The A’s re-up the whistleblower

Mike Fiers—the A’s re-sign the Astrogate whistleblower.

Under ordinary circumstances a team signing a good pitcher who’s a worthy number-four man in a starting rotation isn’t extraordinary. But then there’s Mike Fiers, whom the Athletics have re-upped for 2021 on a one-year, $3.5 million deal. There’s also San Francisco Chronicle baseball writer Susan Slusser dropping a troublesome suggestion.

Now the Giants’ beat writer and a former president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, Slusser was a longtime A’s beat writer for the Chronicle. So when she says, “The A’s were the only team to make Fiers an offer, I’m told. Interesting – was he being blackballed for being a whistleblower? I certainly hope that’s not the case,” it ought to sound an alarm or two.

Lots of teams have been in need of third and below starters. It shouldn’t have been that difficult for an innings-eating righthander with fourth-starter solidity to find a job even in this winter’s somewhat surreal market. Except that Fiers, who did say his preference was to stay in Oakland, isn’t just an ordinary fourth starter.

Whistleblowers don’t fare as well as some people think after their whistles blast cases of wrongdoing to smithereens. When Fiers blew his on the Astros’ illegal off-field-based electronic sign-stealing cheating of 2017 and some of 2018 (at least) to The Athletic, it seemed as though half of baseball considered him a hero and half a rat bastard.

He moved to the Tigers for 2018 and to the A’s later that season. He warned both collections of new teammates that the Astros were playing with a stacked deck. He and others suspecting the Astros of extracurricular pitch intelligence also tried futilely to convince members of the press to run with and investigate it; those writers couldn’t convince their editors to let them run without a name willing to go on public record.

That’s when Fiers finally put his name on it to Athletic writers Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich in November 2019. From which point it swelled toward Commissioner Rob Manfred’s marshmallow hammer, the hammer constructed when he handed Astro players immunity in return for spilling, suspended a GM and a manager, voided two key draft picks and fined owner Jim Crane pocket money.

The Astros likely weren’t the only team in the Show using extracurricular off-field-based sign stealing, just the most sophisticated. They took an existing center field camera off the mandatory eight-second delay or installed a surreptitious new such camera, set monitors up in the clubhouse, and translators would decode the pitch signs and signal hitters with bangs on an adjacent trash can.

The 2018 Red Sox turned out to have enlisted their video rooms at home and on the road for a little extra aid to old-fashioned gamesmanship: the signs would be decoded off the feeds and sent to baserunners to signal batters. They—and anyone else thinking and doing likewise (would you be shocked?)—didn’t install anything extra.

Essentially, the Show handed those Rogue Sox and others, who knows how many yet, the keys to the liquor cabinet and dared them not to imbibe while Mom and Dad high tailed it out of town for the weekend.

Some looked at Fiers’ membership on the 2017 Astros and discovered a rank hypocrite, never mind that if he’d blown his whistle then he’d also have been denounced most likely as a backstabber on the spot. (Fiers wasn’t on those Astros’ postseason roster.) It’s called hell if you do and hell if you don’t.

“Even in cases of obvious right and wrong,” wrote The Athletic‘s Marc Carig last year, “crying foul on family is easy to call for in retrospect and hard to do in real time.” Remind yourself if you will how often you learned of egregious wrongdoing and lamented the lack of a whistleblower. Now ask how simple it really is to blow the whistle in the moment or even a comparatively short time later.

It took New York police legends Frank Serpico and David Durk several years’ futility trying to get that police department to attack graft before they finally went to the New York Times and launched the largest New York police scandal since Brooklyn-based bookie Harry Gross was found to have enough police on his payroll to staff half his borough’s precincts.

Cheating may be sports’ oldest profession, but affirmations don’t always happen concurrent to the instances, for the reason Carig enunciated. When Joshua Prager finally affirmed what was long just suspected—that the 1951 New York Giants cheated their way back into the pennant race to force the fabled playoff with an elaborate telescopic sign-stealing operation—it was half a century after the fact, with the surviving principals willing to talk long retired.

Prager eventually expanded his expose into The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and the Shot Heard Round the World. “A spitballer or corker can be caught by an umpire, who has the right to examine or confiscate equipment,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Thomas Boswell when Prager first hit The Wall Street Journal running.

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.

If revealing the Astros’ elaborate 2017-18 system at last made Fiers a criminal, maybe baseball needs more such criminals. If other teams needing fourth starters refused to even think about him because he blew a whistle instead of a ball game, after two years worth of trying futilely to get others to investigate without a blown whistle, something’s worse than a hanging slider driven out of sight.

Slusser doesn’t know for dead last certain. Neither does anyone else, possibly including Fiers. To those who still think blowing the whistle is worse than the crime, perhaps you’d like to ask what might have been, instead, if Alexander Butterfield hadn’t suffered a pang of conscience and an inability to lie under oath enough to expose Richard Nixon’s White House taping system.

Does Luhnow still not get it?

Jeff Luhnow, in front of the uniforms of two Astros Hall of Famers about whose baseball counsel he couldn’t have cared less—but probably should have.

Deposed and disgraced former Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow wants you to know that those who brewed what became Astrogate went rogue on him. He also wants you to know that nobody told him a blessed thing about the off-field-based, illegal sign-stealing scheme, and things would have been different if they had.

Where have I heard that before?

Oh, yes. Once upon a time, in 1971, I heard it from deposed New York City police commissioner Howard Leary. He’d either looked the other way, or denied what was in front of him for years, as graft ran even more rampant in his department than a decade earlier, when bookie Harry Gross had almost as many New York cops on his payroll as the city did.

Luhnow gave an extensive interview Monday to Vanessa Richardson of KPRC, Houston’s NBC affiliate. “Whether it’s the players or the video staffers, they just decided on their own to do it and that’s a shame,” Luhnow told Richardson, “because had they come and asked me for permission I would have said no. Had they gone and asked Jim for permission, he would have said no. There’s just no reason why that should have happened.”

When Leary in 1971 was hauled before the Knapp Commission empaneled to get to the depths of what clean cops Frank Serpico and David Durk exposed to The New York Times, the ex-commissioner told the panel wearily that nobody told him anything, either, and by God things would have been different if anybody had.

The original Times story actually prompted Leary to denounce the paper for McCarthyism of the worst sort (his words). Serpico biographer Peter Maas revealed in due course that, when one of the few superiors Serpico trusted suggested to Leary that the plainclothesman was due a promotion and commendation for trying to expose rampant corruption, Leary snapped, “He’s a psycho!”

“In that case,” the superior rejoined dryly, “maybe the department needs more psychos.”

The Astros don’t need psychos to move past Astrogate. But they could use a lot better than their former general manager continuing to throw people under the proverbial bus while insisting falsely enough that it wasn’t him or didn’t begin with him.

Richardson asked Luhnow for a kind of timeline of the Astro Intelligence Agency’s operation. After beginning his reply by mentioning “a cabal” of video staffers and “coaches” executing the sign-stealing scheme via illegal camera operation—and saying they actually opened for business in 2016—Luhnow said, “It was pretty blatant. They were assigning duties, ‘Who’s on codebreaker duty tonight’.”

Pay close attention to “codebreaker.” Now, remind yourself that last February Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond exposed a front office-developed algorithm called  Codebreaker, and shown to Luhnow in September 2016, brought to him by an Astros front-office intern who told him the algorithm could steal opposing catcher’s signs.

That was already far above and beyond traditional on-field gamesmanship, baserunners or coaches catching and deciphering opposition pitch signs to transmit to batters. (Or, catching pitchers tipping pitches.) That also preceded whoever it was that decided to either take an existing center field camera off mandatory transmission delay or install an additional camera transmitting real-time to clubhouse monitors.

If Luhnow wants you to believe nobody told him a bloody thing about any such espionage, beware the for-sale sign on whatever North Pole beach shop he owns.

Former longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Jose de Jesus Ortiz pounced at once. “If Luhnow wants to say [Astros] players & [former manager] AJ Hinch didn’t tell him, he can go there,” Ortiz tweeted angrily enough. “Some might even believe him, but in my 23 years of covering ball I’ve found that players rarely spill info outside of the group. You can think you know, but you don’t. But he hired the ‘code breakers’.”

That was after Ortiz fumed, “Here’s the [fornicating] truth about Jeff Luhnow & baseball ops under him. They didn’t take into consideration what Nolan Ryan, Craig Biggio, Reid Ryan & Enos Cabell had to offer on baseball ops. It’s quite rich of him to [be] wondering why they didn’t know” about the Astros’ extralegal sign-stealing.

Luhnow didn’t mention a specific name, and Richardson hadn’t even prompted him to go there, but when he said, “one of the people who was intimately involved, I had demoted from a position in the clubhouse to a position somewhere else, and after I was fired he was promoted back into the clubhouse,” the assumption quickly became that he referred to Reid Ryan—the son of Hall of Famer Nolan.

Craig Biggio, of course, is a Hall of Fame second baseman. Enos Cabell was a corner infielder/outfielder for the 1972-80 Astros. They may not be the only baseball people whose counsel their baseball employers ignore, but the Astros’ apparent ignorance thereof hurt worse than any of the 285 pitches that hit Biggio during his long playing career.

Reid Ryan was the president of the Astros’ business operations for seven years until he was re-assigned in November 2019. (And, replaced by Crane’s son, Jared.) He was known if anything for applying himself to enhancing the fan experiences at Minute Maid Park.

When he was demoted his father quit the organisation outright at once. (Reid also insisted after his reassignment that the Astros’ 2017 World Series title wouldn’t really be tainted by the AIA cheating operation.) That wasn’t exactly part of the future Nolan Ryan had in mind after he threw his final major league pitch and accepted his plaque in Cooperstown.

Luhnow was the president of baseball ops. Jim Crane made clear Reid Ryan handled business & Luhnow handled baseball ops,” Ortiz reminds us. “It was Luhnow’s culture. I wish him well, but he exits Houston as he arrived, [defecating] on people who devoted their lives to the Astros.”

Luhnow’s Astro “culture” was long exposed as a result-oriented culture in which human relationships were cheap and too often disregarded.”Luhnow had all year to speak,” Ortiz continued. “But as was the case throughout his tenure Luhnow is as calculated as ever. That’s why baseball folks throughout the country say he’s dismissive of traditional baseball folks, scouts, players, etc. He sees them as assets, people to manipulate.”

He practised what legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is still misquoted as saying, even today: Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. He denied responsibility when the Astros were exposed and caught in the first place. He barely flinched when it turned out the most apologetic Astros for Astrogate were such former Astros as J.D. Davis, Tony Kemp, Dallas Keuchel, and Jake Marisnick.

But he said little to nothing about the former Astro who blew the Astrogate whistle in the first place. Mike Fiers’s revelations included that he and several other players tried convincing sportswriters to expose the AIA only to discover those writers couldn’t convince their editors to let them run with it without even a single player willing to put his name on it.

The Oakland Athletics, for whom Fiers has pitched since mid-2018, filed formal complaints with Manfred’s office. So, apparently, did a few other teams. Manfred made a point of saying his office investigates any and all such complaints, yet nothing really seemed to move until Fiers spilled to Athletic reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich almost a year ago.

When Hinch spoke to Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci after his own firing, he, too, was remorseful over his Astrogate role, which was kind of a non-role of sorts: aside from destroying a couple of the clubhouse monitors receiving the illegally-pilfered intelligence, he did nothing much if anything.

“I should have had a meeting and addressed it face-forward and really ended it,” he admitted. “Leadership to me is often about what you preach. Your pillars of what you believe in. Leadership is also about what you tolerate. And I tolerated too much. And that outburst . . . I wanted to let people know that I didn’t like it. I should have done more. I should have addressed it more directly.”

That’s still a great deal more owning up than Luhnow has done. The former GM still thinks he was targeted specifically on behalf of Manfred needing a head or two on plates to show the commissioner meant business. He also still thinks it was just about everybody else’s fault.

“The reality is, the Astros cheated in 2017, and cheated a little bit again in 2018 using just the decoder method, and it was wrong, and it should never have happened, and I’m upset,” Luhnow told Richardson.

I’m really upset that it happened. I’m upset for our fans, I’m upset for players on other teams that gave up hits as a result of this that should never have happened. If we won games because of it, it should never have happened, and we didn’t need to do it. We had a great team. The team we put together in 2017, a lot of which is still together today is one of the best teams of the 21st century, and has had an incredible stretch. And there’s no reason why we needed to explore breaking the rules to gain an advantage, it made no sense to me.

Now he tells us. On the threshold of a World Series in which his former Astros won’t be appearing thanks to the Tampa Bay Rays.

If there was no reason for the 2017-18 Astros to break the rules to gain an advantage, why didn’t Luhnow kill it in its Codebreaker crib? The Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves may win their next World Series titles sooner than the answer arrives.

Luhnow would have done far better to heed not the actual or alleged Vince Lombardi credo but that of another sports legend, writer Grantland Rice:

When One Great Scorer comes
to write against your name,
He marks not that you won or lost,
but how you played the game.

“It’s never going to be good enough”

“They’re continuously advocating for this head-hunting season of the Astros.”–Lance McCullers, Jr.

At this writing, this season’s Houston Astros have been hit by pitches twelve times for fourth among American League teams. The on-field administration of that Astrogate justice denied by the commissioner produces a disturbing sidebar. Quick: Name the Astro who’s been hit by the most pitches since the pandemic-truncated season began.

The answer is Abraham Toro, reserve third baseman/designated hitter. He’s the only Astro to be hit by pitches three times thus far, and he wasn’t even a member of the 2017-18 Astrogate teams. His reasonable responses to such embryonic team plunk leadership might include thoughts of first-degree manslaughter.

Toro’s position is much like that of a bright young financial whiz, freshly graduated from a prestigious university, freshly hired by a brokerage firm that faced sanctions, fines, imprisonments, and in-the-toilet public relations a year before bringing him into their tattered ranks, and who now feels the stings and fastballs of guilt by association.

This year’s Astros include nine from the 2017-18 teams: their entire starting infield—Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Yuli Gurriel; two outfielders—Josh Reddick, George Springer; and, three pitchers—Chris Devenski, Lance McCullers, Jr., Justin Verlander. Gurriel and Springer have been hit by pitches twice this year; Altuve, Bregman, and Correa, once each. Reddick as of this writing has escaped thus far.

Toro is one of two non-2017-18 Astros to take one for the team with which they had nothing to do in the first place. Last year’s American League Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, possibly out for the season with a knee injury, got it once before his injury.

Exactly why Toro and Alverez should be taking balls to their ribs or other assorted anatomy is anyone’s guess aside from opponents believing that, if you wear an Astro uniform, the deets don’t matter, you’re fair game. That’s as patently unfair as would be a prosecutor taking one look at the aforementioned, hypothetical new brokerage recruit and filing an arrest warrant because, well, “That’s for even thinking about joining that cesspool house.”

You got why it seemed about seven-eighths if not more of the rest of the Show’s players wanted to administer the justice commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t in handing 2017-18 Astro players immunity in return for their spilling about the Astro Intelligence Agency. And you get why pitcher McCullers, one of the more thoughtful Astros, is just a little bit fed up with that desire.

McCullers thinks “they” continue advocating for the Astros to suffer the brushbacks, knockdowns, and beanballs over Astrogate’s perfidy. “They,” of course, are that majority of non-Astros players and enough press and fans who think the Astros’ players got away with murder over their 2017-18 illegal electronic sign-stealing operation. And “they,” of course, are wrong, as McCullers sees it.

“[S]peaking to players was probably the least part of [MLB’s] whole investigation,” McCullers told The Athletic‘s Jayson Stark and Doug Glanville (himself a former major league player) on the Starkville podcast.

I can’t go into it because I don’t know how much I am or am not allowed to say. But I’ll say that … the notion that, oh, players negotiated immunity, players then were interviewed and rolled on everyone just to save themself, isn’t the case. And that’s as much as I can say. That’s not what happened. That’s not how this went down. So if that’s what people are upset about, then I guess we can all move on because that’s not how it happened.

Manfred also suspended now-former general manager Jeff Luhnow, now-former manager A.J. Hinch, and now-former bench coach Alex Cora for the whole of 2020. Cora–who went on to manage the 2018 Boston Red Sox to a World Series title a year after the Astros’ now-tainted title—subsequently lost that job for his Astrogate involvement, too.

Manfred didn’t suspend the Astros’ 2017 designated hitter, Carlos Beltran, considered a key Astrogate operative himself, but his role cost him his freshly-minted job managing the New York Mets—before he had the chance to manage even a spring training exhibition game.

“And it’s never going to be good enough,” McCullers told Stark and Glanville. “The whole franchise could be dismantled, and it wouldn’t be good enough.”

Toro taking three plunks and Alvarez taking one gives a shard of credence to McCullers’s remark. There were observers and analysts, yours truly among them, who said early during the unfurling of the Astrogate revelations that it might indeed require a complete turnover of even the current roster before the stain dissipates from the franchise.

The 2020 Red Sox have enough trouble of their own on the field as it is. They’re collapsing like a rickety folding chair after losing their franchise face Mookie Betts in a lopsided, money-nourished trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers. But they’ve been scored by Manfred over their Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring of sign-stealing. And this year’s Red Sox have had nine players hit by pitches and ten such hits total, seventh in the American League.

At least four of the replay reconnaissance ring team members have been drilled thus far: Mitch Moreland, Rafael Devers, Kevin Pillar, and J.D. Martinez. But nobody huffed, puffed, or threatened to blow the house down over the Red Sox. If that bewilders McCullers, the Astros as a whole, and the Astros’ and Red Sox’s fan bases that continue coming to terms with their world champion cheaters, it’s both understandable and unfathomable.

The reasons may be simple. Cora was cashiered when Manfred’s Astrogate report came forth, well before the commissioner finished and released his Red Sox reconnaissance findings. Accurately or incompletely, the Red Sox looked far more decisive doing so, and there remained the prospect that Cora got his not just because of Astrogate but because the Red Sox brass suspected he had at least a fingertip on the reconnaissance ring.

More to the point, the Rogue Sox simply used what was handed to them and every major league team at home and on the road. They didn’t have to alter an incumbent camera’s mandatory eight-second delay or install a separate real-time camera. All they had to do, and did, was read the replay room monitors and signal their baserunners who’d send the pilfered intelligence to their hitters.

Neither the AIA nor the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Team had anything to do with their pitchers, whether McCullers in Houston or Joe Kelly, now with the Dodgers, who dropped Bregman and Correa on 28 July but was a Red Sox pitcher in 2017-18.

The whatabout argument doesn’t pass muster, either. Just because others did it, and we don’t really know yet whom and when in recent seasons (other than the New York Yankees, perhaps), it doesn’t mean the Asterisks or the Rogue Sox do or should get off the hook.

Just when you thought McCullers earned your stubborn admiration for trying to defend his team, however edgily, he had to spoil it. Alluding to Kelly’s recent podcast dismissing the Astro players accepting immunity to spill as “snitches,” McCullers huffed, “By the way, there was only one snitch. And that’s the person who spoke to The Athletic.”

So Astrogate is still all Mike Fiers’s fault. Never mind that he and others (including the Oakland Athletics administration) couldn’t persuade the Show’s government or reporters to convince their editors to investigate or publish, until Fiers finally blew the Astrogate whistle last November. Never the cheaters’ fault, always the whistleblower’s

Well, to this day there may well remain people who think New York’s police corruption scandal of the early 1970s was all the fault of the two clean cops, Frank Serpico and David Durk, who took it to The New York Times after they couldn’t persuade their own department to clean up and wise up, too. Never the crooked cops’ fault, always the whistleblowers’.

What was a terrible look for New York’s Finest then is still a terrible look for the Astros now. McCullers may want to ponder that further and deeper while he laments with some justification how little seems good enough to sate Astrogate critics.

But Kelly at least sent his messages to a pair of actual Astrogaters. Holding Toro, Alvarez, and any other Astro answerable for baseball crimes they didn’t commit and weren’t there to commit is a terrible look, too.