Manfred may have to walk a fine tightrope investigating Astrogate, but when he wants to be he’s not afraid to throw the book, drop the hammer, lower the boom, and call curtains on baseball’s marquee or legacy franchises if need be. The key is, “when he wants to be.” Whether it’s the Astros alone, or several more teams operating their own versions of the AIA, the punishments can’t be mere wrist slaps this time. Even at the risk of Manfred’s long-term job survival.

And there’s that not so little matter of baseball’s integrity. “People want the game played consistent with our rules,” Manfred said Tuesday, “and feel it’s important that we figure out exactly what happened here and take steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen in the future by imposing appropriate discipline.” Not exactly as eloquent as A. Bartlett Giamatti was about cheating, but certainly to the point.

Manfred’s suggested heavy fines as well as taking away choice draft positions and picks and suspending offenders from international scouting. He’s done it before, and in 2017 to boot. That’s when he slapped the Braves by stripping them of thirteen international prospects (a $16.48 million loss) and banning freshly resigned general manager John Coppolella for life, over illegal signing bonus arrangements and trying to sign an underage player.

So, what if Manfred and his Astrogate bloodhounds do turn up unlawful electronic sign espionage from far more than just the Astros? What if it is more than just one, two, or three other teams? What if the hounds find those culprits and learn they did it because they really thought everyone else did it? Since when does everybody doing it make it right, for the Astros or anyone else?

Talk about a gut check. Astrogate’s giving one hell of a gut check to Manfred. And, to baseball itself.

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* Sign stealing or relaying isn’t just for hitters, sometimes. Once in awhile it isn’t even for the opposing team. Just ask former Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans—now a Modern Era Committee candidate for the Hall of Fame—and former Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett . . . who were sort of stealing their own signs once upon a time.

Evans once wanted a little extra field positioning help, so he and Barrett had a brilliant idea: Barrett would relay the Red Sox’s pitch signs behind his back to Evans from second base, and Evans, knowing which way the pitch was liable to be hit, would adjust his positioning accordingly.

Except that one fine day the Blue Jays’ bullpen caught onto the Evans/Barrett positioning signals . . . and started stealing Barrett’s signs and relaying them to their hitters! This is comparable to the bank robber discovering the bank empty but the vault wide open.

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