2021: Wanted—a Laundromat

Rob Manfred, baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin.

Once upon a time, when you could be sure . . . if it was Westinghouse, that once-ubiquitous home appliance maker trumpeted its angular front-loading washing machine thus: “You’ll love your Laundromat more every day!” There are those, and they may be legion, who think baseball today needs a Laundromat it can love more every day, too.

But the game may first need to remember where 2021’s laundry hamper is located. “[Major League Baseball]’s dirty laundry,” writes the irrepressibly irreverent Deadspin, “was only forgotten by the general public when some newer, shinier scandal made its way onto the scene.”

Deadspin thus began its proclamation of commissioner Rob Manfred as the eighth biggest idiot in 2021 sports. By the time you finish reading just that particular bill of particulars, you may come to think it’ll take an entire Laundromat—those vintage, Westinghouse-stocked,  self-service laundry versions of the very vintage self-service Horn & Hardart Automats, that is—to get MLB’s washing done.

Thanks to baseball’s owners and their off-season lockout, the keys to the Laundromat can’t and won’t re-open it for badly needed business. Thanks to Manfred’s determination to leave a legacy as having been baseball’s version of Rube Goldberg’s evil twin, baseball has continued calling the repairmen to fix what wasn’t broken while calling the dentist to set the limbs that were.

Manfred has dropped more balls than ever eluded the grasp of legnedary first base fumbler Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart. From almost the moment he succeeded Bud Selig in the commissioner’s chair, Manfred has seemed to administer baseball even further down the line Selig and his then-fellow owners once engineered while ignoring blissfully their roles laying the tracks: Baseball sucks! Bring the wife and kids! 

The Astros caught red-handed in an elaborate and illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing operation? The Red Sox caught using their replay room for sign-stealing reconnaissance assuming men on base to receive and transmit the purloined letters? By the rules, Manfred could only fine Astros owner Jim Crane $5 million, “which is roughly the price equivalent of a Nachos Bell Grande at Taco Bell to you or I,” Deadspin snarks. He couldn’t quite hit the Red Sox like that over turning what MLB itself provides each team at home or on the road.

But he could have imposed far more stern measures than stripping the Astros of a pair of key draft picks. He could also have imposed something more grave upon the Red Sox than letting them skate by suspending their manager and banishing their video room operator. As one presidential candidate once purred about the other’s party, in debate and on the campaign trail, he had his chance but he did not lead.

That was in 2020. Over a year later, all of that was almost (underline that) forgotten by your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Tack. As in, that new old-fashioned medicated goo pitchers deployed the better to get a grip on something upon which Manfred lacks a grip—making baseballs that are as viable for pitchers to throw as for hitters to hit. The inconsistent surfaces of the balls today compelled enough pitchers to seek medicated help. That some of them saw it as a fine shield for chicanery should have been anticipated, but wasn’t.

So Manfred cracked down . . . about a couple of months after he should have done so. It simply reinforced the suspicions of too many that this commissioner picks and chooses when to enforce particular rules. It also provoked them to ask why Manfred was more alarmed about potentially cheating pitchers than he was about the continuing lack of umpire accountability.

He certainly wasn’t all that alarmed about cheating baseballs. You read that right: after the season, it came forth from Business Insider that two types of balls were used during the year. One was a little more on the dead side, the other a little more on the lively side. The magazine cited an astrophysicist who analysed the balls, found them suspicious, and even spoke to an unidentified pitcher who thought, as I wrote elsewhere early this month, that baseball’s government might have engaged a little game chicanery of its own:

This pitcher thinks MLB was also looking to manipulate particular matchups with the variable balls: send the slightly more dead balls to such lesser sets as, say, the Detroit Tigers versus the Kansas City Royals, since nobody was going to be interested in them, but send the slightly livelier balls to the marquee sets such as the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees.

If you’re looking for a thorough MLB investigation into what we might call Ballgate, save your vision. It hasn’t happened yet. Whether it will happen is only slightly more difficult to guess than it once was to guess which one among about eight different leg kicks and about sixteen different windups Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal was likely to use to throw the next pitch your way.

(Which reminds me that the splendid staffers at Baseball Prospectus, in their book Extra Innings, once posited with splendid evidentiary supposition that the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances might have been at least as much the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing baseballs. So Commissioner Goldberg didn’t start ball chicanery, but it’s possible he’s presided over its current tricks and treats.)

After a few comical responses to on-the-spot Spider-Tack and other substance searches that could have and almost did provoke strip teases by the suspects under potential arrest, Manfred and his administration provided further evidence that today’s baseball handles scandal by engaging one somewhat worse than the incumbent. This time, the name was Trevor Bauer.

This time, Bauer was place on administrative leave over sexual misconduct  accusations described politely as salacious, with each period of leave extended going, going, going, until he was gone, goodbye, for the final two-thirds of the season. His Dodgers—who’d signed him big without doing complete due diligence last offseason; who won 106 games and still had to win the wild card game for postseason advancement (because their historic and division rival Giants won one game more)—almost went to the World Series without him.

Meanwhile, Manfred persisted with his COVID-shortened 2020 season’s tinkerings over the full 2021. On behalf of his often-questionable or at least mis-directed alarm over the length of baseball games, Manfred persisted with the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning. He persisted with his rule that relief pitchers must face three batters at minimum before they can be relieved. The former remained a mere nuisance. The latter could have gotten someone killed.

That would be Bryce Harper, now the National League’s defending Most Valuable Player, but then taking an errant fastball off his nose and onto his batting-side wrist courtesy of Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera—on the first pitch of the top of the sixth. It could have knocked Harper’s block off. It did knock his batting helmet off. It scared the hell out of both teams and the Busch Stadium audience.

The next pitch Cabrera threw hit Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius. The three-minimum rule still prevented Cardinals manager Mike Schildt from lifting a pitcher whose lack of control was obvious to all but the blind. Harper ended up suffering a terrible slump while he struggled to play through the wrist compromise yet recovered to post an MVP season. He also texted Schildt after the fateful game to say he knew Cabrera wasn’t trying to decapitate him.

“Whoever’s a fan of Bryce Harper, whoever has children that are fans of Bryce Harper, support that guy,” Schildt told reporters postgame. “Because what he sent over in a message today was completely a class act.” It was the diametric opposite of the commissioner’s act.

Commissioner Goldberg has also sought, ham-handedly, to make the game pay through the nose for any agreement to make the designated hitter universal. He wants a trade-off: I’ll give you the universal DH, but you give me an agreement that you lose your DH if you lift your starting pitcher sooner than six innings or thereabout. If you think he’s learned nothing from his three-batter relief minimum, wait until you see him flunk this one.

Just as relievers might enter a game having nothing left, for assorted reasons, starting pitchers often enough begin a game on the vulnerable side. If Manfred really thinks he’s doing the game a favour by forcing a team to sacrifice a game’s designated hitter, because the manager got his roughed-up starter out of there early enough before getting the guy killed to death, I think I may have found a buyer for that cut-rate Antarctican beach club.

If and when the owners and the players return to the negotiating table on behalf of ending this lockout, the players should give the owners and their barely-trained seal one answer to that:

Don’t even think about it. It’s long past time for the DH to be universal. Pitchers overall have never been hitters; those very few who were were outliers, and everyone with a brain knows it. We’re tired of wasting pitchers at the plate and watching rallies die. We’re really tired of losing pitchers to the injured list when they get hurt at the plate. The DH is long overdue in the National League, one of whose ancient owners dreamed it up in the first place. Deal with it. End of subject.

Manfred’s alarm at the length of baseball games has yet to address the truest of the culprits, broadcast advertising. You can look it up: Two minutes worth of commercials between half innings equals 36 minutes per nine-inning game. That’s before the commercials during in-inning pitching changes. (You might notice it takes less time for a relief pitcher to come in from the bullpen and throw eight game-mound pitches than it does to run the first minute’s commercial.) And, before extra innings, which are the two second-loveliest words in a true baseball fan’s vocabulary. (The loveliest, of course, are, “Play ball!”)

The next time you watch a game on television or listen on radio or online, make note of every commercial played during the broadcast from the first pitch to the final out. When you add the times of those commercials, you can’t say you weren’t warned that you might have seen a mere two hours’ worth of baseball for your trouble. Thus persists Manfred’s likeliest definition of the common good of the game: making money for it.

Thus, too, were soiled such luminous matters as the emergence of Shohei Ohtani as an international two-way major league mega-star. (And, the American League’s Most Valuable Player.) Such matters as the Braves picking themselves up from the loss of their franchise player-in-waiting Ronald Acuna, Jr. for the second half of the season, dusting themselves off with a trade deadline array of outfield-remaking deals, then wrestling their way to a sixth World Series game in which one of those newly-acquired outfielders, Jorge Soler, led the way bludgeoning the Astros home without another lease to the Promised Land.

Manfred presenting the Braves with the World Series trophy (you know, the one he once called a mere piece of metal) and Soler with the Series MVP award carried all the duplicity of Dmitri Muratov winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight to restore and enhance freedom of expression in Russia—and the Norwegian Nobel Committee enlisting Vladimir Putin to present it to him.

Is it going to take a one-hundred-washer Laundromat to clean up this mess? You can be sure . . . if it’s Manfredhouse.

ALCS Game One: The world didn’t implode

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve’s two-run homer tied Game One and turned the game’s momentum to the Astros . . . (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Before the American League Championship Series began, it was easy to remember but so hard to forget. The elephant still lingered in the room.

The American League West-winning Astros. The American League wild card-winning Red Sox. Electronic sign-stealing cheaters versus electronic sign-stealing cheaters. Right?

Not quite that simple. Not even if Red Sox fans and others still cringe over the 2017-18 Astro Intelligence Agency. Not even if Astro fans and others still think the 2018 Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring proved the Astros weren’t alone in high-tech cheating.

Those Red Sox got nailed using their replay room as a sign-stealing helpmate. But they didn’t install the video apparatus in there, MLB did—for them and all thirty teams, behind all home and visitors’ dugouts in all thirty ballparks. Their way, and they probably weren’t the only team doing it, depended on having men on base to relay stolen signs to their batters.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it one more time: With the best intentions, MLB in essence were Mom and Dad leaving the keys to the liquor cabinet behind expecting the kids were mature enough not to open up and party while they were out of town for the weekend. The 2018 Rogue Sox opened up and partied. The 2017-18 Astros built their own distillery.

Their front office used an in-house-designed computer algorithm devised for sign stealing during games, despite the designer’s warning that doing it in-game was illegal. They used a high-speed, real-time camera to abrogate the mandatory eight-second transmission delay and send opposing signs to clubhouse monitors, next to which someone sent the hitters the dope via the infamous trash can bangs.

Both teams cheated then. Both teams seemed like deer frozen in the proverbial headlights when asked to show public accountability and contrition. The Astros were far, far worse. They went far, far above and beyond both the traditional on-the-field, in-the-dugout gamesmanship and the sort of boys-will-be-boys thing the Rogue Sox and others did with the MLB-gifted replay rooms.

Commissioner Rob Manfred may have erred in granting players from those teams immunity in return for the details, but his investigation did at least turn up and discipline the key overseers.

He suspended then-Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch before owner Jim Crane fired the pair. He suspended then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora over Astrogate, but determined the 2018 Rogue Sox’s prime culprit was video room operator J.T. Watkins while manager Cora, his coaches, the front office, and maybe half the Red Sox’s players weren’t in on the replay room reconnaissance ring.

Nobody can redeem those Astros or Red Sox, even if the Red Sox did re-hire a contrite-enough Cora to manage them this year. But we can remind ourselves that, today, only five Astrogate players remain with the team. We should remind ourselves that at least one such suspect, second baseman Jose Altuve, actually demurred from accepting stolen signs and even told his teammates and others to knock off the trash can banging while he was at the plate.

Only nine Rogue Sox members remain in uniform today, too. And, the rules against electronic sign-stealing were tightened in Astrogate’s aftermath. Video room security is now three people deep. Video feed delays are now fifteen seconds over the previous eight. Players caught stealing signs electronically can be suspended without pay or credited major league service time.

This year’s Astros and this year’s Red Sox got to this year’s ALCS regardless. Remove their former taints, and you have two opponents who entered the set with suspect pitching (particularly the Astros, losing Lance McCullers, Jr. to a forearm issue) but very strong offenses. Then, you watched Game One Friday night, even if in spite of yourselves.

You watched Red Sox center fielder Kike Hernandez strike long twice but Altuve strike once to change the game’s momentum toward the eventual 5-4 Astros win.

You watched Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez and Red Sox starter Chris Sale unable to get out of the third inning alive. You watched the ordinarily suspect Astros bullpen hold the Red Sox to four hits, one walk, and one measly run, when Hernandez—who tied the game leading off the top of the third by hitting a Valdez curve ball far over the left center field seats—caught hold of a Ryan Pressly slider and send it deep into the Crawfords in the top of the ninth.

You watched the Red Sox take a 3-1 lead in that third a ground out, a walk, and a base hit up the pipe later, when designated hitter J.D. Martinez’s hopping grounder bumped off Altuve’s glove to send shortstop Xander Bogaerts (the walk) home, before right fielder Hunter Renfroe ripped an RBI double past Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and down the left field line to score Bregman’s Red Sox counterpart Rafael Devers (the base hit).

You watched Altuve ruin that lead in the bottom of the sixth, with Astros center fielder Chas McCormick aboard on a one-out single, when he hit the first pitch he saw from Red Sox reliever Tanner Houck into the Crawfords.

You watched another Red Sox reliever, Hansel Robles, fire sub-100 mph bullets in the bottom of the seventh to get rid of Bregman on a grounder to short and left fielder Yordan Alvarez on a hard-swinging strikeout, before offering Astros shortstop Carlos Correa a changeup that hung up enough for him to yank into the Crawfords to break the three-all tie.

You watched a Red Sox reliever who hadn’t pitched in almost two weeks, Hirokazu Sawamura, surrender a leadoff walk to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel before McCormick bounced a base hit in front of Red Sox left-field insertion Danny Santana (a top-of-the-eighth pinch hitter). You saw Martin Maldonado take a pitch off his right wrist to load the pads with nobody out.

And you saw Altuve hit a sacrifice fly to center to send Gurriel home with the fifth Houston run, though a slightly more on-line throw might have gotten Gurriel at the plate to keep things within a single run for Hernandez’s second launch of the night.

Kike Hernandez

Hernandez’s dive-and-roll catch of Michael Brantley’s second-inning-ending, bases-loaded sinking liner wasn’t enough to stop the Astros Friday night. Neither were his two long home runs. (Fox Sports screenshot.)

Hernandez’s mayhem—the two homers on a 4-for-5 night (the first such leadoff hitter in the Show to do it), bringing him to fourteen hits in 28 postseaon at-bats this time around, his MLB-record third lifetime postseason game of ten total bases—may not have been quite enough for the Red Sox to take Game One. But it was more than enough to impress Astros manager Dusty Baker.

“I haven’t seen a hitter this hot in the last week than Kike Hernandez,” the skipper said post-game, after Hernandez’s first launch came during Baker’s brief turn talking to Fox Sports broadcasters Joe Buck and Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz. “Boy, when I saw that ball go up, I was like, oh man, that was a blast. Then he blasted another one. It’s not a good feeling when you know you’re live on air and you see that ball leaving the ballpark.”

Hernandez wasn’t the only one dancing with the record books. Altuve and Correa became the first teammates to homer in the same postseason game for a fourth time. “He is just so dangerous,” said Correa of Altuve post-game. “His track record in the playoffs is insane, and he just inspires me. He inspires me without saying much.”

That track record includes tying Hall of Famer Derek Jeter for number three on the all-time postseason bomb roll with his 20th such launch Friday night. But you should have heard Altuve speak of Correa, too. “He is amazing,” the compact second baseman said of his keystone partner at shortstop. “He likes this kind of game. He wants to go out there and hit big homers. It seems like he expects to go out there and do it, so if you’re expecting something, eventually you’re going to make it happen, and that’s him.”

Hernandez also impressed the Astros and maybe even some of their home crowd Friday night with a few defensive gems, particularly his dive-and-roll catch of designated hitter Michael Brantley’s bases-loaded, sinking line drive to end the bottom of the second. But he’d have swapped all that for a Red Sox win.

“I think overall we played a good game,” he said postgame. “Once again, we didn’t do a good job of adding on to the lead, and at the end of the day, that’s why we lost. We weren’t able to add any more runs.” That was in large part because the usually suspect Astro bullpen managed to keep them to a measly four hits and a walk in the unexpected bullpen game.

With Nathan Eovaldi starting Game Two, and the still-fresh memory of being shut out by the Rays to start a division series in which they won the next three straight, the Red Sox don’t exactly have reasons to cringe just yet. Even Sale admitted Eovaldi was their best foot forward to launch Saturday.

“We’ve got the right guy on the right mound, and that’s all we can say,” he said. “Our lineup is going to bang with the best of them. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve got to do the little things right, and with Nate taking the ball, that’s everything we could ask for.”

So guess what didn’t happen when the two teams still recovering from their own Astrogate and Rogue Sox scandals—yes, listed in the order of true gravity—tangled in Game One? Knowing that no one will be comfortable with either one wholly, but the Astros especially, until the last Astrogater or the last of the Rogue Sox no longer wears either uniform?

The world didn’t implode. The flora didn’t wilt. The fauna didn’t commit mass suicide. The moon didn’t fall into the river. The sun didn’t awaken before its appointed time. The nations didn’t fall from the earth. The earth didn’t go flat.

Unless there comes fresh contravening evidence, the Astros and the Red Sox played it straight, no chaser, in a game that would have classified as a bit of a thriller had it not been for that still-lingering elephant. The one aboard which the Astros, like it or not, still look far, far worse than the Red Sox or their fellow unverified-but-certain replay room rogues do.

Keep it in the stands, Astrogate protestors

Dodger Stadium

This Dodger ball girl is not rushing to take out the trash—she’s disposing of an inflatable trash can thrown on the field Tuesday night when the Astros hit town. (USA Today photo.)

Dodger fans finally had their chance to let the Astros have it over Astrogate Tuesday night. Over the Astro Intelligence Agency very likely remaining in operation during the 2017 World Series. Over the hapless Rob Manfred forced to issue immunity to Astro player culprits in return for their spilling the deets—then having to walk back his temporary-insanity dismissal of the World Series trophy as a hunk of metal.

Over what Mike Fiers finally blew the whistle on about the Jeff Luhnow-era Astros’ systemic, illegal, off-field-based electronic cheating, opening the way to further exposure of Luhnow’s amoral results-before-people operating ways. Over the Astros’ failure to own up at the notorious spring 2020 presser before the pan-damn-ic shut spring training down and delayed what proved the 2020 irregular season.

Over owner Jim Crane putting his foot in his mouth repeatedly. (This didn’t impact the game; we won the World Series; I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.) Over Astro players doing everything in their power not say flat-out that they and the organisation cheated.(We’re not going into details. Never mind how many details were exposed over almost three months preceding.)

Last year the pan-damn-ically mandated fan-less stands deprived one and all of letting the Astros have it live and in person. They had to settle as Dodger fans did for milling outside the ballparks, social distancing properly enough, but heckling, hollering, and banging when the visiting Astros’ team bus arrived for the games.

This year, different story. The returning fans began making up for lost time. The bad news is that no few of those fans took things a few steps too far. Maybe not as far as the Astros took high-tech sign stealing, but far enough.

For one thing, the Astro roster is whittled down to only five remaining members of the 2017 World Series roster. For another thing, it’s been demonstrated plausibly since that Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, the arguable face of the franchise, objected to the trash can bangings that sent the pilfered intelligence to the batter’s box while he was at the plate.

For a third, protesting fans have crossed the line too often from heckling, booing, and catcalling to throwing things on the field. Things from the harmless enough stuff such as inflatable play trash cans to honest-to-God real trash cans and other none-too-soft projectiles. Astros reliever Ryne Stanek swore that fans near the right field bullpen threw “basically full beers at people for a half an inning” when the game was two-thirds done.

Dodger fans Tuesday night threw down hollers of “cheaters,” rounds of expletives in English and Spanish, and rather impassioned booing when Dodger Stadium’s public address announcer threatened the sellout crowd with ejections for throwing things onto the field, possibly even including any foul balls or home runs the Astros hit into the seats.

Somewhere in the middle of the racket the Astros and the Dodgers played a baseball game. Somewhere in the middle of it, the Astros won, 3-0, despite Dodger starter Walker Buehler pitching six stout innings with only one run against him, courtesy of Michael Brantley’s RBI double in the third.

Somehow, another Astro relief pitcher, Blake Taylor, still thought it took “a special player” to wear an Astro uniform still bearing the taint of the 2017-2018 cheaters.

“If you’re not willing to withstand the criticism you’re gonna get at every stadium we walk into, you can’t handle it — it’s tough. It’s tough thing to ask a lot of guys to do,” he told reporters.

But the crew that we have right now, they’re all in on this. They know that they’re not the only ones going through this. Every single person in this clubhouse gets booed every time we walk on the field and just gets called “cheaters” and things like that. So at the end of the day we’re just one big family and we have each other’s backs, no matter what.

Even leading the American League West by five games, it isn’t always a thrill to be an Astro these days. I say again: Fair or not, the Astros will wear the Astrogate stain until the last member of that tainted 2017-18 team no longer wears the uniform. Even if it’s patent nonsense to hold the entire 2021 roster responsible for what Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel, and Lance McCullers, Jr. were part of in 2017 and couldn’t own up to in pre pan-damn-ic shutdown spring 2020.

(Why let Altuve off the hook? There also turned out to be not a shred of real evidence, after all, that Altuve wore any kind of wire device under his uniform, as suspected after he ducked the jersey shredding following his pennant-winning walkoff bomb in the 2019 American League Championship Series.)

I say again, further: Go ahead and make all the racket you want denouncing the Astros. Boo them if you must. Insult them if you must. Wear those Oscar the Grouch costumes if you wish. (The independent league St. Paul Saints couldn’t keep up with the demand for “Astro the Grouch” figurines playing recorded trash can bangs last year.) Hoist the inflatable trash cans, bang your plastic ones loud and long if you must, sing anything from “Secret Agent Man” to “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

But keep it in the stands and quit throwing things onto the field. Manfestly, Joe and Jane Jerk-fan, that makes you look at least as bad as the Astros made themselves look when they got exposed as illegal off-field-based electronic-and-algorithmic cheaters and then—given the chance to own up and man up—told the world the dog ate their homework.

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.

Rockiegate v. Astrogate? Try Our Gang v. the James Gang

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies lined up on the foul line on Opening Day 2019. A former Brewer reserve says the 2018 Rocks were aspiring Astrogate-like sign stealers . . . but . . .

No one with a modicum of intellgence ever suggested the 2017-18 Astros were baseball’s only high-tech off-field-based sign-stealing cheaters. They were just the most sophisticated, top-down, and apologetically unapologetic of the known lot. Not to mention that they either altered a real-time-delay center field camera or installed a second non-delayed one to make their Astro Intelligence Agency work.

Now, former Brewers reserve catcher Eric Kratz has pointed a flying fickle finger of fate at the Rockies. The Rockies, who’ve seen enough of their best players leave for greener pastures administered by less brain-damaged administrations. The Rockies, now accused of being some of baseball’s more inept cheaters.

A couple of days ago, Kratz told the YES Network’s Curtain Call podcast (Kratz also did time with the Yankees, who own the YES Network) the Brewers caught the Rockies banging to relay signs stolen “from a television” in 2018. What were the Rockies banging? Kratz said it was—wait for it—a massage therapy gun.

“I can tell you that a team that has been to the World Series, often, recently, we caught them doing something almost similar,” said Kratz to Curtain Call hosts John J. Filipelli and Kevin Sullivan. Kratz didn’t specify that team, but then he dropped the quarters on the Rockies.

And I can also tell you, because I don’t really care, I don’t know anybody over there, the Colorado Rockies were doing the exact same thing in 2018, and we caught them, and we played them in the playoffs. You know how many runs they scored in a three-game playoff series in 2018? Not many people watched the NLDS. They scored two runs in the ninth inning of Game 2. They used to take a Theragun and bang it on their metal bench. And they were doing the exact same thing, from the TV.

So, there you go. If you think no one else was doing it, you are wrong. The difference is, the Astros may have taken it a little too far. Maybe a little bit too far. Maybe continued to do it. Or maybe it’s just the fact that they won the World Series and everybody’s pissed about that.

Theragun

The Theragun. The ball extension does the rapid-movement massaging at the push of a button. This is what the 2018 Rockies used to send batters stolen signs, reputedly. They only massaged themselves out of that postseason early.

Take careful note of all Kratz’s phrasings. “From the TV” can mean the Brewers caught onto the Rockies likely trying to steal signs the same way the Red Sox were caught doing the same year: deciphering signs from the video replay rooms provided to home and road teams in all major league ballparks, then relaying them forward.

The 2018 Rogue Sox relayed them by hand signs to baserunners to send to the batters. It was a slightly more sophisticated version of the kind of gamesmanship played on the basepaths for over a century. Unlike the Astros, they didn’t install a new camera somewhere in Fenway Park to set up a new underground television network.

Nobody’s yet accused the Rockies of fostering the kind of win-at-all-costs culture that came top down from the former Jeff Luhnow administration in Houston. There, what began as a conscious front-office effort to apply elaborate algorithims on behalf of sign-stealing continued with the development of the AIA Network, the altered/installed camera to the clubhouse monitors to the trash can bangs sending the stolen signs forward.

If you think that inspired rounds and rounds of can gags and signs since, what would the Rockies’ Theragun ineptitude inspire? “If Theraguns are Outlawed, Will Only Outlaws Have Theraguns?”

Kratz has a further point. If the 2018 Rockies really were using that massage gun for such a sign-stealing variant, it didn’t bring them a happy ending. They finished tied with the Dodgers for the National League West but lost a single-game playoff for the title, and the Brewers rousted the Rockies out three straight in the division series to follow.

Kratz mis-remembered the Rockies scoring in the set, though: they scored two in the Game One ninth (on an RBI single and a sacrifice fly) to tie the game at two, before the Brewers won in the tenth inning. Then the Brewers shut them out despite allowing them ten hits over Games Two and Three; the Rockies went 4-for-19 with men in scoring position without a single cash-in in those games.

If the Brewers caught the Rockies stealing signs in that division series, they’d caught one of the most inept bands of bandits since the wiseguys Jimmy Breslin satirised in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. It’s almost not even worth calling the Rockies to account.

Almost.

Break into a bank with larceny on your mind, come away with nothing because you and/or your confederates didn’t have a clue about how to dismantle the alarms and decipher the vault’s combinations.You’re still going to face federal charges when you get caught red-handed and flat-footed. Even if you have la policia laughing their fool heads off because they’d just busted Our Gang, not the James Gang.

Just because the Rockies got slapped out of the 2018 postseason fast enough to equal a blink, just because they were the apparent Maxwell Smarts of sign-stealing, it doesn’t make them any less guilty if Kratz is right. The Rockies being petty criminals doesn’t acquit or mitigate the Astros’ grand theft felonies, either. Neither did the 2018 Rogue Sox.

You might not have been the only high-tech cheaters on the block, but you’re not off the hook just because they weren’t as sophisticated or successful as you. Especially when your gang might yet have won a World Series because of it.