Does Verlander down mean a coming Astro remodel?

Verlander faces Tommy John surgery. Will it begin the Astros’ reconfiguration, too?

One of the jokes going around the last couple of months is a visual of one of those make-yourself/change-yourself outdoor display signs, reading, “Going to ask Mom if that offer to slap me into next year is still good.” This year’s Houston Astros have more reason than most major league baseball teams to ask Mom for that slap.

Before the coronavirus world tour interrupted spring training, invited the hurry-up summer camps, and delivered the truncated regular season with all its foibles, follies, and folderol, the Astros figured only to wear a scarlet C. All things considered, they might settle for that right now. It might be an improvement.

They were injury-punctured almost from the words “Play ball!” when the truncated season began. If the New York Yankees’ 2020 yearbook could be The Johns Hopkins Medical Journal, the Astros’ could be The Physicians Desk Reference. The latest casualty: Justin Verlander, who’s graduating from the injured list after a single late July start to down until 2022 after he undergoes Tommy John surgery.

We should probably consider as ESPN’s David Schoenfield does, that Verlander’s right elbow ligaments were lucky to have lasted as long as they did. He’s thrown 51,931 pitches in sixteen major league seasons—48,822 in regular season play and 3,109 in postseason play. That averages out to 107 pitches per regular season start and 100 per postseason game, in a career in which he’s averaged seven innings a start.

Verlander’s Astro deal expires after next season. He’ll be 39 when he hits the open market then. Pitchers that age not named Jamie Moyer have tricky enough markets without being 39-year-old post-Tommy John pitchers. Taking every objective factor into consideration, we may have seen the last of Verlander in a major league uniform and now count the days to the beginning of his Hall of Fame watch.

We may also be watching the beginning of the end of the Astros’ tainted legacy while we’re at it.

Verlander himself isn’t part of the taint. It wasn’t the Astros’ pitchers who cooked up that illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing Astro Intelligence Agency operation that rendered their 2017 World Series title stained forever. But the opportunity is about to arrive for which the Astros’ new regime can apply and spread the Febreeze liberally.

Nine of this year’s team remain from the tainted 2017-18 team. Three—first baseman Yuli Gurriel, and outfielders Josh Reddick and George Springer—can hit the open market this winter. Three—shortstop Carlos Correa, and pitchers Chris Devenski and Lance McCullers, Jr.—are signed through the end of this season and become arbitration-eligible after next year. Two—second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman—are locked in through the end of 2024.

Schoenfield thinks that of the foregoing free agency-to-be group Springer might be the one the Astros would love most to keep. But he also thinks Springer might still hold a grudge against the organisation for their bid to try signing him long-term while he was still in the minors and for their delay in promoting him to the Show.

Astroworld may be watching the last days of Springer in Astros fatigues. From this point until the end of 2021, it’s also possible that the Astros will be remade and remodeled. Maybe a tear-down on behalf of a renewed youth movement, hopefully without compromising the team’s competitiveness, but definitely continuing the cleanup of the Jeff Luhnow fallout.

The sooner, the better. New general manager James Click’s challenge is keeping the best of that era aboard and making sure the worst doesn’t get to within ten nautical miles of the franchise ever again.

The Luhnow administration’s forward-ho analytical approaches forced other teams to re-think and re-model their own player development. That was good for the game as well as for the Astros, and the braying old farts who screamed bloody murder over the thinking person’s sport being invaded by, you know, actual thinking, were invited kindly but firmly to sit down and shut up.

But the braying old farts had one point after all, even in the breach. The price for the Astros was a win-at-all-cost mindset through which Luhnow’s leadership left the Astros as misogynistic cheaters who just might sacrifice virgins while running an extracurricular spy ring, if it meant winning that one extra game to make the difference.

Not one Astro player truly paid the price—unless you count ducking pitches to their heads or elsewhere this year, that is. (On the flip side, alas, is poor Abraham Toro. He wasn’t an Astro until last August. But he leads with having taken six for the team. Not nice, not acceptable. At least Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly targeted two who were 2017-18 Astros.)

The players were offered and took immunity in return for spilling their Astrogate beans. They didn’t pay so much as a quarter’s worth of a fine, and when called upon to stand accountable in the public eye they apologised, kind of, sort of, before spring training was stopped due to the pandemic.

Harrumph if you must about the 2018 Boston Red Sox, likewise exposed as high-tech cheaters. But there were reasons they didn’t feel half the cheat-shaming the Astros have taken. For starters, they executed manager Alex Cora—thought to have been an Astrogate mastermind—before the investigation into their own Soxgate treachery was finished.

Also, the Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring depended entirely upon what was handed them in their video rooms (at home and on the road) and upon someone sending stolen signs to their baserunners to send to the batter’s box. MLB handed the Rogue Sox the keys to the liquor cabinet and dared them not to open it and drink underage. It won’t be that shocking if we discover they weren’t the only ones drinking accordingly.

But nobody on high told or allowed the Astro Intelligence Agency to either alter an existing camera off the mandatory eight-second transmission delay or install a fresh, furtive, real-time camera, sending signs to the clubhouse monitor next to which someone banged the can slowly sending the stolen intelligence to the hitters.

By the way, the Red Sox are so far out of the postseason picture this year you could argue a case of instant karma. You could, that is, if you ignore that last offseason they were, inexplicably, more concerned about staying under the game’s luxury tax than about locking down their franchise player—who’s now locked in as a Dodger for life and helping them to what’s liable to hold up as coronaball’s best record.

Luhnow’s ramifications went beyond just soiling the Astros’ powerhouse and the team’s image.

We know now that the entire sport prayed that the net result of last year’s postseason would be anyone but the Astros winning the World Series. We know now that too much of the Show believed the major reason the Astros abandoned the AIA by 2019 was their possible fear of exposure.

We also know that the Washington Nationals—who sent their postseason pitchers to the mound prepared to change up as many as five sets of signs each, just in case—spoke of it being “amazing, once we were playing the Astros [in the World Series], how many people were coming out of the woodwork to let us know what they were doing.”

In other words, the Nats winning the Series at all gave the sport the warmest fuzzy possible. Winning it entirely on the road, in Minute Maid Park, was almost gravy.

(Last year, the Nats turned a 19-31 record into the Promised Land. This morning, the 19-31 Nats battered and bruised themselves out of a postseason trip. Wait till next year.)

Luhnow even had an impact on the sale of another major league franchise. Alex Rodriguez and his partner Jennifer Lopez lost out on buying the New York Mets as much because of A-Rod’s informal contacts with the suspended Luhnow as because J-Rod didn’t have quite the billions to tap that hedge fund wheel Steve Cohen does.

The last thing the Mets and the Show alike needed was seeing the Mets sold to someone who’d take counsel from the man who made it possible for a World Series champion and three-times-dominant American League West champion to resemble an unholy union between a high-tech frat house and an underground spy network.

The next-to-last thing the sport needed was to see an Astro fan base whose profound loyalty was second to very few ground under the Astrogate heel. Those Astro fans who refused to be shaken tripped over their own circle-squarings; those Astro fans who couldn’t help but be shaken still try making sense of it.

If the Astros are indeed on the threshold of a tear-down and remodel, it’s the best thing that could happen to the franchise and their fans, and one of the best for the sport itself.

Clueless Crane

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Astros owner Jim Crane—Playing what-about-ism, implying everyone else’s fault, possibly sorry only that his boys got caught, talking to USA Today’s a still-bad look for him.

In a 1964 novel about Navy fliers in World War II, Richard Newhafer’s The Last Tallyho, a fresh group of pilots assigned to a carrier performs a target hop. One of the young men overshoots the tow plane target and hits the plane, instead, flown by their squadron lieutenant. Forcing the lieutenant to a fatal water landing.

The tow pilot happened to be the squadron skipper’s best friend. When the skipper and their air group commander face questioning by the task force commander flying his flag aboard their carrier, the latter asks the skipper why they were called in. “We’re here,” the skipper replies, “because we are responsible for what happened.”

“I don’t see it that way,” the CAG practically snaps. “No matter who did what,” the skipper rejoins, “[CAG] and I are in positions of command. When you command you accept the responsibility for what is done by your subordinates.”

Maybe Houston Astros owner Jim Crane should have read The Last Tallyho. He might have learned something about command responsibility and avoiding mealymouthed avoidance of it, the latter of which he availed himself in an interview with USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale.

Astrogate returned to the otherwise coronavirus-dominant baseball news last week after Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly threw fastballs twice behind Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and breaking balls twice making their shortstop Carlos Correa skip rope. They got Kelly an eight-game suspension and the Astros on the receiving end of fresh rounds of fury.

Remember: Commissioner Rob Manfred handed Astro players on the 2017-18 teams immunity to spill about the Astro Intelligence Agency’s off-field-based electronic sign stealing those seasons, instead of bringing the powers of his office to bear and ordering one and all to spill or be spilled. Even if the players’ union filed countering grievances, Manfred would have sent a far stronger message than a few brushback pitches.

The outrage over Kelly’s suspension was, basically, “He gets eight games for doing in essence what Manfred wouldn’t, but those guys still get off scot free?” Nobody’s justifying throwing at Bregman’s head, but the outraged are right. As a matter of fact, Nightengale asked Crane the same question, phrased a little differently. The answer may or may not surprise you.

“People are aggravated the players didn’t get suspended,’’ said the owner, “but I didn’t have anything to do with that. That was Rob’s call. Listen, it’s always going to be whatever you want to call it. A black mark. An asterisk. It happened. It’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the game. We broke the rules. We got penalized. We were punished. There’s no doubt it weighs on all of us every single day.”

Crane seemed to say it as though he hoped that would be the end of the story. Except that it wasn’t, quite. After apologising for sounding like a fool at the infamous February spring training press conference, the subject detoured briefly toward the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, both of whom have been reprimanded for a little espionage of their own, though not quite performed the way the Astros developed it.

“I think (MLB) had a bigger problem than everybody realized,’’ Crane told Nightengale, playing the what-about-ism card. “[The Yankees and the Red Sox] were doing things and got caught, but we’re the ones who took the bullet. That’s the way it works. I’m not trying to blame anyone else. It was our problem. We dealt with it.”

Except that, after a little talk about things such as revelations about the Astros’ less than honourable front office “culture,” Crane tried to blame, well, something close enough to everyone else as well as the Yankees and the Red Sox.

“I just think everybody was paranoid that everybody was doing it,” he said. “The technology was right in front of you. We already know two others teams were doing it and got caught. But the way we were doing it, that was pretty (stupid). I mean, banging on trash cans? You could have found a better way to do it.”

“Crane’s take . . . seems to be that he and the Astros are the real victims here, and everyone else should leave them alone already,” writes NBC Sports’s Craig Calcaterra. “Really. That’s the vibe he gives off on all of this. Crane seems to believe that the Astros sign-stealing fallout is overblown and that the public’s anger mostly has to do with how Crane himself bungled the P.R.”

Crane seems indeed clueless that, except for the Red Sox’s AppleWatch incident late in the 2017 season and an extra Yankee dugout phone the same time, the AIA didn’t stop at just the technology just being “right in front of you.” Not even close.

The Red Sox’s Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring didn’t involve anyone altering a real-time monitor feed to decipher opposing pitch signs to signal to their baserunners who’d then send the pilfered intelligence to their hitters. Needless to say by now, it also didn’t depend upon having a man on base to receive the stolen signs in the first place.

It would have shocked nobody to learn that the Rogue Sox weren’t the only team to operate a similar reconnaissance ring out of the replay room. And, yes, MLB handed them the keys to the hooch hutch with the replay rooms at home and on the road. Boys will be boys, alas, and asking them to resist such temptation would have been like asking Donald Trump to give up Twitter.

But the replay room reconnaissance ringers didn’t alter ballpark cameras off their  mandatory eight-second delays or install second cameras not on the delay to send signs to a clubhouse monitor in front of which someone, several someones perhaps, decoded the signs and then banged the can slowly for the benefit of Astro hitters.

Using what’s there for a little chicanery is one thing. Altering it or supplementing it illegally is something else entirely. When a team as genuinely great as the 2017-18 Astros were takes up such subterfuge—and if you need proof they were great without the AIA (which operated in Minute Paid Park and wasn’t portable), remember that those Astros had better road than home winning percentages in both seasons—it’s well past boys being boys.

Some accuse Kelly of hypocrisy because of his membership on the 2017 AppleWatch Red Sox. Well, now. Their replay room reconnaissance ring apparently began in 2018—after they hired, what do you know, the Astros’ 2017 bench coach and (we’ve known since the Manfred Report on Astrogate) AIA co-mastermind Alex Cora to manage them. All the way to a World Series ring.

Before Manfred released his Rogue Sox findings, Kelly wondered aloud, “Whenever the investigation is done I’m interested in seeing what is in the investigation.”

If there is cheating involved with how good our team was we should have won every single out. We should have not even lost an inning if there was some good cheating involved, which would have been a lot more fun because we would have won in four. We would have swept through the playoffs and made it really, really fast and been able to go to Hawaii or go to Mexico and go on vacation a lot sooner than we did.

Known to be an erratic pitcher who isn’t shy about a little headhunting when he thinks it’s called for, Kelly inverted the old observation, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” and became a Dodger last year.

The Astros’ mealymouthed responses to Astrogate questioning as spring training opened outraged the Dodgers more than most, and enough players around the Show were outraged, because they’d been the team the Astros beat in seven to win the ’17 Series. It’s not impossible that Kelly had in mind both Astrogate and what was subsequently revealed about his former Rogue Sox when he decked Bregman and Correa.

If the Dodgers weren’t playing this year’s pandemic-inspired regional season schedule, they might have faced the Red Sox. And, inspired perhaps by a few revelations in Manfred’s Rogue Sox report and his Dodger teammates, Kelly might have sent a few messages to those 2018 Sox still on the team for tainting those ’18 Series rings.

Astroworld’s been buffeted harshly by Astrogate. It’s still tussling between those of its citizens who think the AIA was a reasonable defense against whomever else was doing illegal sign stealing and those who think their faith in their team’s greatness was misplaced or abused.

Crane hasn’t said much if anything about that yet.

Meanwhile, note once again Crane’s choice of phrasing to Nightengale: [T]he way we were doing it, that was pretty (stupid). I mean, banging on trash cans? You could have found a better way to do it. Is he saying the AIA itself was stupid? Is he saying he’s sorry only that the Astros got caught committing high crime?

“We’re sorry. We apologized. But no matter what happened, it wasn’t going to be enough,” Crane told Nightengale. “People wanted me out of baseball. They wanted players to be suspended. They wanted everything.” Setting aside that those February apologies were as non-apologetic as apologies can get, what did he expect people to want? A whitewash?

 

 

Justice at last for high-tech cheaters?

2020-07-30 JoeKellyFightClub

While such “Joe Kelly Fight Club” T-shirts became popular instantly, MLB and the players union finally agreed to let the commissioner hammer electronic cheaters. But are there catches?

Well, what do you know. Joe Kelly’s Tuesday night messages to Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa may have proven more than just worth an eight-game suspension (being appealed) and his canonisation as a saint in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

They have gotten both MLB’s dubious commissioner and the Major League Baseball Players Association on board with punishing future Astrogaters and Soxgaters. If they’re caught taking or transmitting such electronically-pilfered intelligence, they can be suspended without pay and lose the days of those suspensions in service time.

The news comes from one of the most unimpeachable sources—Evan Drellich, one of two writers for The Athletic (Ken Rosenthal was his teammate on it) to whom former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, an Oakland Athletic since August 2018 (after a stop in Detroit), blew the whistle on the Astro Intelligence Agency in the first place.

“MLB’s rules on the use of electronics and video grew significantly in the wake of penalties for the Astros and [Boston] Red Sox, according to a review of the document by The Athletic and conversations with officials familiar with it,” Drellich writes in an article published Thursday morning.

The league has newly hired an outside security firm to police the video replay room entrance and no later than next year plans to edit out the signs from the footage players look at in-game.

But no alteration may be as significant as the league’s ability to discipline. Commissioner Rob Manfred has the hammer, although the union can always appeal his decisions.

. . . Kelly was said by some to be delivering the justice to Astros players that MLB did not.

Whether MLB could have effectively administered that justice previously is a complicated question.

Technically, Manfred could have attempted to suspend Astros players had he not granted them immunity during his office’s investigations. But the punishments might not have stood up to expected grievances from the MLBPA because the league and union never before agreed how these specific issues would be handled. In fact, Manfred had declared in 2017, well before the Astros and Red Sox investigations, that he would hold club officials, not players, accountable for sign stealing.

No one condoned throwing at a batter’s head, as Kelly appeared to do when he threw such a pitch to walk Bregman with one out in the bottom of the sixth Tuesday, when they knew without being told that Kelly did only what it seemed at least half of major league baseball’s players—knowing how un-contrite both the Asterisks and the Rogue Sox seemed in spring training after the verdicts—thought was going to be done this season.

(It didn’t exactly take forever for a rash of T-shirts celebrating Kelly’s knockdown of Bregman and subsequent breaking-ball dustings of Carlos Correa, not to mention protesting his suspension, to go on sale online. “Free Joe Kelly” and “Joe Kelly Fight Club,” with or without Kelly’s image answering Correa’s huffing with a mock-crybaby face, seem the most popular.)

Until the coronavirus world tour knocked baseball as inside out as the rest of the world, Astrogate especially and Soxgate concurrently were the number one topic and scandal around the game. At times it was tough to determine which was more scandalous, the AIA and the Red Sox replay room reconnaissance ring, or Manfred having given players immunity instead of using his office’s powers to order them, “Spill, or be spilled.”

Not only did Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant say this was worse than the prior scandals around actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, Dodger pitcher Alex Wood said, “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming.”

Wood faced such players in the 2017 World Series. He had the lowest ERA (1.17) of any Dodger pitcher who pitched five or more innings in the set. He started Game Four in Minute Maid Park and surrendered George Springer’s two-out solo home run to break a scoreless tie and end his evening; he relieved Kenley Jansen for the Game Seven eighth and retired the side in order in Dodger Stadium.

Because the AIA’s apparatus involved either installing an additional and illegal real-time camera in Minute Maid Park, or taking an already-installed camera off the mandatory eight-second transmission delay, the 2017-18 Asterisks couldn’t run their sign-stealing scheme on the road. (In due course, it developed that Asterisk administrators tried but likely failed to urge scouts on the road to steal signs from the stands with cameras or field glasses.)

The 2018 Rogue Sox could operate their replay room reconnaissance ring in Fenway Park and elsewhere, anywhere, because it didn’t depend on altered or extra equipment. Basically, MLB handed them the keys to the candy store. Who knows how many other teams did as the Rogue Sox did, posting someone to decipher enemy pitch signs and signal them to a baserunner who’d then signal them to the hitter.

Remember: Sign-stealing on the field is as old a brand of gamesmanship as baseball itself. That’s why nobody went more than boo when New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge was recently seen as a runner on second looking as though sending a stolen sign to the hitter.

The 1951 New York Giants posted a coach in the clubhouse/offices above center field in the ancient Polo Grounds to steal signs telescopically and relay them to the bullpen from where signs were sent to hitters who wanted them. (The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!) The verdict on their spectacular pennant race comeback forcing that fabled pennant playoff was left to history, alas.

The Red Sox married classic gamesmanship to off-field assistance handed to them (and anyone else who might have done likewise) in a gift-wrapped box. They didn’t install an extra camera and monitor in the room so far as is known. The new protocols now include prohibiting video room operators from communicating with players, coaches, and managers; and, outside security hired by MLB to guard the rooms, one guard for now and perhaps two after the coronavirus restrictions can be lifted.

Was Kelly punished too harshly for doing only what everyone with the proverbial two brain cells to rub together knew was likely to happen sooner or later, especially when the delayed season’s schedule included the surprise of the Astros facing the Dodgers in two sets? Another Athletic writer thinks so.

“When Manfred declined to punish the Astros, whether you agree with retaliation or not, he all but ensured opposing players would take matters into their own hands,” writes Molly Knight.

The Astros escaped their first series of this pandemic-shortened season against the Mariners without incident. But did anyone really expect none of the Dodgers to seek revenge?

MLB confirmed the Astros cheated their way through the 2017 World Series, and it still took them seven games to beat the Dodgers. It was as close as Los Angeles has come to winning it all since 1988. The scars from that series three years ago are still fresh for Dodgers fans, no matter how often Astros fans tell them to get over it. It’s hard to see how Astros fans would be over it if the trash can had been banged by the other team.

Considering that Kelly has a history as an erratic pitcher who rarely lets an actual or perceived offense go unanswered, it practically figured that he’d be the Dodgers’ version of the Green Hornet, flirting with crime to take down the grand theft felons. But keep in mind, too, that an eight-game drydock in a sixty-game season equals a 22-game suspension for a full 162-game season.

“Manfred may have thought he was sending a message about vigilante justice by giving Kelly an eight-game ban,” Knight writes. “But all he did was draw attention back to the absurdity that Astros players cheated to win a World Series and justice wasn’t served.”

Now Commissioner Nero has a hammer to swing on the high-tech off-field-based cheaters. Even if he catches another such intelligence/reconnaissance operation in the act—or another Fiers blows the whistle—and swing, and the Players Association files grievances on behalf of the hammered. He’d still send the message loud and strong that any more AIAs or Rogue Sox Reconnaissance Rings are verboten.

The question is whether he really will. And, whether the hammer will be a mallet or a marshmallow.

 

The Yankeegate letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* – Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

A scapegoat for the Rogue Sox

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The Red Sox whoop it up after nailing the final out of their 2018 World Series conquest in Los Angeles. Is that title tainted now?

So the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring was the masterwork of a rogue video room operator. Not then-manager Alex Cora, not the front office, and not any of the players who transmitted stolen opposition signs to Red Sox baserunners who’d send them on to Red Sox hitters.

Sure. And the iceberg obstructed the Titanic with malice aforethought. The Hindenburg was a kid playing with matches. World War II was a backyard argument. Apollo 11 was an episode of Star Trek. The renegades working with Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into Dunkin’ Donuts. Bill Clinton perjured himself over an Oval Office quickie with his wife.

After an investigation that included interviews with 65 witnesses including 34 incumbent or former Red Sox players, say The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, those plus “scores of e-mails, text messages, video clips, and photographs” led commissioner Rob Manfred in a report issued Wednesday to declare it was all J.T. Watkins’s fault.

Manfred suspended Watkins from baseball without pay for this year and barred from working as a video operator for 2021’s regular season and postseason. The Red Sox got docked a second-round 2020 draft pick. If you even think about trying this kind of espionage again we’re going to be . . . very, very angry at you.

Thanks to the same promises of immunity that Manfred gave the rogue Astros in return for spilling about Astrogate, we may not know for a long time if at all which Red Sox players took Watkins’s stolen signs and ran with them.

The key to the RSRRR was that—unlike the illegally installed or altered real-time center field camera that anchored the Astro Intelligence Agency in Minute Maid Park—the Red Sox’s espionage could be done at home or on the road . . . but it depended entirely on whether the Red Sox had a man on base.

Nobody banged the can slowly to send the pilfered intelligence to the Red Sox hitters availing themselves thereof. Watkins simply let someone, who knows whom, make life a little easier for Rogue Sox baserunners. In Fenway Park and elsewhere.

Usually, if you’re on the bases and of a mind to gamesmanship, you’ve got to decipher and transmit from your own eye and in as quick a blink as possible. Watkins merely allowed the Red Sox to save their baserunners a little extra sight and brain work. How very thoughtful.

The video rooms behind the dugouts were supposed to be helpmates for managers in challenging close or errant umpire calls once replay was introduced in 2014. Hitters also use them for help correcting swing mistakes, pitchers to correct mound mistakes, or both to look again quick at opposing hitters or pitchers to see where they missed unexpected weaknesses or got beaten when they should have known better.

They weren’t installed to enable spy operations on the other guys’ pitch signs or to make life simpler for baserunners who now didn’t have to figure out how to steal signs the old-fashioned way within about a minute’s worth of time. You want to steal signs on base the old-fashioned way? Do your homework. No crib sheets, answers on your wrist, or cameras on the teacher’s answer keys.

Even before Manfred handed down his Soxgate finding and decision, a few 2018 Red Sox were saying, essentially, Who, us? Remember Steve Pearce? 2018 World Series hero, and how. He was practically a one-man demolition derby late in Game Four and through most of Game Five. It landed him the World Series MVP award.

Last week, Pearce decided to call it a career. He also decided to say Who, us? “That’s such a joke to us,” he told WEEI. “When it came out we were all kind of joking about it. We just want this to pass us. We won it fair and square. Whatever they accused us of, we were all kind of like, ‘I can’t believe this is even an issue.’ Once the report comes out we’re all going to be free.”

All but one scapegoat, so far.

“[W]e have this floating over our head when we just had such an unbelievable season,” Pearce continued. “We had the perfect team and great camaraderie with everybody and then this gets thrown out here. We’re just like, ‘What the heck?’ . . . We just want this to pass us. We just want to play some baseball. Another bump in the road, I guess.”

In fairness, one of the key moments that bumped the 108 game-winning Rogue Sox into the 2018 World Series in the first place—left fielder Andrew Benintendi’s man-on-the-flying-trapeze catch of what would have been Astro third baseman Alex Bregman’s game-winning three-run extra-base hit to deny the Astros an American League Championship Series tie at two each—had nothing to do with the RSRRR.

But what about the rest of the set? What about the Series? Not long after Pearce spoke up, Joe Kelly—then a Red Sox relief pitcher, now with the Dodgers in coronavirus limbo with everyone else in baseball—delivered his own who, us? “Whenever the investigation is done, I’m interested in seeing what is in the investigation,” he, too, told WEEI last week. “If there is cheating involved with how good our team was, we should have won every single out.

“We should have not even lost an inning if there was some good cheating involved, which would have been a lot more fun because we would have won in four,” he continued. “We would have swept through the playoffs and made it really, really fast and been able to go to Hawaii or go to Mexico and go on vacation a lot sooner than we did.”

You can almost hear the 1919 White Sox culprits, who won three games during their scandalous World Series loss, thinking, “We should not have even won a single inning if there was some good profitable tanking going on, either.”

Some Red Sox fans hit social media to denounce Kelly’s pompous arrogance or arrogant pomposity, depending upon whom you read where and in which language. The man who surrendered Howie Kendrick’s tenth-inning grand salami to lose Game Five and a trip to the National League Championship Series for his Dodgers knows enough about public humiliation and humility.

In all fairness, baseball government did monitor the replay rooms more arduously to guard against postseason espionage. Baseball’s chief disciplinarian Joe Torre warned both the Red Sox and the Astros before the 2018 ALCS that if they were up to electronic no good it needed to stop tootie-sweet before (are you ready?) the press picked up leaks about it.

Unlike Astrogate, which had a whistleblowing genie named Mike Fiers come out of the bottle last November, Soxgate may not have had a signature whistleblower. Rosenthal and Drellich, the Woodward and Bernstein of Astrogate, reported shortly before Manfred’s Astrogate finding and ruling that the 2018 Red Sox weren’t just ducking into their replay room to fix mistakes, correct batter’s box or mound mechanics, decide on challenging close calls, or watch Cheers reruns.

Rosenthal and Drellich dropped this curlicue into that report:

Three people who were with the Red Sox during their 108-win 2018 season told The Athletic that during that regular season, at least some players visited the video replay room during games to learn the sign sequence opponents were using. The replay room is just steps from the home dugout at Fenway Park, through the same doors that lead to the batting cage. Every team’s replay staff travels to road games, making the system viable in other parks as well.

Red Sox sources said this system did not appear to be effective or even viable during the 2018 postseason, when the Red Sox went on to win the World Series. Opponents were leery enough of sign stealing — and knowledgeable enough about it — to constantly change their sign sequences. And, for the first time in the sport’s history, MLB instituted in-person monitors in the replay rooms, starting in the playoffs. For the entire regular season, those rooms had been left unguarded.

So it’s entirely likely that the Rogue Sox played the 2018 postseason straight, no chaser. But there’ll always be suspicion. Would playing the postseason straight let them off the hook for reconnaissance cheating during the regular season when Watkins’s replay room was about as heavily guarded as an angry drunk?

Give Manfred this much: If he thought Cora had anything to with the RSRRR, would it have been shooting fish in the barrel to discipline him? He suspended Cora for this year—-over his Astrogate co-mastermind role. For which the Red Sox either let him quit, fired him outright, or strong-armed him to quit—never mind how well-liked he remains around the team and organisation—before he could be executed when the Astrogate report came forth.

If Manfred thought Cora was part and parcel of Watkins’s roguery, would he have thrown mercy to the wind and banned Cora for half a decade? Full decade? Life? And does anyone really believe the man who cahooted with Carlos Beltran in the AIA was entirely innocent? Or did he remember his Houston boss, A.J. Hinch, smashing a monitor or two but otherwise fiddling while the AIA turned?

Letting the Rogue Sox escape with nothing more than a docked second-round draft pick and a scapegoat video room operator is at least as bad a look as Astrogate’s been for the Astros. It also contravened Manfred’s threat, when the Red Sox’s AppleWatch and the Yankees’ extra dugout phone inspired it, to fine any team caught playing CIA against the other guys.

So whom among the 2018 Soxgaters will be the first to stand up and own up? You may sooner strike oil with safety pins.