Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Astrogate, Two Weeks After the Nuke’s Dropped

By Jeff Kallman

So the Astrogate nuke was dropped two weeks ago. Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for the whole of 2020. Then Astros owner Jim Crane saw and raised, firing both within an hour or so of the suspensions. A day later, Alex Cora — 2017 Astros World Series-winning bench coach turned 2018 Red Sox manager and World Series winner — was probably allowed to quit before he could be executed. And Carlos Beltran — designated hitter on the '17 Astros, freshly minted as the Mets' manager — "mutually agreed to part ways" with the Mets, two days after Cora's perp walk.

The Astros also got slapped with a $5 million fine and the loss of first and second round draft picks for 2020 and 2021. Those aren't exactly slaps on the wrist. Between having to figure out how to overcome those losses and hiring a new manager and general manager who may or may not have quite the savvy Luhnow and Hinch did when playing things straight, Crane and the Astros have a daunting enough job to do now.

Manfred essentially fingered Cora and Beltran as the masterminds of the Astro Intelligence Agency that either took a camera behind center field off the mandatory eight-second delay or installed a new camera to send enemy catchers' signs to a clubhouse monitor, next to which someone would bang either a bat or another heavy instrument on a large trash can to send Astro hitters advance knowledge of whether particular pitches were or weren't coming. He held Hinch accountable for doing little more to stop the technocheating other than destroying a monitor or two; he held Luhnow accountable for having been informed (apparently, by internal e-mails) of the AIA operation, but either ignoring or looking the other way.

And Manfred's investigation into an apparent Red Sox Replay Reconnaissance Ring of sign stealing — in which someone, maybe more than one, would decipher enemy signs in the team's video room and send the decoded signs out to the man on base. Which likely means double or more trouble for the already-purged Cora, once Manfred finishes that probe.

The fallout has run the gamut from amusing to annoying and back. Manfred may have imposed an all-but-official gag order on teams talking up about Astrogate/Soxgate, but it hasn't stopped numerous players and team personnel from talking, anyway. Mike Fiers, the '17 Astros pitcher who wasn't on their postseason roster but moved on to the Tigers and the Athletics before blowing the whistle once and for all last November, has been seen as either a gutsy hero for pulling the covers back or a rat fink informer for breaking the sanctity of the clubhouse and, by the way, sitting on it for two years.

Concerning all that and more, a few observations:

1) Once and for all, let's clarify for the lingering holdouts clinging to the everybody-does-it/whatabout-so-and-so stuff. Sign stealing from on the field is gamesmanship; sign stealing by way of off-the-field devices is against the rules. Directives against it have been handed down several times, including in 2017 (when the Red Sox were caught spying on the Yankees with an AppleWatch and the Yankees were caught with an extralegal dugout phone) and 2018. And even without formal directives, off-field devices for sign stealing have been considered beyond gamesmanship and into the realm of real cheating. And if you don't bag the latest offenders now, then when?

2) Assorted baseball writers have spoken (usually but not exclusively on social media) about knowing a sizable number of players, Fiers included, perhaps, who spoke about suspicions regarding electronic sign stealing for at least the two seasons following 2017 off the record. Without getting one of those players on the record, those reporters were probably hamstrung for getting it out and public before Fiers finally spoke up on the record.

3) You can (and should) consider Fiers to be to this electronic cheating scandal what New York police legend Frank Serpico was to that department's rampant corruption in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Serpico spent several years trying to get it cleaned up from within the department. Only when he ran into the last wall he was inclined to beat his head against did Serpico (with help from his well-connected police friend David Durk) take it to the New York Times in 1971 to blow the whole keg open. Serpico was the only cop willing to take corruption head on; Fiers was the only player in baseball willing to put his name on revealing the AIA.

4) There was one good reason why Astro players availing themselves of the AIA's work weren't sent on the perp walks — Manfred granted all the players interviewed immunity from discipline in return for telling him the truth. And if several Astro players have been considerably less than forthcoming about the chicanery since, that's on their heads, but they lived up to their end of Manfred's bargain and Manfred's living up to his.

5) Until or unless Manfred is willing to smash a precedent and look like a man who'd go back on his word while he's at it, don't expect any forfeiture of the Astros' 2017 World Series championship. Or, the 2018 Red Sox's World Series title, if the Red Sox reconnaissance ring operated proves to have operated during that postseason, too. The 1951 Giants had a coach in the center field clubhouse training a hand-held telescope on the enemy catchers and sending stolen signs to the bullpen by buzzer to be sent to their hitters, down that staggering stretch in which they pulled from thirteen games out to force a pennant playoff. When that scheme was revealed proven at last, once and for all, nobody moved to hand their pennant to the second-place Dodgers. That's just one example.

6) On the same day Manfred dropped the Astrogate nuke, Twitter blew up almost as incendiarily with demands for ... the Hall of Fame nomination and election of Pete Rose. The fact that Rose's partisans still have trouble with parts or all of Rule 21(d), under which he's banned from baseball permanently, almost seemed irrelevant. Almost. What's also irrelevant is trying to tie Astrogate to anything about Rose. (And until or unless the Hall of Fame changes its rule that those permanently banished can't appear on a Hall of Fame ballot, any talk of Rose to the Hall of Fame is likewise irrelevant.)

7) What often gets forgotten in scrums such as Astrogate is that it wasn't just opposition players who got compromised because they were unaware they faced the Astros with a deck stacked against them. Their vanquished opponents' behind-the-field staffs — clubhouse workers, photographers, statisticians, even stadium workers, you name them — were cheated out of prospective bonuses for their teams' going to the postseason and maybe winning it all.

8) Don't use Astrogate/Soxgate as an argument against the technology that, yes, enhances our game. It wasn't the cameras and monitors that cheated, it was the men using them for surreptitious chicanery that cheated. Baseball's government needs to tighten up on making sure that boys will be boys but that doesn't mean they have a license to use all the new toys for all the old nonsense. And while Manfred is at it, he might consider tightening up the official rule book, not just more directives, to make off-the-field electronic cheating verboten once and for all, the better to knock any and all protests of not really knowing it's illegal out of the park.

9) Celebrate the Nationals' World Series championship even more. They smelled Astro rats, took no chances, and sent their World Series pitchers to work with about five extra sets of signs each to switch up as needed or suspected. As if their pitchers didn't already have enough crowding their minds just going out and doing their jobs in the first place. The Nats won an unprecedented Series by winning all four of their needed victories in the Astros' playpen, and now look even more like they played championship baseball the way it ought to be played. Their hair-raisings were straight, no chaser. Baseball the way it ought to be.

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