Keep José Altuve off the Astrogate hook

Jose Altuve

It’s been said before Peter Gammons revived it Friday: José Altuve wanted no part of illegally-stolen signs when he was at the plate. Stop hammering him with the “chea-ter! chea-ter!” chants once and for all.

When the World Series shifted to Philadelphia, after the Phillies and the Astros split the first two games in Houston, the Citizens Bank Park crowd wasn’t shy about letting the Astros have it over You-know-what-gate. The good news was that they saved the chea-ter! chea-ter! chants for the only three position players left on the roster from the forever-tainted 2017-18 team.

The bad news was that one of the three actually spurned taking the illegally stolen signs in the batter’s box. That was second baseman and Astros franchise face José Altuve. It didn’t matter to the chanting Phillies fans. But it should have.

When SNY’s Andy Martino published Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing in June 2021, the chapter called “The Scheme Begins” included a revelation that should have jolted anyone hammering the Astros rightfully enough over their Astro Intelligence Agency plot:

Altuve was the most reluctant of the Astros stars. When the option to have a teammate bang the trash can [to relay the signs stolen by way of an illegal off-field-based real-time camera to an illegal additional clubhouse monitor—JK] first arose, he declined.

When Altuve was batting, and there would be a bang, he would glare into the dugout.

“He doesn’t want it,” teammates would say frantically. On more than one occasion, Altuve returned to the dugout after his at-bat and yelled at the others to knock it off.

It jolted me, too. Especially since I’d actually missed the first such revelation, in February 2020, from then-Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, usually the face of the team when it came to defending the 2017 World Series title before he signed with the Twins last winter. (Correa is now a free agent again.) I missed it, and I shouldn’t have.

Commissioner Rob Manfred handed down his Astrogate verdict in January 2020—suspensions for 2017-18 general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch, and bench coach Alex Cora (subsequently a World Series-winning manager for the 2018 Red Sox . . . who had their own Rogue Sox replay room reconnaissance ring operating that season and possibly beyond); heavy fine for owner Jim Crane; key draft picks stripped.

The Astros faced the press when spring training opened the next month. Depending upon how you saw and hear, they seemed either unapologetically apologetic or apologetically unapologetic. “Yes, there’s no better way to show good old-fashioned genuine remorse than by refusing to speak the misdeed you committed,” wrote since-retired Thomas Boswell, the longtime Washington Post baseball eminence.

Crane and his team used their showcase to insist they keep their phony title and that Major League Baseball was correct not to fine or suspend any Astros players. Also, we should just trust that they stopped cheating in 2018. Why? No reason at all. Just felt like stopping, even though they, you know, won the previous World Series doing it.

. . .Maybe, with time, some Astros will be more forthcoming with authentic feelings, not practiced phrases, that will show their human dilemma—most of them not $100 million stars or future Hall of Famers, just normal ballplayers caught on a runaway train with, realistically, no emergency brake available for them to pull.

But even Boswell might have missed that Altuve didn’t want any part of the AIA. Before the original coronavirus pan-damn-ic compelled that spring training’s shutdown, Correa talked to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, one of the two reporters (with Evan Drellich) who first exposed the true depth of scheme. (Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers had finally agreed to go on the public record in November 2019, following long, futile efforts to get someone/anyone to investigate.)

They talked aboard MLB Network a couple of days after the presser that did the Astros more harm than good. Correa steamed over Dodger outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger’s fuming that Altuve cheated Yankee rookie star Aaron Judge out of the 2017 Most Valuable Player award he might have won if not for Altuve’s career year in Houston. “Cody,” Correa began, “you don’t know the facts.”

Nobody wants to talk about this, but I’m going to talk about this. José Altuve was the one guy that didn’t use the trash can.

The few times that the trash can was banged was without his consent, and he would go inside the clubhouse and inside the dugout to whoever was banging the trash can and he would get pissed. He would get mad. He would say, “I don’t want this. I can’t hit like this. Don’t you do that to me.” He played the game clean.

. . . When you look at Altuve’s numbers on the road, he hit .400 on the road (.381, actually, compared to .311 at home). He didn’t cheat nobody of the MVP. He earned that MVP. He’s a six-time All-Star, three-time batting champion, MVP, five-time Silver Slugger. He’s been doing this for a long time.

For [Bellinger] to go out there and defame José Altuve’s name like that, it doesn’t sit right with me. The man plays the game clean. That’s easy to find out. Mike Fiers broke the story. You can go out and ask Mike Fiers: “Did José Altuve use the trash can? Did José Altuve cheat to win the MVP?” Mike Fiers is going to tell you, straight up, he didn’t use it. He was the one player that didn’t use it. (Emphasis added.—JK.)

The foregoing arises again because another Athletic writer, Peter Gammons, the longtime Boston Globe scribe/analyst who’s a Spink Award Hall of Famer, wrote of the Astros’ post-Astrogate manager Dusty Baker and winning team cultures in a piece published Friday—and returned to that 2020 spring training opening. Including the impossible position into which Altuve was pushed.

There he was, sitting at the table, looking as though he’d rather undergo root canal work without an anesthetic. Now we should ask just what the hell Crane was thinking when, seemingly, he insisted Altuve sit at the head table for that 2020 spring presser. The owner with a reputation for rejecting direct accountability forced “the one player that didn’t use” the AIA’s espionage to take it like a man.

Gammons talked to assorted Astros near the end of the opening workout later in the day. “They were subdued, clearly remorseful,” Gammons wrote, “but when I told Altuve that players, coaches and a number of people in the organization had told me that he did not participate in the sign stealing, he politely declined to discuss it, and asked that I didn’t talk about it on television, or write about it. ‘It would be a betrayal of my teammates’.”

Two years later, he still did not want to be singled out. But while he and [third baseman Alex] Bregman were asked by management to speak to the scandal for all the players and he received the most obscene treatment from beered up louts in Boston and New York, he never pointed to 2017 home/road splits that showed a 200-point OPS difference in favor of the road, where there was nary a banging trash can to be heard.

“He is,” Baker said, “the ultimate teammate.” That from a man who played with Henry Aaron and Reggie Smith.

Altuve’s 2017 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was 248 points higher on the road—where the AIA couldn’t operate—than it was at Minute Maid Park. He also hit six more home runs out of town than in Houston. With only four more plate appearances on the road than at home in ’17, his Real Batting Average (my metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) was .529 at home . . . but .679 on the road.

The Gammons story seems to have jolted for the Altuve “revelation.” In its email newsletter Morning Bark, offering links to stories based on its choice of a day’s top ten sports stories, Yardbarker linked to it with this teaser, which also headlined a brief news item about the piece: “Insider reveals interesting detail regarding José Altuve and Astros’ cheating scandal.”

It’s only a “revelation” if you missed either Rosenthal’s original or Martino’s book. I missed the former upon its original arrival, but I pounced on the latter when it was published. SNY, after all, stands for the Sports New York regional cable network. And the Yankees, whom Martino’s normal coverage includes, had their own skin in the sign-stealing world.

Theirs wasn’t quite as extensive as the 2017-18 Astros, of course. Neither was anything by any other teams who might have done as the Red Sox did, using their MLB-provided replay rooms for such sign-stealing reconnaissance. (MLB has since tightened up on guarding the replay rooms.) The 2017-18 Astros went far above and far beyond just boys-will-be-boys replay room roguery.

But Martino taking Astrogate book depth had no reason to want Altuve whitewashed. Especially considering Altuve—when Yankee manager Aaron Boone elected to let his faltering closer Aroldis Chapman pitch on to him, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, instead of putting him on at 2-1 with a spaghetti bat on deck—hit the monstrous two-run homer on an up-and-away slider that won the 2019 Astros the pennant.

In fact, Cheated‘s footnotes included the original Correa/Rosenthal revelation. Martino had me convinced before the footnotes section. Reading the Correa/Rosenthal revelation both recently and once again after the Gammons piece Friday, I’m convinced even more.

Saying Astrogate won’t disappear until the last member of the 2017-18 team no longer wears an Astro uniform is one thing. So is saying the 2017-18 cheaters stained baseball almost as deeply as the 1919 Black Sox. But it’s something else to keep including José Altuve among the tainted when he doesn’t deserve to be among them.

The further evidence should be even more clear by now. Altuve wanted no part of the original Astrogate scheming and bawled teammates out when they didn’t respect his wishes. He played the game straight, no chaser, then and now. He’s taken it across the chops unfairly since.

The Bronx Boneheads

This is what the Yankees were afraid of being exposed? After two years, accidentally turning up during a lawsuit’s discovery phase, and a few legal contortions on behalf of blocking it from anyone else’s sight, this is what the Yankeegate letter was all about? Their own 2015-2017 replay-room reconnaissance ring, a la the 2018 Rogue Sox?

No, we’re not going to argue that electronic cheating isn’t so terrible even if it doesn’t rise quite to the Astrogate level. Agree that neither those Yankees nor those Red Sox were behaving themselves, even if the Yankees didn’t get far enough in the postseason to try it in a World Series the way the ’18 Rogue Sox probably did.

But someone, anyone. Please.

Tell me the Bronx Boneheads aren’t that deeply full of themselves that they couldn’t have withstood whatever minor slings, arrows, brickbats, and bashings would have confronted them over mere replay room reconnaissance. Tell me they’re not that ridiculous about preserving the Yankee image no matter how little their sneaky little shoplifters resemble the grand theft felons.

About the only thing the Yankee prankees seem to have done a little differently than the Rogue Sox was use their dugout phone on the road to get the stolen signs from the road replay room and then transmit it to a baserunner to send home to the batter.

Cheating is cheating? Please. This was comparable only to teen comedians ordering pizzas for deliveries to unsuspecting chumps across town. It didn’t exactly amount to seizing the pizzeria and taking hostages.

Since there were unconfirmed numbers of other teams doing likewise with their free presents from MLB, those other teams are probably laughing their fool heads off over the lengths to which the Yankees spent time and money trying to keep the Yankeegate letter from escaping into the public eye.

Yes, I said free presents from MLB. It was MLB itself that laid the replay rooms on both clubhouses in all ballparks starting in 2014. They did it with the best intentions. Perhaps naively, they forgot that boys will be boys, and presents such as those were probably bound to inspire a little extracurricular chicanery.

Since Astrogate and Soxgate’s exposure in 2019-20, the rules now involve security personnel posted at all replay rooms. Before the December-March owners’ lockout, both sides were close enough to agreeing, too, on more stringent measures such as no one but a team’s designated operator plus an MLB security worker allowed in the rooms, and even blacking out catcher’s pitch signs on the replay room monitors.

But while you have your laughs-and-halves over the Yankees resembling the siblings scrambling to Watergate coverup lengths to keep Mom and Dad from learning one of them accidentally smashed the crystal pilsner glass, causing it to shatter into a trillion shards, try to remember that this does not and will not get the 2017-18 Astros off the hook.

The Yankees, the Rogue Sox, and other teams who merely turned the replay rooms into their versions of Spy vs. Spy didn’t go to even half the lengths those Astros did for intelligence gathering and transmitting.

Their general managers, so far as anyone knows, didn’t sanction sign-stealing algorithms developed by low-level interns and ignore the warnings that using them in-game was illegal. Now-former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow thought of that with the Codebreaker algorithm.

Their bench coaches and designated hitters didn’t dream up either an independent high-speed real-time camera or alter an existing delayed camera into illegal real-time transmission to deliver opposing signs to clubhouse monitors next to which a transmission person could signal Astro batters by banging the trash can, slowly or otherwise. Then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora and DH Carlos Beltran did. (Smile—you’re on Candid Camera!)

“These are different things. Very, very different things,” tweeted ESPN’s Jeff Passan after the Yankeegate letter was obtained by SNY.

Players have been trying to steal and relay signs from second base forever. That doesn’t excuse the Yankees and Red Sox, but context matters. Relaying pitches with such specificity as the Astros did was entirely new.

Now, if MLB comes down harder on the Yankees or Red Sox in 2017, does that change things? Perhaps. Maybe the Astros are scared straight. But let’s remember: Manfred warned the Red Sox in 2017 after using the Apple Watch. And they won the World Series in 2018 while cheating . . .

Using technology to steal signs was rampant in baseball. The Yankees, Red Sox and Astros — and others whose indiscretions have not been proven publicly — did it. It’s simply facile to treat them as the same. It’s factual to say that there are different levels of cheating.

The one true revelation in the Yankeegate letter is that commissioner Rob Manfred actually fined the Yankees $100,000 after they were caught using their dugout phone in September 2017. Seriously?

They spent two years and who knows how much money in legal costs to try to suppress . . . that their mere replay room reconnaissance ring of 2017-18 wasn’t even half the Astro Intelligence Agency and cost them in the end slightly less than half what they pay pitcher Gerrit Cole per day?

The Yankees feared “significant and reputational harm” if the letter was made public. That fear may have been well founded. But not for the reasons the Bronx Boneheads thought.

Coming at last, the Yankeegate letter

Aaron Boone, Brian Cashman

Manager Aaron Boone and general manager Brian Cashman may have a lot of explaining to do when the Yankeegate sign-stealing letter comes forth to the public.

It didn’t happen when I thought it would happen, but the now-infamous Yankeegate letter will be made public. The Yankees couldn’t quite convince the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals to reconsider their original denial last month.

They couldn’t convince the court that releasing the letter would calcify your spine, cut your circulation off, amputate both your arms, or destroy the world’s coffee bean crops.

Writing for the three-member panel, Judge Joseph Bianco said it’s very much in the public interest whether commissioner Rob Manfred wrote to Yankee general manager Brian Cashman that he knew the Yankees were up to a little bit more in 2017 than just a little subterfuge involving their dugout telephone.

“As the judge explained it,” writes Sportico‘s Michael McCann, “the letter is a judicial document, which means it is presumptively accessible to the public.” Not to mention Manfred and baseball’s government compromising any privacy arguments by letting a takeaway or two escape to the public purview in the first place.

Major League Baseball swore to anyone who’d listen that the Yankees weren’t using cameras belonging to their YES broadcasting network for any extracurricular in-game field intelligence, while fining them over the dugout phone. MLB also fined the Red Sox after an assistant trainer was caught using his AppleWatch for such intelligence gathering.

It took Astrogate and its fallout to help Manfred to zap the Red Sox, at least, over their 2018 replay room reconnaissance ring, which wasn’t quite as grave as the Astros’ off-field-based, illegal electronic sign-stealing intelligence agency. Both the Astros’ 2017 World Series title and the Rogue Sox’s 2018 World Series title have since been suspect.

The Yankees haven’t won a World Series since 2009. But if the Manfred letter to Cashman reveals anything deeper than a dugout phone at play in any such Yankee intelligence operation, it won’t take the 2017-18 Astros off the hook but it will put the 2017 Yankees on the hook squarely enough.

Suspecting numerous teams used their replay rooms for subterfuge is one thing. Answering it to the extremes the Astros went and the Yankees might have gone is something else entirely. We won’t know until the letter’s release how far the Yankees actually went. But when the Yankees say in court documents that the letter will inflict “significant and reputational harm” if released, look out.

“The letter could also mention coaches, staff and players who were alleged to have played roles in possible shenanigans . . . MLB attorneys have similarly warned the letter could ’cause potential embarrassment,’ while insisting the letter’s release is motivated by ‘perceived shock value’,” McCann writes.

That could prove a significant embarrassment, especially remembering how Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge insisted that Astros second baseman Jose Altuve’s 2017 American League Most Valuable Player award was now tainted in light of Astrogate. Altuve has since been shown not only to have objected to the Astros’ trash-can banging of stolen signs while he was at the plate, but he wasn’t actually wearing any kind of buzzer under his uniform at any time.

The Yankeegate letter saga began when the DraftKings fantasy sports group sued the Astros, the Red Sox, and MLB itself over those teams’ 2017-18 cheatings, and pre-trial discovery included filing the letter under seal. DraftKings lost their $5 million lawsuit, and releasing the letter won’t reinstate the suit. Nor will it take the Astro Intelligence Agency or the Rogue Sox Reconnaissance Ring off the hook.

But one of the five DraftKings plaintiffs, Kristopher Olson, has told McCann that the courts must “recognize the distinction between diffuse, random acts of rules breaking, like the use of corked bats by individual players, and a concentrated, coordinated campaign like the one in which the Astros engaged and [that] MLB took steps to downplay and conceal.”

It took pitcher Mike Fiers blowing the whistle at last to Athletic writers Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich to un-conceal Astrogate in November 2019. Manfred himself was compelled to leave almost every Astro player unpunished in return for getting them to spill about the AIA. Drellich’s in-depth Astrogate examination, Winning Fixes Everything: The Rise and Fall of the Houston Astros, twice delayed since last August, is now due to be published in September.

Manfred crunched the Astros with stripped draft picks and owner Jim Crane with a $5 million fine, not to mention imposing yearlong suspensions of then-manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, whom Crane fired posthaste. The players’ union and MLB agreed since that any players involved in any degree of Astrosoxyankeegate-like espionage can be suspended without pay and with a concurrent loss of MLB service time.

Hinch eventually admitted in a wrenching interview that, except for a couple of clubhouse-monitor smashings, he could have but didn’t do more to thwart the AIA. Then, after serving his year’s suspension, he found new life as the Tigers’ manager.

We learned soon enough, too, that Luhnow approved a staffer-created algorithm designed to steal signs from off the field before then-bench coach Alex Cora and then-designated hitter Carlos Beltran masterminded an operation involving either an extra camera or illegally-altered-to-real-time existing one for the AIA. The Astros’ mealymouthed presser as spring training 2020 opened left them an even worse look. The pan-damn-ically cut-off spring training and delayed regular 2020 season shielded them partially from fan retribution.

The Rogue Sox didn’t take quite the beating over the 2018 cheaters as the Astros did, but then the Sox so far were proven only to have been one team who did figure out that their replay room—bestowed by MLB upon home and road teams in all ballparks—had its extracurricular uses. Manfred purged their video room operator J.T. Watkins but, again, let players off the hook in return for details.

Rogue Sox manager Cora, hired for 2018, also resigned before he could be fired in 2020. He, too, gave a self-lacerating interview while sitting out a year-long suspension; it may have helped his re-hiring for last year. Beltran was hired after the 2019 season to manage the Mets, but he was forced out before he got to manage even a single spring training game for them. He works now as a Yankee broadcast analyst.

The Yankeegate letter’s full disclosure may inspire Astrogate-like wrath toward the Yankees. The outrage might be enough to force Manfred to drop at least an Astrogate-like hammer upon the Yankee front office and even manager Aaron Boone. (MLB says releasing the letter would be “embarrassing” to it, too.) “May” and “might” are the operative words there.

If so, there’ll be plenty of fan bases, including the one for those National League East-leaders playing across town in Queens, who’ll think it couldn’t happen to a nicer team.