Houston Astros sign stealing scandal

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Mike Fiers, pictured here with the Astros in 2016, brought the scandal to light in an interview with reporters in The Athletic.

The Houston Astros sign stealing scandal is a controversy in Major League Baseball (MLB) stemming from members of the Houston Astros organization illegally stealing signs of opposing teams using technology during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The story was originally reported by journalists Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich for The Athletic in November 2019. Mike Fiers, a pitcher who played for the Astros in 2017, told The Athletic that the Astros used a video camera in center field to steal opposing teams' signs. MLB opened an investigation into the allegations and in January 2020 confirmed that the Astros illegally used a camera system to steal signs during the 2017 regular season and postseason, during which they won the World Series, as well as in part of the 2018 season. MLB found no evidence of illicit sign stealing in the 2019 season, in which the Astros advanced to and lost in the World Series.

As a result, the Astros were fined $5 million and forfeited their first- and second-round picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts. General manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A. J. Hinch were suspended for the entire 2020 season for failing to prevent the rules violations. The Astros subsequently fired both Luhnow and Hinch on the day their suspensions were announced.[1] MLB's investigation also determined that Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora helped mastermind the Astros' sign stealing while serving as Hinch's bench coach in 2017. Cora mutually parted ways with Boston the following day. Carlos Beltrán, who had been hired to manage the New York Mets in November 2019 and was the only player from 2017 who was specifically named in the report, also mutually parted ways with the Mets in the same week.

The sanctions were the most severe that MLB has ever issued against a member club[2] and are among the most severe sanctions for in-game misconduct in baseball history. The severity of the scandal has often been compared to the Pete Rose scandal[3][4] and the Russian state-sponsored doping program of the country's Olympic team.[5][6]

Background[edit]

Sign stealing is not inherently against the baseball rules, and has long been considered part of the game. In 2017, The New York Times wrote that sign stealing was "something of an art form in baseball" which is "is tolerated, even admired".[7] Many players and coaches are considered masters at stealing signs.[8]

However, Major League Baseball (MLB) has long frowned upon the use of technology to steal signs. In 1961, the National League (NL) banned the use of a "mechanical device" to steal signs.[9] While MLB does not specifically ban electronic equipment, it issued a memorandum in 2001 stating that teams cannot use electronic equipment to communicate with each other during games, especially for the purpose of stealing signs.[10] In September 2017, after the Boston Red Sox were fined for using a smartwatch to try to steal signs, Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred issued a memo to all 30 clubs warning that future incidents of electronic sign stealing "will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks".[7]

In 2014, as part of the expansion of replay review in MLB, all 30 teams were permitted to install video replay rooms in their stadiums with live camera feeds, and the dugout was permitted to communicate with staffers in the room.[11][12] As MLB realized that teams were potentially using the video replay room for other purposes, including sign stealing, MLB placed league officials in the replay rooms for the first time beginning in the 2018 playoffs.[11]

Prior to the 2019 season, MLB reached an agreement with the MLB Players Association to institute new rules restricting the use of live camera feeds by placing a league official in all 30 replay rooms, and allowing only replay officials to watch in real time while others could only watch with an eight-second delay.[13][14] Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated said that the ban would include "all non-broadcast outfield cameras from foul pole to foul pole as well as tightening restrictions on in-house video".[15]

The Astros finished in first place in the American League (AL) West division for the 2017 season.[16] After defeating the New York Yankees in the 2017 AL Championship Series,[17] they defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.[18] It was their first World Series championship in franchise history.[19] The Astros reached the playoffs in 2018 but lost in the AL Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox. Houston returned to the World Series in 2019, losing to the Washington Nationals in seven games.

Speculation and accusations of sign stealing[edit]

Speculation about sign stealing by the Astros had been rampant for a number of years. The Dodgers organization said that they suspected the Astros were illegally stealing signs during the 2017 World Series. Andrew Friedman, the President of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers, stated that "there was just a lot of speculation at the time about it".[20] The Cleveland Indians caught an Astros employee taking pictures of their dugout during the 2018 AL Division Series and warned the Red Sox, who faced the Astros in the AL Championship Series.[21] The same man was found taking pictures of the Red Sox dugout in the AL Championship Series.[22] The New York Yankees asked MLB to investigate whistling sounds that they believed were meant to relay signs to batters in Game 1 of the 2019 AL Championship Series, but MLB said they found no wrongdoing.[23] Astros manager A. J. Hinch mocked the Yankees for the accusation, saying: "it made me laugh because it’s ridiculous. And had I known that it would take something like that to set off the Yankees or any other team, we would have practiced it in spring training."[24] The Yankees also reportedly alleged that the Astros were using blinking lights beyond the center-field fences to relay stolen signs in Game 6 of the series.[25] The Nationals developed a complex system of mixing signs to thwart any attempts to steal signs by the Astros in the 2019 World Series.[26] The Astros were not the only team to be suspected of sign stealing; paranoia about electronic sign stealing was high around the league.[27]

On November 12, 2019, journalists Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich published a bombshell story in the The Athletic detailing for the first time specific allegations that the Astros had engaged in illicit electronic sign stealing. Mike Fiers, a pitcher who played for the Astros in 2017, stated that a center-field camera feed was sent to the tunnel behind the Astros dugout in Minute Maid Park. An Astros player or staff member then hit a trash can to signal specific different pitches to the batter at home plate.[28][29] In addition to Fiers, unnamed sources were cited in the article. MLB began an investigation the day after the The Athletic story was published.[30] Jeff Luhnow, the general manager of the Astros, stated that the Astros organization was "going to look into the allegations in cooperation with Major League Baseball".[31]

Internet sports personality Jimmy "Jomboy" O'Brien published videos that appeared to clearly show the scheme playing out in real time. During a game against the Chicago White Sox, banging could clearly be heard whenever White Sox catcher Kevan Smith called for pitcher Danny Farquhar to throw a changeup. The White Sox subsequently changed their signs to thwart the Astros. Jomboy argued that this "disturbing" sequence proved there was no way the Astros could have gotten the signs without the help of technology.[32][33]

In a subsequent report from The Athletic, it was reported that an Astros executive had asked scouts for help stealing signs and suggested using cameras in an August 2017 email.[34] Further allegations regarding other means of relaying signs, such as whistling, surfaced in subsequent weeks.[35] There was also speculation that the Astros had developed more advanced ways to relay stolen signs to hitters, including buzzing bandages affixed to a player's body.[36]

Most members of the Astros organization kept silent publicly throughout the investigation. The day after the original The Athletic article, former Astros player Carlos Beltrán denied having knowledge of the alleged scheme.[37] Hinch appeared at a press conference during the annual Winter Meetings and said he was cooperating with MLB but declined to comment further.[38] In a January Houston Chronicle article published before MLB announced the findings from its investigation, Astro Carlos Correa expressed surprise that Fiers had made the accusations. Joe Musgrove said, "I wasn't even in the dugout for any of that stuff," and Alex Bregman and George Springer declined to comment.[39]

Rosenthal wrote one week after the original report that he and Drellich "also heard — and continue to hear — about possible violations by a number of other clubs."[40] Illicit sign stealing was a hot topic at the offseason GM meetings and Winter Meetings.[41][42]

MLB investigation report and discipline[edit]

Commissioner Rob Manfred began an investigation into the Astros' sign stealing after The Athletic's article.

Days after The Athletic's article alleging the Astros' sign stealing, Manfred stated that MLB was conducting a "really, really thorough" investigation.[43] During the investigation, it was publicly reported that witnesses admitted that the Astros used a system to relay pitch types to batters.[44] In December, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reported that the investigation had expanded to cover the 2018 season, and MLB investigators were combing through 70,000 emails and had conducted 70 interviews.[45]

On January 13, 2020, Manfred announced the results of the investigation, confirming that the Astros had illegally used a video camera system to steal signs in the 2017 regular season and postseason, and in parts of the 2018 regular season. The report detailed that two months into the 2017 season, Alex Cora, Carlos Beltrán, and an group of unnamed players worked to create a system to steal signs. One or more players would watch the live feed on a monitor behind the dugout, and decode the signs. The players initially experimented with clapping, whistling, and yelling, but determined banging a trash can with a bat was most effective. One or two bangs corresponded to a breaking ball, and no banging indicated a fastball. In addition to the banging method, Astros employees in the video room would also decode signs and send information to the dugout to be relayed to runners on second base who would relay signs to the batter. Players were concerned about their method being discovered by other teams, and several players said there was a sense of "panic" in the dugout after White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar appeared to notice the banging in a September 2017 game. After the Farquhar incident, the Astros replaced the wall-mounted monitor and used a portable monitor in the postseason.[46] The team continued using illicit methods to steal signs in the 2017 postseason. The Astros did not use the banging method in 2018, but continued to use other methods until players decided it was no longer effective and stopped at some point in the 2018 season. The investigation found no evidence of sign stealing in their pennant-winning 2019 season.[47]

The Astros were fined $5 million, the maximum allowed by the MLB constitution, and forced to forfeit their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. In addition, Luhnow and Hinch were each suspended for the entire 2020 season, including the playoffs.[48]

The investigation revealed that Luhnow did not know about the banging scheme, though he had "some knowledge" about replay room staffers decoding signs and transmitting them to the dugout, contrary to his denials. Manfred found that while Luhnow didn't know about the players' role in the scheme, he should have made it his business to know about the players' activities, especially in light of earlier sign-stealing scandals. According to Manfred, had Luhnow taken "adequate steps" to ensure the Astros followed the rules, the sign stealing operation could have been shut down as early as Manfred's September 2017 memo, and certainly by March 2018, when MLB disciplinarian Joe Torre issued a memo which clarified the ban on using technology to steal signs. Manfred wrote that since the general manager was responsible for ensuring compliance with "both standards of conduct set by Club ownership and MLB Rules," he was holding Luhnow "personally accountable for the conduct of his Club."[48]

The investigation found that Hinch did not approve of the use of the replay monitor in this manner, and even destroyed it on two occasions. However, he did allow it to continue through the team's run to the 2017 World Series. Manfred harshly criticized him for this, saying that since the manager is responsible for directly supervising the players and coaches, there was "no justification for Hinch's failure to act". Although Hinch regretted his failure to act, Manfred said that he had to hold him responsible for it.[48]

Manfred did not discipline any players involved in the operation, saying that it was "difficult and impractical" to determine degrees of culpability due to the sheer number of players involved. He placed primary responsibility on Luhnow and Hinch, saying that the general manager and field manager are responsible for "ensuring that the players both understand the rules and adhere to them". If Luhnow and Hinch were to commit further "material violations" of baseball rules, they will be permanently banned from baseball. Additionally, Luhnow will be required to undergo "management/leadership training" while he is suspended.[48]

Hinch's year-long suspension was the second-most severe punishment in baseball history meted out to a manager for in-game misconduct. The only longer suspension was for St. Louis Browns manager Jack O'Connor, who was banned for life for trying to throw the 1910 American League batting title to Nap Lajoie by bribing the official scorer to change a hit on error to a hit in the final game of the season.

Fallout[edit]

Firings[edit]

From top: 2015–2019 Astros manager A. J. Hinch; 2017 Astros bench coach Alex Cora; 2017 Astros player Carlos Beltrán

Only hours after MLB announced its findings, Astros owner Jim Crane fired Luhnow and Hinch, saying, "Neither one of them started this but neither one of them did anything about it." Crane said he was going beyond MLB's sanctions because he had "higher standards for the city and the franchise".[49][50][51] Manfred had cleared Crane of wrongdoing at the beginning of his report, saying that Crane was "extraordinarily troubled and upset" by the revelations and had fully cooperated.

A day later, on January 14, 2020, the Boston Red Sox and manager Alex Cora – who was the Astros' bench coach during the 2017 season – mutually agreed to part ways as a result of his involvement in the scandal.[52] The investigation found that Cora was closely involved in implementing the scheme, as well as using the replay room to decode signs.[48] Based on those findings, both Cora and Red Sox officials concluded that Cora could not effectively lead the team into 2020 and beyond. Although Manfred deferred a decision on discipline for Cora until after a separate investigation into video sign stealing during the Red Sox's 2018 championship run, it was widely expected that he would receive a lengthy suspension, at least as long as the one-year suspension meted out to Hinch.[52]

On January 16, 2020, the New York Mets and manager Carlos Beltrán – who was an Astros player during the 2017 season – mutually agreed to part ways after Beltrán was the only then-player called out by name for his involvement in the scheme.[53] Beltrán was hired in the 2019–2020 offseason, and never managed a game for the Mets.

Reactions[edit]

MLB reactions[edit]

While the investigation was ongoing, Molly Knight of The Athletic identified and attempted to contact nine pitchers who were demoted to the minors or designated for assignment immediately after a poor appearance against the Astros in 2017. Four pitchers agreed to be quoted anonymously; three put the blame for their fates on their own performance and a fourth saw the allegations as an explanation for why Astros players seemed to be more comfortable at the plate at home. The other five pitchers either could not be reached or declined to comment.[54]

Reaction from current and former players around the league to the MLB report was mixed, with some players expressing disdain towards the Astros and others expressing ambivalence.[55][56] Jessica Mendoza, an advisor to the New York Mets and ESPN commentator, criticized Fiers for going public with his allegations.[57] After being criticized herself for going after Fiers, Mendoza backtracked and said that she wished Fiers had made his allegations privately with MLB.[58] ESPN's Buster Olney reported that some Astros players had reached out to other players to assure them that they did not cheat, but that some of those friendships were fractured and there was "lots of anger" towards Astros players after the release of the report.[citation needed]

Pitcher Mike Clevinger said the Astros should be "ashamed" and "I don’t think any of those [expletive] should be able to look us in the eye."[59] On the other hand, retired Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martínez was critical of Mike Fiers for exposing the scheme after he had left the Astros, saying "Whatever happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse and Fiers broke the rules."[60]

The Dodgers were the only team to release a statement the week the report was released, only to say that they had been ordered by MLB not to comment on the punishments or "any wrongdoing during the 2017 World Series".[61]

According to ESPN's Jeff Passan, a number of executives at other MLB clubs were unhappy that no players were punished. According to Passan, several executives made their dissatisfaction known in a conference call at which Manfred spelled out the sanctions. One team president told Passan that he believed the scandal was handled in a manner "programmed to protect the future of the (Astros) franchise."[62][63]

Astros reactions[edit]

Josh Reddick was the first Astros player made available to speak to the media after the report, and he told reporters, "It stinks for everybody involved" and "When everyone feels the time is right, it will get taken care of."[64]

Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve appeared before the media at the Astros annual fan festival in Houston the week the report was released. Bregman answered repeated attempts by reporters to have him address the scandal with variations of the same phrase: "The commissioner made his report, made his decision and the Astros made their decision and I have no further comment on it."[65][66] Altuve was more talkative but said it was too early to comment, saying, "I think the time to comment about that will come," while vowing that the Astros would return to the World Series.[67]

Public reactions[edit]

ESPN conducted a survey of 1,010 adults, including 810 MLB fans, asking about the scandal on January 16 and 17, 2020. Fifty-eight percent of adults said Astros players should have been penalized, and 72 percent of adults said they would support additional steps by MLB to punish players involved in sign stealing. Sixty-one percent of MLB fans said they were closely following the scandal, and 86 percent of MLB fans said the situation was "serious" (including 57 percent who said it was "very serious". Forty-nine percent of adults said the steroid scandal was more serious than the sign stealing scandal, but 44 percent said the sign stealing scandal was worse than Pete Rose gambling on his own team. Seventy-four percent of adults and 76 percent of MLB fans said they believed most teams were using technology to steal signs, but only the Astros and Red Sox were caught. Fifty-four percent of adults said their views of MLB were unchanged by the scandal and 60 percent of adults said the scandals made no difference in their likelihood to watch MLB games.[68]

US Representative Bobby Rush from Illinois released a letter calling on the chairman of the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform to open a congressional investigation into the scandal along with MLB's response.[69]

Continued accusations[edit]

The report and discipline did not stop additional accusations of sign stealing from being made. The release of the report sparked a new frenzy of speculation and rumors on the internet the week the report was released.[70] A Twitter account of a person claiming to be Beltran's niece made accusations about non-Astros players around the league; Beltran's family said the account was fake and some speculated that it actually belonged to a player.[71] Rumors also circulated that Astros players like were wearing buzzing electronic devices during the 2019 playoffs that would relay a stolen sign through vibrations. Altuve released a statement through his agent stating, "I have never worn an electronic device in my performance as a major league player."[72] A few days later in a media appearance, Altuve said "some people made that up...the best thing that happened to me was that MLB investigated it and found nothing."[73] Reddick called internet speculation that he was wearing a buzzing device "ridiculous",[64] and Bregman called the buzzer rumors "stupid".[74]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]