A scapegoat for the Rogue Sox

2020-04-22 2018RedSox

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.

Now it’s Soxgate, too?

2020-01-07 AlexCora2018RedSox

2017 Astros bench coach turned 2018 Red Sox manager Alex Cora hoists the 2018 World Series trophy. The ’18 Sox are now believed having used their replay room for off-field sign-stealing, amplifying suspicions around Cora himself.

Long before he became a major league coach then manager, Alex Cora endeared himself to me when he was a Dodger hitting a seventh-inning home run on 12 May 2004. It wasn’t the home run itself but what led to it—Cora hit the eighteenth pitch of a plate appearance against Cubs pitcher Matt Clement into the right field bullpen. The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Ben-Hur weren’t that epic.

I watched that game live on television from my then-home in Huntington Beach, California. Cora wasn’t exactly a power hitter, of course; Sammy Sosa hit as many home runs in 2004 (35) as Cora hit in his entire fourteen-season playing career. He was a clever utility infielder whose best work was with his glove on either side of second base and his brains otherwise, and he was valuable enough as a utilityman to play on the Red Sox’s 2007 World Series winner.

As Cora checked in at the plate on that May night, the Dodgers’ still-very-much-missed voice Vin Scully noted he’d hit a couple of fly balls earlier in the game, “but if you don’t have power, a couple of fly balls is wasted opportunity.” He batted with nobody out in the bottom of the seventh and a short-career left fielder named Jason Grabowski aboard with a leadoff walk.

Cora looked at ball one up and away to open. He took a strike near the outside corner, then took ball two away, then fouled one off. And then the fun really began without once going to ball three. Cora fouled eleven more off. We’ll let Scully take it from there:

. . . The crowd now is really into the pitches . . . and still two and two. Nobody out. Big foul . . . wow! . . . It’s a sixteen-pitch at-bat, and the crowd loves it, and look at Dave Roberts. They’re all enjoying this battle. Matt Clement and Alex Cora. Coming into the game, Cora was hitting .400 against Clement, he is oh for two tonight. So the game within the game here. So here’s the sixteenth pitch. What an at-bat! . . . [foul ball] . . .  Seventeen pitches . . . it is the rare time that you can be in the ballpark and everyone is counting the pitches, and it’s gonna be a seventeen-pitch at-bat, now, at least. We, I don’t know, you know, they don’t keep records of pitches in at-bats, but it’s kind of special. This will be the seventeenth pitch. Grabowski’s exhausted, and Mike Ireland reminds me how about if Grabowski had been running on every pitch? Time . . . ohhh, the crowd is loving it . . . Ever see so much excitement? And nothing’s happened, that’s what’s really funny about it. All right, here’s the seventeenth pitch—and, it’s foul. Foul ball by a hair! So that means that it will be at least an eighteen-pitch at-bat . . . Clement has made more pitches to Alex Cora right now than he has made in any inning but the third . . . the eighteenth pitch—high fly ball into right field, back goes Sosa, way back to the gate, it’s gonnnne!! Home run, Alex Cora, on the eighteenth pitch, and the Dodgers lead, four to nothing. What a moment! 9:23 on the scoreboard if you want to write it down for history . . . what an at-bat! And Dusty Baker says, “We’re gonna stop the fight.” And Dusty’s going to bring in a fresh horse. That’s one of the finest at-bats I’ve ever seen. And, then, to top it off with a home run, that is really shocking. Yeah, take a bow, Alex, you deserve it and then some. Oh, by the way, that also means the Dodgers have homered in six straight, but it took a whale of a job to do it. Stay where you are, four-nothing Dodgers, and look at the ball club.

Cora would have been remembered for that surrealistic plate appearance if nothing else had his baseball career ended when his playing days did. Even if the Los Angeles Times didn’t remember; their game coverage the following day said not a lick about Cora’s seventh-inning stretcher.

The paper called it the way you see it now in the box scores: Cora, home run. Baseball Reference, bless them, gives you a little more: it notes the pitch count up to and including Cora’s loft just into the right field bullpen. An edited YouTube video clip from the original Dodger broadcast including the Scully call is preserved by MLB, the editing dropping out in favour of the full coverage as Cora was about to face his fifteenth pitch.

Brainy as he was it was no wonder Cora parlayed himself into coaching and, in due course, managing. Except that now it appears more certain than suspected that Cora—whose inaugural season as the Red Sox manager finished with beating his former Dodgers (managed by his May 2004 Dodger teammate Dave Roberts) in the 2018 World Series—knows something more about fouls than just whacking them away to set up an unlikely two-run homer.

Cora was the Astros’ bench coach during their run to the 2017 World Series conquest. Before that postseason ended he’d agreed to become the Red Sox’s next manager. And one of the first things he was quoted as telling his new team, whom the Astros pushed aside in the 2017 division series, was, “You guys were easy to game plan against. Too many bad takes.”

Those were nothing compared to the bad take now surrounding Cora. Because Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, who seem to be for The Athletic with Astrogate what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were considered to be to the Washington Post for Watergate, now say the 2018 Red Sox had a little espionage operation of their own in play during that year’s regular season. And, that unlike the Astros’s engagement of an off-field live-feed camera for sign-stealing, the Red Sox thought of something they could try at home and on the road:

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.

Rosenlich (well, the combination worked for Woodstein, right?) are careful to clarify that nobody including whomever the Red Sox three might be thinks the Red Sox tried it during that postseason, if only because they would have been caught as red-handed as the original five Watergate burglars:

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.

This wasn’t exactly as “egregious” (Rosenlich’s word) as the Astro Intelligence Agency’s underground television network, contravening baseball’s rule mandating eight-second camera feed delays to send stolen signs to a monitor near the dugout steps from where someone, who knows whom just yet, sent the stolen opposition signs to the batter with bang-the-can-slowly. But it’s no less beyond the ordinary bounds of on-the-field gamesmanship, even if the Red Sox system did involve at least one man on the field.

The Red Sox operation was workable only with a runner on base. They simply took the burden of catch-and-release away from the baserunner who’s usually the one who engages the on-field gamesmanship of sign stealing. Someone, who knows whom, would be in the Red Sox replay room at home or on the road, catch the sign from catcher to pitcher, and send it to the runner to send to the hitter. You’ve got to be a lot more swift to do it that way, and apparently the 2018 Red Sox were during the regular season.

Not that Rosenlich lack for a caution or two. “It’s impossible to say for certain how much this system helped the Red Sox offense,” they write. “But their lineup dominated in 2018, when they led the league in runs scored.” And, like the Astros, the Red Sox—who got caught flatfoot in 2017 when one of their people was caught using an AppleWatch to try stealing Yankee signs—were convinced enough that others were doing likewise that they weren’t above a little creative against-the-rules espionage themselves.

“You got a bunch of people who are really good at cheating and everybody knows that each other’s doing it,” Rosenlich quote “one person with” the ’18 Sox. “It’s really hard for anybody to get away with it at that point . . . If you get a lion and a deer, then the lion can really take advantage of the deer. So there’s a lot of deers out there that weren’t paying attention throughout the season. In the playoffs, now you’re going against a lion.”

Using the replay room for sign-stealing didn’t exactly begin with the 2018 Red Sox. “It was also similar,” Rosenlich write, “to one the Yankees and other teams had employed before MLB started its crackdown. (Hitters can legally visit the replay room during games to study some video.)” The trick was to be swift enough afoot to make it work without using further electronic devices.

Rosenlich also exhume a three-page March 2018 memo to team presidents from MLB’s chief baseball officer, Joe Torre (himself a former major league catcher), in which he emphasised just how much against the rules high-tech off-field sign-stealing is: “To be clear,” the memo said, “the use of any equipment in the clubhouse or in a Club’s replay or video rooms to decode an opposing Club’s signs during the game violates this Regulation.”

And sometimes the replay room monitors weren’t always immune to being compromised themselves, with Rosenlich observing, “Some would stay in the video replay room the entire game, while others would disappear for periods of time.” The duo go on to cite an unnamed video scout, not with the Red Sox, directly:

Some acted like they were your best friend, root you on. Others would tell on you for the littlest things that weren’t even real,” the scout said. “It was very inconsistent how each person took their job and what they were actually doing . . . You knew this guy was a stickler, and with this guy you could get away with some stuff. How does it stop cheating? The teams that were going to cheat were going to cheat, no matter what.

Whither Alex Cora? Rosenlich are already on record as reporting that Cora and new Mets manager Carlos Beltran (a designated hitter with the ’17 Astros who was often approached by teammates as having the mind of a coach himself) had an as-yet-undetermined hand in at least devising the Astro Intelligence Agency. Nobody knows yet just how Cora and Beltran helped devise it if indeed they did.

But Cora going from the Astros’ world champion as their bench coach to the ’18 Red Sox as their first-year manager taking them all the way to a 108-win regular season preceding a World Series triumph now looks a little too suspect. Did he know about and/or sanction the ’18 Red Sox’s replay room rompering? Did he suggest, based on any direct knowledge of the Astros’ slightly more arduous technique, that the replay room just might be a slightly simpler way to steal signs and get away with it?

No, Astroworld. The Red Sox’s replay room rompering doesn’t get the Astros off the hook. The everybody’s-doing-it defense isn’t going to wash for the Astros, and it won’t for the Red Sox, either. Red Sox Nation, of which I’ve been a member since that thriller of a 1967 pennant race in hand with being a Met fan since the day they were born (ask not my October 1986 pharmaceutical bills), is about to join Astroworld in having to come to terms with at least some of their heroes being cheaters.

“The issue . . . extends beyond individual teams, encompassing the league’s enforcement and upkeep of its own rules,” Rosenlich write. “Many inside the sport believe there is cheating and then there is cheating-cheating. In this view, the Astros undertook the latter, while more indirect video-room efforts—at least before late 2017—counted as the former.”

If and when the actual Astrogaters are revealed in full, Astroworld will be anything but amused, just as I wasn’t amused to discover that a team whose reconstruction into a powerhouse I admired turned out to be riddled with a human factor-challenged front office and field personnel who weren’t above extralegal espionage. According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Astros should learn within the next two weeks just who’s going to be taken to the Astrogate woodshed and whether they come out bruised, battered, or broken.

It doesn’t amuse me that Alex Cora, a player whose tenacity I cheered one fine May 2004 evening and whose intelligence I always admired, may well have gone from helping to devise one elaborate cheat to at least fostering a second that was less elaborate if not less egregious. It amuses me even less that the Red Sox had to do it the new old fashioned way, too.

Short of posting armed Pinkerton guards inside the replay rooms, how baseball’s government handles Astrogate, Soxgate, and any other -gates yet to be affirmed should prove at least as intriguing as Cora’s once-upon-a-plate-appearance foul mastery. The kind he’s suspected of now, involving two teams, is more liable to end not with a two-run homer but a called strikeout.

Yeah, we did, because they did, too

2019-12-15 DerekFisherAstrogate

This is the purported monitor setup the Astros used to steal signs electronically, from off the field, in 2017 at least and possibly 2018 and 2019. The larger monitor isn’t engaged but you see two small video tablets on the table. Shown in front of the table is Derek Fisher, an Astros reserve outfielder from 2017 until he was traded to the Blue Jays in July 2019. The image has appeared on numerous Websites.

So the Astros asked for a Minute Maid Park camera out past center field to be taken off baseball’s officially mandated eight second transmission delay, trained live toward enemy catchers, and transmitting live to a dugout television monitor. Because, you know, they were convinced other teams, who knew just how many, were guilty of comparable espionage television networks from off the field and wanted to, you know, level the field a little bit if they could.

Thus reported Andy Martino of SNY Saturday, based upon sources who apparently asked not to be identified in print but had direct knowledge of what was said to the commmissioner’s Astrogate investigators. “They did not install a new camera for sign-stealing purposes, and the players and coaches involved did not even know which camera the feed was coming from,” Martino writes. “They wanted a monitor closer to the dugout, because their video room was too far away. They considered their actions to be in line with industry standards.”

Who were they? The original bombshell by The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich came from former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers and “four people who were with the Astros in 2017,” all of whom presumably asked not to be identified just yet, if at all. Martino says commissioner Rob Manfred’s bloodhounds have spoken to “nearly sixty people” thus far. An existing video capture shows a former Astros reserve outfielder, Derek Fisher, traded to the Blue Jays in July 2019, standing in front of a table between the clubhouse and the dugout on which were mounted a television monitor showing nothing but two small video tablets showing anything but. And one of the sixty witnesses, according to the aforementioned sources, and presumably unprepared to put his name to it just yet, is quoted thus: “We did ask for a game center field feed to decode signs, as many teams do. All we asked for was a live feed.”

So they broke the rules but they didn’t quite have their own Alexander Butterfield to install a new device dedicated specifically to sign-stealing. Or did they? As Martino observes, it still leaves “questions about whether the camera was installed specifically for that purpose.” And, he asked one: did someone in the Astros front office approve buying a new camera, which would create a paper trail showing the team was preparing to cheat? His answer: “Sources say the camera in question was league-approved and already in place. One source suggested it could have been a scouting camera, which would have been its league-approved purpose. That is more likely than a camera from the TV feed, which would have required the broadcast crew to participate in the scheme.”

It doesn’t acquit the Astros if the hounds turn up the evidence that, yes, there were a few other teams with high-tech espionage operations. Neither will it acquit them to say sure, we broke the rules, but, you know, we’re just the ones who got caught or exposed, and everybody or at least a few others did it, too, so we needed to get in on the fun, too, presumably to nullify the disadvantages. But the everybody-does-it/everybody’s-done-it argument simply disintegrates. Graduate the argument to, say, American political life, then ponder what the everybody-does-it/everybody’s-done-it argument implies, regardless of the partisan or ideological divide, with too many examples that candor requires the intellectually scrupulous to confront.

As far as MLB is concerned, any use of electronics to facilitate sign stealing is illegal,” Martino wrote. “Even Astros witnesses are conceding to investigators that such actions took place, because the feed was aired on a monitor behind the dugout. At this point, the question appears to be not if the Astros broke the rule, but how and to what degree they did it.” Bang-bang! You’re dead. Or, facing consquences at least as considerable, potentially, as those by which former Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa got himself and his organisation slapped after he was caught red-winged hacking into the Astros’ computer scouting database.

They may only begin with punishments administered to general manager Jeff Luhnow, who isn’t necessarily the most popular or respected administrator in the game, and manager A.J. Hinch, who looked to all the world like a schoolboy who knew his trouble only began after he came out of the principal’s office, when buttonholed by the press at the now-concluded winter meetings. It strains credulity now to believe Hinch, heretofore respected for the successful marriage between intelligence and sensitivity somewhat uncommon among major league managers in any era, was the cat caught unaware that the mice raided the refrigerator.

Astro fans aren’t the only fans bracing for revelations as to whom among their players and their coaches were really in on the fun and why, not with the credibility of three American League Wests, two pennants, and one World Series championship under suspicion. But any other team found to have built and operated their own electronic off-field intelligence television networks shouldn’t exactly be clearing space for their Emmy awards, either.

 

 

It makes a fellow not so proud to be an Astro

2019-12-10 AJHinch

A.J. Hinch, looking as though at minimum he’s been sent to the principal’s office.

Once upon a time a very different generation of Astros amused themselves on team buses and planes by singing a randy song to the tune of legendary musical humourist  Tom Lehrer’s “It Makes a Fella Proud to Be a Soldier.” The late Jim Bouton, an Astro from August 1969 until his aging arm plus the hoopla over Ball Four farmed him out to stay in 1970, said every new Astro received a copy almost at once. Then, he recorded the complete lyrics including this verse:

Now our pitching staff’s composed of guys who think they’re pretty cool,
with a case of Scotch, a greenie, and an old beat-up whirlpool.
We’ll make the other hitters laugh
then calmly break their bats in half,
it makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.

Those Astros hung on the fringe of the National League West race in divisional play’s first season. Today’s Astros, long since moved to the American League (they were the team to be named later in former commissioner Bud Selig’s move of his formerly owned team, the Brewers, to the National League), are three-time American League West winners in the midst of which also came two pennants and a World Series conquest.

Now the Astros have lost a pitcher who didn’t necessarily make the other hitters laugh while he broke their bats in half: Gerrit Cole, who served them better than well for two seasons and proved off-the-charts magnificent down this year’s stretch and in the first two postseason rounds. Reaching his first career free agency, Cole couldn’t resist the Yankees’ extending him a deal for nine years at $324 million, the highest ever to be paid to any major league pitcher.

Which tells you something about what can happen when a good pitcher in sound condition finally became a great pitcher in sound condition in 2019, after joining a team with deeper knowledge of the art and its array of correctives than his former team (the Pirates) ever seemed to allow. And Cole joins the team he helped defeat in this year’s American League Championship Series, the team he would have faced in Game Seven if not for Jose Altuve’s stupefying, game-set-and-pennant winning two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth in Game Six.

Everyone including myself ponders the immediacy of the winners and losers on this winter’s market after Cole’s signing. Including the Astros themselves, whose owner Jim Crane, as CBS Sports’s Dayn Perry observes, “is pointlessly worried about staying under the Competitive Balance Tax threshold. According to multiple reports, the Astros are even shopping star shortstop Carlos Correa in the name of payroll efficiency. The Astros are one hundred percent in win-now mode, and the idea of trading Correa and not bidding vigorously to retain Cole should have fans calling Crane to account.”

For that and a few other things, of course. And some of us including myself ponder, too, whether Cole will bring the Yankees such knowledge as he might have, intimate or otherwise, as regards, you know, the other stuff buffeting the Astros now. The Astrogate probe is now said looking beyond 2017, into both the seasons during which Cole suited up and pitched for the Astros, and you’d be less than human if you didn’t contemplate whether Cole would enlighten his new teammates on the Astro Intelligence Agency as did Mike Fiers when he signed with the Tigers, and subsequently joined the Athletics, after 2017.

Hours before the Cole signing detonated the world in general and the Twitterverse in particular, Astros manager A.J. Hinch discovered his presence at this week’s winter meetings in San Diego meant the press finding it impossible to resist asking him about Astrogate. It was certain that he wouldn’t answer questions about it because the commmissioner’s is an ongoing investigation. And far be it for Hinch to break the rules in this instance, one of which enjoins against speaking up or forth while such an investigation proceeds and progresses.

The cynic would chew on the continuing strain of accepting those rules you’re comfortable accepting and breaking those you’re comfortable breaking, on the assumption that Hinch was surely well aware of the AIA, since the concurrent presumption is that a baseball manager a) is responsible for the doings or undoings by those under his command and b) unlikely under most such circumstances to have disapproved above or beyond the customary “just don’t get caught, boys” admonition.

But still . . . but still . . . “If I was in your shoes, I would be on the other side of this table,” Hinch told the gathering in response to a question. “And I would want to ask questions and find answers and get some more information on the investigation and all the allegations and things like that. I know you’re probably expecting this, but I can’t comment on it. It is an ongoing investigation.”

Associated Press reporter Jake Seiner translated thus that Hinch “is eager to tell his side of the story regarding allegations Houston used electronics to steal signs en route to a 2017 World Series championship, but he is going to let Major League Baseball talk first.” The Athletic‘s Spink Award-winning Jayson Stark (presented his award in Cooperstown this past July) tweeted at about 5:34 p.m. Pacific time Tuesday, “”AJ Hinch just finished 19 uncomfortable minutes of meeting with the media. Mostly declined comment on anything related to the cheating investigation. Said he’s talked to MLB ‘a couple of times’ and now is just ‘waiting’ for a verdict. ‘Everything is in their hands’.”

If you’ve lost the track of the AIA flow chart, it’s this: Live, real-time camera operated from somewhere behind the center field playing area transmits live, real-time signs to the opposing pitcher, which transmission is seen on a large enough, duly connected monitor in the Astro clubhouse adjacent to the steps from the clubhouse to the dugout, in front of which someone, who knows whom just yet, deciphers the signs and transmits them to an Astro hitter with one or two bangs on a large plastic or vinyl trash can, dependent upon which pitch the victimised catcher called.

“I’ve committed my time and energy to cooperate with MLB,” Hinch went on to say Tuesday evening. “I’ve talked to them a couple times, and we continue to work with them as they navigate the investigation, and now we’re waiting with everything in their hands. So I know there’s still going to be questions. I hope there’s a day where I’m able to answer more questions, but I know today’s not that day. I know it will disappoint some people.”

In some other words, Hinch may be anxious to lay it down about Astrogate but any time you need Hinch—heretofore considered one of baseball’s most sensitively intelligent managers—don’t just whistle, and he won’t blow the whistle himself until he has some sort of official dispensation or pang of conscience to do so. If the rules of his profession enjoin against commenting publicly about an ongoing investigation, his immediate answer still leaves Hinch with a dubious look, though not even close to the one left to Crane when, at last month’s owners’ meetings, he, too, dismissed Astrogate questioning.

“If you want to talk about baseball, I’ll talk about baseball,” was Crane’s dismissal, as if electronic cheating from off the field, violating baseball’s specific rule against such espionage, and the likelihood that the Astros aren’t the only team operating such spy operations, had absolutely nothing to do with the game. The painfully few Astrogate comments from within the Astros’ apparatus have included hopes that the Astros don’t become the poster children for something not restricted to themselves, and that’s very much to do with baseball.

If Hinch and Crane were employed instead in the business of the government, answers like theirs might harry reporters and investigators toward exhuming a cover-up almost as ardently as they already harried to the original crime, misdemeanour, or contra-constitutional mischief. Reporters and investigators alike on the Astrogate trail are doing just that, surely. The safest assumption is that more than a handful of Astros knew about and availed themselves of the AIA that sauntered far past the accepted bounds of on-the-field gamesmanship.

Believing Hinch knew nothing of or ignored the operation particularly when the bangs! or the bang-bangs! on the can went booming forth insults our own intelligence. What could he believe they were? Teammates rooting? Between-turns batting practise by players anxious not to be more than a few hops from stepping in as a pinch swinger and thus not repairing to the underground batting cages? Practise for banging a drum slowly during a victory parade?

Commissioner Rob Manfred and his bloodhounds may discover very well that the Astros aren’t the only major league team with a taste for espionage—if they haven’t discovered that already. (Published reporting suggests that as of this writing almost sixty witnesses and over seventy thousand e-mails have been gathered with more, much more to come.) But Hinch is in a position that can’t hold very long, and he may yet experience a pang of conscience akin to that of his former pitcher Fiers, who blew the whistle on and pulled the covers off the AIA in the first place.

Hinch heretofore earned a reputation as one of baseball’s most sensitively intelligent managers, a reputation in danger of being very badly vaporised. His face Tuesday evening showed every suggestion of the schoolboy who knows his trouble has only just begun after he’s finished in the principal’s office. Like Fiers, his conscience pang wouldn’t necessarily mean naming or implying suspects. But Hinch would be to baseball as Alexander Butterfield to the Nixon White House, exposing its sophisticated in-house taping system under Senate questioning during the early Watergate peaks.

Butterfield installed the White House system and owned up. Hinch may or may not have conceived the AIA himself. If he didn’t but he was genuinely unaware, his looks could well become those of a man whose smarts were invaded by incompetence that would strike some as cruelly comic and others as tragic. It makes a fellow not so proud to be an Astro.

Whistling under Fiers

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“Hero or snitch? Depends on the lighting, and maybe Mike Fiers doesn’t care which.”—Tim Brown, Yahoo! Sports.

We know now that both the book and the film Eight Men Out are somewhat riddled with errors, shall we say, but one thing they got right. That was 1919 White Sox third baseman Buck Weaver’s refusal to partake of the payoffs to tank the World Series and to tell what he knew of the fix, which was plenty enough and hazardous to his baseball health.

In the film Weaver was scripted to say that a guy who didn’t “stand by his friends” was no good, enunciating part of a code by which men and women customarily live in professions great, modest, and dubious alike, sometimes all at once. It’s a code for which those who live it evoke honour even as practising it often protects or invites dishonour. Weaver living and practising it cost himself a baseball career when Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the original baseball commissioner appointed because of the Black Sox scandal, banished him specifically for “guilty knowledge.”

“[T]here was a method to Landis’s harshness. By making an example of Weaver, Landis sent a message to the rest of Organized Baseball that any player who learned of a fix was guilty in the eyes of baseball unless he immediately reported it,” wrote Weaver’s Society for American Baseball Research biographer David Fletcher.

The effect of this policy is readily apparent: Prior to Weaver’s banishment, baseball authorities usually only discovered game-fixing schemes after they had already occurred. After Weaver’s suspension, some attempted conspiracies were brought to light before they ever unfolded on the field, thanks to the honesty of players frightened by the Weaver precedent.

“A murder even serves his sentence and is let out,” Weaver told James T. Farrell soon before the former third baseman died in early 1956. “I got life.” In a sense Weaver was sentenced for refusing to be a whistleblower, which might or might not have imposed upon him another kind of hell.

Often as not whistleblowers are viewed paradoxically, depending upon whether they’re honest men and women who happened upon dishonest and even criminal activities or whether they’re among the dishonest and even the criminal by the time too much proves enough or the heat reaches suffocation levels. Government is only one place to hear whistles blown by those on whom they should have been blown.

One-time Trans World Airlines owner Howard Hughes wasn’t the most ethical business titan when he exposed Maine’s U.S. Senator, Owen Brewster, a man with vice presidential aspirations, holding them from the hip pocket of Pan American World Airways chieftain Juan Trippe, carrying a bill to make Pan Am the sole legal American international airline when TWA had its own international flight plans. Joseph Valachi’s 1963 testimony to the Senate providing the first true public exposure of the Mafia and its apparatus hardly came from an innocent bystander.

Frank Serpico and David Durk were clean New York police officers struggling to expose rampant corruption in their department until, in 1970, they took advantage of Durk’s personal connections, those who didn’t prove invested in depth in protecting Mayor John Lindsay, anyway, to get the New York Times to blow their whistles. Lindsay himself having proven between indifferent and impotent in the matter (“If you’ve had as long and as delicate a relationship with the 35,000 member police department as I have had, you might understand,” he told one questioner), it helped vapourise his already uneasy presidential aspirations, too.

Alexander Butterfield was no criminal when he blew the whistle on himself, disclosing to Senate Watergate Committee questioners that the Nixon White House indeed had a sophisticated taping system which he’d installed. It helped to prove the undoing of several culpable in Watergate, and the president who let himself be dragooned into its coverup, while stirring concurrent regrets that Lyndon Johnson’s previous taping system hadn’t been exposed instead of overlooked when it mattered.

Bringing us to Mike Fiers, the former Houston Astros pitcher—since with the Detroit Tigers (2018) and, now, the Oakland Athletics (2019 and for 2020)—who blew the whistle on the Astros’s against-the-rules 2017 electronic sign-stealing operation four weeks ago. Yahoo! Sports columnist Tim Brown probes the senses around baseball regarding Fiers’s expose, to the press and not to major league baseball’s governing apparatus, and the rock and the hard place between which Fiers may yet find himself for his effort.

The senses as Brown draws them are very mixed, quoting players incumbent and past but with the proviso that their names not be revealed. And Fiers for now is reluctant to talk further about his revelations and what compelled them at last, perhaps pending his discussions with baseball’s investigators. “Hero or snitch?” Brown asks, before answering, “Depends on the lighting, and maybe Mike Fiers doesn’t care which.”

After the Times‘s Serpico-Durk revelations, Serpico himself was shot in the face during an arrest attempt and the suspicion never really abates, on his or other cops’ parts, that his partners set him up. (Serpico still lives with a bullet fragment up against his brain.) Indeed, a Serpico biographer recorded him receiving among his well-wishing greeting cards one whose maker printed inside, “With sincere sympathy,” to which the sender added a handwritten addendum “that you didn’t get your brains blown out, you rat bastard. Happy relapse.”

Fiers is about as likely to be set up for a shot in the face by corrupted ballplayers as is a cobra to be set up on a blind date with a mongoose. But he risks the reputation Brown describes him having, a well-liked teammate on a personal level and as “honest, by all appearances, sometimes to his detriment,” but jeopardising his “place in the fraternity of generations of ballplayers who went along, who shrugged and decided it—whatever that day’s it was—was someone else’s problem.”

Baseball’s fraternal inner culture has never really suffered exposure gladly even when what’s exposed is just jovial, can’t-grow-up-yet, boys-will-be-boys stuff instead the sort of thing for which the Astros (and others, prospectively) have been broiled and basted. Boys being boys is one thing, but cheating above and beyond the bounds of on-field gamesmanship is something else entirely, of course. But exposing even benign hijinks from the inside is foolishness not always suffered gladly.

Jim Brosnan (pitcher) merely revealed the clubhouse, the dugout, the bullpen, and the tours through road towns as the repositories of young men running the spread from rakish to priggish to bawdy. Jim Bouton (pitcher) revealed likewise in far more pointed detail and with far deeper shafts of wit. Bill Veeck (owner) exposed pronounced absences of ethical discrimination among owners incumbent and past, including a few of his own,  with shafts of wit Bouton would recognise as kindred.

Brosnan’s The Long Season and Pennant Race, Bouton’s Ball Four (and hilarious recounting of its controversies and aftermath in I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally), and Veeck’s Veeck—As In Wreck and The Hustler’s Handbook were best sellers. Readers were entertained and perhaps enlightened, but the game didn’t always agree. And how.

The White Sox tried to jam a contract clause down Brosnan’s throat that would bar his writing publicly without prior club approval; Brosnan elected to retire instead. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to suppress Ball Four by forcing Bouton to sign a statement saying it was all his editor Leonard Shecter’s fault. Unidentified members of the San Diego Padres left a burned copy of Ball Four on the top step of the Astros dugout. (Bouton was an Astro when the book was published.)

Astrogate has been rather quiet of late, with the commissioner’s office continuing its investigation but not yet revealing whether the Astro Intelligence Agency operated beyond 2017 or their high-tech cheating exists on other teams and to how far an extent. And you notice that from the moment Fiers’s revelation to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich hit the world running the Astros themselves really haven’t challenged Fiers publicly.

Whistleblowing’s conundrums include that the honest provide only so much. That’s what the Knapp Commission faced when formed and operating in the immediate wake of Serpico’s and Durk’s 1970 police corruption revelations. The commission needed (and got, in due course) a completely corrupt cop (it turned out to be a detective named William Phillips) to finish what the pair started and expose its truest depths. Commissioner Rob Manfred and his bloodhounds probably need no-questions-asked cheaters to start finishing what Fiers started.

But the conundrums also include a hell-if-you-do, hell-if-you-don’t kind of channel surfing. Take what you know to the proper in-house investigative channel and risk that its administrators do as assorted NYPD superiors did with Serpico and Durk: little to nothing, if that much. Take what you know at long enough last to the channel of press, when the “proper” channels prove off the air, and the public may call you a hero but at least some of your professional colleagues may express sincere sympathy that you didn’t get your brains blown out, you rat bastard.

Brown records that, for every player who says, “Takes big nuts to call bull(feces) on people and stand there and take the heat that follows. I admire that,” there’s another who says, “Freakin’ punk-ass bitch.” And another who says, “I don’t think he’s a hero or a villain. I just hope he doesn’t get demonized.” Or, yet another who says, “I would not have gone public, but I don’t condemn him for going public . . . In the end, I probably would have fallen back on the sanctity of the clubhouse. Would I have felt good about it? Probably not.”

Once upon a time Buck Weaver fell back on the sanctity of the clubhouse, too, as well as falling back upon the code that enjoins against ratting on “friends,” some of whom weren’t exactly his friends. He probably didn’t feel too good about that, either.

Stolen signs of the times

2019-11-29 HiddenLanguageOfBaseballDepending upon your point of view, the freshly published second edition of Paul Dickson’s The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime is either a blessing or an intrusion. Its timing—arriving shortly before Astrogate broke—couldn’t possibly have been scripted better.

Especially considering Chapter 9, “Devious Digital Devices—From the TV Camera to the Digital Watch.” Which begins with Leo Durocher, perhaps appropriately, performing a deed people not named Durocher would have deemed inappropriate enough.

The Lip, of course, was the mastermind behind the off-field sign-stealing (with a hand-held spyglass in the Polo Grounds center field clubhouse, a buzzer to the bullpen, and relayed stolen signs to those men at the plate who wanted them) —that enabled the 1951 Giants’ staggering pennant race comeback (from thirteen games down) to force the once-fabled playoff.

Now, Dickson described Durocher in the broadcast booth, which he joined for ABC’s Game of the Week after leaving the Dodgers as a coach in early 1965. “The American Broadcasting Company was banking on Leo to say and do outrageous things to boost ratings on the show,” Dickson wrote. “They were hardly disappointed.”

Durocher premiered on 8 May 1965, for a game between the Yankees and the second edition of the Washington Senators in D.C. Stadium (the future RFK Stadium). When the network spotted Vice President Hubert Humphrey (a Twins fan, as it happened) in the ballpark, they managed to invite him to join Durocher in the booth.

And the Lip simply couldn’t resist giving Humphrey an on-the-air tutorial in the fine art of baseball espionage. “With the aid of cameras placed by ABC in the dugout and outfield,” Dickson writes, “Leo gave the vice president a quick lesson in how to pick up signs and decode them.”

The cameras were live and real time, not on today’s eight-second delays. Humphrey wasn’t exactly thrilled, “clearly nervous about being put in this position as an accomplice and [he] observed flatly that there were no secrets anymore.”

How you accept that depends on your point of view otherwise considering Humphrey’s boss, then-president Lyndon Johnson, a man to whom chicanery wasn’t exactly alien. But then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t exactly amused, either, rebuking both Durocher and ABC publicly “for both the cameras and the live larceny.”

Lest you think the Yankees and the Senators had any cute ideas about the cameras, be advised that they were then managed by two men (Johnny Keane, Gil Hodges) who’d sooner be caught chasing skirts other than those wrapped around their wives than sanction high-tech cheating.

But thanks to Durocher, for the first time real high electronic baseball cheating as opposed to on-the-field gamesmanship or even mere telescopic cheating hit the press past the sports pages. It almost figured that it would be Durocher who was responsible. “[He] had not only willfully gotten himself into a jam,” writes Dickson, himself a Durocher biographer, “but also used the vice president of the United States as his foil.”

Dickson’s book is a remarkably entertaining travelogue through sign-stealing history, which only begins with its development based on flag signaling by soldiers in war and premiered in baseball near the Civil War, through the apparent courtesy of a team known as the Hartford Dark Blues. And, Dickson does an engaging job of discussing those whose on-field gamesmanship was more sophisticated and tougher to decipher than you might expect.

Perhaps his classic example is Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. Dickson writes that he was not only the best in his league at keeping his signs secret (his tricks included, especially, adding numbers on the scoreboard to those shown his pitchers with his fingers) but taught himself to pick signs based on the opposing catcher’s hand shadows he saw from the on-deck circle.

Berra once said he “wouldn’t take [a stolen sign] if their own catcher sent it to me Western Union,” but he was also adept at catching pitch tipping—especially his own pitchers, helping them correct accordingly. And fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle swore the Yankees knew, among other things, when Hall of Famer Early Wynn would go to his knuckleball: it was the only pitch on which Wynn wouldn’t rear all the way back behind his head before throwing it.

That sort of thing was gamesmanship. Slipping people into things like the old-fashioned hand-operated scoreboards above or behind the actual playing field? A whole other thing, and more rampant than you may remember or know. “Periodically,” Dickson wrote, “someone would complain that they were being spied upon by men out of uniform hanging out in the scoreboard, and they would be answered by the official equivalent of a shrug and a scowl.”

Not even the New York Times could help. Dickson cited a story in that paper in 1956, when then-Orioles manager Paul Richards filed a formal complaint with the American League over the White Sox stealing signs with a telescope from the scoreboard. Both then-league president Will Harridge and a few more in the sporting press “mocked Richards.” Sports Illustrated even ran a piece including “a pictorial on signs and how one might learn to pick them from one’s seat.”

They missed the larger point, and that was in the aftermath of the 1951 Giants when their pennant-comeback spyglass-to-buzzer plot was still whispered but didn’t lead to arraignments. The larger point: Decoding signs from the on-deck circle based on a catcher’s hand’s shadow isn’t the same thing as decoding them through an off-field telescope. Or from a hot live real-time off-the-field camera feed.

Which is exactly what Sean Doolittle, the likeable and never-at-a-loss relief pitcher for the world champion Nationals, said in a tweet, two days after The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich reported former Astro pitcher Mike Fiers’s revelation about that team’s 2017 center field camera-to-clubhouse television set-to-bang on a can stolen sign transmission:

Sign stealing is part of baseball. It’s gamesmanship. A runner picking up signs from 2nd base or looking for how a pitcher might be tipping his pitches based on how he comes set is fair game. If you can do it using your eye balls it’s ok. If you’re using technology it’s cheating.

The TVs in the clubhouses and bullpens are on AT LEAST an 8 sec delay. MLB posts employees in the video room to prevent messages being relayed to the dugout. It’s impossible to use those feeds to pick up signs and relay them in real time.

Almost a full week has passed without new Astrogate revelations. Such silences don’t seem likely to become the exceptions. But Molly Knight, another writer for The Athletic, has a thought for you: the news may have infuriated pitchers the most.

Comments from players haven’t exactly flooded the joint since Fiers first blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astro Intelligence Agency. But Knight has mulcted comments from pitchers around the circuit. And they’re no more amused than Hubert Humphrey was over Leo Durocher’s live lecture in applied espionage.

“If a team is using cameras and decoding your sequences for live relays,” Knight quoted an unidentified pitcher who faced the Astros in 2017, “you’re losing a war that you weren’t informed of your own participation.”

You know that with a runner on second you have to be careful because they see the signs and decipher them. You know that you can’t have an obvious tip because the other team will find it and pounce. Those are known battlegrounds. But this isn’t a fair fight because you weren’t aware the fight existed.

We’ve come a long way, seemingly, from the days when field glasses, spyglasses, and even telescopes off the field and through the scoreboards actually did have baseball people both alarmed and amused. Enough so that by 1961-1962, Dickson writes, the issue actually threatened to become a full-fledged scandal.

First, an unidentified former player turned manager and coach told Baseball Digest he didn’t think that kind of espionage was present “for a long time.” But he kept his identity secret because it “might give me a bad reputation with the coaches who like people to think they’re always swiping signs.”

Then Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby wrote an article for True called “You’ve Got to Cheat to Win.” In which among other things he had words for Al Worthington, the relief pitcher who quit the White Sox rather than acquiesce in their sign-stealing operation inside Comiskey Park’s fabled exploding scoreboard. “[M]ost of the newspapers said [Worthington’s] was a salary argument,” Hornsby wrote. “In my book, it wasn’t. In my book he was a baseball misfit—Worthington didn’t like cheating.”

That and other Hornsby pronouncements—including what Dickson paraphrased as “a massive Indian head with moving eyes in an ad for Uneeda Water in the Detroit outfield,” the moving eyes used by the Tigers to relay stolen signs—cause a spring training uproar in 1962. Especially when the True article was expanded into a delicious portion of Hornsby’s freshly published memoir, My War with Baseball.

At about that time, Jay Hook—taken off the ’61 pennant-winning Reds by the expansion Mets—told United Press International that those Reds had “scoreboard spies swiping the rival catchers’ signs” from Crosley Field’s walk-in, hand-operated scoreboard. Leonard Shecter—then a New York Post writer, eventually Jim Bouton’s Ball Four editor—called such a spy “the fiend abroad in the ballpark with a pair of field glasses . . . [like] the driver who knocks down an 89-year-old pedestrian. It’s easy but unsporting.”

Then, the Associated Press sportswriter Joe Reichler wrote maybe the first story for publication charging the 1951 Giants with high tech-for-the-time sign stealing down that stretch. Between several emphatic denials and the anonymity of the accuser, who may or may not have been associated with the Giants later on, the story’s noise life wasn’t very long.

Jimmy Piersall, the acrobatic outfielder who’d suffered a nervous breakdown while with the early 1950s Red Sox, wrote a Baseball Monthly article that spring ’62 in which he said, as Dickson phrased it, every part of the ballpark could be and often was rigged. The article was called, “How the Home Team Cheats.” Bill Veeck’s charming memoir Veeck—As In Wreck, was published at the same time, the maverick owner admitting he wasn’t above a little chicanery himself.

Even authorising the White Sox’s exploding-scoreboard spy network. The one that compelled Al Worthington to take a hike. The hike that compelled Rogers Hornsby to dismiss Worthington as a baseball misfit.

All that hoopla died its death in due course, though not without its ironies. The very name of Dickson’s chapter about it says it all: “1962—the Year of the Revisionist Finger Pointers.” Including Birdie Tebbetts, managing the Braves in June 1962, now telling Times columnist Arthur Daley that all that telescopic cheating just had to stop if “you believe in the integrity of the game the way I do.” The way he did when his 1940 pennant-winning Tigers used pitcher Tommy Bridges’s rifle scope to swipe signs from the stands behind the Briggs Stadium outfield.

Leo Durocher tutoring Hubert Humphrey to one side, high-tech sign-stealing charges tended from 1962 forward to be low-keyed and dispatched swiftly enough. Before such things as Mick Billmeyer’s bullpen binoculars, the Blue Jays’s Man in White, the Padres’ TV well spy, the Red Sox’s Apple Watch, and, of course, the Astro worker near the Red Sox dugout who claimed he was trying to be sure the Red Sox weren’t up to no good during the 2018 American League Championship series, wink wink, nudge nudge, suuuure he was.

“Baseball doesn’t have a sign stealing problem,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Dave Sheinin, as cited by Dickson, when the Brewers hinted that the Dodgers were doing it the electronic way during the ’18 National League Championship Series. “It has a technology problem.”

No longer is it just the runner on second base with a clear view of the catcher’s signs to thwart. Now it’s that guy in the center field seats with the telescoping camera or the strength coach in the dugout with the smart watch or the dude in the camera well with the tablet.

An old gag from the hippie era used to hold, “Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean someone isn’t watching you.” And just because baseball in 1962 or 2018 got paranoid about high-tech cheating, it didn’t mean that people weren’t doing it, either. Mike Fiers exposed the Astros doing it. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s investigation is certain to turn up more.

And don’t think fans don’t have the occasional hand in it. Bob Buhl and Joey Jay were exposed by Cub fans who recognised them and warned the Cub bullpen. Days after the Red Sox were caught taking a bite of the Apple Watch, a Yankee fan decided to do Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez a favour at the plate. Dickson tells it better:

[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.”

That, Dickson wrote, may have been the first time a fan was thrown out of a game for sign stealing. By the way, Sanchez’s plate appearance ended with a bloop single to send home the fifth Yankee run in a 6-1 win.

Dickson has added a chapter around the Red Sox’s Applegate: “It would appear, at least at this writing near the end of the 2018 season, that the specter of electronic sign-stealing has not raised its head.” I wonder if he wishes now that he’d waited until next year (no pun intended), when Astrogate will be resolved one way or the other, to bring forth The Hidden Language of Baseball‘s second edition. I know I do.

It didn’t start with Astrogate

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Leo Durocher’s taste for baseball espionage didn’t stop with the 1951 Giants’ clubhouse spyglass and buzzer to the bullpen.

The Astrogate watch continues apace. Commissioner Rob Manfred and his bloodhounds have widened the dragnet. They’re now said to be asking players “associated with the organization what they know about a range of alleged [electronic] sign-stealing techniques” in 2017 and in 2018-2019.”

And, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, still-active players who tell the truth “can expect leniency in exchange.” It ought to be interesting at minimum when we discover at last which players knew what or did what.

The bloodhounds will look into such devices, Passan says, as “‘buzzing,’ via the use of Band-Aid-like wearable stickers; furtive earpieces; pitch-picking algorithms; and other potential methods of sign-stealing.”

In other words, the probe is going above and beyond just a camera beyond center field transmitting real-time signs to a television set posted in the Astro clubhouse where someone, who knows whom just yet, sent the stolen sign to the man at the plate with a big bang or two on a large plastic trash can. Cheating’s gone as high tech as real world espionage.

It’s almost enough to make you pine for the Good Old Days of the Grand Old Game. When just about the most high-tech chicanery you could uncover in a baseball game involved buzzers and telescopes, whether hand-held Wollensak spy glasses a la the 1951 Giants or hobby-shop telescopes on tripods. An eventual World Series contestant thought of that one in 1948.

The Indians had a three-game lead in the American League as of 20 August, not to mention a four-game shutout streak, after Hall of Famer Satchel Paige threw the fourth straight shutout at the White Sox in Chicago. The next day, Hall of Famer Bob Lemon extended the shutout innings streak to 47 innings before the White Sox pulled out a 3-2 win at the last minute, and the Indians went on to lose eleven of their next eighteen games.

That dropped the Indians to three behind after Labour Day. And, wrote then-first baseman (and future coach and front office exec) Eddie Robinson, in his memoir Lucky Me, it prompted “one of our hitters” (Robinson didn’t say whom) to suggest that desperate times called for a desperate measure:

We picked a spot in the Municipal Stadium scoreboard in center field, and placed one of our pitchers out there with a telescope sitting on a tripod. Our pitcher would let us know when he had the opposing catcher’s signals. We had one of the grounds crew dressed in a white uniform sit in the bleachers alongside the scoreboard. For the hitters who wanted the signals, he’d hold his legs together for a fastball, spread them for a curve ball, and get up and walk around if he didn’t have the sign.

So if anyone watching a late 1948 game in the old Mistake on the Lake saw a man in white next to the scoreboard opening and closing his legs and walking around, he wasn’t doing one of the dances men do when they need the men’s room desperately but are just as desperate not to miss the action on the field before the sides changed between innings.

“Some of our hitters, including me, didn’t want the [stolen] signs,” Robinson wrote, partially because Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who’d been a spring training instructor for those Indians, told him just to hit what he saw. “Of course, Hornsby was so good he could just react to the pitch,” Robinson continued. “I probably shouldn’t have followed his advice because I wasn’t as good a hitter and needed all the help I could get. I should’ve been looking for pitches.”

Starting with the nightcap of a Labour Day doubleheader, the 1948 Indians won 20 of their final 26 games including the famous pennant tiebreaker against the Red Sox. Robinson swore the Indians never tried their telescopic theft on the road including in Fenway Park (where the scoreboard sat invitingly at the bottom of the Green Monster, then and now) or in the World Series. (The Indians beat the Spahn-and-Sain Boston Braves in six games.)

“I’ve always thought sign stealing from way out there was overrated,” Robinson wrote, “and it rarely if ever has had any impact on the outcome of a game.”

The key may be “rarely.” The Indians fell to four and a half back by Labour Day before the string to win the pennant. The ’51 Giants—with their center field clubhouse Wollensak spyglass and buzzer to the bullpen for sign-stealing—came back from a thirteen-game deficit on 11 August to force the fabled pennant playoff.

And manager Leo Durocher didn’t exactly retire his intelligence operations when he left the Giants a year after managing them to a World Series sweep against a later crew of Indians. The Lip got very creative when he turned up managing the Cubs in the late 1960s-early 1970s, including their lively 1969 National League East race with the Miracle Mets. Enough to make his ’51 Giants resemble the Flintstones.

During the thick of the Watergate scandal, Victor Lasky recorded a very credible history of previous White House and other politically-based crimes and published it under the title It Didn’t Start with Watergate. Baseball historian Paul Dickson’s delivered an updated edition of his 2003 book The Hidden Language of Baseball. He could have subtitled it, plausibly, It Didn’t Start with Astrogate.

Dickson talks about sign stealing in just about all its ways, shapes, and forms. Including that Durocher often had the opposition clubhouse bugged with eavesdropping devices. “[Hall of Famer] Gaylord Perry, pitching for [the Giants], later related that when the Giants detected this, they held team meetings to loudly discuss bogus pitching plans just to confuse the Cubs.”

Durocher probably wasn’t the only Cub skipper or brain truster with a flair for technological espionage, either. Charlie Metro—once one of the Cubs’ infamous early 1960s College of Coaches managerial rotation—revealed those Cubs used a closed-circuit camera whose receiver was in “a little room” behind the dugout that wasn’t unlocked until game time.

Metro himself had the rig dismantled when he became the Cubs’ third and final manager—er, head coach—during 1962. “I didn’t like the device,” he said, “and, besides, our batters were so poor they couldn’t hit the ball even if they knew what was coming.”

As a matter of face, Dickson wrote further, the 1977 Rangers were so convinced that the Yankees were bugging visiting teams a la Durocher that they once had the Yankee Stadium visitors clubhouse swept by an electronics expert.

The Rangers should have known if anyone did, Dickson revealed: when Yankee manager Billy Martin managed the Rangers earlier in the 1970s, Martin used their closed-circuit television system to steal opposition signs on their behalf. You can’t bug the enemy clubhouse! Only we can bug the enemy clubhouse!

When Hall of Famer Frank Robinson managed the Orioles in 1990, Dickson wrote, he thought the White Sox were up to a little tech espionage—he caught White Sox coach Joe Nossek, a reputed sign-stealing expert, behind the first base dugout with a walkie talkie to send Oriole dugout signs to White Sox skipper Jeff Torborg.

The next year, Robinson caught onto the new Comiskey Park (known today as Guaranteed Rate Field) including a video room right behind the White Sox dugout, “providing manager Torborg and his coaches easy access to the catchers’ signs, as shown by the center field camera as well as the dugout and the third base coach.”

Robinson and the Orioles complained to the American League about the White Sox both times. Both times the league did three things: jack, diddley, and squat. “I’m convinced,” Robinson said, “that they are the one team who cheats.”

Remember: all that technological spookery from off the field is/was against the formal rules of the game and, even if it hadn’t been, was still considered above and beyond the normal gamesmanship pale. Coaches can decipher and steal dugout signs; players can steal them on the bases, and nobody would really call for an investigation. Cameras off the field and bugging devices in the dugout? Unlawful.

And, as The MVP Machine co-author Ben Lindbergh reminds us, whether or not such off-field-based espionage really did you some big favours in the end—the ’51 Giants had that thirteen-game deficit comeback but lost the World Series; the 2017 Astros, not yet shown to be doing it on the road somehow, were better on the road than home until the postseason—doesn’t make it right.

The Astros’ brand of sign-stealing was more brazen than most, and possibly longer-lasting. In its 2017 form, at least, it’s also easier to see, now that we know what we’re looking and listening for. (They didn’t have YouTube, Twitter, and sound-processing software in 1899.) That’s embarrassing for baseball, so the Astros will pay in some way for their crimes. While the baseball world waits to hear Houston’s sentence, it will wrestle anew with some of the sport’s peskiest questions. How widespread is sign-stealing? Can (and should) sign-stealers be stopped? And maybe most unanswerable: How well does sign-stealing work, anyway?

If it’s not old-fashioned on-the-field gamesmanship, it doesn’t matter how well it works for you. Just because you didn’t commit history’s first murder doesn’t acquit you if you tried but failed to commit murder today. Just because your team isn’t the first to commit high-tech sign espionage from off the field doesn’t acquit you if you get caught, either, and it doesn’t matter if it didn’t do you the favours people think it did. Just ask Watergate’s version of Car 54, Where Are You.

Now, something really scary. I pondered it aloud early on during Astrogate, but it’s worth revisiting for now. Trevor Bauer, pitcher, is as well known for his hobby of building and flying camera-wielding drones (he once sliced a finger repairing one during the 2016 World Series, when he pitched for the Indians) as for his unusual training methods.

Bauer once demonstrated his drones to television technicians for potential game coverage techniques, including showing them a panorama flight around Progressive Field and following Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin around the bases when Naquin hit an inside-the-park home run in a game.

Don’t assume someone isn’t pondering Bauer’s drones and their prospects for sign-stealing once they master the building and deployment of those drones. Or, if somebody actually dreams that up, some team or maybe even an umpiring crew preparing strategic defense initiatives. (Wouldn’t that be a sight at the old ball game—time called to shoot down drones?)

If you think that can’t really happen here, I have an Antarctican beach club to sell you cheap. Because whatever comes down upon the Astros and anyone else Manfred and his bloodhounds uncover as guilty of off-field-based sign espionage, and whatever heavy sanctions Manfred drops on the culprits, boys will be boys. Always have, always will.