“If a man can sin with impunity, he will continue to sin. Especially if he gets paid for it.” — Eliot Asinof, “Eight Men Out”
Baseball’s commissioner has spoken. After hours upon hours of investigation and inquiry by MLB’s in-house detectives, Rob Manfred finally dropped the hammer last week on the Houston Astros, all for a sign-stealing conspiracy dating back to their championship 2017 season.
The two most important people in the Astros’ baseball hierarchy — field manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow — were suspended for the entirety of the 2020 season. A dual suspension of two top-level club officials for that length of time made the penalty unprecedented. Their boss, Astros owner Jim Crane, subsequently fired them both. While Manfred’s report absolved Hinch and Luhnow of masterminding the sign-stealing scheme, their reputations were tarnished. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora and New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran also were let go just a few weeks in advance of spring training after their roles in the scheme were clearly spelled out in Manfred’s report.
Manfred also stripped the Astros of their top two picks in each of the next two amateur drafts. That, too, was unprecedented. Teams had lost picks before, but not that many and never first-rounders. (The St. Louis Cardinals lost their first two picks of the 2017 draft in the fallout from a hacking scandal that resulted in the permanent ban of a front-office employee. However, St. Louis had already forfeited its first-round pick that year as compensation for signing free agent Dexter Fowler.)
With the stripping of those four picks, the Astros also lose the pool money associated with them, which reduces the amount they can spend on draft picks the next two years by more than half. That bonus pool money will now be distributed to the other clubs. Those lost funds will certainly have a larger competitive impact on the Astros the next few years than the $5 million fine Manfred imposed on the team, which was the largest amount he is allowed to dock a club according to the MLB constitution.
And yet … for many, that’s not enough. Permanent bans to the aforementioned individuals were called for by some. Some wanted an even bigger fine for Crane, even though Manfred wasn’t allowed to levy one. Suspensions and fines for the players involved were another common cry, even though going that route would have hindered the investigation, causing it to drag on, and invariably would have led to a protracted round of litigation with the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Others wanted more lost draft picks or the reduction of international bonus pool money. The loudest wails emanating from social media accounts and even an L.A. City Council resolution called for the Astros to be stripped of their 2017 title. Those same howls have called for the Red Sox to lose their 2018 crown … even though MLB hasn’t even ruled yet on that totally separate investigation.
Manfred, speaking on the Fox Business channel Wednesday from Switzerland (where the World Economic Forum is being held) said quite sensibly, “I think there’s a long tradition in baseball of not trying to change what happened.”
There is another long tradition in baseball, one as old as the game itself: cheating. These aren’t novel words; those who haven’t lost their heads over the Astros scandal have repeated some variation of them many times in recent months. However, just repeating them doesn’t do the concept justice.
I was going to try to compile a list of every documented instance of a player or manager working the edges to gain a competitive on-field advantage that I could find, all through baseball’s long annals. I employed a liberal dose of search engines and dug through my library of baseball books, turning to such tomes as Dan Gutman’s “It Ain’t Cheating If You Don’t Get Caught” and “The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing, and Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime” by Jason Turbow and Michael Duca.
About 2,000 words into my list, I realized the exercise was too daunting, even though I was going to summarize all performance-enhancing-drugs-related beefs with one line and assign anything related to gambling to a different category. In other words, to say that cheating has always been a part of baseball is more than a true statement. It’s a massive understatement.
Here’s my best stab at creating a general chronology. I’m leaving out most names and teams because they’re not relevant to the point here. You can find details on any incident mentioned with a simple internet search. These are what I see as representative instances that paint the portrait, even while barely skimming the surface of what actually has taken place all through baseball history.
• From the beginning of baseball to present day: Ballplayers have experimented with substances they knew, believed or hoped would enhance their performance.
• 1880s: Coaching boxes were introduced for the first time to curb the practice of coaches wandering from their position to interfere with action on the field by impeding baserunners, or even imitating a runner to draw an errant throw.
• 1890s: One of the best teams of the era flouted the rules in numerous ways, from hardening the surface in front of the plate to help its group of good bunters to skipping bases when umpires weren’t looking.
• 1900: A National League team had a reserve player stationed behind a whiskey sign in the outfield with a telescope to swipe signs from the opposing catcher. The same team’s third-base coach was caught with a buzzer buried beneath his feet in a wooden box that received indicators of the stolen signals, information he would convey to the hitter. His giveaway was a constantly nervous leg, caused by jolts from the electric pulses.
• 1900s: A Hall of Fame manager, who served as a player-manager for a few years, would grab opposing baserunners by the belt loops when they were trying to tag up or trip them rounding the base. He would wet the infield if it benefited his pitching staff. He went on to manage into the 1930s.
• 1900s to 1920s: The widely acknowledged best player in baseball was said to have sharpened his spikes to intimidate opponents when he’d slide into a base. (This longtime claim has been refuted at various times, or at least categorized as well within the bounds of normal practices of the day.)
• 1920s: OK, this one is Babe Ruth. In an anecdote related, among other places, in the “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract,” former big leaguer Dave Henderson observed a corked Ruth bat while visiting a traveling exhibit — 60 years after the fact. Ruth was caught using a trick bat in 1923. Ruth was also said to have injected himself with extract from sheep testicles in an effort to burnish his power. The Babe, as you might know, is arguably the most celebrated athlete in American sports history.
• From the beginning of baseball: Groundskeepers employed by teams have plied their art to aid the home team in numerous ways. Overgrown infield grass. Wetted-down infields. Fences that slide in or out depending who the opponent was. Sloping foul territory. Frozen baseballs. You name it.
• From the beginning of baseball: Pitchers have used foreign substances — spit, oil, tobacco juice, grease, etc. — to gain extra movement on the ball. They’ve scuffed balls with sandpaper, razors, thumbtacks or belt buckles, or had their catchers use a sharpened edge of their shin guards. One famous practitioner of these practices is a Hall of Famer who earned the nickname “Black and Decker,” though he always claimed he let the reputation spread just to get in hitters’ heads. Another practitioner is also in the Hall of Fame, and to this day plays up the reputation for fans by wetting his fingers and holding them up in the air to rounds of laughter.
• In recent years and in a more technical sense: Pitchers have been accused of — and caught — using pine tar to improve their grip on the ball in an effort to gain extra spin. The effect is, to quote one expert on pitching, more profound than the use of steroids.
• 1940s to present: Infielders have attempted to distract hitters by getting into their sightlines, a practice that was banned in the 1940s. It has found a renaissance in the current era due to the proliferation of extreme shifts and the positioning of infielders straight up the middle.
• 1951: A pennant-winning team used a sign-stealing scheme that involved a player with a telescope zeroing in on the opposing catcher from a darkened window of the center-field clubhouse. He would use a buzzer to relay his findings to the bullpen, whose inhabitants then communicated them to the hitters. The scheme almost certainly contributed to the most famous pennant-winning homer in history. The wielder of the telescope went on to manage the Giants and Cubs.
• 1960s: One successful franchise with a reputation for developing historically great pitchers was said to have built up the height of its pitching mound unfairly to give its hurlers an added boost.
• 1961: A hitter had a career year with a bat he later admits was corked, though this hitter didn’t break any sacred all-time records.
• 1963: A Hall of Famer from baseball’s most successful franchise admitted to scuffing the ball and applying his own special blend of “gunk” to gain an advantage.
• 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, 2000s (at least): There have been a number of instances of All-Star-level hitters getting caught and suspended for using corked bats. In one infamous incident, a hitter was caught using a bat filled with super-balls when it broke open on the field. In one corked-bat incident, after the player in question saw his bat confiscated for later examination, a teammate crawled through the ductwork at the park into the umpires’ dressing room to swap the bat. Only he swapped it with a teammate’s bat instead of one from the offending hitter, making the scheme easy to suss out.
• 1980: A pitcher was caught and suspended after a ham-handed attempt to scuff balls with a thumbtack. He claimed that the only balls he scuffed turned into hits and that the only thing the scheme accomplished was a cut on his forehead from the thumbtack. The pitcher went on to become one of the most respected pitching coaches in the game.
• 1984: The manager who exposed the thumbtack pitcher managed one of the most beloved teams of the decade. He also admitted later to writer George Will that he had a couple of players on that team who would decode opposing catchers’ signals from the television in the clubhouse, so that any runner to reach second base could relay them to the hitter.
• 2010: An elite NL team was accused of stealing signs by using binoculars from the bullpen.
• 2010: An elite American League team was accused of using an elaborate sign-stealing scheme that was detailed in great depth by ESPN The Magazine.
• 2015: The aforementioned hacking scandal.
• 2017: A big league general manager was found to have committed multiple violations of baseball’s policies for working in the international player market. The GM was kicked out of baseball.
• 2017: An AL team was found to have stolen signals and then communicated them with wearable technology.
• Since forever: Pitch framing. Sure, why not? If we’re going to wield the rulebook like an anvil, let’s call out this practice, which isn’t against policy but could be viewed as poor sportsmanship, if this were 1905. We have a strike zone. We have catchers who take pitches just out of this strike zone and, through craft and deception, convince umpires that they are actually strikes. This practice is not just condoned but handsomely rewarded. It’s also a skill that will slip into obsolescence the day MLB starts using automated strike zones.
An anecdote I want to share in a little more detail was brought back into relevance this week not just because of the Astros fallout but also because an ex-pitcher known as Black Jack McDowell stirred memories of it. McDowell claimed that when he joined the White Sox in 1987, there was a legacy sign-stealing system in place at the old Comiskey Park. He attributed the existence of this system to former Chicago manager Tony LaRussa, whose final season in Chicago was 1986. LaRussa later clapped back, albeit fairly meekly.
It’s hard to say what LaRussa might have implemented at Comiskey, but there is no question that a sign-stealing system was in place at the park for decades, according to the guy who instigated it — longtime executive Frank Lane, who once tried to trade Stan Musial away from the Cardinals. In a biography by Bob Vanderberg called “Frantic Frank Lane,” Lane said he set up the system in the 1950s based on suggestions from Hall of Famer George Kell, for whom he had traded. Kell had observed a similar system in place at Fenway Park when he played for the Red Sox.
Lane was fed up with being victimized by sign stealers throughout the American League and sought the input of Kell and reserve infielder Bob Kennedy, later a big league manager.
“In ’55,” Lane said, “we were almost certain they were stealing our signs in Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland. So I said to George Kell and Bob Kennedy, ‘Those sons of b—-es are getting our signs.’ So either Kell or Kennedy, or both, said, ‘Well, why don’t we do it?'”
The system used the scoreboard to relay the stolen signals by toggling a one or a zero to indicate pitch type. Lane claimed the system was in place long after he left the team. Elsewhere, legendary groundskeeper George Toma claimed to have overseen a similar plot at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. (Toma, whom I had the pleasure to know, was one of the all-time great storytellers.)
Bringing this all back around to the Astros … given this context, what would have been an appropriate punishment? How would you have the players involved react, though none has been named other than Beltran? Should they prostrate themselves and beg for forgiveness? When that is not forthcoming, should they then be sent directly to the Tuileries for an appointment with the guillotine?
Domonique Foxworth, Richard Jefferson and Ryan Clark are frustrated with the Astros owner’s handling of the sign-stealing scandal.
The punishments as they have been meted out are already the most substantial of their type ever given. Powerful men have lost their jobs. Reputations have been irreparably sullied. And a franchise’s ability to remain elite has been undercut. More on this last bit in a minute.
Let’s try to keep this all in perspective. The players, coaches, managers and executives who have participated in this kind of behavior were all wrong, all through history. There are reasons baseball enacts policies to encourage and ensure fair play. It’s also baseball’s role to make sure these policies are followed as best it can.
However, the tradition of working the edges of the rulebook, and beyond, is never going to stop. The Astros’ players are being branded with scarlet letters, yet they are merely the latest to succumb to temptations that have always tugged at those in the sport. Some athletes — not all — invariably behave as humans do in competitive circumstances. They pull out every stop in an obsessive drive to succeed. It’s what people do. It’s up to institutions to manage it.
No, not everybody does it in a literal sense. Not all people are the same. Even in that old White Sox scheme described above, Lane said some of his players — he named Nellie Fox and Minnie Minoso as two — didn’t want the signals. The same seems to have been true of the Astros, and even given their brazen ways, Manfred’s report suggests that they eventually stopped doing it because the results simply weren’t worth the effort.
Indeed, there hasn’t been a convincing statistical analysis yet to emerge that illustrates how the Astros might have even been helped by the sign stealing. That doesn’t absolve them by any stretch, but it does suggest that what was almost certainly a fairly common practice, one that took many different forms, didn’t have any kind of warping effect on actual competition.
Given how advanced technologies are in sports now, it’s important for Manfred to draw some stark outlines for what’s acceptable and what is not, even knowing that there will always be those working the edges and finding loopholes. His punishment of the Astros not only enhances the integrity of the league but serves as a healthy deterrent that should head off any arms race in the science of sign stealing. And hopefully, before these lessons start to wear off, we’ll see newer technologies move into place that will eliminate the very thing that has always been exploited: that catchers and pitchers communicate via some pretty rudimentary hand signals.
Still, even if the Astros are cursed to be the avatar of behavior we no longer want to see, let’s not pretend that they were way beyond the bounds of what has always been part of the game’s tradition. They were merely the team to have been caught red-handed, thanks to the whistle-blowing of former teammate Mike Fiers. Many teams before the Astros have pushed the proverbial envelope, but it was Houston that finally knocked it off the edge of the table.
Of the penalties handed down by Manfred, the draft picks are the most damaging, assuming Crane can ably fill his two leadership voids with the subsequent hiring of a new manager and GM. Houston is at the phase of its window of contention where its core of largely homegrown players is getting expensive, which is exactly why the Astros have been so quiet this offseason. Houston simply can’t splurge right now without going over the luxury-tax threshold.
Staying under that line will be even more important now that the team has to work around not having any top picks in the next two drafts. The Astros were already battling the issue of selecting near the end of the first round, where the hit rate on draftees is much lower than at the top of the draft. But it’s still better than it is in the third round, when they will now get their first crack at amateur talent.
Meanwhile, that homegrown core will continue to age and become more expensive. George Springer will be a free agent after the coming season. We’re two seasons from Alex Bregman‘s extension rocketing in annual value. Jose Altuve is on the books for $23 million or more through the 2024 season. Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander become free agents after the 2021 season, but until then, they’ll be earning around $115 million combined, when the portion of Greinke’s tab still being picked up by Arizona is factored in.
The lost picks don’t affect Houston right away. Anyone the Astros might draft this season wouldn’t help them in 2020, certainly not on the field but also not as trade fodder. However, the Houston farm system is already falling in the prospect rankings, and it will continue to thin. The Astros have a few touted players, such as outfielder Kyle Tucker and starter Forrest Whitley, but given the tightening of their payroll flexibility, they’ll need those cost-controlled players to help them win now rather than serving as possible fodder for a trade to fill a key roster void. You know, like the one opened up by the loss of star pitcher Gerrit Cole to free agency.
Without more top picks coming up behind the current wave of talent to fill gaps and entice trade partners, whoever replaces Luhnow faces some choppy waters to navigate. The system will almost certainly plummet to the bottom of the prospect ratings without those upper-round talents, unless the Astros manage to hit lower in the next two drafts or make hay in the international market. The loss of those picks would hurt any organization, but they are particularly ill-timed for where the Astros are in their window of contention.
The Astros still have a lot of talent, of course, and beyond the distractions of the scandal, it’s far from the most unenviable position for a new exec to be in. Manfred could have been even more punitive in terms of picks and international money in an effort to completely handicap Houston’s chances to remain competitive. But there is no value in kneecapping a franchise. As I wrote when the scandal hit, if you go too far, you are penalizing a team’s fan base as much as the actual team.
Manfred played this right, or at least he has thus far, as we don’t know whether this subject is going to die a natural death with the conclusion of his Red Sox investigation or will continue to mushroom.
Nevertheless, responses that try to paint this as an existential crisis for the sport, or compare it to the 1919 Black Sox, are more than a little overheated. There is a key distinction between every example of cheating outlined earlier and any gambling-related incident ever discovered, mostly from baseball’s early days. That is this: The problem with gambling players is that they might not be adhering to the ultimate purpose of any sporting endeavor — to try to win. With the Astros, Red Sox and any other team whispered to have stolen signals, you have to at least acknowledge that they were trying to win, even if you don’t like how they went about it.
The furor in some respects is a healthy thing — if people didn’t still love baseball, they wouldn’t be as angry as they have every right to be. And that’s the happy takeaway of all this for anyone concerned about the long-term consequences of this scandal. People still care about the most American of sports, even though it has always been and always will be more of a reflection of ourselves than we might want to admit it to be.
Three little things
1. Polo Grounds. Yankee Stadium. Fenway Park. Wrigley Field. Tiger Stadium. Dodger Stadium. Ebbets Field. Forbes Field. Baker Bowl. Shibe Park. Sportsman’s Park. Truist Park. American Family Field.
Yeah, those final two don’t quite have the same ring, do they?
I wrote last year about the tired — but profitable — practice of selling off corporate naming rights of ballparks. It’s not like I expected it to change given the dollars involved, but, I mean, could these ballpark names be any more nondescript or, frankly, stupid?
I’ll just repeat the bottom line of my previous complaint on the topic: Since we know teams aren’t going to stop pursuing this revenue stream, can we at least make sure the park is given some sort of name that has permanence and evokes place?
The name changes of the parks in Atlanta (Truist, in place for the 2020 season) and Milwaukee (after one more season as Miller Park) provided the perfect opportunity for either franchise to set this trend in motion, and they could have both credibly honored the same all-time great player in doing so. Either franchise could have named its field after Hank Aaron, while letting corporate sponsors have the name of the stadium and all of the signing and branding that goes with that.
So in 2021, if you’re in Milwaukee, instead of saying, “Let’s go out to the Aff,” you could have said, “Wanna hit Aaron Field?” A lot more satisfying, don’t you think?
2. Nice move by the Braves this week to scoop up free agent Marcell Ozuna on a one-year, $18 million contract that in part helps to compensate for the departure of Josh Donaldson. However, not only was the 2019 version of Ozuna a lesser hitter than the 2019 version of Donaldson but they don’t play the same position.
For this signing to really come up as sparkling for the Braves, the key might be for second-year player Austin Riley to become a consistent producer, or at least an impactful part of a job-sharing plan at the hot corner with Johan Camargo. Camargo is coming off a down season but was a big part of Atlanta’s breakout 2018 campaign as a utility player. Riley is a touted prospect but struggled to make consistent contact as his rookie season wore on.
Still, even if third base emerges as a weak spot, the Braves can shore up that area during the season, and by bolstering their lineup with the market’s most impactful remaining bat, rather than via trade, they left themselves plenty of flexibility to do so given their deep supply of prospects.
3. My colleague David Schoenfield had a nice breakdown of the Hall of Fame balloting, during which he pointed out how the “private” ballots — those not made public — have had a severe, detrimental impact on the percentages of PED-associated candidates such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
I wonder whether that same group had a similar impact on the last-day drop in the support for Scott Rolen, though for very different reasons. Rolen still had a large jump this year, one that bodes well given the trajectories for recent selections Edgar Martinez and Larry Walker. Still, I was stunned to see Rolen dip to a final tally of around 35% after tracking around 50% for most of the process.
Those who made their ballots public were a lot more supportive of Rolen, who has an excellent case for Hall membership based on his advanced metrics. His traditional counting stats lag a bit because of a relatively short career for a potential Hall of Famer. Thus while there is a clear disconnect between public and private voters when it comes to the likes of Bonds and Clemens, there might also be one for metrics-fueled candidates such as Rolen.
While any public plea I might make for Bonds, Clemens, Sammy Sosa et al. will surely fall on deaf ears by this point, let me at least make one for Rolen. Study his case. Read up. He was a great player, one of the best ever at an underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame. Next year’s group of ballot newcomers is light. No better time to take a second, third and fourth look at Scott Rolen.