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.