How the Astros sign stealing scandal cheated the Yankees out of glory
In three consecutive years between 2017 and 2019, the New York Yankees were eliminated from the postseason by teams implicated in Major League Baseball’s latest sign stealing scandal.
A recent investigation by Commissioner Rob Manfred found that, during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Houston Astros used video technology to decipher on-field communications, cheating their way to a World Series title.
Alex Cora, once a Houston bench coach, played a leading role in designing the rudimentary scheme, which involved the banging of a trash can near the Astros dugout at Minute Maid Park, communicating the type of pitch that a home hitter could expect to face. Cora later became Red Sox manager, leading Boston to a further world championship.
The Yankees lost to Houston in the American League Championship Series’ of 2017 and 2019. They were also beaten by Cora’s Red Sox in 2018. Even the 2015 season is now cast in doubt, as the same Astros hierarchy masterminded a wildcard victory over New York at Yankee Stadium.
The sense of indignation is palpable.
What is sign stealing in baseball and why is it illegal?
For more casual sports fans who may not be entirely familiar with baseball, signs are used for on-field communication between teammates, especially among the pitcher and catcher. Baseball is a game of endless strategy, and the properties of each pitch can have a transformative impact on the eventual outcome.
Sign stealing is therefore part of baseball’s fabric, an ancient adjunct to the tactical subtext of a beguiling pastime. The monotony of baseball lends itself to long summers at the ballpark characterised by inactivity. Players and coaches have a lot of time on their hands, and many use that as currency to decode, decipher and disseminate the signs of opposing teams.
In rudimentary terms, without artificial support, sign stealing is a subtle art to be appreciated. Indeed, decrypting signals is legal, so long as it is done without the use of any supportive device. Throughout the game’s history, certain players, managers and coaches have gained reputations as master craftsmen of the sign stealing realm, but when the lines between instinct and inspection are blurred, a whole new debate opens up.
A history of sign stealing in MLB
Since time immemorial, baseball teams have tried to steal the signs of their opponents. However, the rise of modern technology altered that landscape forever, transforming a genteel sideline into a complex quest for illicit advantages.
In 1951, back when the humble television was considered cutting-edge, the New York Giants overcame a 13.5-game deficit to win the pennant from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Bobby Thomson won the decisive contest of a three-game playoff with a walk-off home run, his famous Shot Heard ‘Round the World. Years later, that Giants team became the focus of suspicion, and to this day, many consider them the godfathers of modern sign stealing.
According to Joshua Prager, author of The Echoing Green, Giants manager Leo Durocher devised an elaborate sign-stealing scheme during the 1951 regular season. Prager claims that Durocher had coach Herman Franks positioned in the manager’s office, located beyond centre field at the quirky Polo Grounds, from whence he spied opposing catchers with a telescope. After spotting the sign, Prager says Franks relayed the information to the Giants’ bullpen using electric buzzers. From there, it was conveyed to the hitter, who subsequently knew what pitch to expect.
Amid suspicious whispers, in 1961, the National League banned the use of “mechanical devices” to steal signs. Policing such a concept became increasingly difficult as technology improved, however. When the internet came of age, the proliferation of devices correlated to a growth in the variety of potential cheating techniques for ballplayers.
In 2001, MLB issued a memorandum stating that teams could not use electronic equipment to communicate during games, especially to steal signs. Nevertheless, guided by capitalist Commissioners who yearned to “grow the game” by making it more accessible, baseball surrendered its soul to technology in the ensuing decades. Analytical analysis sparked a revolution that culminated in K-Zone, Statcast and a myriad of other advancements.
By 2014, due to an expanded replay review system, all 30 MLB teams installed video rooms - carrying live feeds of the game - next to their dugouts. Moreover, communication between the dugout and said video rooms was allowed, opening up a world of technological subterfuge in the avaricious pursuit of success and money.
Did the Yankees steal signs electronically? Assessing the allegations
In September 2017, the Red Sox were fined by MLB following a New York Times investigation into the illegal use of an Apple Watch to steal signs during games. A Red Sox trainer used the smart watch to convey signs to Boston hitters, stealing an unfair advantage.
The Yankees were also fined at the same time, rather confusingly. Indeed, by packaging New York and Boston together in one decision, Commissioner Manfred did a huge disservice to the Yankees, who were never explicitly found guilty of stealing signs electronically. Contrary to common perception, the Yankees were fined for misuse of a dugout phone in a season prior to 2017. They were not punished for stealing signs. Period.
Major league rules preclude the use of dugout phones for anything other than communication pertaining to pitching changes. A coach or manager is able to use the phone to instruct a reliever to warm up, for example, but any discussion of in-game minutiae is prohibited.
Yes, the Yankees misused their dugout phone. However, even the Commissioner concluded that “the substance of the communications that took place on the dugout phone was not a violation of any rule or regulation in and of itself.”
Therefore, given the evidence that is currently available, any deduction that the Yankees illegally stole signs is, at best, wishful thinking on the part of those who dislike the organisation and, at worst, flagrant defamation from a biased mainstream media.
A timeline of the Houston Astros sign stealing scandal
Following the Apple Watch incident, Manfred issued a further memorandum putting all teams on notice that anyone found stealing signs electronically would be "subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”
Still, industry whispers surrounding certain teams reached a crescendo. Tales of tipped pitches and video room shenanigans became more frequent as an undercurrent of illegality frothed beneath the surface. Across baseball, insiders bit their tongues. There was something they wanted to say, but few had the courage. Then Mike Fiers blew the whistle. We are still assessing the fallout.
The report was published by The Athletic in November 2019. Through Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, Fiers – a pitcher with the 2017 Astros – explained the pitiful scheme that underpinned Houston’s success.
According to Fiers, the live feed from centre field cameras was relayed to the tunnel running from the Astros’ dugout, where a club staffer or player watched at a table, banging a trash can in pre-ordained patterns to signify different pitches.
The day after The Athletic ran its expose, MLB launched an official investigation. However, the court of public opinion had a seemingly more believable champion: Jimmy “Jomboy” O’Brien, a sports blogger and Yankees fan who scoured through hours of games, documentaries and video clips piecing together a web of damning evidence. The Astros’ demise was played out in tweets, gifs and podcasts. Baseball fans wanted blood.
MLB investigation finds Houston Astros guilty of cheating
Finally, in January 2020, Manfred published the results of his own investigation, which felt rushed and somewhat insincere. For the sake of exhuming accurate information, players were granted immunity throughout the process, which backfired when it became clear that the scheme was in fact player-driven.
Manfred found the Astros guilty of illegally using a video camera to steal signs during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. No wrongdoing was found in 2019, but if undetected and unchallenged, why would a team willingly change a strategy that yielded a World Series championship? Let's get real.
Houston was fined $5 million and stripped of all first and second round draft picks until 2022. General manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager AJ Hinch were suspended for a whole season and subsequently fired by the Astros. Strangely, Manfred absolved Jim Crane, the Astros’ owner, of any wrongdoing. The Commissioner works for the owners, after all, and turkeys would never vote for Christmas.
According to Manfred, Alex Cora was instrumental in devising the sign stealing plan. In fact, many sources credit Cora with its entire genesis. Caught in a public relations meltdown, the Red Sox announced that their manager stepped down in a ‘mutual’ decision. Meanwhile, Carlos Beltran, among the most passionate advocates of the sign stealing system, resigned as New York Mets manager without overseeing a single pitch. It is difficult to imagine a more Mets thing ever happening again.
What baseball’s sign stealing problem means for the Yankees
The discourse of baseball – indeed of sports more generally - has spiralled to such a nadir where winning is the only things that matters, consequences be damned. Somewhere along the line, we forgot that this is meant to be fun, mere escapism from the daily grind. By all means compete, but designing unethical blueprints to tilt the balance of fairness is beyond the pale. Nothing is that important. Nothing is that serious. Come on.
Therefore, the likelihood of this scandal being confined to the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox is miniscule. When you throw a bunch of testosterone-fuelled men in a room and tether absurd financial rewards to the success of their athletic performance, they will seek an edge, and they will find it. A minority will exploit the tools at their disposal to cultivate that edge, as we have seen with greenies, cocaine and steroids in bygone eras. Money has no morals.
Other teams will have stolen signs electronically. However, prevalence does not excuse illegality. Moreover, what the Astros did – and perhaps what the Red Sox did – was not a victimless crime. This elite Yankees team was robbed of multiple shots at a world championship by a team that cheated. Sure, the Yankees should have played better, but it is kinda difficult to beat a lineup of great hitter who also know what pitch is coming next.
Young stars like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres will likely get another shot at winning the pennant and fighting for that ultimate ring, but what about the older veterans who were hustled out of their chance? What about Todd Frazier, Andrew McCutchen and Edwin Encarnacion? Yes, they were fleeting Yankees, but they quite feasibly could have been world champion Yankees given a level playing field. That shit hurts, man. That shit stings.
Also spare a thought for the minor leaguer pitchers whose only shot at the big leagues coincided with a trip to Houston, where they were thumped around by cunning hitters listening for that trash can. Some of those guys will never get another opportunity, and that sucks like hell.
Nevertheless, unlike some, I do not believe stripping the Astros of their 2017 World Series title is a viable option. When you go down that road, it can be easy to get carried away. Where do you stop? In such a mode of hyper revisionism, it would be possible to find incriminating evidence on almost every World Series winner of all-time.
Heck, if we get into the business of stripping titles for unlawful transgressions, the Red Sox would not have won a world championship since 1918. Google Manny Ramirez steroids and David Ortiz steroids if you are a little confused here. Now that makes for some fun bedtime reading, believe me.
Ultimately, the revelations of this winter burnish the utter desperation of Yankees fans to see their team get over the hump by putting Houston and Boston to the sword. In four of the last five years, the Yankees have lost the season’s final game to a team with an ambiguous approach to cheating. The only way to restore ethical equilibrium is to swallow hard, grit your teeth and beat the cheaters fair and square. The only way to recover is to take what is rightfully ours.