Friday, December 13, 2019

Astrogate: Whistling Under Fiers

By Jeff Kallman

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 honor even as practicing it often protects or invites dishonor. Weaver living and practicing 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 vaporize 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 jeopardizing 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 recognize 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.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2017