The continuing reach of Astrogate

If there is one thing I am absolutely sure of, it is that it was not a two-man show. We all did it. And let me be very clear that I am not denying my responsibility, because we were all responsible . . . Everyone who was part of the team from around mid-May until the end of the season, we are all responsible.

—Alex Cora, bench coach for the 2017 Houston Astros.

Would you believe a high school baseball game unwittingly inspired major league baseball’s first known extralegal sign stealer? An 1899 Phillies utility player turned third base coach was playing the ponies in New Orleans, watching the nags through binoculars, when he spotted something in the distance through them: the hands of a catcher flashing signs in that high school game.

From there, Pearce Chiles devised a system whereby one man would post behind the outfield fence with binoculars to decipher signs, then tap pulses to a device embedded below Chiles’s third base coaching line. After Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran smelled the proverbial rat and unearthed the rig, the Phillies’ team batting average sank by 44 points.

If you must, call Chiles the great-great-great grandfather of Astrogate. SNY writer Andy Martino just about does, in his sober, engaging, and freshly troubling Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colourful History of Sign Stealing. (New York: Doubleday; 270 p, $28 [$25 on Amazon].) It’s a freshly published reminder that, whether or not Astro fans or anyone else like it, Astrogate will not disappear soon into history’s recesses.

Nor should it. And this is while the forthcoming Winning Fixes Everything: The Rise and Fall of the Houston Astros—by Evan Drellich, one of the two Athletic writers (Ken Rosenthal was his partner) who sent Astrogate to the point of no return, when they finally had a player with direct knowledge (pitcher Mike Fiers) go on public record—may be delayed from its original planned August publication.

“Were the Astros part of a long tradition of sign stealing? Or were they outliers, worse than anyone else in history?” asks Martino, a ten-year veteran of baseball journalism now an SNY reporter. Then, he answers—yes, and no: “The answer is, well, both. What Houston did was the logical extension of more than a century of teams looking for an edge on the fringes of legality. But it was also new and different than anything that came before it.”

It also soiled irrevocably a championship run that gave a Houston battered badly by Hurricane Harvey an immeasurable spiritual lift. The team who put its collective arms around the ravaged city made it resemble fools for rooting for a team whose high-tech cheating came from the amoral front office down.

“[T]he team had access to technology that no other generation of cheaters could use,” Martino writes. ” . . . This was a twenty-first-century scam, pulled off by a group of people with the right blend of intelligence and moral flexiblitiy.”

Then, he quotes a baseball legend I’ve quoted a time or two through the entire Astrogate aftermath, a legend often accused of his own amorality until that and much else was almost completely debunked—Ty Cobb, who wrote in 1926 that “mechanical devices worked from outside sources” was “reprehensible and should be so regarded.”

The time-tested ways and means of legitimate (if only slightly unethical) on-base, on-field sign decoding have always had their experts. They’ve caught onto anything, not just the signs from catchers to pitchers, but assorted little hints in assorted moments, from catcher positioning when receiving certain pitchers to pitchers’ gestures when preparing to throw certain pitches.

In this century, Martino writes, they’ve included such men as Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar plus Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Joe Carter, Alex Cora, Shawn Green, Alex Rodriguez, and others. As Blue Jays teammates, Delgado and Green learned from manager Cito Gaston and from Alomar and Carter; Beltran learned from Delgado when they were Mets teammates. They were only too happy to pay it forward and teach teammates to come such intelligence arts.

Those men would use that kind of intelligence on the bases and even compile their own post-game logs (Delgado especially was such a player) on the various tells and reveals they’d discovered. So long as they did nothing in-game other than basepath espionage, all they had to do was hope the opposition didn’t catch on right away and switch signs or correct tells.

They weren’t operating the kind of high-tech cheating that came from Astros front-office intern Derek Vigoa, who convinced cold-blooded, results-before-humanness general manager Jeff Luhnow about a computer algorithm he’d developed for sign decoding called Codebreaker—but who warned to no avail that using it pre- and post-game was one thing but in-game was illegal.

The kind that gave Cora—now the Astros’ bench coach, with Beltran aboard as the team’s designated hitter and unofficial player mentor—an unexpected a-ha! when he discovered the high-speed, thousand-frame-a-minute Edgertronic camera. Until that discovery, Cora and Beltran were merely well-oriented, long-experienced students of what Paul Dickson’s study of the craft and its abusers alike called The Hidden Language of Baseball.

By the time Cora and Beltran began brewing their side of the Astro Intelligence Agency, more than a few other teams figured out a way to help baserunners send stolen pitch intelligence to their teammates at the plate: the replay room. The Astros weren’t wrong when they spoke publicly about those.

But the Astros played the whatabout game to deflect from their having gone above and beyond even the replay room reconaissance rings. Even after rumour and speculation graduated to fact and they were exposed for all time as transdimensional high-tech cheaters.

Those who still don’t get the difference between using established replay rooms to augment old-school gamesmanship (remember: the 2018-19 Red Sox’s replay room reconnaissance ring still depended on having a baserunner to send a batter the purloined numbers) and an illegal real-time camera sending signs should be ignored roundly.

MLB finally accepted instant replay, and installed replay rooms in the first place with the best of intentions, Martino reminds us. The entire sport was mortified by first base umpire Jim Joyce making a wrong safe call to deny Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga a perfect game on what should have been the final out. The result was both a helpmate and an unintended headache.

Boys will be boys, even in the 21st Century. Even the best-intentioned of newfangled solutions to immediate or time-worn problems find themselves at the mercy of boys being boys. When they’re the highest of high-tech solutions, there will be and there were boys being boys figuring out how to put them to nefarious service.

Martino insists quickly and supports in detail that that the most notorious illegal, off-field-based sign stealers who preceded or accompanied the 2017-19 Astros didn’t and still don’t justify the AIA. Quickly enough that it’s Cheated‘s second chapter, titled “No, the 1951 Giants Don’t Justify the Astros.”

Not those Giants, whose manager Leo Durocher installed a coach with a hand-held Wollensak spyglass in the clubhouse above the Polo Grounds’ center field to steal signs, enabling their stupefying comeback from thirteen games out of first place and, in due course, the pennant playoff triumph.

Neither do such telescopic cheaters as the 1910 New York Highlanders (exposure of which cost manager George Stallings his job), the pennant-winning 1940 Tigers (using a hunting rifle scope to steal signs from the outfield seats) or the 1948 World Series-winning Indians. (Courtesy of Hall of Famer Bob Feller’s Wollensak-like spyglass, brought inside the Municipal Stadium scoreboard to steal signs down the stretch.)

Those already went above and beyond the time-honoured ways and means of on-field sign stealing and discoveries of pitch tipping and other “tells” and “reveals” exploitable by the excessively observant. The AIA made the ’10 Highlanders, the ’40 Tigers, the ’48 Indians, and even the ’51 Giants resemble kids playing Spy vs. Spy.

This was a genuinely talented, well-built team surrendering hook, line, and stinkers to the high-tech temptations. With pliant, “conflict-averse to a fault” manager A.J. Hinch—burned by his first managing job in Arizona, where he clashed with veterans suspicious of his contemporary, information-augmented style—bent on fostering “a largely positive environment” with vets and youth alike in his clubhouse.

Enough that he felt without power to stop the high-tech cheaters in his own dugout.

Not every Astro was completely on board. Martino argues that second base star Jose Altuve objected vocally after hearing banging while he batted, even yelling at teammates in the dugout to knock it off. Neither did Altuve wear any kind of buzzer on his body. Veteran reserve catcher Brian McCann (since retired) and right fielder Josh Reddick (now with the Diamondbacks) also demurred.

Those who accused Mike Fiers of just keeping his mouth shut until he was an ex-Astro  might be surprised to discover Martino recording very plausibly what other reporting since has affirmed: Fiers actually did object to the AIA while he was an Astro, before passing warnings to beware on to his eventual Tigers and Athletics teammates.

We’ve known long enough that the A’s filed complaints with the commissioner’s office about their suspicions that the Astros were up to things above and beyond old-school on-field gamesmanship. We’ve also known long enough that Fiers finally went on the record  after too many other writers couldn’t convince their editors to let them run players’ suspicions without disclosing their identities.

Rob Manfred has earned most of the criticism he’s garnered during his term. But Martino records that he hoped he could get the deep Astrogate story without giving players immunity. When that proved implausible, Martino writes, the commissioner finally resigned himself and, with the players union’s agreement, got AIA players and personnel past and incumbent to talk—so long as the players got blanket immunity.

That was then, this is now. Manfred, the owners, and the players union have since agreed that players caught performing Astrogate-like electronic espionage can be suspended without pay and without credit for MLB service time.

Manfred’s January 2020 report, of course, named only one player publicly—Beltran, whose involvement cost him his new job managing the Mets . . . before he got to manage even a spring training game. Cora resigned before he could be fired as the Red Sox’s manager—but was brought back after last season. His confessional to ESPN reporter Marly Rivera a year ago probably went a long way toward rehabilitating him enough to get that second chance.

Hinch sat out his suspension, then got a second chance managing the rebuilding (and next-to-last-place) Tigers. Some say that’s cruel and unusual punishment for Hinch, who spoke candidly to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci last year about his failure to contain and dissipate the AIA.

A year after the infamous break-in, Richard Nixon gave a speech in which he insisted, a little testily, “One year of Watergate is enough.” Nixon was wrong then. Those who think a little over a year and a half of Astrogate is enough are wrong now.

Even with only five members of the Astrogate teams remaining on the club, their facing  pan-damn-ically delayed fan fury over the tainted champions is one example. Martino’s book is another. Drellich’s will be a third. With apologies to Professor Berra, when it comes to Astrogate literature it won’t be over until it’s over.

Yu’re kidding, right?

2019-11-16 YuDarvish

Yu Darvish looking staggered after surrendering the 2017 World Series homer that knocked him out of Game Seven after an inning and two thirds.

Practically from the moment Mike Fiers triggered Astrogate, there came a swell of blended rage and remorse from Dodger fans still smarting over Yu Darvish getting battered twice in the World Series, especially Game Seven. A lot of which fans now wanted to apologise. To Darvish.

All of a sudden a high-tech cheating scandal made a hero out of a pitcher whom we thought was caught tipping his pitches and battered accordingly, while any Dodger who was supposed to spot those things didn’t spot them. And who still felt the compulsion to apologise on the record just a couple of days later.

Just two years ago Darvish was Public Enemy Number One. Now, all of a sudden, he was embraced as another possible victim of the Astro Intelligence Agency. As God and His servant Branch Rickey are my witnesses, I swear sports fans take a back seat to few for absurdism.

You could have been Los Angeles’s most notorious wanted criminal, and you wouldn’t have inspired half the dragnet Dodger fans wanted to run to capture, draw, and quarter Darvish. And whatever was left of him. Now the guy who was compelled wrongly to a public apology in the first place gets a lavish bubble bath of apologies from the same fans.

“Why am I trending [sic]?” Darvish tweeted on Day One of Astrogate. “Do people finally realize I’m cool?” Priceless.

He’s too polite to reject them directly, but he’s too self-aware to accept them sight unseen. “I’m not looking for that,” he said in a post on his YouTube channel. “I don’t want them to change their minds.” Be careful what Yu wish for.

A simple “I stunk, that’s all” from Darvish on Twitter wasn’t enough. Nor, perhaps, is his further YouTube demurral. “If you ask me if I got hit in Game Seven because they stole signs, I don’t think so,” he said, in a translation by the Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernandez. “The Astros have great players who don’t have to do that. So I think that whether or not they stole signs, the results wouldn’t have changed.”

Notice Darvish’s phrasing. I said more or less the same thing myself in a previous Astrogate entry. About the Astros having great players who don’t have to resort to crime, high tech or otherwise. Which is almost as much of what makes Astrogate such an outrage as the fact that they so flagrantly broke the actual rules about off-field electronic surveillance in the first place.

These Astros needed high tech spying to win about as much as Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign CREEPs needed whatever they were looking for—while so ineptly bugging Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex—for their man to win by a landslide in 1972.

And the Astros are accused only of operating the AIA in Minute Maid Park. So far. Nobody’s yet suggested they sent the agency on surveillance missions in road ballparks in the first place, never mind gotten away with it if they had.

Unless there’s evidence yet to be exhumed, it’s not very likely that the Astros bugged Dodger Stadium to get the drop on Darvish. Unless they had a mole among the stadium personnel, any Astro personnel trying to set up electronic surveillance in the road ballpark would have been caught, thrown out of the stadium, and maybe have to answer to la policia in the bargain.

Wouldn’t they?

Even Darvish himself let the suggestion enter his mind for a moment. “What’s been reported up to this point is that they used cameras at their home field,” he said, “so I don’t know if there was anything like that. But what they were doing was so high-level that I can’t honestly say there’s no chance they were also doing it on the road.”

Dodger fans wanting to make it up to Darvish should stop right at the point of apologising for wanting to hang him after the 2017 World Series. Especially since he wasn’t the only reason the Astros won Game Seven, and getting sent to bed without his supper after an inning and two thirds still left the Dodgers plenty of time to overthrow the 5-0 hole the Dodgers were in when he departed.

Memory time, boys and girls. Darvish’s Game Seven evening began with a leadoff double by George Springer and Springer coming home on a throwing error in the infield, allowing Alex Bregman aboard to reach second on the play. Then Bregman stole third with Jose Altuve at the plate, and Altuve pushed Bregman home on an unassisted ground out to first. Two runs, unearned, in the top of the first.

Top of the second? Brian McCann opened with a full-count walk. Marwin Gonzalez doubled him to third. Josh Reddick grounded out to second. And Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. pushed McCann home and Gonzalez to third on another ground out to second, before Springer hit a full-count pitch into the left field bleachers.

Where were the Dodger brain trusters who didn’t catch him tipping pitches and fix it before the Astros could do any more damage than the Dodgers gifted them in the top of the first?

Where were the Dodger hitters who looked McCullers’s gift horse in the mouth, putting two or more on against him the first few innings including ducks on the pond in the bottom of the first, but swinging like Little Leaguers trying to hit six-run homers on every pitch and leaving the runners grounds for court martials, charges desertion?

The only reward Dodger fans got for Brandon Morrow (ending the second), Clayton Kershaw (four scoreless in relief), Kenley Jansen (a scoreless seventh), and Alex Wood (scoreless eighth and ninth) stopping the bleeding was a one-out RBI single from Andre Ethier in the sixth. The Dodgers had two or better on and men on second or better in five of the first six innings, and Ethier was the only man to cash in.

Now the Dodgers deny pitch tipping was the issue. Their roster included now-retired Chase Utley, said to be expert at catching pitch tipping. “[He] watched the Darvish outings,” says team president Andrew Friedman, “and said you couldn’t sell out on something that Darvish was doing.”

Darvish’s ERA in the first two 2017 postseason rounds was 1.62. His Series ERA: 21.60. The 2017 Dodgers won three more regular season games than the Astros despite the Astros out-hitting them—the Dodgers’ team ERA on that season was 3.38; the Astros’, 4.12. And you don’t need me to tell you the flip side of, “Good pitching beats good hitting.”

Was Darvish more right saying “I stunk?” Or did the Astros find some way to take the AIA on the road with them, after all? Were they that nervous about the Dodgers’ potential to out-pitch them?

I’ve written until I was blue in the fingers about baseball’s goats and fans inane enough to try making their lives to follow nightmares. The last time was in the immediate wake of Bill Buckner’s death on Memorial Day. I inadvertently omitted Darvish from the roll of those who really needed no forgiveness because there wasn’t a damn thing to forgive in the first place.

When Thomas Boswell eulogised Donnie Moore, after Moore’s shocking suicide in 1989, he wrote with no small indignation, “Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.”

So Darvish had five runs torn out of him before he could get a third out in the Game Seven second? That didn’t make him a criminal. It made him a pitcher who tried and failed. The most successful people on earth try and fail, usually before their successes and more often than you think after them.

And they don’t all go to work with 50,000+ plus waiting to watch them in the office and millions more eavesdropping in front of television or radio, either.

Angel fans refused to forgive Moore for throwing a great pitch that Dave Henderson managed somehow to send over the left field fence to tie a game when the Angels were a strike away from the 1986 World Series. Haunted as it was, Moore was finally driven to shoot his wife and then himself. Only his wife survived.

He was only preceded by Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Pesky, Ralph Branca, Gene Mauch, Willie Davis, Curt Flood, Luis Aparicio, Mike Torrez, Tom Niedenfeuer, and Don Denkinger. He was only followed by Buckner (in the ’86 World Series), Mitch Williams, Alex Gonzalez, Grady Little, and—so far as Astro fans are concerned (wrongly, I might add)—A.J. Hinch.

Come to think of it, if the Astros ended up losing the 2017 Series Ken Giles might have had the goat horns plopped on his head. His crimes included surrendering a fisted cue shot to Corey Seager on an inside fastball, walking Justin Turner on five pitches four of which were borderline corner calls, and throwing Cody Bellinger a fastball off the middle that was driven to deep left center to break a one-all Game Four tie in the top of the ninth.

Hinch brought in Joe Musgrove, who struck Yasiel Puig out and put Logan Forsythe aboard to load the pads for a double play, then surrendered a sacrifice fly before throwing Joc Pederson a slightly up, slightly in fastball on 0-1 and watching it sail into the right field seats.

But Giles took the abuse. Despite owning up after the game: “I didn’t do my job. Plain and simple. I let my team down.” Despite George Springer springing to his and Musgrove’s defense concurrently: “This game’s hard. They’re not out there trying to fail. I hope [Hinch] keeps giving ’em the ball. I have the utmost confidence in them, and I’m glad they’re on my team.”

Giles didn’t see another inning’s work in that Series. And it may have gotten to him a little more in the long run. He struggled in early 2018 and fumed when being lifted after a bad outing against the Athletics. He was demoted to the minors, then traded—in classic adding insult-to-injury style—to the Blue Jays . . . for then domestic violence-suspended Robert Osuna.

The Astros took a public relations beating over acquiring Osuna. And during this year’s World Series, assistant GM Brandon Taubman was fired after the Astros embarrassed themselves trying to defend his indefensible hollering with women reporters in post-ALCS triumph earshot that he was so fornicating glad they got Osuna.

Already still under questioning by baseball government over that incident, Taubman is now liable to face Astrogate questioning—as in, what did he know about the AIA and to what extent did he know it—while he’s at it.

Giles, meanwhile, regrouped entirely in Toronto. Though he finished 2018 on the down side, in 2019 he had a breathtaking comeback—a 2.27 fielding-independent pitching rate and a 1.87 ERA. Except that since he was in Toronto, nobody other than Blue Jays fans cared—if you didn’t count the trade deadline interest he drew before elbow inflammation put him on the injured list before the All-Star break.

Darvish went on to sign a mega-deal with the Cubs. He struggled out of the 2018 chute before going down for the season thanks to a triceps strain and concurrent elbow stress reactions. It’s not impossible that he put pressure on himself trying to live up to his new contract. Wasn’t the first, won’t be the last.

This year, Darvish struggled to regain his form—indignant Cub fans referred to him too often as “Flu Garbage”—before going mostly lights out in August and September: he was still prone to the long ball (well, so was American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander), but his ERA for those two months was 2.99.

And he really doesn’t want to think that the AIA did him in in Game Seven two years ago. “I feel that if I absolve myself and say it was the Astros’ fault . . . I can’t develop as a person,” he said in his YouTube posting.

“In life, I think huge failures are extremely important. I’ve had a few up to this point,” he continued. “The World Series was one of them. I think it will remain a point of reference for me. I’ve already learned a lot from it. So regarding that, I can’t view myself charitably. I think I have to continue to accept the results.”

That makes him an even better man than he already showed himself to be. But we’re going to learn soon enough whether Astrogate involves robbing their road hosts. And if it does, who were their Bonnie and Clyde?