The Yankeegate letter

2020-06-13 YankeeStadium

What further manner of extralegal sign-stealing Yankee panky might be brought in from the cold?

We’re about to learn the details of commissioner Rob Manfred’s 2017 written admonition to the New York Yankees about extralegal sign stealing. Federal judge Jed S. Rakoff has ordered the letter unsealed and submitted publicly and “minimally redacted” by both the Yankees and Major League Baseball no later than Monday. Very interesting.

That the Yankees used an illicit dugout telephone and may have used their own replay room reconnaissance on behalf of extralegal sign stealing in or before 2017 wasn’t exactly a baseball state secret, however often it was buried beneath the hooplas of Astrogate and Soxgate before the coronavirus turned most of that to one side.

The case involves the DraftKings fantasy baseball playing group suing MLB for fraud over the extralegal sign stealing scandals that jolted and discredited both the Houston Astros (2017-18) and the Boston Red Sox (2018). Rakoff ruled against DraftKings two months ago, but DraftKings thinks there was more in Manfred’s written Yankee spankee than both Manfred and the Empire Emeritus disclosed.

Beware the fool factor, though. Rakoff’s April ruling was comparable in its absurdity to Neville Chamberlain proclaiming peace in our time after agreeing to hand Hitler the Sudetenland 1938:

A sport that celebrates ‘stealing,’ even if only of a base, does not provide the perfect encouragement to scrupulous play. Nor can it be denied that an overweening desire to win may sometimes lead our heroes to employ forbidden substances on their (spit) balls, their (corked) bats, or even their (steroid-consuming) bodies. But as Frank Sinatra famously said to Grace Kelly (in the 1956 movie musical High Society), “There are rules about such things.”

As I couldn’t resist writing then, “The Chairman of the Board spoke to the future Princess of Monaco about love and war and what’s fair in both, not whether the Man of Steal* was really a shameless criminal for stealing as many bases as Robin Yount drove in runs. (1,406.)” Saying DraftKings didn’t have a case wasn’t the same thing as arguing choplogically that fantasy baseball players ought to go in with the presumption of guilt.

Remove for the moment the ongoing haggling over getting a major league baseball season underway at long enough last, the haggling provoked mostly by the owners trying to strong-arm the players into accepting a renege on their March agreement (full pro-rated player salaries, for openers) and the players saying, “We’ll just see about that.”

Absent all that, few baseball fans were unaffected by Astrogate and Soxgate. Fewer still were thrown more into internal turmoil than Astro fans and Red Sox fans faced with the actualities that their heroes, teams of excellence and (ahem) intelligence, who seemed to need extralegal espionage about as badly as the Flash needs a jet pack, were barely-apologetic high-tech cheaters.

Numerous players joined the fun in denouncing the Astro Intelligence Agency and the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. No few of them were Yankees. Now the Yankees may or may not be exposed as going beyond a naughty extra dugout telephone or even their own replay room reconnaissance. No few in the social media swamp demand, too, that the hypocritical Yankees duct tape their mouths shut from this day forward.

So you thought the “what-about” style of rejoinder was limited to answering valid critiques of office holders with the comparable mischief or crimes committed by their predecessors. Must we be reminded continuously that mischief or crimes by one don’t justify those by a successor?

When I reviewed the second-edition publication of Paul Dickson’s The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime, I wrote that, just after the Rogue Sox were caught taking a bite out of an AppleWatch on behalf of espionage against the Yankees, a Yankee fan thought so well of sometimes beleaguered catcher Gary Sanchez that the fan decided to do Sanchez a huge favour at the plate. As Dickson told it:

[A] fan with a good view of the catcher and a strong set of lungs bellowed out information to . . . Sanchez while he was hitting in the eighth inning of his team’s game with the Tampa Bay Rays. Sanchez heard the voice, but so did Rays catcher Wilson Ramos and the home plate umpire, Dan Bellino, who pointed out the man to stadium security and had him removed from the stadium . . . “You could definitely hear the guy screaming, ‘Outside, outside,’ but you don’t know if it’s going to be a slider or a fastball,” Sanchez said afterward. “You got to stick to your plan, whatever plan you have, regardless of what people are screaming.”

Dickson couldn’t resist adding that that may have been the first time a fan was thrown out of the ballpark for sign stealing.

(Reminder: Sometimes fans blow the whistle on the spies. It happened in Wrigley Field in 1960, when bleacher fans caught Milwaukee Braves pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay red-handed among them, training binoculars on the home plate area and relaying stolen signs to their hitters. Those fans tipped off the Cubs’ bullpen, who relayed the word to the dugout, that Buhl and Jay were jobbing them.)

We’ll know soon enough whether there is a genuine Yankeegate coverup on our hands above and beyond what we knew already about their illegal dugout phone and possible replay room reconnaissance. The Yankees would prefer the fuller disclosure of Manfred’s 2017 letter not happen, of course. Richard Nixon wasn’t exactly anxious to have the White House tapes disclosed fully, either.

“The plaintiff has no case anymore,” says a statement from Yankee attorney Jonathan Schiller to The Athletic, “and the court held that what MLB wrote in confidence was irrelevant to the court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s case. Under established law, this supports the Yankees’ right to confidentiality required by the Commissioner of Baseball.”

This isn’t an instance of compelling public disclosure of scouting information. It’s not even an instance of compelling public disclosure of team financial value, never mind that fans can never help noticing player salaries are known publicly and to the last dollar but teams’ and their owners’ financials often seem to require extracurricular excavation.

Disheartened Astro and Red Sox fans would probably want nothing more than to know who else—aside from since-purged Astros manager A.J. Hinch, Astros bench coach-turned-Red Sox manager Alex Cora, former 2017 Astros DH-turned-New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, and Rogue Sox replay room operator J.T. Watkins—availed themselves of those espionage operations.

Disheartened Yankee fans would probably want nothing less of their team, too. Every baseball fan probably wants to know that the line between on-field gamesmanship and off-field-based subterfuge won’t be crossed again any time soon.

The history books have long revealed those players, coaches, and managers who took up high tech cheating in their times. (It didn’t begin or end with the 1940 Tigers, the 1948 Indians, the 1951 Giants, or the 1961 Reds.) Do heartsick Astro, Red Sox, and Yankee fans really want to wait that long before knowing once and for all who was or wasn’t among their teams’ extralegal cheaters?

DraftKings may have no legs claiming deliberate fraud, but if the Astros and the Red Sox couldn’t escape disclosure Yankeegate shouldn’t be treated as a mere annoyance, either. Especially with the chance that, if nothing new might be exposed, everything known might be clarified further–and deeper. Might.


* – Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

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