What Astrogate Involves is High-Tech Cheating

It was both too delicious for words and too disgraceful to ignore. The defending world champion Washington Nationals against the Houston Astros in an exhibition game Saturday, with the Astros declared the home team. (They share spring facilities.) Two Nats fans hoisting signs neither of which could be called obscene. The final notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" barely gone when a stadium worker confiscated the signs.

Fancy that. A spring training exhibition and already there was sign stealing — in the stands.

One of the stolen signs said, "You feel my hate?" The other said, merely, "Houston *'s." You'd win any bet on those two fans coming to the park expecting anything except arbitrary on-the-spot censorship. Since the Astros were declared the home team for the game, it's a look that only compounds the look Astrogate has laid upon them.

Get it straight once and for all: What the 2017 and (in part) 2018 Astros did was above and beyond the bounds of on-field gamesmanship. Their Astro Intelligence Agency, a network created to tie a real-time camera to a clubhouse monitor to steal opposition signs, relaying them to hitters by way of someone banging heavily on a trash can adjacent to the monitors, was high-tech cheating.

A team may expect enemy baserunners to do everything they can think of to decipher their pitch signs in the time-honored tradition of plain gamesmanship. They don't expect a high-tech network committing espionage upon them. Against that, they go in with an unfair disadvantage.

From the moment commissioner Rob Manfred handed down his Astrogate judgment in January — suspending the promptly-enough fired general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, fining the organization seven figures, stripping first and second round draft picks for two years, but doing nothing to players he'd promised immunity in exchange for spilling on the cheating network — the Astros themselves have sent it from bad enough to absolutely worse.

The impact went far beyond Astroworld. First, their 2017 bench coach, Alex Cora, who became a World Series-winning manager with the Boston Red Sox, either quit before he got fired or was urged powerfully to quit before he could be fired. Player-driven the AIA may have been, but Cora and the 2017 Astros' designated hitter Carlos Beltran helped if not instigated the scheme. Then Beltran, freshly enough hired to manage the New York Mets, lost his job before he'd even gotten to manage a single spring exhibition game, never mind a regular season game.

That's three managers gone for the price of one Astrogate. And Cora isn't even close to off the hook yet, pending the final outcome of Manfred's concurrent investigation into the Red Sox's own sign-stealing operation, deciphering signs in the video replay room behind the dugout and relaying them to men on base to send to the hitters. It may be a little easier for an opposing team to defend against that kind of reconnaissance operation, because the key to making it work is that you need at least one man on base, but that doesn't make it any less off-field-originated cheating.

The Astros' non-apologetically apologetic presser almost two weeks ago, led by owner Jim Crane and stars Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, was a small masterpiece of tripping over their own wires. It only began with Crane saying first that the AIA didn't impact the game and then saying he didn't say that.

And from the moment he finally blew the whistle on the AIA to The Athletic last November, Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers, a 2017 Astro, has been either feted as a hero or denounced as a traitor. Never mind that, for two years at least, he and other players put bugs into writers' ears that they knew something was going on from the Astros but nobody was willing to put it on the record by name. Fiers's A's even filed formal complaints with the commissioner's office that went uninvestigated.

Alas, just as with the New York Police Department's rampant corruption of the 1960s and early 1970s, it took a whistleblower to blow at last. For the NYPD then it was plainclothesman Frank Serpico, aided by his very well-connected detective friend David Durk, taking it at last to the New York Times when they couldn't get anyone in the department to heed or act. For baseball and Astrogate it was Fiers.

The Astros took off-field-based espionage to the highest tech level yet. But they're really the grandchildren of several other such cheaters, some of whom did it en route pennants and even World Series wins. There are histories to which you can repair to get the deeper details, including and especially Paul Dickson's The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime — whose second edition was published just two months before Fiers blew the Astrogate whistle. But here's a brief run-down:

* The 1911-1914 Philadelphia Athletics — Three pennants and two World Series championships. Said to have stationed someone atop a building beyond Shibe Park armed with binoculars to steal opposition signs, then move a very visible weather vane one way or another depending on whether he'd stolen a sign for a fastball or a curve ball.

* The 1940 Detroit Tigers — Pennant winners; lost the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Used the telescopic sight of pitcher Tommy Bridges's hunting rifle to steal signs from the grandstands beyond the outfield. No less than Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg admitted the scheme in his posthumously-published memoir.

* The 1948 Cleveland Indians — Won the pennant and the World Series. As several teams were known or suspected of doing, the Tribe down the stretch, sitting four and a half out of first, decided it was time to turn the spies loose. Using a hand-held Naval telescope Hall of Famer Bob Feller acquired during his wartime Navy service, they'd post someone in the hand-operated scoreboard at Municipal Stadium (a.k.a. the Mistake on the Lake) to steal signs and relay them to hitters by way of cards in the scoreboard openings. No less than then-owner Bill Veeck owned up in his otherwise seminal memoir Veeck — as in Wreck.

* The 1951 New York Giants — Won the pennant after a thrilling comeback from thirteen games back to force the once-fabled pennant playoff with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The one that ended with Bobby Thomson hitting "The Shot Heard 'Round the World" off Ralph Branca. The comeback that happened because Giants manager Leo Durocher, discovering reserve infielder Hank Schenz's Wollensak spyglass, posted a coach in the Polo Grounds' past-center-field clubhouse to train the Wollensak on the plate, decipher opposing signs, and buzz them to the Giants bullpen, where reserve catcher Sal Yvars would send them to hitters who wanted them by flickering a light.

* The 1961 Cincinnati Reds — Won the pennant. The following spring, when United Press writers asked after catching onto speculation, a '61 Reds pitcher, Jay Hook, who'd become an expansion draft choice of the embryonic New York Mets, said those Reds were stealing signs from inside the left center field walk-in scoreboard in old Crosley Field. Hook had missed much of 1961 after an April bout with the mumps and didn't get to pitch in the World Series. UPI quoted him thus: "I want to protect the Mets against that sort of thing. I think it's wrong."

In an interview with me last week, for a story elsewhere, Hook said he didn't face anything like the nasty opprobrium aimed at Fiers when the latter wasn't receiving high praise. "The Reds had some comments about it," the genial Hook told me. "I went and talked to [manager] Fred Hutchinson about it after that story. He probably said, if I remember right, I think he said something like things like this come about, and we'll have some comments about it, and you'll have some comments about it, but don't worry about it."

At the same time as that UPI story, Associated Press rival (and eventual J.G. Spink Award winner) Joe Reichler published the first known story about the '51 Giants' subterfuge. Almost four decades later, Wall Street Journal reporter Joshua Prager got the confirmation and deeper story, publishing it first in his paper and then in his book The Echoing Green. Now the world knew what Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell snorted upon the Prager affirmations: The Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

The foregoing is also why you shouldn't expect Manfred — whose overall handling of Astrogate has been somewhere between clumsy and self-tripping — to vacate the Astros' 2017 World Series title no matter how outraged you feel. Or, pending the outcome of investigating the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring, their 2018 World Series title. None of the foregoing teams had it happen to them when their cheating was exposed at long enough last. By his own admission Manfred is a "precedent guy" who's not willing to break precedents. Unless, of course, they involve rules changes running the line from silly to stupid and back.

And it's run from bad enough to far worse with death threats sent to both Mike Fiers and assorted Astros players, notably outfielder Josh Reddick, whose snarky e-mails received turn out to have included a wish of cancer upon his very young twin sons. The Astros did enough damage to baseball without having to put up with that. They're going to be taking it on the proverbial chin (and anyplace else) from fans already preparing their booing, hissing, catcalling, and snarky banners, assuming stadium personnel quit playing censors. Death threats? Those entitle us to ask just how far below the sewer line we've devolved at last.

Boo the Astros all you want. They earned it. Hiss and catcall to your fullest capacity. They have it coming. It's liable to take a very long time, maybe even until the roster and front office turn over completely, before the Astros live Astrogate down. But you should denounce the death threats against them just as passionately.

Fiers, for his part, has said the death and other threats he's taken since he blew the whistle don't exactly keep him awake nights. He doesn't even want Manfred to think about extra security for or around him this season, as the commissioner has said he'd consider.

On Sunday afternoon, Fiers let the world know just how determined he is to go out and pitch normally. His A's squared off in an exhibition against the San Francisco Giants. When Fiers walked onto the Hohokam Stadium field pre-game, he got loud applause and calls of support from the stands. Then, he started the game.

He pitched two shutout innings and the second of them was what you could call the impossible inning — three pitches, three contact outs, before he yielded to Jake Diekman for the third. He'd opened by retiring Mike Yastrzemski (grandson of Hall of Famer Carl) on a first pitch ground out, before striking former Met/Diamondback Wilmer Flores out on three called strikes, and then retiring former Padre Alex Dickerson on a first-pitch ground out. He went from impeccably efficient in the first to impossibly swift in the second.

Marry that to Fiers's guts in finally blowing the whistle nobody else would blow and it's enough to make you want to plop an A's hat on your head and root for them in any game this year except the ones they play against the teams for whom you normally root.

At the same time, you might want to offer just a little sympathy for Astro fans. They didn't ask for their heroes to turn out as high-tech cheaters. Nor did they ask for their heroes to turn out having an accountability gap when exposed. Among other ramifications, the Astros have to live with that, too.

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