Dark are baseball’s video rooms

Javier Baez wants his and other players’ in-game television back.

The following program is not brought to you in living colour, on NBC or elsewhere around the Show. Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs shortstop, is not amused.

Baez is having less than an exemplary season at the plate as it is without being frustrated because a valuable tool he and most players use during games is denied them this year.

They can’t duck into the video room during games this season to review their prior plate appearances or pitching turns during games, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly when they check in at the plate or on the mound next.

“To be honest, it sucks because I make my adjustments during the game,” Baez told ESPN writer Jesse Rogers Monday, and that was after he picked up three hits while his Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-1. “I watch my swing. I watch where the ball went, where the contact was. I’m mad. I’m really mad about that we don’t have it.”

Baez thinks, not without reason, that it simply wasn’t right for baseball’s government to put the entire Show on video restriction simply because of the malfeasance of two known teams at least. Think of Mom and Dad grounding all the kids because one broke into the liquor cabinet while the others were nowhere within two miles of the scene of the crime.

As Rogers writes, “In-game video was taken away this season in the wake of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal.” But the culprit wasn’t Astrogate alone.

Bad enough: the Astros either adjusted an existing camera illegally or installed another one just as illegally to enable off-field-based sign stealing. Nowhere near as bad, though enough Astro fans think otherwise, of course: the Boston Red Sox didn’t adjust or install cameras, but they did develop off-field-based sign-stealing reconnaissance by way of their existing video room.

Video rooms are in all ballparks behind both dugouts. The Rogue Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring involved someone deciphering pitch signs on existing screens, then signaling a baserunner to send the sign to the hitter. The Rogue Sox exercised a sophisticated if sneaky variation of old-fashioned gamesmanship, but doing it by way of the video room was a major no-no.

Unlike the Astros’ extracurricular installations or adjustments, whichever they were, MLB itself installing the video rooms handed the Red Sox and every other team surrendering to similar temptations the keys to the liquor cabinet expecting they’d be good little boys and not even think about drinking unlawfully.

“[P]rotocols put in place during the coronavirus pandemic all but assured that there would be no way to monitor usage properly,” Rogers writes. “Now players can’t watch their at-bats until after games.”

The old-school old farts would remind you, of course, that once upon a time, in the dark days before technology advanced at warp speed to destroy Life As We Knew It When the Going Was Good, coaches and managers observed batters and pitchers and suggested adjustments accordingly, if not necessarily astutely, all by their own selves. With no subversive help from God or those subversive technocrats from General Electric, RCA, Bell & Howell, IBM, Wollensak, or others.

(Oops. Wollensak’s and other hand-held spyglasses and telescopes ended up in the hands of such off-field sign-stealing cheaters as the 1940 Detroit Tigers, the 1948 Cleveland Indians, and—especially—the 1951 New York Giants, to name a few.)

What brass balls on early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers manager Charley Dressen, then. Dressen once helped Gil Hodges break out of a ferocious batting slump by commissioning a filmmaker to shoot hours of footage of the beleaguered first baseman at the plate. Then, he showed Hodges on extensive film the backward mis-step he’d take in the box—his back foot pulling himself and his swing off line—and gave a successful suggestion on how to keep that step from hurting his swing. Career saved.

The nerve of such people as the now-late Lou Brock. In the mid-1960s, he first took up the practise of filming enemy pitchers to study everything he could about their mound  tendencies and how he might exploit them for more efficient basepath crime. (I don’t want to be in your goddam movies, Brock!—Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale.) From Kodak to Cooperstown.

The gall of such people as the late Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. In the early-to-mid 1980s, Gwynn started carrying a video recorder and player around with him, at home and on the road, while his wife shot and captured his plate appearances so he could study them as a rabbinical scholar studies the Talmud, during and after games alike, and correct any mistakes or flaws he happened to catch.

Today’s baseball player can normally survive a tough plate appearance or turn on the mound, duck into the video room at next opportunity, and observe and adjust on the fly. Or, have a successful turn, then study and retain what he did right. Argue against such legitimate helpmates? You might as well argue the American family never had it so good as when they had to beat the dust and dirt of the rugs and slipcovers hanging on clotheslines, instead of reaching for the Electrolux.

This is not to suggest that a batter or a pitcher has lost the capability to think hard enough on their own and figure necessary adjustments. Minds greater than baseball minds rarely say no to all the sound help they can get from all the sound sources they can find, technological or otherwise.

Try to convince yourself that even such a Hall of Famer as Ted Williams would have said no to seeing some film of himself at the plate and catching the occasional kink or further refining the betters. When he met and befriended Gwynn late in life, Teddy Ballgame surely approved of Captain Video’s private television production operation on behalf of (the horror) improving himself at the plate.

Set to one side the temptations that manifest because boys will be boys, in Houston, Boston, and anywhere else, and video lacks what even the best managers and coaches have no matter how well they train themselves or get themselves trained otherwise. Video doesn’t lie, or at least surrender to coaches’ biases based on how they swung or pitched back in their Good Old Days.

(How many coaches ruined how many players by trying to bend them to their own former playing ways or toward presumed styles? Possible racial considerations to one side, the Cubs traded Lou Brock after they couldn’t make him into the pure slugger he really wasn’t. The Mets once thought their phenom pitcher Dwight Gooden needed to stop trying to miss bats and add off-speed pitches he couldn’t throw comfortably though their pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre once did. Hall of Fame talent ruined: Gooden’s confidence and in due course his shoulder and his career were compromised.)

After the Astrogate/Soxgate kerfuffles, baseball’s government decided the video room’s future would include specially hired and trained security the better to keep the game’s grand theft felons from even thinking about future replay room reconnaissance cheating. Baez doesn’t exactly object to the idea. He just didn’t think the future wouldn’t be right now.

“We didn’t cheat. We’re not cheating, and we got to pay for all this,” he told Rogers. “It’s tough . . . but a lot of players are struggling, too. A lot of stars are struggling, and I’m just one more. The way that it is is not the way we play baseball. And I need video to make adjustments and during the game. It doesn’t matter who is there to watch us. It doesn’t matter if we have all the police the MLB wants to send over here.”

In this pandemically truncated season played in conditions unheard of in previous seasons, many players aren’t struggling but many players are. The reasons are varied widely. And it isn’t as though Baez is crying out from the subterranean depths. His Cubs at this writing have the best record in the National League Central and the fourth-best in the entire league. Somehow.

Once upon a time, in 1980, the hits on the music charts included a ditty called, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The lack of video in this Quiet, Please! Geniuses Playing with Mental Blocks season isn’t going to kill the baseball star. (Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom, Yu Darvish, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., and Mike Trout, call your offices.)

But it’s not making their serious work of play simple, either.

Five for Kelly, not eight, but . . .

Syndication: Phoenix

Joe Kelly’s suspension is now five, not eight games. Some say that’s still too excessive.

The good news, such as it is, is that Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly’s suspension for throwing at Houston Astros Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa, triggering a bench-clearing, safety protocols-defying debate, was reduced from eight to five games. Enough might say that’s still too much.

The bad news is that there remain enough, aboard social media especially, to whom Kelly didn’t go far enough in administering Astrogate justice. Much like rioters and looters turning peaceful if grief-stricken demonstrations into war zones, they would cross the line between demanding justice for the guilty and destroying the innocent.

Asstros [the poster’s spelling] need to be assaulted, often and viciously,” said one such social media poster, perhaps too typically, not specifically about Kelly but about the protocol-defying near-dugout scrum into which Astros coach Alex Cintron goaded Oakland outfielder Ramon Laureano last Sunday afternoon.

“Bean balls, mound charging, spiking, spitting, fighting, punches, headlocks, punches to the face hard and often,” the poster continued. “Umpires should call every pitch against them a strike.” And then we should get really mad?

Such outrage is far more comprehensible than the same poster going forward from there to say violence has deeply therepeutic benefits. For whom? For those whose rage over the lack of Astrogate discipline against the cheating players simply will not be satisfied by one pitcher throwing beanballs?

Or, by one Athletics outfielder fuming over being hit by Astro pitches thrice in one weekend and twice that Sunday while, coincidentally, not one Astro batter saw so much as a brushback all weekend?

Social media hounds such as that demand retribution above and beyond the bounds of the game policing itself, no matter how wanting commissioner Rob Manfred proved to be when he handed Astro players from 2017-18 blanket amnesty in return for spilling about the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illicit electronic sign-stealing operation.

And, no matter how wanting fans and about seven-eighths of major league players found both that amnesty and the Astros’ subsequent unapologetic apologies as spring training opened.

Kelly himself suggested distinctions for which right reason demands acknowledgement as well. That otherwise fine 28 July saw him send a pair of fastballs upside and behind Bregman’s head and—a few batters later, before striking Correa out for the side—a pair of breaking balls making Correa dance in the batter’s box.

Bregman and Correa are two of only six 2017-18 Astros regulars remaining in those positions on this year’s edition. Kelly made a point of send the messages strictly via them when the opportunity arose.

Doing it to that pair made things obvious enough, since no pitcher customarily would think of decking a Bregman on a 3-0 count with one out. Nor would he think normally of putting runners at second and third as happened when one of Kelly’s dusters to Correa sailed past to be ruled a wild pitch officially.

Kelly probably didn’t have to be reminded that justice demands a line between the guilty held to account and those having nothing to do with the crimes in question left unscathed. If he’d elected to deck, say, Michael Brantley, who didn’t become an Astro until 2019, and was the only non-2017-18 Astro he faced in the inning, he would have crossed that line and maybe earned not one degree of the acclaim he received.

When Kelly struck Correa out, Correa and Kelly jawed a little as Kelly strode from the mound and approached the third base line returning to his dugout. Kelly then sent mock crybaby gestures including a pronounced pout to Correa. From there the dugouts emptied, health and safety protocols be damned. Not too bright on either side’s account.

But it combined with the Bregman knockdowns and Correa dustings to make Kelly a folk hero in Los Angeles, where they’d still like to send the Astros to the guillotine over the 2017 World Series the Dodgers lost to the Astros and, quite possibly, to the AIA as well.

In other places, considering Kelly’s membership on the 2017-18 Boston Red Sox (vanquished by the Astros in the ’17 division series, vanquishers of the ’18 Astros en route their own World Series triumph against the same Dodgers), Kelly’s “hypocrisy”—considering the subsequent revelation of the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnassance Ring sign-stealing—was denounced almost as furiously.

At least, it was until right reasoning people reminded themselves that neither the AIA nor the Rogue Sox operation involved the teams’ pitching staffs specifically. And, that Kelly, who became a Dodger last year, might well have gotten enough of the skinny from his mates to comprehend a significant distinction between the AIA and the Rogue Sox.

The AIA involved either altering an existing off-field camera off mandatory eight-second transmission delay or installing a furtive real-time camera to send the stolen intelligence to a clubhouse monitor for transmission to hitters. The Rogue Sox’s Four Rs involved using screens already installed in replay rooms league wide to decipher signs and signal them to baserunners who’d signal them to the hitters.

In simpler terms, the AIA went off the grid and over the barely-consecrated official line, while the Rogue Sox simply behaved like a teenage boy finding the keys to the hooch hutch unable to resist temptation until he was of legal drinking age. Especially since MLB handed them the hutch in the first place.

When Kelly’s pair of fastballs went upside Bregman’s head, there was a lot of jawing about them showing a lack of “professionalism.” Mostly from people—like Astros pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr.—who called those pitches unprofessional but couldn’t explain why illegal high-tech cheating wasn’t.

In the immediate wake of Kelly’s messaging, the word came unimpeachably that Manfred now has a hammer to drop on future such Astrosoxgate espionage: not only can those players caught taking or transmitting electronically stolen signs be suspended without pay, they lose the days of their suspensions in MLB service time, too.

The poster I cited earlier also demands the Astros’ 2017 World Series title be vacated. So has half the world, seemingly. Good luck with that. Vacate that title and you’ll have to try vacating a host of pennants (the 1940 Detroit Tigers, the 1951 New York Giants, the 1961 Cincinnati Reds) and/or World Series titles (the 2018 Red Sox, perhaps; the 1948 Cleveland Indians, possibly) past.

What the 2017-18 Astros and at least the 2018 Red Sox did was bad enough, even if you agree the Asterisks went over the line while the Rogue Sox were clever if warped enough to use what was handed to them gift wrapped.

But it would be just as wrong to compel those Astros and Red Sox people who weren’t there to pay for the crimes of those who were. Those demanding aboard social media and elsewhere that the innocent in essence must suffer with the guilty can put a sock in it.

A scapegoat for the Rogue Sox

2020-04-22 2018RedSox

The Red Sox whoop it up after nailing the final out of their 2018 World Series conquest in Los Angeles. Is that title tainted now?

So the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring was the masterwork of a rogue video room operator. Not then-manager Alex Cora, not the front office, and not any of the players who transmitted stolen opposition signs to Red Sox baserunners who’d send them on to Red Sox hitters.

Sure. And the iceberg obstructed the Titanic with malice aforethought. The Hindenburg was a kid playing with matches. World War II was a backyard argument. Apollo 11 was an episode of Star Trek. The renegades working with Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into Dunkin’ Donuts. Bill Clinton perjured himself over an Oval Office quickie with his wife.

After an investigation that included interviews with 65 witnesses including 34 incumbent or former Red Sox players, say The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, those plus “scores of e-mails, text messages, video clips, and photographs” led commissioner Rob Manfred in a report issued Wednesday to declare it was all J.T. Watkins’s fault.

Manfred suspended Watkins from baseball without pay for this year and barred from working as a video operator for 2021’s regular season and postseason. The Red Sox got docked a second-round 2020 draft pick. If you even think about trying this kind of espionage again we’re going to be . . . very, very angry at you.

Thanks to the same promises of immunity that Manfred gave the rogue Astros in return for spilling about Astrogate, we may not know for a long time if at all which Red Sox players took Watkins’s stolen signs and ran with them.

The key to the RSRRR was that—unlike the illegally installed or altered real-time center field camera that anchored the Astro Intelligence Agency in Minute Maid Park—the Red Sox’s espionage could be done at home or on the road . . . but it depended entirely on whether the Red Sox had a man on base.

Nobody banged the can slowly to send the pilfered intelligence to the Red Sox hitters availing themselves thereof. Watkins simply let someone, who knows whom, make life a little easier for Rogue Sox baserunners. In Fenway Park and elsewhere.

Usually, if you’re on the bases and of a mind to gamesmanship, you’ve got to decipher and transmit from your own eye and in as quick a blink as possible. Watkins merely allowed the Red Sox to save their baserunners a little extra sight and brain work. How very thoughtful.

The video rooms behind the dugouts were supposed to be helpmates for managers in challenging close or errant umpire calls once replay was introduced in 2014. Hitters also use them for help correcting swing mistakes, pitchers to correct mound mistakes, or both to look again quick at opposing hitters or pitchers to see where they missed unexpected weaknesses or got beaten when they should have known better.

They weren’t installed to enable spy operations on the other guys’ pitch signs or to make life simpler for baserunners who now didn’t have to figure out how to steal signs the old-fashioned way within about a minute’s worth of time. You want to steal signs on base the old-fashioned way? Do your homework. No crib sheets, answers on your wrist, or cameras on the teacher’s answer keys.

Even before Manfred handed down his Soxgate finding and decision, a few 2018 Red Sox were saying, essentially, Who, us? Remember Steve Pearce? 2018 World Series hero, and how. He was practically a one-man demolition derby late in Game Four and through most of Game Five. It landed him the World Series MVP award.

Last week, Pearce decided to call it a career. He also decided to say Who, us? “That’s such a joke to us,” he told WEEI. “When it came out we were all kind of joking about it. We just want this to pass us. We won it fair and square. Whatever they accused us of, we were all kind of like, ‘I can’t believe this is even an issue.’ Once the report comes out we’re all going to be free.”

All but one scapegoat, so far.

“[W]e have this floating over our head when we just had such an unbelievable season,” Pearce continued. “We had the perfect team and great camaraderie with everybody and then this gets thrown out here. We’re just like, ‘What the heck?’ . . . We just want this to pass us. We just want to play some baseball. Another bump in the road, I guess.”

In fairness, one of the key moments that bumped the 108 game-winning Rogue Sox into the 2018 World Series in the first place—left fielder Andrew Benintendi’s man-on-the-flying-trapeze catch of what would have been Astro third baseman Alex Bregman’s game-winning three-run extra-base hit to deny the Astros an American League Championship Series tie at two each—had nothing to do with the RSRRR.

But what about the rest of the set? What about the Series? Not long after Pearce spoke up, Joe Kelly—then a Red Sox relief pitcher, now with the Dodgers in coronavirus limbo with everyone else in baseball—delivered his own who, us? “Whenever the investigation is done, I’m interested in seeing what is in the investigation,” he, too, told WEEI last week. “If there is cheating involved with how good our team was, we should have won every single out.

“We should have not even lost an inning if there was some good cheating involved, which would have been a lot more fun because we would have won in four,” he continued. “We would have swept through the playoffs and made it really, really fast and been able to go to Hawaii or go to Mexico and go on vacation a lot sooner than we did.”

You can almost hear the 1919 White Sox culprits, who won three games during their scandalous World Series loss, thinking, “We should not have even won a single inning if there was some good profitable tanking going on, either.”

Some Red Sox fans hit social media to denounce Kelly’s pompous arrogance or arrogant pomposity, depending upon whom you read where and in which language. The man who surrendered Howie Kendrick’s tenth-inning grand salami to lose Game Five and a trip to the National League Championship Series for his Dodgers knows enough about public humiliation and humility.

In all fairness, baseball government did monitor the replay rooms more arduously to guard against postseason espionage. Baseball’s chief disciplinarian Joe Torre warned both the Red Sox and the Astros before the 2018 ALCS that if they were up to electronic no good it needed to stop tootie-sweet before (are you ready?) the press picked up leaks about it.

Unlike Astrogate, which had a whistleblowing genie named Mike Fiers come out of the bottle last November, Soxgate may not have had a signature whistleblower. Rosenthal and Drellich, the Woodward and Bernstein of Astrogate, reported shortly before Manfred’s Astrogate finding and ruling that the 2018 Red Sox weren’t just ducking into their replay room to fix mistakes, correct batter’s box or mound mechanics, decide on challenging close calls, or watch Cheers reruns.

Rosenthal and Drellich dropped this curlicue into that report:

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.

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.

So it’s entirely likely that the Rogue Sox played the 2018 postseason straight, no chaser. But there’ll always be suspicion. Would playing the postseason straight let them off the hook for reconnaissance cheating during the regular season when Watkins’s replay room was about as heavily guarded as an angry drunk?

Give Manfred this much: If he thought Cora had anything to with the RSRRR, would it have been shooting fish in the barrel to discipline him? He suspended Cora for this year—-over his Astrogate co-mastermind role. For which the Red Sox either let him quit, fired him outright, or strong-armed him to quit—never mind how well-liked he remains around the team and organisation—before he could be executed when the Astrogate report came forth.

If Manfred thought Cora was part and parcel of Watkins’s roguery, would he have thrown mercy to the wind and banned Cora for half a decade? Full decade? Life? And does anyone really believe the man who cahooted with Carlos Beltran in the AIA was entirely innocent? Or did he remember his Houston boss, A.J. Hinch, smashing a monitor or two but otherwise fiddling while the AIA turned?

Letting the Rogue Sox escape with nothing more than a docked second-round draft pick and a scapegoat video room operator is at least as bad a look as Astrogate’s been for the Astros. It also contravened Manfred’s threat, when the Red Sox’s AppleWatch and the Yankees’ extra dugout phone inspired it, to fine any team caught playing CIA against the other guys.

So whom among the 2018 Soxgaters will be the first to stand up and own up? You may sooner strike oil with safety pins.

Stolen bases justify electronic cheating?

Henderson Rickey_Ron Vesely-053010-R-Henders-01_HoFUseOnly

I bet you didn’t think the Man of Steal gave the Astro Intelligence Agency legs. (Hall of Fame photo.)

Would you like to know one reason why the courts are often held in contempt? Federal judge Jed Rakoff has just given you one. He thinks Rickey Henderson gave the Astro Intelligence Agency and the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring legs.

Rakoff has proclaimed himself a longtime baseball fan. He has also dismissed a lawsuit by fantasy baseball players against the Astros, the Red Sox, and baseball government over Astrogate/Soxgate espionage, who argued that the Astros and Red Sox shenanigans tainted the games based on which they played theirs.

Arguing as Rakoff does that the evidence on the fantasy players’ behalf is insufficient to proceed is one thing. They probably had less to go on than does Mike Bolsinger, the Blue Jays reliever who was farmed out never to return after he was destroyed by the Astro Intelligence Agency in August 2017 unaware going in that the deck against him was stacked.

But the judge’s opening statement deserves to become at least as infamous as Neville Chamberlain proclaiming peace in his time: “A sport that celebrates ‘stealing,’ even if only of a base, does not provide the perfect encouragement to scrupulous play.” Right then and there you should feel less bothered that the suit was dismissed than about what Rakoff’s choplogic says about his judgment over graver matters than baseball espionage.

“Nor can it be denied that an overweening desire to win may sometimes lead our heroes to employ forbidden substances on their (spit) balls, their (corked) bats, or even their (steroid-consuming) bodies,” he continues. “But as Frank Sinatra famously said to Grace Kelly (in the 1956 movie musical High Society), ‘There are rules about such things’.”

The Chairman of the Board spoke to the future Princess of Monaco about love and war and what’s fair in both, not whether the Man of Steal was really a shameless criminal for stealing as many bases as Robin Yount drove in runs. (1,406.)

Rakoff’s essential view, as translated by Yahoo! Sports writer Chris Cwik, is this: “Bettors should know teams will do anything to win. He cites spitballs, corked bats and steroids to make his argument. By Rakoff’s logic, the sign-stealing scandal is the risk bettors take when they place money on a sport known for cheating scandals.”

In other words, there’s a presumption of guilt.

Uh, no. We may presume baserunners will try stealing signs or pitchers might try getting away with a little ball alteration, but that’s not the same as assuming (as the Astros claim they did) that teams are opening and operating their own off-field-based, extralegal intelligence agencies.

Suppose Rakoff were alive and on the bench in 1919. Would he have ruled that angry fans and double-crossed bettors should have known going in that game fixing was a troublesome enough norm before Eddie Cicotte and Shoeless Joe Jackson confessed to the grand jury?

Or, suppose the plaintiffs could have known in advance (there’s no sign-stealing in the courts, we think) that Rakoff would mention actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances. They could have introduced Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood’s observation that he’d rather face a juicer than a hitter getting signs through espionage, because at least the juicer (assuming he isn’t getting electronically stolen signs) still has to guess and try to hit it.

It might not have helped their case, but it might have kept Rakoff from opening his dismissal with the logic-chopping claim that, essentially, Rickey Henderson justifies Astrogate.