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.

Whistling under Fiers

2019-12-08 MikeFiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Smile! You’re on Candid Camera

PoloGroundsClubhouse

The Polo Grounds clubhouse behind center field. Leo Durocher’s coach Herman Franks sat in one of the windows with a spy glass buzzing stolen signs to the Giants bullpen down the 1951 stretch and possibly in the fabled pennant playoff.

Once upon a time there was a major league catcher whose eventual biography was called The Catcher Was a Spy. But Moe Berg took up his life with the old Office of Strategic Services after his baseball career expired.

Other than possible on-field gamesmanship, Berg wasn’t exactly known for applying advanced surveillance techniques to baseball when he played. The well-educated catcher about whom it was said he mastered a dozen languages but couldn’t hit in any of them waited until World War II to practise intelligence.

After that life ended for him, Berg lived as best he could as a nomadic shadow man who preferred the company of those who’d ask him anything except about himself. And his is the only known baseball card on display at the headquarters of the CIA.

There may be some now who think a few more ought to join Berg’s card there. A few Astros, a couple of Red Sox and Yankees, a Phillie or three, a couple of Braves and Tigers, a Giant or three yonder, and maybe a few more elsewhere.

That, of course, would depend on whether baseball’s government is serious about investigating espionage in the ranks, now that former Astros/current Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers has, shall we say, pulled some of the deep cover away from an apparent high-tech sign-stealing operation by the Astros Intelligence Agency.

An ESPN writer, Buster Olney, advises one and all not to hold their breaths. Partially because the Astros say they’re investigating their own cheating, which some might compare to a police department investigating its own corruption:

It probably took longer for the Astros to generate the statement about the forthcoming investigation than the actual investigation should require — that is to say, two phone calls, to ask two questions.

Astros owner Jim Crane can call Jeff Luhnow, Houston’s general manager and head of baseball operations, and ask: What happened?

And if Luhnow doesn’t know, he can call his video operator and ask: What happened? That’s all it should take.

As Groucho Marx once said, it’s so simple that a child of five could do it—now, somebody send for a child of five. All things considered, that might not be a half bad idea. But this isn’t five-year-old children playing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. These are (it is alleged) grown men playing all’s fair in baseball and war.

Fiers told The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich that the 2017 Astros had a camera in center field tied to a large television set stationed adjacent to the steps from the clubhouse to the dugout. Assorted Astros (Fiers didn’t name names) would see the catcher’s signs on the set, decipher them, and relay them to Astro hitters in two shakes of a tail feather.

Runners on base or coaches on the lines catching, deciphering, and relaying stolen signs merely with their eyes and hands are guilty only of gamesmanship. Aided by technology off the field, it’s grand theft. And before anyone gets the brilliant idea that the Astros invented it, let it be said that they’ve taken it to its technologically logical 2010s extreme but they weren’t exactly the first to even think about it.

“Every team with a scoreboard in center field has a spy inside at one time or another,” wrote Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby in his memoir—called My War with Baseball. Longtime catcher/coach/manager Birdie Tebbetts once told a Boston newspaper the 1940 Tigers didn’t have a spy in center field but a pitcher in the seats with binoculars—helping those Tigers lead the league in runs and win the pennant by a game.*

Two decades later, the Braves were caught playing The Riddle of the Stands, when two presumed fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers turned out to be pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay, posing as bleacher creatures but relaying signs stolen by binoculars to the Braves dugout.

But the 1951 Giants had a spy in the center field clubhouse of the Polo Grounds. When Leo Durocher discovered a former Cub now a Giant (Hank Schenz) owned a Wollensak spy glass—which he used to steal signs from Wrigley Field’s center field scoreboard—Durocher couldn’t resist, deploying coach Herman Franks to the clubhouse, spyglass in hand.

From there, Franks would catch the opposition catcher’s signs through the spyglass darkly and relay them to the Giants bullpen, from whence quick flashes of tiny but visible light would tell Giant hitters who wanted the purloined signals what was coming up to the plate. Yes, children, the Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

The 1951 Dodgers suspected Durocher was up to something down that stretch—the Giants came back from thirteen games out to force the pennant playoff—but when they thought about catching his surveillance cold with their own pair of binoculars an umpire confiscated the field glasses post haste. Can’t have the cheated playing tit-for-tat against the cheaters, you know.

In due course, and after the Giants moved to San Francisco, an infielder on the 1951 pennant cheaters (er, winners), Bill Rigney, now managing the team, fashioned a simpler system in 1959 to keep the Braves at bay while two games ahead with ten left in the season: the spy would simply close and open certain scoreboard slats to relay pilfered signs.

Rigney also found a player objecting to that bright idea, relief pitcher Al Worthington. A man of deep Christian beliefs, Worthington persuaded Rigney to knock it off unless he wanted Worthington to walk off the team. Rigney knocked it off. The Braves ended up in a pennant playoff with the eventual winning Dodgers.

“I told Bill that I had been talking to church groups, telling people you don’t have to lie or cheat in this world if you trust Jesus Christ,” Worthington told a magazine writer. “How could I go on saying those things if I was winning games because my team was cheating?”

But when Worthington was traded to the White Sox, after their 1959 American League pennant, he was slightly surprised to discover general manager Hank Greenberg’s crew had a binocular sign-stealing system in full swing. And that he couldn’t discourage Greenberg quite the way he discouraged Rigney.

“Baseball is a game where you try to get away with everything you can,” Greenberg told the stolid relief pitcher. “You cut corners when you run the bases. If you trap a ball in the outfield, you swear you caught it. Everybody tries to cheat a little.” Worthington took a hike. Trying to trade him, the White Sox discovered Worthington now had a reputation as a nutbag.

Let’s see. Greenberg couldn’t quite enunciate the distinction between corner cutting on the bases, ball trapping in the outfield, and spying, buzzing, and binocularity. And Worthington needed psychiatric attention? (In due course, Worthington returned to the Show, first with the Reds, and then with the pennant-winning 1965 Twins.)

Sometimes teams have been caught red Octobered. In 2010 a Phillies bullpen coach, Mick Billmeyer, was caught on camera sitting on the bullpen bench with binoculars up to his eyes. Billmeyer claimed he was only monitoring Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz’s positioning, but the Rockies television broadcast caught Billmeyer training his binoculars on Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo.

Charlie Manuel, then the Phillies’ manager, gave a beauty of an explanation afterward. “We were not trying to steal signs,” he told a reporter. “Would we try to steal somebody’s signs? Yeah, if we can. But we don’t do that. We’re not going to let a guy stand up there in the bullpen with binoculars looking in. We’re smarter than that.” Don’t ask.

Billmeyer may only have acted upon the impulse of franchise history. The 1899 Phillies got caught red handed with high tech for the time sign stealing, in which a buzzer under the third base coaching line would give a tiny shock to third base coach Pearce Chiles standing atop it—while it was hidden under wet grass.

Reds catcher Tommy Corcoran suspected the coach’s leg twitches and dug his spikes until he hit the board under which the shocker was tucked. Thus was spiked the Phillies’ prehistoric electrotheft, which began with third-string catcher Morgan Murphy hiding behind a center field ad using binoculars to get the opposing signs and relay them by buzzer to Chiles. As if that was liable to be the end of it.

The same year Billmeyer got bagged, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina caught on to someone in Petco Park’s center field camera well, in a Padres’ sport shirt, brandishing binoculars and clutching a walkie talkie while he was at it. If you think he was chatting between innings with his kids in the grandstands, I have a cane .45 to sell you cheap.

In this decade, maybe the second most suspected of baseball intelligence operations was the Blue Jays, mostly around their once-infamous Man in White—believed to be sitting behind center field in Rogers Centre relaying signs. There were those who believed he was in business up to and including the 2015 American League Championship Series.

And while last year the Indians (eliminated in the division series) warned the Red Sox (who won the pennant and the World Series) to beware Astro infiltration, the previous year a Red Sox trainer was caught deploying an Apple Watch to steal Yankee signs. Which may have been the pot dressing the kettle black: the Red Sox complained the Empire Emeritus used cameras of their YES broadcast network to spy on the Olde Towne Team in-game.

That provided the only known instance in which current commissioner Rob Manfred has punished anyone for espionage, fining the Red Sox and harrumphing that “all thirty clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

Lest you think baseball’s high-tech black bag jobbers get away with murder entirely, be advised. The 1899 Phillies finished third behind the National League pennant-winning Brooklyn Superbas (the Dodgers to be). The 1940 Tigers lost the World Series in seven to the Reds. The 1951 Giants were flattened by the Yankees in five in that Series. The 1960 Braves finished second and seven back of the pennant and World Series winning Pirates; the 1960 White Sox finished ten back of the pennant-winning Yankees.

The 2010 Phillies won the National League East but lost the National League Championship Series to the Giants; the 2010 Padres finished second to the Giants in the NL West. The Blue Jays still haven’t been seen anywhere near the World Series since the Clinton Administration. The 2017 Red Sox got pushed to one side by the Astros in the division series.

And, if you assume the Astros didn’t quite put the AIA out of business this year, it did them no favours in this year’s World Series. They had the postseason home field advantage, but the Nats won the Series on the road entirely. If the Astros were stealing signs electronically this time around, it qualifies as maybe the single most inept case of spy-ops since the Watergate burglary.

Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer is known as a drone builder and lover. Before the 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland—and before the Indians traded him to the Reds—Bauer deployed one of his mechanical flying pets to tour the empty park taking footage, demonstrating potential television broadcast advancement. On another occasion, a Bauer drone followed Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin running out a game-winning inside-the-park home run.

How large a jump would it prove to be from Bauer’s hobbying to a team developing enough drone expertise to hover them over the park on behalf of a new kind of in-game intelligence operation? Would baseball’s next great technological development then be not robot umpires but teams developing strategic defense initiatives? (Will we spend the seventh-inning stretch singing, “Take me out to the spy games?”)

If Mike Fiers has hit the buzzer properly, and if baseball dicks perform the genuine investigation the Astros may not prefer to do, Manfred isn’t long before having the chance to do something more than harrumph that he’s going to . . . be very, very angry at anyone caught playing “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” again.

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* CORRECTION—It wasn’t binoculars the 1940 Tigers used—it was the telescopic lens of pitcher Tommy Bridges’s hunting rifle. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg—playing first for those Tigers, of course—owned up and described the idea in his eventual memoir, Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life.

Fiers burns a milestone

2019-05-07 MikeFiers

After spreading his wings to no-hit the Reds, Mike Fiers spread his wings to start the celebration . . .

You’d be hard pressed when asked to think of things baseball people love more than milestones. Except maybe excuses for puns clever and otherwise.

“A’s to Reds: You’re Fiered!” went one such posted on Facebook, after Mike Fiers threw a curve ball that took a swan dive below Eugenio Suarez’s bat to finish a no-hitter Tuesday night.

Imagine if that Facebooker and others in the moment knew it was the 300th no-hitter in major league history. Three hundred has a few magic connotations in baseball and otherwise.

Pitching wins are now overrated in evaluating a pitcher’s actual value, but even those who overrate them with cause like to ponder who’s likely to to be credited for 300 of them next. CC Sabathia’s out of that running since he plans to retire after this season and isn’t likely to earn 52 wins between now and then. Justin Verlander may have an outside shot if his arm obeys his known wishes and lets him pitch another five or six years.

But Fiers didn’t just pitch baseball’s 300th no-hitter but the second one of his otherwise journeyman major league career. With a 4.38 lifetime fielding-independent pitching rate (that’s your ERA when your defenses are removed from the equation, folks) so far in a nine-year career, to go with his 4.11 lifetime ERA, Fiers isn’t exactly a Hall of Famer in the making.

But modestly gifted men have been known to perform immodest deeds now and then. And fans of modest intelligence have been known to say that certain milestones “should” be reached by none but the proven absolute greats.

Such fans several generations ago said it about Roger Maris daring to chase, catch, and pass Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. You could almost hear the isolated harrumphing now: “Who the hell is this guy to pitch the 300th no-hitter? That’s supposed to be Max Scherzer! Or Justin Verlander! Or Clayton Kershaw! Mike Who?!?”

Unfortunately, baseball doesn’t always work that way, bless the game. If the guy you wouldn’t spot in a Grand Central Station rush hour throng can come up big in the biggest moments like the postseason (Howard Ehmke, Al Gionfriddo, Sandy Amoros, Don Larsen, Moe Drabowsky, Al Weis, Denny Doyle, Mark Lemke, and David Freese, anyone?), why can’t the guy you’d never mistake for Tom Seaver throw a milestone no-hitter?

There are 35 pitchers who’ve thrown more than one no-hitter in their careers and, not counting such still-active men as Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, 22 of them aren’t Hall of Famers.

Among those like Fiers who’ve thrown two, Cooperstown has seven: Pud Galvin, Christy Mathewson, Addie Joss, Warren Spahn, Jim Bunning, Randy Johnson, and Roy Halladay. Three men have thrown three and only one of those, Larry Corcoran, isn’t a Hall of Famer.

Fiers is also one of only eight men to pitch a no-hitter for more than one team. He’s done it for the Astros (in 2015) and now the A’s. The list includes Cy Young, Bunning, Johnson, and Ryan among the Hall of Famers and Ted Breitenstein, Adonis Terry, and Hideo Nomo otherwise.

Johnny Vander Meer (not a Hall of Famer) is still the only man to pitch no-hitters in back-to-back starts; Sandy Koufax is still the only man to throw no-hitters in four consecutive seasons, with his fourth proving literally that practise makes perfect. Nolan Ryan fell short of that streak by a season (he pitched two in 1973 and one each in 1974 and 1975) while working toward his record seven.

Fiers is in rather charmed company now. Especially since May is the month for milestone no-nos, and the two previous to his were also thrown by Hall of Famers. Carl Hubbell threw number 100 ninety years ago today; and, Dennis Eckersley threw number 200 on 30 May 1977. Anyone care to predict which May to come will feature no-hitter number 400?

And Fiers is another kind of outlier. No pitcher ever took a season’s 6.81 ERA to the mound before throwing a no-hitter.

“I’m just glad they got those lights working,” Fiers deadpanned after the 2-0 win.

He referred to three panels of lights failing above the left field stands in Oakland’s otherwise unloveable Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Game time was delayed a little over an hour and a half. Finally, the A’s and the Reds said let’s play ball and Joey Votto checked in at the plate to open.

Votto popped out to the infield to open. Suarez struck out to finish. Except for an error at third in the fourth, Suarez working out a leadoff walk in the seventh, and Yasiel Puig walking later in the inning, no Red reached base in any way, shape or form.

And, yes, Fiers needed a little help from his friends in the sixth inning, such as Jurickson Profar ambling out to shallow right to catch Kyle Farmer’s quail and, especially, Ramon Laureano—making a fresh reputation as an outfield acrobat—taking a home run away from Votto with a leap up the short end of left center field wall.

Not to mention Profar driving home both the runs in the game, first with a two-out double in the second with Stephen Piscotty aboard and then with a two-out launch over the right field fence in the seventh.

Maybe the testiest moment of the game came in the ninth with one out, when Fiers fell behind Votto 3-1 before throwing the Reds first baseman a changeup nasty enough to be worth nothing more than a ground out to first base.

For Laureano that play was an awakening. “That’s the first time I realized he had a no-hitter,” he said of Fiers’ performance. “Really, I didn’t know.”

“I think the stars aligned tonight,” said Farmer of the Profar and Laureano catches. “Once we saw those two plays happening, we said this might be his night.”

It wasn’t exactly a picnic for the last A’s pitcher to throw a no-hitter. “It was way more nerve-wracking then when I was doing it,” said Sean Manea, who threw his last year but who’s still working his way back from September surgery to repair a torn shoulder labrum. “I was shaking on the bench. I don’t know, it was crazy seeing him do it.”

It didn’t stop Manea from being the man to shower Fiers—who wouldn’t have pitched Tuesday at all if the A’s hadn’t shuffled their rotation on their off day, as things turned out—with the Gatorade tank.

“I remember when I was drafted, I wasn’t too high on the charts,” Fiers told reporters after surviving the mobbing he got on the mound when the game ended. “I was a guy throwing 88 to 90, down in South Florida. I’m one in a million down there.” And in more ways than one, his million-to-one shot came home.