The two teams may have been warned someone would expose their cheating ways.
Before the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros squared off in the 2018 American League Championship Series, they may have been warned. Not about illicit electronic sign-stealing espionage, but that someone who was or had been in their ranks was liable to blow the whistle in due course.
Aboard ESPN’s Baseball Tonight podcast, the network’s Karl Ravech revealed both sides’ managers and general managers—Alex Cora and Dave Dombrowski for the Red Sox; A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow for the Astros—were called to meet Joe Torre, then still working as baseball’s chief baseball officer including for discipline.
And Torre, himself a longtime major league catcher/third baseman and Hall of Fame manager, warned all four that their cheating left them prone to exposure, either from within their organizations or from someone who’d been there but moved onward.
“At some point,” Ravech translated Torre’s message, “there’s going to be a player or players or front office person that’s going to leave your team, go to another team, and basically rat you guys out, basically tell the dirty secrets.” Which is, of course, exactly what happened to the Astros last November, courtesy of Astro turned Detroit Tigers turned Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers.
After two years worth of players putting bugs into reporters’ ears and a team or two (the A’s most notably) complaining to commissioner Rob Manfred’s office about Astro cheating at least, all of which went nowhere fast enough, Fiers dropped the dime on the Astro Intelligence Agency to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich.
The Astros used either an incumbent camera taken off the mandatory eight-second feed delay or installed another camera to send opposing catchers’ signs to the clubhouse via monitors, next to which someone would bang a trash can to send the stolen sign to the hitter. The Red Sox are believed to have had someone in their video replay room get such signs and send them to baserunners who’d transmit the pilfered intelligence to their hitters.
Manfred’s investigation into the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring isn’t going to be finalized with results revealed until March now. Which could mean as soon as Sunday or somewhat beyond.
But if Ravech is right, and Torre did indeed warn both the Astros and the Red Sox entering a league championship series that their cheatings were known and prone to exposure, then Larry Brown Sports writer Grey Papke is right. “This sure makes it sound like MLB knew something was up at early as 2018, assuming this report is correct,” he writes. “It would make sense considering the Red Sox had run afoul of sign stealing rules a year earlier. The question would then become why they didn’t act more authoritatively at the time, which helped lead to what we’re seeing now.”
When Manfred investigated Fiers’s revelations and announced his findings and results in January, he suspended Luhnow and Hinch for 2020, fined the Astros seven figures, and stripped them of two years’ worth of first and second round draft picks. Astros owner Jim Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch almost on the spot.
The Red Sox fired Dombrowski early last September, well before anyone knew Cora was somewhat up to his ears in Astrogate or the replay room reconnaissance was affirmed. Cora either resigned or was fired days after Manfred announced the Astrogate results. The scandal also hit 2017 Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltran, the only Astro player named directly in Manfred’s report. His tenure as the New York Mets’ manager ended soon enough, before he’d managed even a spring exhibition game for them.
The Astros’ embarrassing non-apologetic apologies (or apologetic non-apologies, depending on your view) kicked up a howl around baseball that they hadn’t been punished enough for their crimes. Players around the game thought the Astros got away with murder.
Contradictorily, there’s been a 50-50 uproar around Fiers himself, either denouncing him as a rat fink bastard or upholding him as a whistleblowing hero, even among fans who think the AIA cheating taints the Astros’s 2017 World Series championship. And certain contingencies among fans have leveled death threats at Fiers and assorted Astros players.
For the Red Sox, the apparent Torre warning proves a troublesome curlicue, too, considering they were caught red-handed trying to use an AppleWatch in the dugout to steal signs from the arch-rival New York Yankees late in the 2017 season. (The Yankees, concurrently, were spanked for using an illicit dugout phone for likewise.)
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Papke writes that it “seems very hard to believe” both the Astros and the Red Sox would have been that shocked by the Fiers revelation, even if Fiers spoke only of the AIA but not the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring. “It is the closest we’ve come,” he continues, “to getting a reason for the Astros no longer cheating into the 2019 season as MLB investigators claim happened, a finding questioned by some players.”
Remember: Manfred gave Astros players immunity from discipline in return for spilling about the AIA. He may have been wrong not to bring the full powers of his office to bear there; wrong not to tell them, instead, that they’d face severe discipline because it was known the AIA was a “player-driven” operation abetted if not co-instigated by then-bench coach Cora.
Forget what the cheating scandals have done to the Astros’ and the Red Sox’s reputations. Astrogate and Soxgate. They’ve brought Manfred’s true ability as a steward of baseball into further severe question. Already seeming more interested in silly-to-stupid rules changes that may harm instead of help the game, Manfred seems caught so often with his pants down that he risks arrest for indecent exposure. Figuratively speaking.
Even when you strain to give him the benefit of the doubt, things come forth that strain the strain even further. A lawyer by profession, Manfred is considered a deft negotiator. But that doesn’t translate into becoming a deft baseball commissioner who must do far more than merely negotiate.
Manfred’s predecessor and former boss, Bud Selig, was hardly the perfect commissioner, but his worst enemies acknowledged that Selig genuinely did love the game, even if he wasn’t any kind of visionary, and often seemed as though he felt the only way to save the game was to wreck it. Manfred often leaves the impression that baseball is just something he administers, not something he loves and thinks about deeply.
It may be too much to ask for another A. Bartlett Giamatti or Fay Vincent, understanding concurrently that neither man was a perfect commissioner. Giamatti was fated to a very short term, but nobody accused him plausibly of lacking baseball depth. Vincent loved the game as deeply as Giamatti but got himself caught in the middle of a looming labour war while playing judge and jury trying to strong-arm the Yankees over drug-troubled relief pitcher Steve Howe.
A reminder: Giamatti had something to say about cheating, too, once upon a time, and eloquently, when (as president of the National League) he upheld pitcher Kevin Gross’s 1987 suspension for doctoring balls. All you have to do now is substitute “team” for “person”:
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.
That’s part of what they used to call the vision thing. Something Giamatti and Vincent had in abundance when all was said and done. Something baseball needs desperately now, not just to resolve Astrogates and Soxgates but to get baseball back to where it once belonged. Something every fresh Astrogate and Soxgate revelation and more reveals that Manfred doesn’t have.