A.J. Hinch was defiant before Game 4 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium last month. Hinch, the manager of the Houston Astros, denied reports that his team had been relaying catchers’ signs by whistling from the bench during the series opener in Houston. He was especially upset that the reports were based on anonymous sources.
“I suggest they put their name by it if they’re so passionate about it,” Hinch said, and it was a good point: Going on the record always lends more credibility to a story. The Astros are learning this now, because Mike Fiers — knowingly or not — has heeded Hinch’s advice.
Fiers put his name behind his comments in The Athletic this week, saying that the Astros electronically (and illicitly) stole signs in 2017, when he was a member of the team. Their method: monitoring the catcher’s signals from a video feed piped into an area just off the entrance to the dugout, then banging a trash can to alert the hitter. High-tech meets rudimentary.
The Astros won the World Series that year, knocking out the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers while winning eight of their nine postseason home games on the way to their title.
Fiers led the team in innings pitched that season, but the Astros left him off the roster in October. The next spring, with the Detroit Tigers, Fiers acknowledged that it stung to watch his teammates win without the chance to help.
“Of course,” he said. “I busted my butt all year. I didn’t end the year as well as I could have, and I guess it was just the timing of it. I wasn’t pitching as well in September, so they kept me off the roster. It stinks, but that organization is going to do what they feel is right.”
Fiers, who now pitches for the Oakland Athletics, has gone 27-12 with a no-hitter in two years since leaving the Astros. But the last time he faced them, on Sept. 9, he gave up nine runs, including five homers, and got just three outs. The game was at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, where Fiers said the 2017 sign-stealing had occurred.
Guessing Fiers’ motivation is speculative, of course, but by going on the record with his accusations, he broke a code of silence among players — and when that happens, it usually leads to change.
Baseball people have always been reluctant to speak directly about cheating, using the rationale of mutually assured destruction: If I tell on you, you’ll tell on me.
Think of George Steinbrenner calling the Yankees’ dugout in 1987, demanding that Manager Lou Piniella ask the umpires to check the Angels’ Don Sutton, whom he suspected of doctoring the ball. Piniella refused, because he did not want the umpires checking his own pitcher, Tommy John. That logic is why pitchers can still find forbidden ways to get at least a tackier grip on the ball; as long as it is done discreetly, the practice is so widespread that teams have tacitly condoned it.
That is also a reason steroid use went unchecked for as long as it did: Nobody wanted to call out a rival and risk that a teammate could be busted. Until Ken Caminiti’s admission in Sports Illustrated in 2002 (after he had retired) baseball could easily deny the scope of the problem. But once Caminiti said he had been juicing when he won a Most Valuable Player Award, a testing plan was finally phased in for the next year.
To its credit, baseball is already trying to police electronic chicanery. After the issue flared in the 2018 postseason — when the Astros directed a team employee to use a cellphone camera to survey the home dugouts in Cleveland and Boston — the league banned non-broadcast cameras between the foul poles and put all television monitors on an eight-second delay — except those used by the team replay assistants, who are monitored by a security official.
“If you can do it using your eye balls it’s ok,” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “If you’re using technology it’s cheating.”
Even so, teams take no chances. Before the World Series games in Houston last month, the Washington Nationals gave each of their pitchers a card with five sets of signs they could switch to at any time. They also consulted with Tony Sipp, a reliever they released in August who had played with the Astros the last few years.
The Nationals won all four games in Houston to clinch their first championship. In the 2017 World Series, however, the Dodgers lost two of their three games in Houston.
“Our advance team that was on Houston talked about it,” Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, said at the general managers’ meetings in Arizona this week. “There was just a lot of speculation at the time about it. And I think we were way better combating that stuff in subsequent years than we were that year.”
Friedman did not blame the Dodgers’ loss on any trickery by the Astros. But the Astros have developed a widespread reputation for pushing any boundary to win, and the drumbeat of stories with that backdrop has clouded their success.
After Jeff Luhnow left the St. Louis Cardinals to become the Astros’ general manager in December 2011, a Cardinals employee, Chris Correa, illegally hacked into the Astros’ database. Correa, who received a prison sentence and a lifetime ban from baseball, has claimed he was only acting defensively, to see if the Astros had stolen from the Cardinals.
Luhnow mastered the art of the teardown in Houston, weathering a few losing seasons to gain an advantage in a system that rewards the worst teams with more money to spend on amateur talent. The Astros made shrewd draft choices and trades, including a controversial one for closer Roberto Osuna in 2018, while he was serving a suspension for domestic violence.
The circumstances of that deal were put back under the spotlight last month when Brandon Taubman, then the Astros’ assistant general manager, boasted about it profanely to a group of female reporters after his team had clinched the A.L. pennant. The team first tried to discredit the report of Taubman’s outburst, which was quickly confirmed by several witnesses. Taubman was fired, but a league investigation continues.
Boston Manager Alex Cora and Mets Manager Carlos Beltran were both with the Astros in 2017 — Cora as the bench coach, Beltran as a player — and M.L.B. will question both about what they may have known about the sign stealing. Denials aside, it seems logical that if a non-hitter like Fiers knew about the system, everyone else would, too.
“Everybody is trying to find an edge, but we all have to follow the rules,” Luhnow told reporters at the G.M. meetings after The Athletic’s report was published. “And the rules are set by Major League Baseball. We all agree to follow them. And if you don’t, there are ramifications to that. We want to follow the rules. And we want to compete.”
There is competing and there is cheating, and if Major League Baseball finds more people like Fiers to corroborate the 2017 story — and any possible violations since then — it will be emboldened to demand fines, suspensions and forfeiture of draft picks.
If nothing else, baseball must somehow reassure fans and players that one of its most successful teams is not a persistent cheater, too. That may not be an easy sell.
“This Astros thing is bad!!!” the veteran Kevin Gausman, who pitched for Atlanta and Cincinnati last season, wrote Thursday on Twitter. “Guys lost jobs, got sent down, missed service time bc of how they were hit in HOU. Does anyone really think they only did this in 17?”
Gausman added a postscript: “#getreal.”
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