From technocracy to roguery, the path to Astrogate

Winning Fixes Everything

When the Astros’s illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing of 2017-18 was exposed in November 2019, there also unfurled a concurrent portrait of the Astros’s organisational culture as ruthlessness run amok. In Jeff Luhnow’s Astroblanca, human life was cheap and the rules were that there were, mostly, no rules.

As delivered by the Athletic reporter who first unearthed Astrogate, Evan Drellich, Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess is as much a deep dive into a rogue baseball organisation as it is about a team that took a ticking time bomb MLB handed all thirty teams and decided detonating their own similar one just wasn’t enough.

The top rogue was Luhnow, who came to the Astros’ attention after remaking the Cardinals’ player development system successfully. He soon proved a technocrat to whom disagreement equaled treason and human considerations, nuisances, from his calculated tanking rebuild through the swamp of Astrogate staining the franchise’s first World Series title.

“Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is,” is what football legend Vince Lombardi really said. Luhnow lacked the moral compass to separate ends from means. Wanting the Astros to get ahead of everyone else on the field and in an analytically reoriented front office was one thing. Losing the plot about human elements and ethics?

“Luhnow was right that change is not easy,” writes Drellich, who’d been an Astros beat writer for the Houston Chronicle before 2017.

But he eliminated most any guardrails along the way. He had pressed forward in the face of pushback for so long, dating back go his time [with the Cardinals] as the maligned outsider. Eventually he was rewarded with the results he sought. But he didn’t do enough to ensure the wrong boundary was never tested . . .

Before hiring Luhnow, Astros owner Jim Crane tried to lure Andrew Friedman from the Rays. Friedman didn’t want to take a rebuild on, having proven he could steer the Rays to winning despite their meager budgets. In due course, Friedman went to the Dodgers, a team fabled for rebuilding on the fly and without fear of either spending or an authoritarian front office.

Astrogate’s exposure in November 2019 opened in turn the slow but sure unfurling of a concurrent Astros portrait in which they were governed by a technocracy that lost the human plot above and beyond mere data driving. No less than baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, handing down his Astrogate report in January 2020, pronounced Luhnow’s Astros organisation as a subhuman disaster:

[W]hile no one can dispute that Luhnow’s baseball operations department is an industry leader in analytics, it is very clear to me that the culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic . . . the baseball operations department’s insular culture—one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led . . . to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.

That “conduct,” of course, was the Astros taking mere replay room reconnaissance—decrypting signs between opposition catchers and pitchers, then using the old fashioned transmission of sending the intelligence to live baserunners to signal batters, a system used by more teams than just the Yankees, the Red Sox, and, yes, the Dodgers—and graduating to Astrogate’s espionage level.

Drellich reveals that the Astros began thinking outside the replay room reconnaissance box when they suspected the 2016 Rangers, against whom they’d been futile that season (fifteen losses in nineteen games; surrendering sixteen home runs in ten games at Arlington), had a live spy in the stands.

If they were right, it was also hardly unheard-of in the long log of baseball’s oldest sub-profession. But numerous teams long since shown to have done likewise, from the stands (the 1940 Tigers), the old hand-operated scoreboards (the 1948 Indians, the 1961 Reds), even beyond-center field clubhouses (the 1951 Giants), didn’t provoke aggrieved opponents to think about seeing and raising to the extent the Astros did, either. “[I]t remains the case,” Drellich writes, “that no team has been shown, through firm reporting or accounts, to have done something as blatant as Houston.”

In September 2016, Luhnow hired a Spanish-language translator, Derek Vigoa, who proved to have talents above and beyond language. Vigoa developed a spread sheet algorithm, Codebreaker, used to decipher opposing signs. By itself Codebreaker was neither cryptography (Drellich’s word) nor wrongdoing . . . unless it was used during a live game (the Astros did), not before or after it.

“The rules seemed to be an afterthought in Houston,” Drellich writes, “if they were a thought at all. Innovation, improvement—‘Data efficacy’—that was the mindset Luhnow had long fostered.” It was just such “data efficacy” that provoked Astrogate’s two main operatives, 2017 bench coach Alex Cora and 2017 designated hitter/de facto coach Carlos Beltrán, to conclude mere replay room reconnaissance and a mere spread sheet weren’t good enough.

They married Cora’s fascination with the uber-speed Edgertronic camera and Beltrán’s insistence on an extra monitor adjacent to the dugout to send the Astro Intelligence Agency light years beyond previously known methods of in-game espionage. They went from merely technologically savvy to full, above-and-beyond rogue.

Luhnow was a product of McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm infamous for making corporate cost-cutting and data-orientation into an art dark enough that too often such things as safety and human relationships were compromised, if not obliterated. (McKinsey was once brought in to tighten the ship at Disneyland, a ship-tightening that cut into maintenance costs deeply enough and may have contributed to two fatalities at the fabled theme park.)

When the Astros moved to re-evaluate and trim their scouting system if need be, Luhnow heeded an aide’s advice that they eliminate scouts lacking tech savvy. First, though, he wanted his old employer McKinsey’s endorsement. Then, he wanted the new tech-oriented scouting done by remote, dumping eight traveling scouts in August 2017, just as manager A.J. Hinch—who’d prove weak when it came to stopping Astrogate dead in its tracks—had begun working with them on postseason advance scouting.

Cora and Beltrán were respected as career-long students of the game, including and especially catching onto any small “tell” from an opponent that might give them a slight edge. Catching onto and exploiting such “tells” is part of old-fashioned gamesmanship. Training an illegally-mounted and operated real-time camera and monitor on the opposing battery isn’t even close to it.

That 2017 Astros roster was a roster to die for. But Drellich says Luhnow and his brain trust weren’t all that convinced they could get it done by themselves. “Communication was thin,” Drellich writes, “and relationships were strained. Technology was ubiquitous, and the goal was singularly to win. It’s hard to say the Astros were the most likely team in baseball to start cheating. But there couldn’t have been a team more poorly prepared to stop cheating.”

Especially after Manfred’s late-season memo to all teams, after he slapped the Yankees’ and Red Sox’s wrists over replay room and AppleWatch reconnaissance. Manfred, Drellich writes, made two large mistakes: aiming future punishments at managers and GMs; and, believing he’d just drawn a line in the sand.

Six days after that Manfred memo, the Astros played the White Sox in Chicago—and White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar smelled, and heard, a trash can rat. And Luhnow, as Manfred noted during his Astrogate report, never passed that 2017 memo down to others on the team.

The Astros and the Dodgers held each other in suspicion as that 2017 World Series began, but the worst the Dodgers might have done was simple replay room reconnaissance with the baserunner as the hitter’s tip. “[T]here is no known evidence,” Drellich writes, “that the Dodgers were doing something as flagrant as the Astros’ trash-can system.”

Manfred’s major Astrogate error was not anticipating “how important it would be to make sure he could confidently punish players, and by not pursuing the topic with the [Major League Baseball Players Association] in advance. Even with his experience with the steroids issue, he didn’t fully grasp how players could try to gain an edge through technology, nor what the reaction would be if he ever had to let players off the hook.”

Drellich cites former commissioner Fay Vincent saying baseball’s real Astrogate mistake was “thinking that the players and the owners don’t have to come together on major issues . . . The union should have been taking a leadership role and saying, ‘We can’t have the game hurt by this kind of cheating’.”

The author also cites former union attorney Gene Orza saying not so fast, Fay: “He doesn’t understand what a union does . . . The union does not have a higher calling for the quote-unquote good of the game . . . [it] is not about, first and foremost, the health of the game. It is about defending the players that are its constituency.”

Luhnow and Hinch, of course, were fired by Astros owner Jim Crane when Manfred’s Astrogate report came down. Cora left the Astros to manage the Red Sox to the 2018 World Series championship. (Those Rogue Sox had their own replay room reconnaissance operation at play, though only their video operator J.T. Watkins was held to account and canned.) But he left the Red Sox before they could fire him upon the Astrogate report. Both Hinch and Cora served their 2020 Astrogate suspensions and returned to the dugout after, Cora to the Red Sox and Hinch to the Tigers.

Hinch, Cora, and Beltrán have since been forthright about their Astrogate roles—or, in Hinch’s case, his failure to stop the AIA beyond smashing a couple of the extra dugout-adjacent monitors. But they’ve done it without giving detailed, play-by-play accounts. “It’s likely,” Drellich writes, “that the finger-pointing nature of any such discussion makes it difficult to go down that road while they still hope to work in baseball.”

Beltrán was hired to manage the Mets after the 2019 World Series but fired upon the Astrogate report without having managed even a spring training game for them. He served his 2020 suspension, became a 2021 analyst for the Yankees’ YES network, and has now returned to the Mets in a front office role. Recalling Beltrán’s admission to YES host Michael Kay—I wish I would have asked more questions about what we were doing—Drellich couldn’t resist: “Beltrán was as powerful a clubhouse presence as there was on the 2017 Astros, begging the question, what was stopping him from asking those questions?”

What overseeing a cultural environment that opened the door to baseball’s worst cheating scandal didn’t do to Luhnow, suing an owner probably did. So did the revelation that, despite orders from MLB investigators not to do so, he wiped much if not most of his cell phone data. Luhnow hasn’t returned to baseball since his suspension ended. (He now co-owns a pair of soccer teams, one in his native Mexico—his parents moved there from New York just before he was born—and one in Spain.)

With only five members of the 2017-18 Astros remaining, and under the combined leadership of manager Dusty Baker and since-departed GM James Click, the Astros beat the upstart Phillies in last year’s World Series. Straight, no chaser. But winning hasn’t yet disintegrated all of the Astrogate taint. Even if the entire team now is no longer held responsible for then, opposing fans still hammer the remaining 2017-18 team members with chea-ter! chea-ter! chants. Even including the unfairly-tainted Jose Altuve.

Luhnow’s data-dominant leadership approach hasn’t left the game, either. Baseball still struggles to balance between the value of analytics and the human men who play and manage the game. But don’t make the mistake of reading Winning Fixes Everything and concluding that analytics qua analytics begets cheating.

Gathering the deepest, above-and-beyond data and applying it to player development and advancement is a virtue. It doesn’t have to leave room for an Astrogate. In the hands of a less tunnel-visioned leader, under a less nerve-exposing atmosphere, it might not have done so.

Without the sort of resolution Vincent suggested, there may yet come something worse. Astrogate has informed us already, and Drellich now reminds us vividly, that it will no longer do to dismiss cheating merely by shrugging that boys will still be boys.

“I was floored. It was a massive story.”

Bang the can slowly!

The passage from the Astros’ dugout in Minute Maid Park to the clubhouse. The wires above the trash can connected to a monitor, presumably seated between the can and the Everlast bag, “exactly as the (sign stealing) setup had been described to me.” (2018 photograph by Evan Drellich, published this morning in The Athletic.)

Come Valentine’s Day, baseball will receive a gift that won’t exactly be a love letter, or even a mash note. It’s going to get Athletic reporter Evan Drellich’s account of Astrogate and the broader issues raised and/or revived by the 2017-18 Astros’ above-and-beyond, and very illegal, electronic sign-stealing intelligence operation. At last.

Drellich, of course, is the reporter who teamed with Ken Rosenthal to break the Astrogate story in November 2019, shortly after the Astros fell to the Nationals in the World Series. This morning, The Athletic published an excerpt from Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess. It reveals that what became Astrogate didn’t just arrive to Drellich on a flaming pie over three years ago.

A year before Drellich and Rosenthal dropped the opening shot, Drellich was a Red Sox beat writer NBC Sports Boston, following a tour covering the Astros for the Houston Chronicle. During the 2018 postseason, in which the Red Sox beat the Astros in the American League Championship Series, he found himself speaking to people with first-hand knowledge that the Astros cheated beyond mere replay room reconnaissance on their way to their franchise-first World Series title.

“These were not sources on the outside pointing fingers, but people who knew—who had lived it,” he writes.

I learned how the Astros used a camera in center field to zoom in on the signs the catcher flashed the pitcher before the pitch. How the Astros had set up a television monitor near their dugout, where the players sit during games, to be able to see that video feed, and how they brazenly banged on a garbage can with a baseball bat and other devices to communicate what they gleaned from that screen. It was an advantage, many players felt, to know what was coming, be it a straight fastball or a bending curveball. And to use technology to gain that knowledge was beyond the pale.

This wasn’t just one player breaking the rules, either. This was a World Series–winning team that had collectively cheated, and the public didn’t know it.

I was floored. It was a massive story, the kind, frankly, many reporters dream of, and some might even dread. I was confident in everything I had at the outset—indeed, it all proved to be true. But to get a story done, I would need further corroboration.

One Astros source warned of the context of cheating in the sport, an encouragement that in hindsight could have both been earnest, but also self-serving, meant to deflect attention away from what the Astros had done. Nonetheless, I wanted to learn for myself and include it in my reporting—in what environment did this behavior arise?

Drellich first sought to get an idea from none other than the highest cheating Astrogate mind himself, the Astros’ then general manager Jeff Luhnow, during that ALCS. He spotted Luhnow in the Astros’ Minute Maid Park dugout. “He was the architect of the team,” Drellich writes, “and I tried to get his attention as he was walking away from me. ‘You won’t find anything,’ he said defensively, making clear he wouldn’t talk to me.”

The night the Red Sox won that ALCS, in Houston, Drellich acted upon the aforementioned first-hand knowledge shared with him and walked toward the Astros clubhouse. He even photographed what he saw just past the steps down from the dugout. Oops.

When the Red Sox met the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series, Drellich met with two baseball officials hoping to get a picture of what baseball’s government was or wasn’t doing about electronic sign stealing. One started generalising the suspicions until Drellich broke in to tell him he had sources from within the Astros’ operations telling him about the extent of their Astro Intelligence Agency, so to say.

“‘They have acknowledged that?’ one [official] said. ‘I mean, I can’t speak to that. I mean, to our knowledge—you have your information, and we have ours, and that’s all we can go off. As to whether that has occurred, to our knowledge we are completely unaware. I am confident in the measures that we’ve taken’.”

Drellich wasn’t trying to be a friendly tipster to MLB because he couldn’t. “It’s not a reporter’s job to steer sources to the league,” he writes. But he also saw too clearly that, at that time, MLB wasn’t exactly in that big a hurry to act.  He also knew that, having multiple sources but none willing to go on the public record just yet, he needed to find the one who would.

To get something, anything on the record, Drellich writes, he composed a “general piece on electronic sign-stealing” in November 2018, after the Red Sox beat the Dodgers in five in that World Series. “Very quickly,” he continues, “my doubts about the support I had at NBC Sports Boston proved correct. When they fired me in February 2019, I was blindsided, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.”

His unemployment didn’t last long. The Athletic hired him, placing him into proximity with Ken Rosenthal: “Together, we would pick up my reporting on the Astros.” Indeed. Rosenthal had the sport-wide cred to make the calls Drellich couldn’t yet make. Such calls as to Danny Farquhar, the White Sox pitcher who heard the Astros banging the can slowly and called his catcher right to the mound to switch up their signs.

Such calls as to Mike Fiers, the pitcher who had something even more precious to offer on the record than an opposing pitcher who had ears to hear and brains to act accordingly: Fiers had been a 2017 Astro. And he was only too willing to go on record now, after assorted failed attempts by himself and others to convince other writers to expose Astrogate.

Drellich writes that Rosenthal asked Fiers if he was comfortable being quoted. “Well, that’s the whole thing about this. I don’t want to be put out there like that,” the pitcher began.

But they already know, so honestly, I don’t really care anymore. I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in, they’re not knowing. Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s bullshit on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared. But most of the people don’t. That’s why I told my team. We had a lot of young guys with Detroit trying to make a name and establish themselves. I wanted to help them out and say, “Hey, this stuff really does go on. Just be prepared.”

By “they already know,” Fiers indicated the Astros knew he’d tried to warn subsequent teammates on the Tigers and the Athletics. “Fiers, to his immense credit, stood by his words and never tried to back out before the investigation ran,” Drellich writes. “He helped change the sport, and the toll ostensibly has been heavy for him.”

Ostensibly? Fiers hasn’t pitched in the Show since the pan-damn-ically shortened 2020 season. He’s been to the Mexican League and the Chinese Professional Baseball League since, before signing with the Toros del Este of the Dominican Winter League last September. Age to one side (he’s 37), Fiers probably still finds one person denouncing him as a traitorous snitch for every one applauding him as a brave whistleblower.

“Many fringe players train in the Caribbean during the offseason to prepare themselves for the upcoming Major League season in hope of finding a better contract,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Silver when Fiers signed that deal. “Fiers, though, may face an uphill battle. He is forever linked with the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal and teams may no longer wish to associate themselves with the weight his name carries.”

“At the time Ken spoke to Fiers, we were preparing to publish our findings without his account,” Drellich continues. “It’s impossible to say exactly how the world would have reacted to the story had Ken not spoken to him—if all the sources had been unnamed. But the facts of the story had already been ascertained, and we had Farquhar’s account.”

The whistleblower’s is often a lonely lot. “Whether Fiers was quoted or not,” Drellich writes, “it seems unlikely to me that MLB would have been able to ignore the general outcry. But our investigation was still in a much better position with Fiers on the record. His name helped validate everything instantly, making it harder for anyone to try to shove the story aside.”

Today’s Astros are the defending 2022 World Series champions, no longer the Luhnow team that cheated from the top down to extents above and beyond mere basepath or even mere replay room reconnaissance. (Only three Astrogate team members remain on the roster; one, Jose Altuve, has been shown conclusively as the one Astro who rejected stolen signs consistently.) Nothing suggests that the 2022 Astros didn’t beat the Phillies straight, no chaser.

But the Astrogate taint remains, at least until the last Astrogate team member no longer wears their uniform. There remain only too many who think the whole thing wasn’t the Astros’ fault for having committed the crimes but Fiers’ fault for having blown the whistle on the record. Today’s excerpt demonstrates that Winning Fixes Everything promises to knock that and other Astrogate canards into the middle of next year.

Astrogate by the coming book

Astrogate Protest

If the Astros think (erroneously) that winning will fix everything, they ain’t seen nothing yet—one of the reporters who helped Mike Fiers blow the Astrogate whistle is about to publish a book about the plot.

The Astros can talk all they wish about winning fixing everything, including and especially Astrogate. They’re finding out the hard way that it doesn’t, and it probably won’t. Not until the last Astro standing from the Astrogate team isn’t in Astro fatigues anymore.

Like it or not, Astrogate isn’t going gently into that good gray night. Especially not when one of the two Athletic writers who took Mike Fiers’s whistleblowing and went excavating deep is on the threshold of publishing an Astrogate book.

Once an Astros beat writer himself, Evan Drellich is calling his book Winning Fixes Everything: The Rise and Fall of the Houston Astros. It comes forth from Harper Books on 17 August. Both the publisher and Amazon are taking pre-orders now.

Count on it: Drellich’s book is unlikely to resolve any serious question to the Astros’ overall liking. It remains to be seen whether he convinced any of the players who escaped formal Astrogate punishment to cop to even small avail of the infamous illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing Astro Intelligence Agency.

The ones upon whom you should really take pity are today’s Astros who had nothing whatsoever to do with Astrogate because they weren’t there, including manager Dusty Baker. And, Astro fans who’ve lived for over a year with the stings, arrows, and ramifications of the team they loved as the lords of the American League West being exposed as almost unapologetic cheaters.

Drellich’s book will arrive in the stores on and off-line at approximately the seventieth anniversary of the first act in baseball’s most notorious Astrogate precursor. There’s a splendid book still in print about that one, too, Joshua Prager’s 2006 book The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and the Shot Heard Round the World.

It finished the job Prager began in The Wall Street Journal four years earlier. It affirmed what was mostly just whispered or spoken of back-door for decades—that the pennant race comeback against which all future arise-from-the-living-dead comebacks would be measured (the 1964 Cardinals, the 1973 Mets, the 1978 Yankees, the 1995 Mariners, the 2019 Nationals) was tainted.

For the final ten weeks of the 1951 season the New York Giants cheated their way back from thirteen games out of first place to a final-day tie with the Brooklyn Dodgers to force a three-game pennant playoff. And the Giants probably cheated their way through the playoff, right down to the moment Bobby Thomson awaited Ralph Branca’s 0-1 pitch with second and third and one out.

For decades to follow, Branca epitomised grace in defeat and Thomson modesty in triumph. The Giants went on to lose the World Series in six games to the imperial Yankees, but the two protagonists in the Shot Heard Round the World rose above the occasion. As Branca himself once put it, “I lost a ball game, but I gained a friend.”

The whispers turned to shouts and screams when Prager confirmed the decades-old speculation.

Giants manager Leo Durocher discovered his new utility infield acquisition Hank Schenz owned a hand-held Wollensak spy glass he’d acquired during his World War II military service. He also discovered Schenz wasn’t averse to using the spy glass to steal signs for the Cubs by perching himself up and inside the scoreboard behind the Wrigley Field bleachers.

So Leo the Lip, ever on the lookout for any and every edge he could find, fair, unfair, clean, dirty, or downright criminal, had an idea.

He dispatched catcher-turned-coach Herman Franks to the clubhouse high enough above and beyond the deepest Polo Grounds center field region. A buzzer would be wired from the clubhouse to the Giants’ bullpen in deep right field. Franks would see the enemy catchers’ signs through the Wollensak and signal the pen accordingly. The designated signaler in the pen, usually reserve catcher Sal Yvars, would relay the pilfered intelligence to the batters.

According to Prager, Yvars or others would do nothing if it was a fastball sign but do something, from tossing a ball to standing up or raising a hand or an arm, if the sign was breaking ball. All a Giants batter had to do was see past the opposing second baseman to see the signal or lack thereof.

Those who wanted such stolen intelligence, that is. According to Prager, Durocher asked his players who wanted it—but Hall of Famer Monte Irvin was one of those who rejected it. Prager has written that Irvin told him in 2001, when the outfielder was 81, “I told [Durocher] no. He said, ‘You mean to tell me, if a fat fastball is coming, you don’t want to know?’ ”

And if Irvin said no, so did fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mays, a rookie on the ’51 Giants. Don’t delude yourself. Irvin took to Mays as a kid brother and Mays took to Irvin as a big brother. He followed Irvin’s leads to the letter and the final syllable. No matter Mays’s actual or mythologised fealty to Mister Leo, he wasn’t that eager to let Mister Leo lead him into a life of crime.

Monte Irvin, Willie Mays

Monte Irvin (left) refused to accept stolen signs in 1951. His protege Willie Mays (right) surely followed Irvin’s lead to the letter no matter how much Mister Leo also meant to him.

The Dodgers themselves suspected Durocher was up to some sort of no good down that stretch. “In September ’51, Brooklyn coach Cookie Lavagetto took binoculars to the Dodgers’ bench to try to dope out the Giants’ system,” wrote Thomas Boswell in a column reviewing Prager’s original Journal essay. “Umpires took the binoculars away immediately. Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”

Branca may have learned for certain that the Giants were playing spy games when he was a short-term Detroit Tiger and heard a few whispers from pitcher Ted Gray, who was friendly with ’51 Giants reserve Hal Rapp—who told Gray about Durocher and Franks’s spy operation, enabling Gray to tell a Branca who didn’t know what to believe just yet, if at all.

When Associated Press sportswriter Joe Reichler published a 1962 story discussing the Giants’ 1951 sign-stealing, it came and went quickly enough, despite then-Commissioner Ford C. Frick’s threat to declare the Branca/Thomson game forfeit if he had absolute proof of the plot. Reichler was tipped off by utility infielder Danny O’Connell; Thomson himself called it “the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of.”

“Over the years, when interviewing Thomson and Branca,” Boswell wrote, “I’ve been struck that Thomson seemed a bit ambivalent about his Moment while Branca never seemed the least ashamed. I took it that Thomson felt apologetic because he’d caused Branca a lifetime of nagging questions . . .

“Whether Thomson took the stolen sign, Branca has been a man of honor for fifty years. He has never raised the cheating issue without proof or tarnished the game’s most replayed moment. Even now, Branca says, ‘He still had to hit the pitch’.”

Prager’s first Journal missive and then The Echoing Green put paid to all speculation once and for all and stamped “case closed” that the Giants cheated their way back from oblivion to the pennant playoff—and even to the pennant. Interviewed by a Utah newspaper in the post-game bedlam, Franks said, “Maybe we caught the sign for a fastball.”

Nobody paid attention in ’51. They did now. Once and for all time, the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff should be known forever after as the Mugging at Coogan’s Bluff.

Thomson was cited in Prager’s book as telling New York Daily News writer Jim McCulley that Branca’s 0-1 fastball “was a pitch that [Hall of Famer Stan] Musial or any other good hitter would have taken. It was high and inside. I didn’t deserve to do a thing like that.” Prager also cited Branca telling New York Times writer Roscoe McGowen that the pitch “wasn’t a bad pitch . . .”

I didn’t think he hit it too well. It was sinking when it went into the stands. I guess we weren’t meant to win it. The ball was high and inside, not a good pitch [to hit], and it only cleared the wall by [a very few inches].

In fact, when Prager caught up to Franks shortly before the old catcher-coach-manager died in 2009, Franks described the spy glass spy—in the third person—as “tilt[ing] his scope up to the eyes of the batter.”

The spy did so to watch the batter glance toward right field, where a player in the bullpen relayed the stolen sign. The eyes of the batter also filled the scope’s field of view. And at 3:57 p.m. on October 3, 1951—with two on and one out in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Giants down 4-2 in the third and final game of the playoff—Franks had just spied Brooklyn catcher Rube Walker call for an 0-1 fastball when he looked up at the eyes of Bobby Thomson.

“For 50 years,” wrote Boswell in 2001, “Thomson has been baseball’s ideal clutch hero and Branca the game’s most symbolic goat. Now it seems that Branca, the Dodger who gave up the homer that lost the pennant, may be a victim and Thomson less than a hero.”

Bums author Peter Golenbock cited a longtime Dodger fan leaving the Polo Grounds for pizza . . . and seeing the pizza joint displaying rolls of toilet paper marked “Dodger Crying Towels,” plus a rope tied into a noose and with the sign, “Dodger fans, hang yourself [sic] here.” You thought today’s road fans showing and banging inflatable trash cans when the Astros come to town is rough stuff?

But Golenbock also got Branca to re-tell a story once circulated well enough, Branca’s fiancee taking him to see her cousin—a Catholic priest, who told the stricken pitcher, “God chose you because He knew your faith would be strong enough to bear this cross.” Branca died in 2016, six years after Thomson. “He carried the cross of the Thomson home run,” said Vin Scully, “with dignity and grace.”

Neither the snarking Giants fans nor the stricken and suspicious Dodgers and their fans knew for dead last certain in that hour that the Giants got there in the first place with a plot as underhanded then as the Astro Intelligence Agency was in 2017-18.

The Astros weren’t baseball’s only electronic cheaters when they won the 2017 World Series, but they were the only ones known to have altered an existing camera off mandatory eight-second delay or to have installed a furtive new and illegal camera, either of which sent stolen real-time pitch signs to clubhouse monitors and a trash can banger.

The only thing left is to await Drellich’s book. (Try to imagine what Boswell snarked sadly—The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!—happening in the Internet social media era.) Stay tuned. It could make the original Astrogate revelations resemble mere flickers through the spyglass darkly.