Mr. Crane, Astrogate IS about baseball

2019-11-21 JimCrane
Astros owner Jim Crane talking to the press, presumably without police protection, on another occasion.

“If you want to talk about baseball, I’ll talk about baseball,” said Astros owner Jim Crane to an inquiring reporter at this week’s owners’ meetings at Arlington’s Live! By Loew’s luxury hotel. “What else do you want to talk about?” And then two police officers shepherded Crane away.

If Crane was trying to say he wasn’t going to talk about Astrogate, here’s a bulletin for him: Astrogate is about baseball. It’s about cheating in baseball, it’s about the Astros rigging an off-field camera tied to a clubhouse television set for stealing signs, it’s about violating baseball’s specific rules against that kind of sign stealing, it’s about the likelihood that they weren’t the only such extralegal reconnaissance operation.

It’s about playing the game the right way, as former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers said outright when he blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astros Intelligence Agency last week.

If none of that is baseball, we should love knowing what Crane thinks is baseball. Or what he thinks baseball is. Either way Crane offered as bad a look as the police presence at the owners’ meetings, part of which moved him away from legitimate questioning about something that is very much baseball.

Early during the Watergate scandal, Barry Goldwater said it started to smell like Teapot Dome. Early during Astrogate, I said it started to smell like the Black Sox scandal. The references weren’t just to those scandals’ gravity but to their attempted coverups. Richard Nixon in 1973 tried to get away with saying, “One year of Watergate is enough.” Crane seems to believe almost two weeks of Astrogate are enough.

Nixon’s mistake was not demanding names, places, and heads on platters from the moment he learned about the Watergate break-in. Crane’s making a mistake if he isn’t demanding names, places, and heads on platters over Astrogate. If Manfred needed any more ammunition to take after the Astros, whom he has in his specific sights for now, Crane just handed the commissioner a loaded Uzi.

Trying to say Astrogate isn’t about baseball is like trying to say Teapot Dome—in which Warren Harding’s interior secretary Albert Fall (talk about the perfect name for the job!) sold Navy oil reserves to oil baron Harry Sinclair without formal sanction or competitive bidding—was much ado about Lipton’s Tea.

Crane would do himself and Astroworld alike a phenomenal favour if he shies away from stonewalling legitimately inquiring journalists. They’re trying only to get the answers fans who support his team and the game itself want very badly. Other teams want those answers too, even those who operated similar reconnaissance to counter the Astros or otherwise.

And if Crane wants to, he can look at it this way: They’re trying to get the answers he himself should want as the owner of a team whose game-changing success run was compromised by who knows yet how many people that couldn’t resist the temptation to just that little extra edge, whatever good it did or didn’t do, extra-legally.

The questions out of Crane’s mouth to his organisation should be, “What did you know? When did you know? And who are the wisenheimers whose brainchild this was in the first place? I want names. I want places. I want heads. And I want them five minutes ago.”

He needs to be the Astro Hoover, beating, sweeping, and cleaning. Baseball observers ask what his general manager Jeff Luhnow knew and when he knew it. Manfred already has former assistant GM Brandon Taubman under questioning for taunting women reporters over domestic violence, and don’t think for a minute Manfred won’t ask Taubman what he knew and when he knew about the AIA, too.

Another Luhnow aide, Kevin Goldstein, is liable to face interrogation over his 2017 e-mail suggestion that Astro advance scouts—enough of whom seem to have quaked at the idea—use video cameras in the stands to help develop other ways of high-tech sign stealing.

Just before Astrogate began, Crane moved his son, Jared, into the Astros’ executive suite, which meant he had to move Reid Ryan out into a lesser role. Which meant Ryan’s father, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, leaving the Astros and saying, perhaps tellingly, “I will not be back with the club and will leave it at that.”

It’s not impossible that Manfred or his Astrogate bloodhounds have thoughts about asking Ryan if there was just a little more than a father angry about a son’s demotion prompting his departure. Especially since it happened five days before Fiers’s revelations hit the fan.

Crane doesn’t need to tell even one reporter that he’s only going to talk about baseball as if Astrogate is much ado about a spacecraft hatch. And he doesn’t need the cops to hustle him away as if he needs to be in the witness protection program.

He’s a businessman one of whose companies is involved in playing a game that millions love, in Astroworld and all over, but which has a serious enough issue that strikes at the very integrity of the game, the idea that everybody plays by prescribed rules and shouldn’t be trying extra-legal tactics to prevail in or profit from a contest or even a championship series.

That’s why the hoo-has over the Black Sox scandal (and the decade of rampant gambling/game throwing that nourished it in the first place), All-Star ballot-box stuffing (1957, on behalf of the Reds; 2015, on behalf of the Royals; others), Pete Rose’s Rule 21(d) violations, actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances (and the Selig era’s foot-dragging over it), and the ultimate confirmation (first in 2001) that The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! in 1951.

If Crane doesn’t want to look at things that way, he can look at at it as a businessman: Astrogate stands to cost his baseball organisation millions—in fines, international bonus room, draft pick losses, whatever Manfred decides.

Any businessman cares about the health of his industry, no matter that he loves to one-up the competition at every legitimate chance. Crane should be very alarmed that similar hits could be laid upon other baseball teams running their own extra-legal espionage and compromising theirs and maybe, just maybe, the entire game’s credibility, too.

He should be alarmed likewise at Astrogate’s impact on his team’s credibility. It’s compromised. The Astros’ front office may have developed something of a reputation for ruthless lacking in people skills, but the team on the field built a reputation for dominant play by high character people, including some who were characters in the best ways. Astrogate now makes them look like shameless cheaters.

“When players discuss (off-field high-tech sign stealing) accusations,” Thomas Boswell wrote about the 1951 Giants and similar espionage, “it is with contempt in their voices, not amusement.”

A spitballer or corker can be caught by an umpire, who has the right to examine or confiscate equipment. Both teams play on the same damp base paths and inclined foul lines, even if they’ve been doctored a bit for home-field advantage.

But an elaborate system of sign stealing—with an old pro in the art of signs in a hidden space—is almost impossible to catch. Umps and foes are defenseless. The game becomes fundamentally unfair because knowing what’s coming is a big deal.

(Damp base paths? The 1962 Giants’ grounds crew turned the dirt around Candlestick Park’s first base into a swamp in a bid to slow down Maury Wills’s road running. Inclined foul lines? The 1950s Phillies’ grounds crews sculpted the third base line in Shibe Park into a ridge to keep Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn’s deft little bunts up the line from rolling foul so Mr. Putt Putt could beat them out for hits.)

Once or twice someone caught onto the Astroplot. Notably enough then-White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar, a year before his tragic in-dugout brain hemorrhage, smelling enough of a rat—when he heard the boom! boom! of the clubhouse trash can being banged, sending the stolen sign deciphered on a live TV screen to an Astro hitter—that he called his catcher to the mound to switch the signs up.

“There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting the bat rack every time a changeup signal got put down,” said Farquhar, now the pitching coach for the White Sox’s Winston-Salem (A-advanced) affiliate. “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.”

Crane saying he’ll talk baseball but not Astrogate, which is about baseball whether he likes it or not, makes him look further out of touch if not completely indifferent. A police presence at the owners’ meetings looks strange enough by itself without a couple of the gendarmes shielding Crane from valid questions about a rot in his team.

Try to picture the look of police shielding NBC chieftain David Sarnoff or CBS emperor Bill Paley from questioning about the quiz show chiselings of the mid-to-late 1950s. Sarnoff and Paley may not have wanted to own the fixings on Twenty-One or The $64,000 Question, since they weren’t exactly the masterminds, but neither did they call the cops when the press and Congressional investigators finally came a-calling.

Better yet, try to picture the look of the fuzz shielding American presidents, from the incumbent on back, way back, from legitimate questioning about why they forgot there was a crazy little thing called the Constitution that doesn’t, as the somewhat notorious incumbent prefers to believe otherwise, let them just do whatever they damn well please in office.

Those looks would be terrible. And it’s a terrible look for a baseball owner whose team has won, in three seasons, three American League Wests and one World Series, got to within eight outs of winning a Second series, but now looks as though the rules against off-the-field electronic video sign stealing either didn’t apply or didn’t exist.

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