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.

Mr. Crane, Astrogate IS about baseball

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Astros owner Jim Crane talking to the press, presumably without police protection, on another occasion.

“If you want to talk about baseball, I’ll talk about baseball,” said Astros owner Jim Crane to an inquiring reporter at this week’s owners’ meetings at Arlington’s Live! By Loew’s luxury hotel. “What else do you want to talk about?” And then two police officers shepherded Crane away.

If Crane was trying to say he wasn’t going to talk about Astrogate, here’s a bulletin for him: Astrogate is about baseball. It’s about cheating in baseball, it’s about the Astros rigging an off-field camera tied to a clubhouse television set for stealing signs, it’s about violating baseball’s specific rules against that kind of sign stealing, it’s about the likelihood that they weren’t the only such extralegal reconnaissance operation.

It’s about playing the game the right way, as former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers said outright when he blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astros Intelligence Agency last week.

If none of that is baseball, we should love knowing what Crane thinks is baseball. Or what he thinks baseball is. Either way Crane offered as bad a look as the police presence at the owners’ meetings, part of which moved him away from legitimate questioning about something that is very much baseball.

Early during the Watergate scandal, Barry Goldwater said it started to smell like Teapot Dome. Early during Astrogate, I said it started to smell like the Black Sox scandal. The references weren’t just to those scandals’ gravity but to their attempted coverups. Richard Nixon in 1973 tried to get away with saying, “One year of Watergate is enough.” Crane seems to believe almost two weeks of Astrogate are enough.

Nixon’s mistake was not demanding names, places, and heads on platters from the moment he learned about the Watergate break-in. Crane’s making a mistake if he isn’t demanding names, places, and heads on platters over Astrogate. If Manfred needed any more ammunition to take after the Astros, whom he has in his specific sights for now, Crane just handed the commissioner a loaded Uzi.

Trying to say Astrogate isn’t about baseball is like trying to say Teapot Dome—in which Warren Harding’s interior secretary Albert Fall (talk about the perfect name for the job!) sold Navy oil reserves to oil baron Harry Sinclair without formal sanction or competitive bidding—was much ado about Lipton’s Tea.

Crane would do himself and Astroworld alike a phenomenal favour if he shies away from stonewalling legitimately inquiring journalists. They’re trying only to get the answers fans who support his team and the game itself want very badly. Other teams want those answers too, even those who operated similar reconnaissance to counter the Astros or otherwise.

And if Crane wants to, he can look at it this way: They’re trying to get the answers he himself should want as the owner of a team whose game-changing success run was compromised by who knows yet how many people that couldn’t resist the temptation to just that little extra edge, whatever good it did or didn’t do, extra-legally.

The questions out of Crane’s mouth to his organisation should be, “What did you know? When did you know? And who are the wisenheimers whose brainchild this was in the first place? I want names. I want places. I want heads. And I want them five minutes ago.”

He needs to be the Astro Hoover, beating, sweeping, and cleaning. Baseball observers ask what his general manager Jeff Luhnow knew and when he knew it. Manfred already has former assistant GM Brandon Taubman under questioning for taunting women reporters over domestic violence, and don’t think for a minute Manfred won’t ask Taubman what he knew and when he knew about the AIA, too.

Another Luhnow aide, Kevin Goldstein, is liable to face interrogation over his 2017 e-mail suggestion that Astro advance scouts—enough of whom seem to have quaked at the idea—use video cameras in the stands to help develop other ways of high-tech sign stealing.

Just before Astrogate began, Crane moved his son, Jared, into the Astros’ executive suite, which meant he had to move Reid Ryan out into a lesser role. Which meant Ryan’s father, Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, leaving the Astros and saying, perhaps tellingly, “I will not be back with the club and will leave it at that.”

It’s not impossible that Manfred or his Astrogate bloodhounds have thoughts about asking Ryan if there was just a little more than a father angry about a son’s demotion prompting his departure. Especially since it happened five days before Fiers’s revelations hit the fan.

Crane doesn’t need to tell even one reporter that he’s only going to talk about baseball as if Astrogate is much ado about a spacecraft hatch. And he doesn’t need the cops to hustle him away as if he needs to be in the witness protection program.

He’s a businessman one of whose companies is involved in playing a game that millions love, in Astroworld and all over, but which has a serious enough issue that strikes at the very integrity of the game, the idea that everybody plays by prescribed rules and shouldn’t be trying extra-legal tactics to prevail in or profit from a contest or even a championship series.

That’s why the hoo-has over the Black Sox scandal (and the decade of rampant gambling/game throwing that nourished it in the first place), All-Star ballot-box stuffing (1957, on behalf of the Reds; 2015, on behalf of the Royals; others), Pete Rose’s Rule 21(d) violations, actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances (and the Selig era’s foot-dragging over it), and the ultimate confirmation (first in 2001) that The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant! in 1951.

If Crane doesn’t want to look at things that way, he can look at at it as a businessman: Astrogate stands to cost his baseball organisation millions—in fines, international bonus room, draft pick losses, whatever Manfred decides.

Any businessman cares about the health of his industry, no matter that he loves to one-up the competition at every legitimate chance. Crane should be very alarmed that similar hits could be laid upon other baseball teams running their own extra-legal espionage and compromising theirs and maybe, just maybe, the entire game’s credibility, too.

He should be alarmed likewise at Astrogate’s impact on his team’s credibility. It’s compromised. The Astros’ front office may have developed something of a reputation for ruthless lacking in people skills, but the team on the field built a reputation for dominant play by high character people, including some who were characters in the best ways. Astrogate now makes them look like shameless cheaters.

“When players discuss (off-field high-tech sign stealing) accusations,” Thomas Boswell wrote about the 1951 Giants and similar espionage, “it is with contempt in their voices, not amusement.”

A spitballer or corker can be caught by an umpire, who has the right to examine or confiscate equipment. Both teams play on the same damp base paths and inclined foul lines, even if they’ve been doctored a bit for home-field advantage.

But an elaborate system of sign stealing—with an old pro in the art of signs in a hidden space—is almost impossible to catch. Umps and foes are defenseless. The game becomes fundamentally unfair because knowing what’s coming is a big deal.

(Damp base paths? The 1962 Giants’ grounds crew turned the dirt around Candlestick Park’s first base into a swamp in a bid to slow down Maury Wills’s road running. Inclined foul lines? The 1950s Phillies’ grounds crews sculpted the third base line in Shibe Park into a ridge to keep Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn’s deft little bunts up the line from rolling foul so Mr. Putt Putt could beat them out for hits.)

Once or twice someone caught onto the Astroplot. Notably enough then-White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar, a year before his tragic in-dugout brain hemorrhage, smelling enough of a rat—when he heard the boom! boom! of the clubhouse trash can being banged, sending the stolen sign deciphered on a live TV screen to an Astro hitter—that he called his catcher to the mound to switch the signs up.

“There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting the bat rack every time a changeup signal got put down,” said Farquhar, now the pitching coach for the White Sox’s Winston-Salem (A-advanced) affiliate. “After the third one, I stepped off. I was throwing some really good changeups and they were getting fouled off. After the third bang, I stepped off.”

Crane saying he’ll talk baseball but not Astrogate, which is about baseball whether he likes it or not, makes him look further out of touch if not completely indifferent. A police presence at the owners’ meetings looks strange enough by itself without a couple of the gendarmes shielding Crane from valid questions about a rot in his team.

Try to picture the look of police shielding NBC chieftain David Sarnoff or CBS emperor Bill Paley from questioning about the quiz show chiselings of the mid-to-late 1950s. Sarnoff and Paley may not have wanted to own the fixings on Twenty-One or The $64,000 Question, since they weren’t exactly the masterminds, but neither did they call the cops when the press and Congressional investigators finally came a-calling.

Better yet, try to picture the look of the fuzz shielding American presidents, from the incumbent on back, way back, from legitimate questioning about why they forgot there was a crazy little thing called the Constitution that doesn’t, as the somewhat notorious incumbent prefers to believe otherwise, let them just do whatever they damn well please in office.

Those looks would be terrible. And it’s a terrible look for a baseball owner whose team has won, in three seasons, three American League Wests and one World Series, got to within eight outs of winning a Second series, but now looks as though the rules against off-the-field electronic video sign stealing either didn’t apply or didn’t exist.

Astrogate’s gut check for Manfred and baseball

2019-11-20 RobManfred

Rob Manfred must broaden the Astrogate probe, even if it means he’s a dead duck with the owners who’ve extended him only through 2024.

Baseball commissioner Robert Manfred says he’s going to throw the book, drop the hammer, lower the boom, and call curtains on the Astros if his investigators find they really did rig a real-time, beyond-center-field camera to a clubhouse television set to steal opponents’ pitch signs in 2017 and beyond. And then he’s really going to get mad.

Except for one little detail. “I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved,” the commissioner said as the owners’ meetings began in Arlington, Texas Tuesday. “We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

Not so fast, warns The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, who first exposed Astrogate with Evan Dillich a week before the owners’ meetings, when through them former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astros’ illegal 2017 surveillance theft.

For one thing, Rosenthal and Dillich wrote in their first story, “Electronic sign stealing is not a single-team issue.” And that, Rosenthal reminds us now, was before they even mentioned the Astros.

I’ve made the point of saying that the Astros may be just the most flagrant about it but they’re hardly the only ones trying it. Last week, I wrote, “Reality check: The Astros—or whomever among them created their [Astros Intelligence Agency]—aren’t the only such electronic thieves, merely the latest to be caught red Octobered.” The Red Sox tried it with an AppleWatch, also in 2017, and got fined for their trouble.

Manfred then said in no uncertain terms that “future violations of [that] type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.” And last February Manfred announced augmented rules clarifying: no off-field electronic camera sign stealing, which was already against the rules in the first place.

Apparently, that part still needs to be made clear to a lot of people. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Stealing signs while running the bases or on the coaching lines or in the shallow outfield* is old-fashioned gamesmanship. Stealing them by way of off-the-field devices was long against the rules and amounted to genuine baseball crime. And that was before anyone though of technology beyond binoculars or spy glasses.

The new rules this year also meant no monitors in clubhouses and tunnels, and every team required to audit every in-house camera, its purpose, its wiring, and where it can be viewed. Rosenthal and Dillich exposed the Astros’ 2017 techno-shenanigans. Manfred’s investigation may well turn up 2018 and even 2019 electro-chicanery.

Astrogate shouldn’t stop with the Astros no matter how brazen their operation or how unapologetic their Twitterpated. Or, no matter how risky it might actually be for Manfred to expand the probe, discover more franchises actually doing something close to the AIA, but make enemies enough among the owners who employ him that he could be dumped in due course.

The commissioner’s official powers to act in the best interest of baseball, installed from the creation of the job in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, aren’t exactly the same as getting away with it when he does act that way. It only began when Happy Chandler’s employers cashiered him in 1950.

You never quite know which unnerved that generation of owners more, Chandler allowing the Dodgers to sign Jackie Robinson and break baseball’s colour line or Chandler inadvertently screwing up baseball’s first big television deal two years later: he sold World Series rights to the Gillette shaving products company for $1 million a year over six years, but Gillette in turn sold the rights to NBC for $4 million a year.

Fay Vincent eventually learned the hard way that acting in baseball’s best interest still meant his head on a plate, or at least resigning before he could be executed. The owners weren’t thrilled over his intervention in the 1990 spring lockout, his direct involvement in labour issues, and (perhaps especially) his bid to strong-arm three Yankee officials including manager Buck Showalter out of baseball over standing up for drug-troubled relief pitcher Steve Howe despite Howe’s seventh such violation.

The owners in Chander’s, Vincent’s, and Manfred’s times still share one trait: the commissioner’s powers to enforce the good of the game won’t always get past the idea that the good of the game means making money for the owners. Or not costing them serious money, if Manfred’s serious about heavy Astrogate fines for now.

There’ve been times Manfred appeared to be in somewhat over his head. He’s cracked down impressively enough on domestic violence involving baseball people, but he hasn’t exactly been a tower of strength when it comes to things like umpire accountability. But if he finds his surety enough to go all the way in finding extra-legal espionage is more rampant than just the Astros or even just one or two other teams, Manfred risks skipping lame duck status (he’s been extended through 2024) and going right to dead duck. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

“To do the job without angering an owner is impossible,” Vincent said as he left office and Brewers owner Bud Selig became “interim” commissioner. “I can’t make all twenty-eight of my bosses happy. People have told me I’m the last commissioner. If so, it’s a sad thing. I hope [the owners] learn this lesson before too much damage is done.”

Another problem is that Manfred’s bloodhounds probably can’t expose every last extra-legal sign stealing operation by every last major league team, as Rosenthal notes. “Is it possible the Astros were the most flagrant violators? Of course,” Rosenthal writes. “But the risk in making an example of the Astros is that other franchises almost certainly stole signs illegally. Baseball potentially would face accusations of selective punishment.”

Why focus so hard on the Astros in the first place, then? “[B]ecause the information we had was on the Astros,” Rosenthal continues. “We also heard—and continue to hear—about possible violations by a number of other clubs. But hearing is one thing; confirming is another. We do not report gossip. We report only what we confirm, from multiple sources with first-hand knowledge.”

To revisit questions I asked early in Astrogate, which players will come to expose which teams’ extralegal sign intelligence in Fiers’s wake? Who’ll be the Astros’ or any other teams’ Alexander Butterfield, the man who installed but subsequently exposed the Nixon White House’s taping system?

Reported whisperings from the Astros’ circles indicate a belief that any Astro espionage was nothing more than countering what the other guys were doing. If that’s why the Astros did it, Rosenthal writes, “their people need to tell baseball’s investigators what they know, or else hold their peace.”

Does it matter, as some Astro defenders suggest in various social media places, that the AIA didn’t produce a better 2017 home record than road record? That they won five less at home than on the road in ’17? That they scored only 61 more runs at home in 2017 than in 2016 against 111 more runs on the road? Actually, it doesn’t matter. Rifle through volumes of history and discover some of its most notorious crimes were committed on behalf of goals that weren’t achieved but weren’t considered crimes any the less.

The Watergate burglaries didn’t deliver the desired results, but that didn’t legalise burglary or obstruction of justice, either. Whatever the Astros wanted to accomplish as they became the powerhouse they’ve become, the rules then and now say they did it not with old-fashioned, on-the-field gamesmanship but old-fashioned, off-the-field high-tech cheating. Remember—baseball’s history is littered with teams attempting off-the-field cheating with binoculars, rifle sights, hand-held telescopes, and hidden-wire buzzers. The 1951 National League pennant race was only the most notorious until now.

Some think Manfred wouldn’t dare discipline other marquee franchises if he and his investigators discover they, too, tried more than a little applied advanced electronic theft. Except that he did just that to the Red Sox and the Yankees in August 2017 over Applegate, even if it was just a wrist slap. And, to the Cardinals a year earlier, over then-scouting director Chris Correa’s hacking into the Astros’ scouting computer database. Manfred banned Correa from baseball for life and ordered the Cardinals to hand the Astros $2 million and two choice draft picks over Correa’s hacking. (It wasn’t just a baseball violation, either: Correa also went to the calaboose for 46 months for his trouble.)

Manfred may have to walk a fine tightrope investigating Astrogate, but when he wants to be he’s not afraid to throw the book, drop the hammer, lower the boom, and call curtains on baseball’s marquee or legacy franchises if need be. The key is, “when he wants to be.” Whether it’s the Astros alone, or several more teams operating their own versions of the AIA, the punishments can’t be mere wrist slaps this time. Even at the risk of Manfred’s long-term job survival.

And there’s that not so little matter of baseball’s integrity. “People want the game played consistent with our rules,” Manfred said Tuesday, “and feel it’s important that we figure out exactly what happened here and take steps to make sure that it doesn’t happen in the future by imposing appropriate discipline.” Not exactly as eloquent as A. Bartlett Giamatti was about cheating, but certainly to the point.

Manfred’s suggested heavy fines as well as taking away choice draft positions and picks and suspending offenders from international scouting. He’s done it before, and in 2017 to boot. That’s when he slapped the Braves by stripping them of thirteen international prospects (a $16.48 million loss) and banning freshly resigned general manager John Coppolella for life, over illegal signing bonus arrangements and trying to sign an underage player.

So, what if Manfred and his Astrogate bloodhounds do turn up unlawful electronic sign espionage from far more than just the Astros? What if it is more than just one, two, or three other teams? What if the hounds find those culprits and learn they did it because they really thought everyone else did it? Since when does everybody doing it make it right, for the Astros or anyone else?

Talk about a gut check. Astrogate’s giving one hell of a gut check to Manfred. And, to baseball itself.

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* Sign stealing or relaying isn’t just for hitters, sometimes. Once in awhile it isn’t even for the opposing team. Just ask former Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans—now a Modern Era Committee candidate for the Hall of Fame—and former Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett . . . who were sort of stealing their own signs once upon a time.

Evans once wanted a little extra field positioning help, so he and Barrett had a brilliant idea: Barrett would relay the Red Sox’s pitch signs behind his back to Evans from second base, and Evans, knowing which way the pitch was liable to be hit, would adjust his positioning accordingly.

Except that one fine day the Blue Jays’ bullpen caught onto the Evans/Barrett positioning signals . . . and started stealing Barrett’s signs and relaying them to their hitters! This is comparable to the bank robber discovering the bank empty but the vault wide open.

Astrogate: Scouts’ dishonour?

2019-11-17 MinuteMaidParkAstrogate went from bad to worse this weekend. As in, it may not have been enough for them merely to train a center field camera toward the plate so someone in the clubhouse could steal signs watching television and send them out to the hitters by banging the can.

Now we learn an assistant to general manager Jeff Luhnow suggested, in a August 2017 e-mail, that not only might advance scouts test out stealing signs from the stands, but that they might have wanted to think about using cameras to do it.

And it’s going to prove what ESPN analyst Buster Olney says: the litmus test for whether baseball commissioner Rob Manfred will prove a strong commissioner capable of securing and truly upholding the game’s integrity or “a white-belted high-school crossing guard either incapable of controlling [teams], or someone they believe will be unwilling to come down with a disciplinary hammer.”

On Saturday night, the two Athletic writers to whom former Astro pitcher Mike Fiers blew the Astrogate whistle last week, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich, reported that they received a copy of the August 2017 e-mail asking the Astro scouts to look into picking up signs from dugouts.

Rosenthal and Dillich emphasised they were sent the e-mail on condition the sender and the author’s identity not be revealed just yet. But ESPN’s Jeff Passan, citing assorted sources in positions to know, wrote Sunday morning that Kevin Goldstein, special assistant to Luhnow, was the e-mail’s author. And the text of the e-mail, in which Goldstein urged Astro scouts to go video in figuring out new ways to steal opposition signs, is damning:

One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.

Both Passan and the Rosenthal-Dillich duo emphasise the idea didn’t exactly receive unanimous approval from the scouts in question. To read their description is to surmiser that many of those scouts probably wanted to throw up.

“Scouts discussed sign stealing with the executive outside of email as well, on phone calls and in a group Slack channel,” wrote Rosenthal and Dillich. “Multiple Astros scouts said they were appalled by the possibility they would be asked to use a camera—and said that some scouts indeed voiced as much to management. Another scout noted a generally confounded feeling amongst the group by the overall request.”

“Some [scouts] were intrigued by the idea, sources who received the email said,” Passan wrote, “while others were bothered by the thought of pointing cameras from the stands toward opposing teams’ dugouts, a plan that could have earned them scorn within the scouting community if caught.”

Once upon a time, as Watergate unfurled further, the question became what did then-President Richard Nixon know and when did he know it. No less than Nixon’s fellow Republican, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, would remember thinking even in the early Watergate going, “This is beginning to smell like Teapot Dome.”

As of Sunday morning, Astrogate unfurls even further and the question now becomes what Luhnow knew and when did the GM know it. Don’t be shocked if a lot of baseball people start saying of Astrogate, “This is beginning to smell like the Black Sox scandal.”

When Astrogate first broke early last week, Luhnow responded with this, as cited by Forbes: “I know in the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot of news surrounding the Houston Astros and it’s not been good news. I’m disappointed in that. I think these incidents and topics are not tied together, but they obviously have come one after another, it seems like. It is disappointing and if there is an issue we need to address we will address it.”

Somehow, calling something like Astrogate merely “disappointing” resonates the same as would someone calling the Hindenburg disaster a little flare-up. And neither Goldstein, Luhnow, the Astros as an organisation, nor Major League Baseball would comment when asked by The Athletic, ESPN, or Yahoo! Sports.

Officially, and also when Astrogate first broke, the Astros said only this in a formal statement: “Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time.”

Teapot Dome was a bribery scandal involving choice Navy oil reserves, a Cabinet official in President Warren Harding’s administration, and a once-fabled oil magnate, not breaking into a major party’s national headquarters. The Black Sox scandal involved players throwing the 1919 World Series for fun and profit, not off-the-field sign espionage.

But they, too, included coverup attempts. It took two years and Harding’s death before Interior Secretary Albert Fall’s Teapot Dome profiteering by bribe was exposed in full. It took almost the entire 1920 season before the 1919 World Series fix was confirmed and exposed. It took a little more than two years to expose the apparent depth of the Watergate coverup.

The Black Sox scandal could have destroyed baseball, which was buffeted long enough by gambling elements including players and even coaches fixing games for fun and profit and not in that order. Astrogate threatens baseball in a time when the Astros probably aren’t the only team engaging in electronic espionage but may just be the most flagrant at it.

What’s missing among other things is who was the Astros’ Alexander Butterfield, who installed but in due course revealed the Nixon White House taping system. Whom among the Astros’ people, at whose instigation, installed the center field camera tied to the clubhouse television set from which stolen signs could be sent to Astro hitters with a bang? And which one of them might become the one to own up to it?

Understand this much: Scouts in the stands can pick off signs on the field any old time they choose, so long as it’s with their own eyes or even a pair of binoculars. They do it on behalf of giving their team an edge in games to come, not the games they’re watching that involve coming opponents. But using cameras for sign deciphering in the stands even for scouts doing advance oppo research is verboten, formally.

When Manfred fined both the Red Sox and the Yankees in August 2017 over high-tech cheating attempts—the Red Sox were caught using an Apple Watch to steal Yankee signs; the Yankees were found using an inappropriate dugout telephone the previous year—he included in his decision, “Moreover, all 30 Clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

That means the Astros got the word about technocheating and continued flouting it anyway. Which means that the Astro Intelligence Agency behaved as a baseball law unto itself, thumbing its nose to Manfred with one hand while flipping him the proverbial bird with the other.

In that August 2017 ruling, Manfred made clear that neither the Red Sox nor the Yankee administrations knew of the chicaneries down below. But the commissioner now has no choice otherwise with Goldstein being a Luhnow aide. He has to step up, step out, and demand to know, for openers, whether Luhnow knew, what did he know, and when did he know. He may even have to ask the same of Astros owner Jim Crane.

Manfred also has to demand a complete accounting elsewhere around the game on behalf of the principle enunciated by his predecessor twice removed—at the time the man was president of the National League—when denying the suspension appeal of a pitcher caught with ball doctoring material in his glove:

[Cheating is] not the result of impulse, borne of frustration or anger or zeal as violence is, but are rather acts of a cool, deliberate, premeditated kind. Unlike acts of impulse or violence, intended at the moment to vent frustration or abuse another, acts of cheating are intended to alter the very conditions of play to favour one person. They are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner—that all participants play under identical rules and conditions. Acts of cheating destroy that necessary foundation and thus strike at the essence of a contest. They destroy faith in the games’ integrity and fairness; if participants and spectators alike cannot assume integrity and fairness and proceed from there, the contest cannot in its essence exist . . . Cheating is contrary to the whole purpose of playing to determine a winner fairly and cannot be simply contained; if the game is to flourish and engage public confidence, cheating must be clearly condemned with an eye to expunging it.

—A. Bartlett Giamatti, “Decision in the Appeal of Kevin Gross,” 1987. (Emphases added.)

It’s not a stretch to imagine Goldstein acting entirely on his own in suggesting scouts wield cameras for sign stealing research. If he did, he put Luhnow and maybe even Crane into the hapless position of knowing no more about the underlings’ chicaneries than Richard Nixon knew about the Watergate break-in that happened the night before he picked up a Florida newspaper at his Key Biscayne retreat to read all about it.

If Luhnow and even Crane knew nothing about the Astro Intelligence Agency until Fiers blew the whistle last week, are the GM and the owner really working in-house to get to the nuts, bolts, and bytes of it? Did they really start the moment Rosenthal and Dillich first sent forth Fiers’ shot to be heard ’round the world?

Who would it be if it went down to that? Scouting director Pete Putila? Manager A.J. Hinch? Former Astros bench coach/current Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who’s already thought to have had a hand in the Astros’ 2017 sign stealing? Former 2017 Astros designated hitter/newly-hired Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who’s also suspected of having a role in setting the system up?

Fiers himself hasn’t named names yet. Cora and Beltran are now said to be cooperating “fully” with the Manfred administration’s probe; Cora was interviewed last week. Beltran is due to be interviewed. It won’t affect the Red Sox unless it turns out they tried a little espionage themselves during the season that ended in their 2018 World Series championship. It won’t affect the Mets unless Beltran is found culpable and suspended to open the season.

“There’s nothing illegal about studying your opposite team,” Beltran told reporters in New York. “We all have the same opportunity to look out for information and tendencies. I love and respect the game. I will be a student of it and apply all the lessons.” Studying the opposition isn’t illegal, but deploying off-field technology to steal signs during the game you’re playing is, according to baseball’s rules.

Someone else is bound to turn a name or two over sooner or later, either to a baseball investigator, to Rosenthal and Dillich, to Passan, to someone. It could be someone still in the Astro apparatus. It could be someone formerly in it. It could be someone else digging as arduously as Rosenthal, Dillich, Passan, and others.

Luhnow and the Astros administration already looked terrible in the Brandon Taubman affair before last month’s World Series, when they first reacted to the then-assistant GM’s taunting of women reporters over relief pitcher Roberto Osuna’s previous domestic violence suspension by trying to shoot and smear the Sports Illustrated messenger.

Now they look even worse regarding Astrogate. The since-fired Taubman is still being questioned by the Manfred administration over being so fornicating glad the Astros got Osuna while still under domestic violence suspension, but he’s also liable to be questioned about what if anything he, too, knew about Astrogate.

Do Luhnow and Crane realise this entire scheme has already compromised their rebuilding of the Astros into the powerhouse they’ve become? For an organisation priding itself on getting in front of several curves, the Astros’ leadership still leaves the appearance that they’re letting everyone else get ahead of the one that could prove their knockdown pitch.

The deeper goes Astrogate, the deeper run perceptions already running amok that the Astros don’t trust even the top-of-the-line players they have to play winning baseball without extracurricular subterfuge. There are probably other teams around the Show watching Astrogate unfurl further and wondering when their in-house intelligence operatives will be caught, if they have them.

And, no, going after those Astro players who accepted the electronically stolen signs won’t really help. It would be the same as New York police legend Frank Serpico once described about his department’s rampant corruption in the 1960s and early 1970s: going after a few flunky cops (players) wasn’t the same as going after a culture that allowed it in the first place.

Astro fans deserve your sympathy. Memory runs to the long, sad years when their futilities and shortfalls provoked even the most stubborn among them to call them the Lastros. Now, in an era when few fans have had as much to savour as Astro fans have, Astrogate and other fooleries are liable to leave them calling the team something else—the Disastros.

Except that it’s not just the Astros’s disaster. It’s baseball’s, too.