Come Valentine’s Day, baseball will receive a gift that won’t exactly be a love letter, or even a mash note. It’s going to get Athletic reporter Evan Drellich’s account of Astrogate and the broader issues raised and/or revived by the 2017-18 Astros’ above-and-beyond, and very illegal, electronic sign-stealing intelligence operation. At last.
Drellich, of course, is the reporter who teamed with Ken Rosenthal to break the Astrogate story in November 2019, shortly after the Astros fell to the Nationals in the World Series. This morning, The Athletic published an excerpt from Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess. It reveals that what became Astrogate didn’t just arrive to Drellich on a flaming pie over three years ago.
A year before Drellich and Rosenthal dropped the opening shot, Drellich was a Red Sox beat writer NBC Sports Boston, following a tour covering the Astros for the Houston Chronicle. During the 2018 postseason, in which the Red Sox beat the Astros in the American League Championship Series, he found himself speaking to people with first-hand knowledge that the Astros cheated beyond mere replay room reconnaissance on their way to their franchise-first World Series title.
“These were not sources on the outside pointing fingers, but people who knew—who had lived it,” he writes.
I learned how the Astros used a camera in center field to zoom in on the signs the catcher flashed the pitcher before the pitch. How the Astros had set up a television monitor near their dugout, where the players sit during games, to be able to see that video feed, and how they brazenly banged on a garbage can with a baseball bat and other devices to communicate what they gleaned from that screen. It was an advantage, many players felt, to know what was coming, be it a straight fastball or a bending curveball. And to use technology to gain that knowledge was beyond the pale.
This wasn’t just one player breaking the rules, either. This was a World Series–winning team that had collectively cheated, and the public didn’t know it.
I was floored. It was a massive story, the kind, frankly, many reporters dream of, and some might even dread. I was confident in everything I had at the outset—indeed, it all proved to be true. But to get a story done, I would need further corroboration.
One Astros source warned of the context of cheating in the sport, an encouragement that in hindsight could have both been earnest, but also self-serving, meant to deflect attention away from what the Astros had done. Nonetheless, I wanted to learn for myself and include it in my reporting—in what environment did this behavior arise?
Drellich first sought to get an idea from none other than the highest cheating Astrogate mind himself, the Astros’ then general manager Jeff Luhnow, during that ALCS. He spotted Luhnow in the Astros’ Minute Maid Park dugout. “He was the architect of the team,” Drellich writes, “and I tried to get his attention as he was walking away from me. ‘You won’t find anything,’ he said defensively, making clear he wouldn’t talk to me.”
The night the Red Sox won that ALCS, in Houston, Drellich acted upon the aforementioned first-hand knowledge shared with him and walked toward the Astros clubhouse. He even photographed what he saw just past the steps down from the dugout. Oops.
When the Red Sox met the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series, Drellich met with two baseball officials hoping to get a picture of what baseball’s government was or wasn’t doing about electronic sign stealing. One started generalising the suspicions until Drellich broke in to tell him he had sources from within the Astros’ operations telling him about the extent of their Astro Intelligence Agency, so to say.
“‘They have acknowledged that?’ one [official] said. ‘I mean, I can’t speak to that. I mean, to our knowledge—you have your information, and we have ours, and that’s all we can go off. As to whether that has occurred, to our knowledge we are completely unaware. I am confident in the measures that we’ve taken’.”
Drellich wasn’t trying to be a friendly tipster to MLB because he couldn’t. “It’s not a reporter’s job to steer sources to the league,” he writes. But he also saw too clearly that, at that time, MLB wasn’t exactly in that big a hurry to act. He also knew that, having multiple sources but none willing to go on the public record just yet, he needed to find the one who would.
To get something, anything on the record, Drellich writes, he composed a “general piece on electronic sign-stealing” in November 2018, after the Red Sox beat the Dodgers in five in that World Series. “Very quickly,” he continues, “my doubts about the support I had at NBC Sports Boston proved correct. When they fired me in February 2019, I was blindsided, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.”
His unemployment didn’t last long. The Athletic hired him, placing him into proximity with Ken Rosenthal: “Together, we would pick up my reporting on the Astros.” Indeed. Rosenthal had the sport-wide cred to make the calls Drellich couldn’t yet make. Such calls as to Danny Farquhar, the White Sox pitcher who heard the Astros banging the can slowly and called his catcher right to the mound to switch up their signs.
Such calls as to Mike Fiers, the pitcher who had something even more precious to offer on the record than an opposing pitcher who had ears to hear and brains to act accordingly: Fiers had been a 2017 Astro. And he was only too willing to go on record now, after assorted failed attempts by himself and others to convince other writers to expose Astrogate.
Drellich writes that Rosenthal asked Fiers if he was comfortable being quoted. “Well, that’s the whole thing about this. I don’t want to be put out there like that,” the pitcher began.
But they already know, so honestly, I don’t really care anymore. 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, they’re not knowing. Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s bullshit on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared. But most of the 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.”
By “they already know,” Fiers indicated the Astros knew he’d tried to warn subsequent teammates on the Tigers and the Athletics. “Fiers, to his immense credit, stood by his words and never tried to back out before the investigation ran,” Drellich writes. “He helped change the sport, and the toll ostensibly has been heavy for him.”
Ostensibly? Fiers hasn’t pitched in the Show since the pan-damn-ically shortened 2020 season. He’s been to the Mexican League and the Chinese Professional Baseball League since, before signing with the Toros del Este of the Dominican Winter League last September. Age to one side (he’s 37), Fiers probably still finds one person denouncing him as a traitorous snitch for every one applauding him as a brave whistleblower.
“Many fringe players train in the Caribbean during the offseason to prepare themselves for the upcoming Major League season in hope of finding a better contract,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Silver when Fiers signed that deal. “Fiers, though, may face an uphill battle. He is forever linked with the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal and teams may no longer wish to associate themselves with the weight his name carries.”
“At the time Ken spoke to Fiers, we were preparing to publish our findings without his account,” Drellich continues. “It’s impossible to say exactly how the world would have reacted to the story had Ken not spoken to him—if all the sources had been unnamed. But the facts of the story had already been ascertained, and we had Farquhar’s account.”
The whistleblower’s is often a lonely lot. “Whether Fiers was quoted or not,” Drellich writes, “it seems unlikely to me that MLB would have been able to ignore the general outcry. But our investigation was still in a much better position with Fiers on the record. His name helped validate everything instantly, making it harder for anyone to try to shove the story aside.”
Today’s Astros are the defending 2022 World Series champions, no longer the Luhnow team that cheated from the top down to extents above and beyond mere basepath or even mere replay room reconnaissance. (Only three Astrogate team members remain on the roster; one, Jose Altuve, has been shown conclusively as the one Astro who rejected stolen signs consistently.) Nothing suggests that the 2022 Astros didn’t beat the Phillies straight, no chaser.
But the Astrogate taint remains, at least until the last Astrogate team member no longer wears their uniform. There remain only too many who think the whole thing wasn’t the Astros’ fault for having committed the crimes but Fiers’ fault for having blown the whistle on the record. Today’s excerpt demonstrates that Winning Fixes Everything promises to knock that and other Astrogate canards into the middle of next year.