At last, an Astrogate apology

signstealingscandal.com

A video capture made infamous by Jonboy after the first Astrogate revelations: Evan Gattis at the plate in 2017, about to face a pitch from Danny Farquhar just before Farquhar called his catcher to the mound to switch signs . . .

Maybe Evan Gattis felt a little too much heat last week, when he snarked about being the last to land a nasty drinking cup with Mike Fiers’s face and the caption “Snitches Get Stitches.” And, when he hastened to walk it back after his boast got him a small firestorm (including “Cheaters Get Heaters”) of snark-back.

Maybe, too, the former Astros backup catcher was reminded that was him at the plate in a 2017 game against the White Sox, on preserved and notorious video, getting electronically stolen signs banged his way until White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar smelled the proverbial rat, called his catcher out to the mound, and changed signs posthaste.

Whatever compelled him, the now-retired Gattis isn’t feeling too snarky about Astrogate anymore. He unloaded to The Athletic‘s podcast 755 is Real this week. He unloaded a no-holds-barred apology for the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based electronic sign-stealing of 2017-18, even while acknowledging that by now no apology on earth will untaint or restore the Astros’ image.

And he’s also more than willing to give Fiers—the original Astrogate whistleblower, the only one among four 2017 Astros who was willing to put his name on the record to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November—his props, rather than saluting even a just-kidding threat against the now-Athletics pitcher.

“I don’t think I can win the hearts over of anyone right now at all, or maybe ever,” Gattis told 755 is Real. “I don’t know how to feel yet. I don’t think anybody—we didn’t look at our moral compass and say, ‘Yeah, this is right.’ It was almost like paranoia warfare or something. But what we did was wrong. Like, don’t get it twisted. It was wrong for the nature of competition, not even just baseball. Yeah, that was wrong. I will say that.”

Retired since the end of the 2018 season, Gattis didn’t stop there. “If our punishment is being hated by everybody forever, then (so be it),” he said, after saying he hated to see general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch fired almost the moment their suspensions for 2020 were handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred.

“And I don’t know what should have been done, but something had to be [fornicating] done,” the former catcher continued. “And I do agree with that, big time. I do think it’s good for baseball if we clean it up. But I really don’t know to this day, and I’ve thought about it a [spit] ton, know what I mean? And I still don’t know how to feel.

“I’ll get ripped by somebody—‘That’s not an apology’—and if I do apologize, that’s still not going to be good enough. No [spit], it’s not going to be good enough. I understand that it’s not [fornicating] good enough to say, sorry. I get it.”

Luhnow and Hinch may have been suspended from baseball through the end of the 2020 season, whenever the season might be played if it’s played thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but they’d be free to seek other baseball employment afterward. Even if 2020 ends up canceled entirely. There are those who say nobody should even think about hiring them even as concession hawkers.

Luhnow fostered the victory-uber-alles culture within the Astros organisation that too often operated according to Major Strasser’s law (expressed in a memorable line in Casablanca), “You’ll find that human life is cheap.” A culture that allowed Luhnow to dismiss internal alarm when he dealt for a relief pitcher still under suspension for domestic violence and call for an internally-developed sign-stealing algorithm that paved the way to the AIA.

Hinch didn’t exactly look the other way when he caught onto the AIA, but he did nothing to stop it other than smashing one or two of the monitors in the clubhouse from which the opposing signs picked up by an illegal camera were transmitted for translation to pass on to Astro hitters. He fiddled while the plot apparently led by his then-bench coach Alex Cora and his then-designated hitter Carlos Beltran—both of whom eventually lost managing jobs over their Astrogate culpability—burned opponents with little to no idea they walked into a stacked Astro deck.

“For some players that we faced, that I’d never faced before or something like that, even selfishly we didn’t get to find out how good those people are—and they didn’t either,” said Gattis to 755 is Real. “I think that was the one cool thing about playing in the big leagues, was just to find out how good you are, which I think is valuable. Everybody wants to be the best player in the [fornicating] world, man, and we cheated that, for sure. We obviously cheated baseball and cheated fans. Fans felt duped. I feel bad for fans.”

Gattis may have handed ammunition, inadvertently, to former major league pitcher Mike Bolsinger’s legal team, in Bolsinger’s lawsuit arguing that—when he was trying to hang in as a remade relief pitcher with the 2017 Blue Jays—the Astros’ illegal sign-stealing operation destroyed him in what proved his final major league appearance.

In that game, the Astros got more stolen signs banged on the can to their hitters than in any other game for which banging-the-can-slowly could be determined. They also got more when Bolsinger was on the mound than when they faced any other Blue Jays reliever that day. Bolsinger was torn apart for five runs when he entered with two out in the bottom of the fourth, escaping only when he managed to get Alex Bregman to fly out.

The Blue Jays sent Bolsinger to Triple A right after the game. He might have been a former starter reduced by injuries to a journeyman trying to remake himself as a reliever, and I’ve said this before elsewhere, but it’s worth a reminder: Even a marginal relief pitcher has the right to know that his major league career got torpedoed straight, no chaser.

The Astros have had the original Los Angeles judge in the Bolsinger lawsuit removed for “prejudice,” never mind that the judge was chosen at random. They followed that by filing to have the suit either thrown out or moved to Texas in the name of “fairness.” They also face a lawsuit back east from a group of fantasy baseball players arguing that the AIA tainted the games through which they played their fantasy ball.

Aside from handing both lawsuits’ plaintiffs valuable close air support, Gattis isn’t so willing to be snarky about Fiers anymore, either, if his comments to 755 is Real are any indication.

“With Fiers, he had something to say, dude,” the former catcher continued. “It probably started out with him saying exactly what he said—some of these guys coming into the league, they don’t [fornicating] know yet that this [spit] goes on. And I respect that. And he had something to say. So he had to [fornicating] say it. And then we had to get punished. Because if not, then what? It’ll get even more out of control.”

Gattis acknowledged that previous reports citing an anonymous 2017 Astro had it right that Brian McCann, the longtime Brave who joined the Astros for 2017-2018, who retired after a final tour with the Braves last season, objected to the AIA “and made his feelings known at least a couple of times,” as Athletic writer David O’Brien phrases it.

“I could tell it was eating him up,” Gattis told the podcast. “He didn’t like it one bit . . . He’s played so long, and he just understands what it takes to get to the big leagues, and he’s got a lot of respect for ballplayers. You could just tell.”

But you can also just tell that a man making his objections known at least a couple of times isn’t quite the same thing as a man in McCann’s position—a veteran with respect in the clubhouse, whose voice would be heeded assuming he puts more weight into it than a couple of objections made known—pushing a little further within his particular boundaries to turn mere objections into a needed confrontation.

And Gattis isn’t exactly ready to lay the Astrogate onus as heavily as others upon Beltran, whose standing as so respected a veteran, with a Hall of Fame-worthy playing resume, is said often enough to have felt just a little omnipotent among his younger teammates.

“[N]obody made us do [spit] — you know what I’m saying?” Gattis said. “Like, people saying, ‘This guy made us do this’ . . . That’s not it. But you have to understand, the situation was powerful. Like, you work your whole life to try to hit a ball, and you mean, you can tell me what’s coming? What? Like, it’s a powerful thing. And there’s millions of dollars on the line and shit? And what’s bad is, that’s how people got hurt. That’s not right; that’s not playing the game right.”

The Astros weren’t exactly overcome with remorse when Manfred’s Astrogate report was released in January. They weren’t exactly allergic to (depending on your viewpoint) non-apologetic apologies or apologetic non-apologies when spring training opened. Owner Jim Crane persists in his delusion that the Manfred report “exonerated” him and his ignorance that, when you lead, you assume responsibility for what’s done by your subordinates.

Now it’s only to lament that Gattis couldn’t have said upon his retirement what he finally said to 755 is Real. It might have made a far larger difference. Still, the fact that Gattis was willing to go on the public record as he now has to 755 is Real is staggering enough. Whether he saw the light, felt the heat, or came up somewhere in between.

Now it’s Soxgate, too?

2020-01-07 AlexCora2018RedSox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It makes a fellow not so proud to be an Astro

2019-12-10 AJHinch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Crane, Astrogate IS about baseball

2019-11-21 JimCrane

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: 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.

Yu’re kidding, right?

2019-11-16 YuDarvish

Yu Darvish looking staggered after surrendering the 2017 World Series homer that knocked him out of Game Seven after an inning and two thirds.

Practically from the moment Mike Fiers triggered Astrogate, there came a swell of blended rage and remorse from Dodger fans still smarting over Yu Darvish getting battered twice in the World Series, especially Game Seven. A lot of which fans now wanted to apologise. To Darvish.

All of a sudden a high-tech cheating scandal made a hero out of a pitcher whom we thought was caught tipping his pitches and battered accordingly, while any Dodger who was supposed to spot those things didn’t spot them. And who still felt the compulsion to apologise on the record just a couple of days later.

Just two years ago Darvish was Public Enemy Number One. Now, all of a sudden, he was embraced as another possible victim of the Astro Intelligence Agency. As God and His servant Branch Rickey are my witnesses, I swear sports fans take a back seat to few for absurdism.

You could have been Los Angeles’s most notorious wanted criminal, and you wouldn’t have inspired half the dragnet Dodger fans wanted to run to capture, draw, and quarter Darvish. And whatever was left of him. Now the guy who was compelled wrongly to a public apology in the first place gets a lavish bubble bath of apologies from the same fans.

“Why am I trending [sic]?” Darvish tweeted on Day One of Astrogate. “Do people finally realize I’m cool?” Priceless.

He’s too polite to reject them directly, but he’s too self-aware to accept them sight unseen. “I’m not looking for that,” he said in a post on his YouTube channel. “I don’t want them to change their minds.” Be careful what Yu wish for.

A simple “I stunk, that’s all” from Darvish on Twitter wasn’t enough. Nor, perhaps, is his further YouTube demurral. “If you ask me if I got hit in Game Seven because they stole signs, I don’t think so,” he said, in a translation by the Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernandez. “The Astros have great players who don’t have to do that. So I think that whether or not they stole signs, the results wouldn’t have changed.”

Notice Darvish’s phrasing. I said more or less the same thing myself in a previous Astrogate entry. About the Astros having great players who don’t have to resort to crime, high tech or otherwise. Which is almost as much of what makes Astrogate such an outrage as the fact that they so flagrantly broke the actual rules about off-field electronic surveillance in the first place.

These Astros needed high tech spying to win about as much as Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign CREEPs needed whatever they were looking for—while so ineptly bugging Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex—for their man to win by a landslide in 1972.

And the Astros are accused only of operating the AIA in Minute Maid Park. So far. Nobody’s yet suggested they sent the agency on surveillance missions in road ballparks in the first place, never mind gotten away with it if they had.

Unless there’s evidence yet to be exhumed, it’s not very likely that the Astros bugged Dodger Stadium to get the drop on Darvish. Unless they had a mole among the stadium personnel, any Astro personnel trying to set up electronic surveillance in the road ballpark would have been caught, thrown out of the stadium, and maybe have to answer to la policia in the bargain.

Wouldn’t they?

Even Darvish himself let the suggestion enter his mind for a moment. “What’s been reported up to this point is that they used cameras at their home field,” he said, “so I don’t know if there was anything like that. But what they were doing was so high-level that I can’t honestly say there’s no chance they were also doing it on the road.”

Dodger fans wanting to make it up to Darvish should stop right at the point of apologising for wanting to hang him after the 2017 World Series. Especially since he wasn’t the only reason the Astros won Game Seven, and getting sent to bed without his supper after an inning and two thirds still left the Dodgers plenty of time to overthrow the 5-0 hole the Dodgers were in when he departed.

Memory time, boys and girls. Darvish’s Game Seven evening began with a leadoff double by George Springer and Springer coming home on a throwing error in the infield, allowing Alex Bregman aboard to reach second on the play. Then Bregman stole third with Jose Altuve at the plate, and Altuve pushed Bregman home on an unassisted ground out to first. Two runs, unearned, in the top of the first.

Top of the second? Brian McCann opened with a full-count walk. Marwin Gonzalez doubled him to third. Josh Reddick grounded out to second. And Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. pushed McCann home and Gonzalez to third on another ground out to second, before Springer hit a full-count pitch into the left field bleachers.

Where were the Dodger brain trusters who didn’t catch him tipping pitches and fix it before the Astros could do any more damage than the Dodgers gifted them in the top of the first?

Where were the Dodger hitters who looked McCullers’s gift horse in the mouth, putting two or more on against him the first few innings including ducks on the pond in the bottom of the first, but swinging like Little Leaguers trying to hit six-run homers on every pitch and leaving the runners grounds for court martials, charges desertion?

The only reward Dodger fans got for Brandon Morrow (ending the second), Clayton Kershaw (four scoreless in relief), Kenley Jansen (a scoreless seventh), and Alex Wood (scoreless eighth and ninth) stopping the bleeding was a one-out RBI single from Andre Ethier in the sixth. The Dodgers had two or better on and men on second or better in five of the first six innings, and Ethier was the only man to cash in.

Now the Dodgers deny pitch tipping was the issue. Their roster included now-retired Chase Utley, said to be expert at catching pitch tipping. “[He] watched the Darvish outings,” says team president Andrew Friedman, “and said you couldn’t sell out on something that Darvish was doing.”

Darvish’s ERA in the first two 2017 postseason rounds was 1.62. His Series ERA: 21.60. The 2017 Dodgers won three more regular season games than the Astros despite the Astros out-hitting them—the Dodgers’ team ERA on that season was 3.38; the Astros’, 4.12. And you don’t need me to tell you the flip side of, “Good pitching beats good hitting.”

Was Darvish more right saying “I stunk?” Or did the Astros find some way to take the AIA on the road with them, after all? Were they that nervous about the Dodgers’ potential to out-pitch them?

I’ve written until I was blue in the fingers about baseball’s goats and fans inane enough to try making their lives to follow nightmares. The last time was in the immediate wake of Bill Buckner’s death on Memorial Day. I inadvertently omitted Darvish from the roll of those who really needed no forgiveness because there wasn’t a damn thing to forgive in the first place.

When Thomas Boswell eulogised Donnie Moore, after Moore’s shocking suicide in 1989, he wrote with no small indignation, “Many of us wish that, just once, we could be in your shoes and have a chance to fail so grandly. Although, if we really had to live the experience and its aftermath, which sometimes lasts a lifetime, maybe we would not.”

So Darvish had five runs torn out of him before he could get a third out in the Game Seven second? That didn’t make him a criminal. It made him a pitcher who tried and failed. The most successful people on earth try and fail, usually before their successes and more often than you think after them.

And they don’t all go to work with 50,000+ plus waiting to watch them in the office and millions more eavesdropping in front of television or radio, either.

Angel fans refused to forgive Moore for throwing a great pitch that Dave Henderson managed somehow to send over the left field fence to tie a game when the Angels were a strike away from the 1986 World Series. Haunted as it was, Moore was finally driven to shoot his wife and then himself. Only his wife survived.

He was only preceded by Fred Merkle, Freddie Lindstrom, Ernie Lombardi, Johnny Pesky, Ralph Branca, Gene Mauch, Willie Davis, Curt Flood, Luis Aparicio, Mike Torrez, Tom Niedenfeuer, and Don Denkinger. He was only followed by Buckner (in the ’86 World Series), Mitch Williams, Alex Gonzalez, Grady Little, and—so far as Astro fans are concerned (wrongly, I might add)—A.J. Hinch.

Come to think of it, if the Astros ended up losing the 2017 Series Ken Giles might have had the goat horns plopped on his head. His crimes included surrendering a fisted cue shot to Corey Seager on an inside fastball, walking Justin Turner on five pitches four of which were borderline corner calls, and throwing Cody Bellinger a fastball off the middle that was driven to deep left center to break a one-all Game Four tie in the top of the ninth.

Hinch brought in Joe Musgrove, who struck Yasiel Puig out and put Logan Forsythe aboard to load the pads for a double play, then surrendered a sacrifice fly before throwing Joc Pederson a slightly up, slightly in fastball on 0-1 and watching it sail into the right field seats.

But Giles took the abuse. Despite owning up after the game: “I didn’t do my job. Plain and simple. I let my team down.” Despite George Springer springing to his and Musgrove’s defense concurrently: “This game’s hard. They’re not out there trying to fail. I hope [Hinch] keeps giving ’em the ball. I have the utmost confidence in them, and I’m glad they’re on my team.”

Giles didn’t see another inning’s work in that Series. And it may have gotten to him a little more in the long run. He struggled in early 2018 and fumed when being lifted after a bad outing against the Athletics. He was demoted to the minors, then traded—in classic adding insult-to-injury style—to the Blue Jays . . . for then domestic violence-suspended Robert Osuna.

The Astros took a public relations beating over acquiring Osuna. And during this year’s World Series, assistant GM Brandon Taubman was fired after the Astros embarrassed themselves trying to defend his indefensible hollering with women reporters in post-ALCS triumph earshot that he was so fornicating glad they got Osuna.

Already still under questioning by baseball government over that incident, Taubman is now liable to face Astrogate questioning—as in, what did he know about the AIA and to what extent did he know it—while he’s at it.

Giles, meanwhile, regrouped entirely in Toronto. Though he finished 2018 on the down side, in 2019 he had a breathtaking comeback—a 2.27 fielding-independent pitching rate and a 1.87 ERA. Except that since he was in Toronto, nobody other than Blue Jays fans cared—if you didn’t count the trade deadline interest he drew before elbow inflammation put him on the injured list before the All-Star break.

Darvish went on to sign a mega-deal with the Cubs. He struggled out of the 2018 chute before going down for the season thanks to a triceps strain and concurrent elbow stress reactions. It’s not impossible that he put pressure on himself trying to live up to his new contract. Wasn’t the first, won’t be the last.

This year, Darvish struggled to regain his form—indignant Cub fans referred to him too often as “Flu Garbage”—before going mostly lights out in August and September: he was still prone to the long ball (well, so was American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander), but his ERA for those two months was 2.99.

And he really doesn’t want to think that the AIA did him in in Game Seven two years ago. “I feel that if I absolve myself and say it was the Astros’ fault . . . I can’t develop as a person,” he said in his YouTube posting.

“In life, I think huge failures are extremely important. I’ve had a few up to this point,” he continued. “The World Series was one of them. I think it will remain a point of reference for me. I’ve already learned a lot from it. So regarding that, I can’t view myself charitably. I think I have to continue to accept the results.”

That makes him an even better man than he already showed himself to be. But we’re going to learn soon enough whether Astrogate involves robbing their road hosts. And if it does, who were their Bonnie and Clyde?

“The contest cannot in its essence exist”

ABartlettGiamattiNL

A. Bartlett Giamatti, as president of the National League, 1987-88.

Boys will be boys, but now and again we’re reminded that that doesn’t always excuse them when they mistake crime for high spirits. Come to think of it, baseball got one whale of a reminder in 1987, when the president of the National League found himself unamused about cheating with an appeal placed in front of him.

Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross was caught with sandpaper in his glove, surely not for on-the-spot glove repair, then ejected from the game and suspended ten days. Gross appealed the suspension, but A. Bartlett Giamatti found nothing appealing about it.

And Giamatti handed down a ruling he swore he worked as hard on formulating as he did any scholarly exegesis while he was the president of Yale University. Within that ruling—he upheld Gross’s suspension—the future (and tragically short-lived) commissioner laid down the law.

What Giamatti wrote about one pitcher with a piece of sandpaper can apply to part or even all of a team flouting the rules against deploying high technology, rather than on-the-field gamesmanship, to steal opposition signs.

There were those who thought as the New York Times‘s sports columnist George Vecsey once observed, that Giamatti as president of the National League was “the nutty professor on sabbatical.” What did they think about Gross and his representatives causing his appeal hearing to last five hours and include “exhibits of considerable breadth, two entailing nearly one thousand notations,” as Giamatti recorded at the beginning of his ruling?

Gross and the Players Association claimed the ten-day suspension was “excessive.” Giamatti observed that Rick Honeycutt and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry had been awarded ten-day drydockings for foreign things in the glove but that Gross and his representatives, conveniently or otherwise, didn’t include those in their mass of exhibits.

In due course, Giamatti told The New Yorker‘s Roger Angell why he approached his Gross appeal ruling with the kind of effort by which he laboured his writings and thinkings at Yale, where his academic specialty was Dante. “It was challenging,” Giamatti told Angell, “to try to be clear about cheating and what it meant, and to be fair at the same time.”

Challenge met with success. You can read the entire ruling in A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti. Here, though, is the critical point therein. Acts of cheating, Giamatti wrote in denying Gross’s appeal, are . . .

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.

Substitute “one team” for “one person.” Now you get why the Astros caught running a high-tech sign-stealing operation in 2017, against the rules prohibiting such operations, sent baseball, its fans, and its observers into the proverbial tizzy, after a former Astro in position enough to know (pitcher Mike Fiers) blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astro Intelligence Agency.

Reality check: The Astros—or whomever among them created their AIA—aren’t the only such electronic thieves, merely the latest to be caught red Octobered. If you ask whether Astrogate taints their run of three American League West titles and two pennants, you might also ask why a team that great, with as forward-thinking an organisation as theirs, needs technocheating in the first place.

These Astros are sharper than chefs’ knives at the plate and in the field. They exploit the slightest opposition mistakes with minds over matter. Tip your pitches? They sautee you. Slip out of position? They broil you. Hang a breaking ball? They slice, dice, and puree  you. They needed to take up high-tech heisting about as badly as Superman needed a gym membership.

Further reality check: When Giamatti rejected Gross’s appeal, he wasn’t foolish enough to ignore that cheating was (and is) baseball’s oldest sub-profession. Neither was Giamatti naive enough to believe denying one pitcher caught, frisked, arraigned, indicted, and convicted would put cheating in its grave.

Placed in the appropriate position, he could and did demonstrate that at least one baseball official could and did pronounce officially, when the case presented itself, that fair was supposed to be fair. Given the chance to take a stand and make it stick, for however long, Giamatti took the stand with firm eloquence. Saying, essentially, “If not now, then when?”

Unfortunately, even baseball’s most lyrical thinker this side of Sparky Anderson couldn’t make it stick. Neither could a Hall of Famer writing a syndicated newspaper column in 1926 who understood, and enunciated in plain English, the distinction between on-field sign-decoding and off-field high- or even low-tech espionage:

There is another form of sign stealing which is reprehensible and should be so regarded. That is where mechanical devices worked from outside sources, such as the use of field glasses, mirrors and so on, are used . . . Signal-tipping on the fields is not against the rules, while the use of outside devices is against all the laws of baseball and the playing rules. It is obviously unfair.

That was Ty Cobb. Whose reputation as the dirtiest most rules-be-damned player of his era came mostly from one writer whose Cobb-ographies have been debunked completely. If beyond-the-playing-field technological theft was bad enough for Cobb, it should be bad enough for us.

What Cobb called “obviously unfair” is obviously cheating. The Dante scholar who grew up to become president of the National League and baseball’s commissioner should have the last word on cheating, so far as anyone who genuinely loves the game should be concerned. Should but probably won’t. Unlucky us.