For as long as I can remember, the New York Yankees were the team that everybody loved to hate. George Steinbrenner, their abrasive owner, was the face of the Evil Empire, with a track record that would have the 2020 Cancel Culture crowd up in arms if he were still alive today. Sure, the Yankees may be best remembered for spending the most money to acquire the best players, which resulted in 7 World Series titles during his time as owner, but the Yankees became hated far before they became winners, in no short part due to the actions of Steinbrenner.
In 1985, Steinbrenner publicly derided the performance of Dave Winfield, a player he signed to a 10-year, $23,000,000 contract prior to the 1981 season. For his part, all Winfield did was finish no lower than 12th in the MVP voting in any season as a Yankee between 81 and 85, and was named to the All-Star team every season through 1988. Steinbrenner even went so far as to pay $40,000 trying to dig up dirt on Winfield.
There were, of course, other incidents over the years that helped reaffirm his position as an unlikable figure in the baseball community. Ken Griffey Jr famously said he would never play in New York due to the indelible mark of prejudice he experienced while his father played for the team. Who could forget when the outspoken owner referred to Hideki Irabu as a “fat pussy toad”?
It took just under 30 years for Steinbrenner’s Yankees to grow into the Evil Empire, and for the Astros to assume their throne as the most vilified team in sports, all it took was a whistle blower and Twitter.
The story is now as well known as any in baseball history, but let’s go ahead and set the scene for those who have perhaps been distracted with concerns about social distancing, murder hornets, and tiger farms run by polygamous, murderous rednecks.
In November of 2019, the 2017 Houston Astros were outed for having utilized a not-so-elaborate system of using a video feed to steal signs from opposing teams, and then communicate upcoming pitches by banging on a trash can. The article was published by The Athletic after a former Astros player, Mike Fiers, detailed the system in an interview that became the baseball equivalent of a whistle blower transcript. The system was validated by 3 other club sources, with varying degrees of agreement on usage and effectiveness during the playoffs.
From there, Twitter went to work. It was mere hours before videos popped up featuring the obvious sound of loud banging just ahead of breaking balls being thrown during the 2017 regular season. The Astros had definitely been stealing signs in 2017. There was corroborated internal testimony combined with video evidence. All that was left was the punishment, which would happen after the league conducted a slightly more formal investigation than watching videos from Jomboy.
While sports fans everywhere waited with anticipation of an Astros punishment, something strange was stirring within the world of sports media. There was this simultaneous acknowledgement that the story of electronic sign-stealing was not limited to the Astros organization, juxtaposed against Mike Fiers, a player who was being lauded as a hero for coming out and bravely telling the truth. While there had been numerous reports about teams utilizing video feeds to pick signs over the past few seasons, none of them even hinted at the idea of relaying those signs in real time to the batters. With this bold new revelation, there was a growing sense that this, the real time relay of signs, crossed a line. Baseball has a long history of allowing rules to be bent up until they outright break, and this was the breaking point. Sign stealing had a face of both good and evil, and thus the stage was set. The Astros would become the face of sign stealing. After all, they cheated in a season that they won it all.
Before we get to burner Twitter accounts and Reddit threads rumoring the use of wearable buzzers, let’s rewind just a bit, because it’s important to set the stage.
There are two very distinct eras of Astros baseball in the 21st century, marked by the sale of the team from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane in 2011. Under well-intended owner Drayton McLane, the team followed a model that involved signing free agents and making splashy trade acquisitions. That was, after all, the way teams were built in that era. When he bought the team, he immediately went out and acquired former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek to show that he wouldn’t let a silly thing like money stand in the way of fielding a talented roster. This method of roster building continued as he built around Bagwell and Biggio with the likes of Alou, Clemens, Pettitte, and the Big Unit. For all his good intentions, Drayton never brought the title to the city of Houston that he always craved.
In 2009, with an aging core of players and a depleted farm system, Drayton ordered the full tear down of the Astros remaining assets in an effort to make the franchise more attractive to perspective buyers. By the time the team was sold to Jim Crane, the team had traded away Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, and anybody else who could bring back a prospect in return. For better or worse, Jim Crane had just purchased a team that would be mired in the midst of 3 consecutive seasons with 106+ losses each year.
Crane went on to do what most new bosses do – he began building his best version of the operation from the inside, out. Namely, he hired Jeff Luhnow from the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Luhnow had been accredited with building the farm system that led to the eventual World Series title in 2011.
You’ll recall that I opened this piece with a story about George Steinbrenner not holding back when it came to how he valued players and their contributions. This, coupled with the Yankees eventual success, led to the birth of the Evil Empire. That isn’t far off from how things unfolded in Houston, but this time, a series of faux pas involving Crane and Luhnow led to Houston becoming the trendy new team to despise.
Over the following years, Jeff Luhnow and the Houston Astros began to develop a reputation as a team that treated players like numbers on a spreadsheet. When their database was hacked, notes about players both inside and outside of their organization became public. Those notes, of course, were meant to be for internal communication only, and did not always paint a favorable picture of various players. All good businesses must constantly take stock of their talent, but there’s a reason those employee files stay locked up in the HR department.
There were, of course, strategic moves that left outsiders feeling slighted. This started with the 2012 draft, when the Astros selected Carlos Correa instead of consensus number 1 overall prospect Byron Buxton. The team agreed to a deal well below slot value, which allowed them to sign supplemental draft pick Lance McCullers for well above slot. In many ways, the Astros turned the 1st and 41st picks in the draft into 2 top 10 selections. This move, while completely legal, left many other franchises feeling duped.
Luhnow had found a flaw within the system and exploited it.
Luhnow and his team had the chance to go out and sign players that would allow them to compete immediately, but they chose to spurn the McLane method of patchwork signings that left the team’s payroll held hostage. Instead, the front office team began negotiating extensions with Minor League players prior to being called up. The players in the minors were faced with a conundrum: take guaranteed money today to get to free agency a year early, or wait until just enough season had passed to be called up, thus ensuring the team could keep them in the organization for an extra year at arbitration rates. Several players bet on themselves, but ended up in free agency a year late due to service time manipulation, while others took guaranteed deals.
Luhnow had found a flaw within the system and exploited it.
While Houston was not the first to manipulate service time, they were among the first to try to buy out arbitration years early in a player’s career. This practice was controversial at the time, but is now common place in the game, with several of the game’s biggest prospects signing deals prior to their MLB debut.
The Astros front office was lauded as being innovative and at the forefront of analytics, much due to the hiring of non-traditional baseball minds under the leadership of Jeff Luhnow. Many of these hires were controversial at the time because they disrupted the status quo. Instead of renowned scouts with an eye for talent, the Astros were relying on new statistics like spin rate to identify talent that was otherwise being overlooked.
Luhnow had found a flaw within the system and exploited it.
In business, Jeff Luhnow would be viewed as entrepreneurial and innovative. In the baseball world, he was disruptive of the good old boys network. America’s pastime is steeped in tradition, which can also be referred to as self-imposed pressure from predecessors to do things as they have always been done. With every calculated decision, Luhnow was challenging the status quo. The analytical approach he championed can be seen in organizations around the league, and those who worked within the Astros organization are now leading other franchises. Jeff Luhnow would change the game of baseball and leave a lasting legacy, just not the one he expected.
In 2017, the Astros signed Carlos Beltran to serve as their DH, but also to serve as trusted veteran with a hall of fame resume, who could help the young core of predominantly Latin players navigate the upcoming season filled with great expectations. In many ways, Beltran was brought in to fill the role of a player/coach.
When you read the MLB investigation findings and pair them up side-by-side with the reporting from The Athletic, it doesn’t require a ton of mental gymnastics to put 2 and 2 together. Early in the 2017 season, Carlos Beltran approached Astros bench coach Alex Cora and the two sought out to devise a system to steal signs that had helped Beltran while he was a player on a previous team. Other players on the team were made to believe that similar systems were being used to help other teams gain an advantage against them, which allowed a crucial mentality to envelop the team as they justified the system.
If everybody is doing the same thing, is it cheating or leveling the playing field?
When you speak to most fans of the game of baseball, this is the argument that they make when explaining why the use of pine-tar by pitchers isn’t really breaking the rules. It is, of course, against the rules. It is widely known that pitchers use pine tar or other substances to improve grip, and consequently, spin rate, and this all goes overlooked as gamesmanship. The last notable pine tar punishment was in 2014 when Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda didn’t even attempt to hide his use of the substance in a game against the Red Sox.
Before sign stealing made headlines, there was Brandon Taubman taunting female reporters who had spoken out against the acquisition of reliever Roberto Osuna, who had served a prior suspension for domestic abuse. Initially, the Astros jumped to defend him, defying the accounts of journalists who were present. Days later, they issued an apology and Taubman was dismissed. Little did any of us know that the PR nightmare for the Astros was just beginning.
After the piece in The Athletic came out and Twitter collectively crowdsourced video evidence of the Astros sign stealing, the media covered everything as if it were the gospel. This included widely discredited theories of buzzers, whistles, and other nefarious ways of stealing signs. A burner account claiming to be the niece of Carlos Beltran implicated the Astros and Yankees for wearing buzzers under their uniforms. The Astros were already in the headlines, so the producers at major sports networks made the decision, then and there, to try to get the uncorroborated scoop from the later debunked Twitter account. It was irresponsible. It was damaging. Most importantly, it was disproven.
Things snowballed for the Astros from there, partly by their own doing, and partly by Major League Baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred.
With sign stealing, Manfred had his tenure defining moment, just as his predecessor had steroids. Complaints about sign stealing had been filed with the league office dating back to at least 2015. Each time, the investigation ended quietly, with a “nothing to see here” note being sent out. Manfred was either complicit or ignorant with regards to sign stealing. In retrospect, the investigations into prior complaints are the equivalent of a police officer pulling you over and simply asking, “Were you speeding?” and then letting you off with a warning. This happened up to the 2017 Yankees/Red Sox complaints. Even after finding that the Red Sox were relaying signals in real time using video and an apple watch, the commissioner slapped them on the wrist and issued a statement to the league that was the equivalent of, “Don’t do that again. I’m serious this time. Really. Don’t do it.”
When the Astros case fell on his desk accompanied with so much evidence in 2019, he had no choice but to address the issue. In this moment, he opted to give the players immunity. He argued that he could not punish players who had moved on to new organizations, as that would cause an undue burden to teams that had not engaged in cheating. It was clear, he would punish the organization by stripping draft picks and cash. For an aging veteran team, taking draft picks was the start of a solid punishment. He could have issued the Astros a ban from the 2020 Postseason, but just like punishing the players, he deemed that unfair to the likes of Greinke and other newly acquired Astros who would endure the punishment of the crimes committed by predecessors. Manfred had the opportunity to vacate the 2017 World Series title from the Astros, but chose not to. The biggest reason? Publicly, he acknowledged precedent. These punishments, or lack thereof, have fallen flat in the baseball world.
If you listen to him speak, however, you hear him acknowledge that there were complaints with regards to numerous other teams as well. He couldn’t strip the Astros of a title for breaking a rule that was being broken by numerous other teams as well. Industry sources report that if he had suspended the Astros, he would have opened the door to being forced to suspend as much as half of the league.
There is this notion that Rob Manfred is covering for the Astros. When you step back and listen, however, you realize that by not punishing the players, Manfred was actually covering for the rest of the league. Manfred was gift wrapped a chance to make sign stealing look like a one team issue, and by choosing to isolate only the Astros, he has made all the other complaints about sign stealing disappear, if only for now. If there’s anything we have learned over the years, it is that no secret stays buried forever. Just as steroid users were outed one by one, the story of sign stealing is still being written.
There will be more teams, more names, and more stories. If you had a favorite player in the late 90s or early 2000s, your greatest hope was that they didn’t end up on a steroids report. If you’re a fan of modern day baseball, your hope should be that your team isn’t implicated in doing the exact same thing that was being done in Houston.
One major league manager told The Athletic, “It’s an issue that permeates through the whole league.” In 2018, esteemed baseball writer Tom Verducci reported for Sports Illustrated that “Many clubs now have as many as six high magnification cameras installed in their home ballpark specifically designed to steal signs from opponents.” The article goes on to detail how the Dodgers organization had an entire team deployed just to decode signs. It should be noted that there was no implication that the Dodgers were relaying these signs in real time. “The big market teams have an advantage there,” said another manager. “Now everybody is suspicious-and teams are suspicious because they’re pulling the same tricks they’re worried about the other guy pulling.”
So why haven’t we heard about what happened on other teams? This answer runs deep, but there are a few simple truths that the logical baseball fan should acknowledge. First, the Astros had a whistleblower who had an axe to grind. By his own admissions, Mike Fiers has a strained relationship with the Astros. In his communication with The Athletic, he insisted that he just wanted to keep a level playing field by outing his former employer. It should be remembered, of course, that Fiers was famously left off the playoff roster and subsequently released in the off season. He went from making $3.45MM with Houston in 2017, to $1.8MM with Oakland in 2018. Had he stayed in the arbitration process, he would have received an anticipated $5MM or more, so while he may have been looking out for the little man, he most certainly had personal motivation as well.
After witnessing the vitriol the Astros have endured along with the distrust players around the league have expressed for Fiers, there is enormous pressure to keep a lid on anything that may have happened. A recent podcast featuring Joe Kelly alluded to the fact that he felt the Astros should have lied to protect their manager instead of ratting him out. Kelly has been outspoken in his disgust with the Astros, but this does make you wonder if his problem is with them cheating or with them admitting to cheating. Kelly, after all, was a member of the 17-18 Red Sox teams who were also investigated for similar misdeeds. It’s not a leap to suggest that members of a franchise that dabbled in sign stealing would have agreed to a diluted account of what may have transpired.
Fanning the Flames of Hate
When the Astros found themselves in the first few months of 2020, they had an opportunity to address the offseason investigation head on. Alex Bregman repeated the same phrase about 9 times, appearing annoyed while speaking to local reporters at FanFest. It made national news. Jim Crane got on stage at Spring Training and said he didn’t think sign stealing impacted games. The team’s stars read scripted statements. Carlos Correa got indignant and told people to STFU. Several players expressed genuine remorse, but the damage was done. A few months later, Crane sat down for an interview and called Taubman a good kid and praised the team culture. Whoever is running the PR department for the Astros is either incompetent or not being allowed to do their job. It became easy for the rest of the world to point to all the missteps and pontificate that perhaps the Astros deserved to be labeled as villains. #OrangeTeamBad was born.
It’s trendy to hate the Astros today, just as it was trendy to hate the Yankees the past few decades. For years I uttered the phrase, “Ugh, I hate the Yankees,” without realizing why I disliked them. I was too young to remember George Steinbrenner’s antics, so my dislike for them was either founded in jealousy of their success, or because I had fallen into the mob mentality that believed the Yankees to truly be the Evil Empire.
The fact is that regardless of the facts that are known and those that may still be discovered, a mob mentality has developed. Someone recently told me, “I feel bad for the Astros fans – they’re being punished most of all,” and in so many ways they are right. Right now, Astros fans are taking all the heat, since fans can’t get into stadiums to boo the players. It happens when their friends jab them with comments. It happens when they go to the grocery store wearing an Astros logo. It definitely happens on social media.
Astros fans, then, rightfully want the rest of the story to be told. The evidence shows that their team wasn’t alone, and when you come to grips with that reality, this is also true: The Astros have been scapegoated by the league. Astros fans, I’ve got some bad news for you. Even if an investigation similar to the Mitchell Report came out and implicated half the league, the Astros will still be the story. They won it all in a season where they broke the rules, and even if they weren’t alone, that story has already been written in the minds of baseball fans around the world. There’s no question that the 2017 title lifted the city of Houston after it experienced devastation during Hurricane Harvey, and for many Astros fans, there’s a need to feel that their joy was real. The best parallel I can give you is the summer of 98.
When Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa led the game of baseball on an historic race to 61, the nation was captivated and celebrated the accomplishment. A few years later, when called upon to testify regarding his steroid usage, McGwire took the 5th, all but admitting that he had juiced to accomplish his feats. In 2007, the Mitchell Report came out identifying steroids as a league wide issue. In 2010, McGwire came clean, and was accepted back into the baseball world. “Long Gone Summer” aired earlier this year, celebrating McGwire and the summer of 98. There’s hope, Astros fans, but your vindication isn’t going to come until the facts have had a chance to sink in and allow the rest of the baseball world to accept the realities of what was happening in the sign stealing era.