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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

MLB needs to get to bottom of electronic sign-stealing and put this scandal behind it

Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros reacts after

Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros reacts after striking out against the Washington Nationals during the eighth inning in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 30, 2019. Credit: Getty Images/Elsa

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – With all of the shadowy behavior exposed in the past week, followed by an investigation that threatens to shine a light into some of the sport’s darker alleys, Major League Baseball did catch a break in one regard.

The Nationals won the World Series.

Can you imagine the next-level catastrophe this whole sign-stealing debacle would have been if the Astros had taken the trophy for the second time in three years?

It’s bad enough that Houston already is accused of using an illegal electronic system to swipe signs during the 2017 season, which concluded with the franchise’s first world championship. To think the Astros could have cheated their way to another title, rather than merely falling short in Game 7 of the World Series, would have put commissioner Rob Manfred in an impossible situation.

We still may discover that the Astros kept relying on outlawed sign-stealing methods during their playoff runs from 2017 and beyond — a detail that remains unclear for now. But from a PR standpoint, the stain of a dirty champion is more difficult to rinse off when it happens to be the reigning one.

Just look at the furor caused this past week when The Athletic reported damning, on-the-record accusations that the Astros used a centerfield TV camera, with a direct feed relayed to a video monitor set up in the tunnel — steps from the dugout — and banging on a trash can to alert the hitter to off-speed pitches.

That was all from two years ago, and yet the confirmation of what many around the game already suspected about the Astros has rattled the sport’s foundation.

During that season in question, two of the biggest victims — if the Astros’ illegal practices indeed stretched through October — were the Yankees and Dodgers. Houston won all four ALCS games against the Yankees at Minute Maid Park, but the Astros weren’t perfect at home during the World Series (2-1) before winning Game 7 at Dodger Stadium.

Dodgers general manager Andrew Friedman declined to throw any shade at the Astros in the wake of the allegations, saying that would come off as “sour grapes,” but he did say they tried to be as vigilant as possible, knowing Houston’s reputation.

As for whether the Astros’ sign-stealing practice is a more widespread problem throughout baseball, Friedman wouldn’t go as far as to say this was an isolated incident limited to one team during a specific time, or if it really is a dangerous problem for baseball that needs to be urgently addressed. 

“It depends to what extent things like this transpire,” Friedman said this past week. “I don't know the answer. I think this investigation will be enlightening. I don't know definitive answers, so therefore, it's hard for me to say. But obviously, I believe that if any team was passing signs using technology to a hitter with no man on second base, if they were able to do it outside of that, then yeah, I do. But I don't know that existed or what teams are doing it.”

It’s worth noting that the Dodgers, as well as other superpowers with plenty of technological weapons at their disposal, tend not to protest too vociferously, at least in the public forum. These days, every ballpark is embedded with a variety of cameras and electronic sensors capable of mining any conceivable nugget of data from a player’s performance. And with such a focus on analytics to gain the tiniest of advantages, it’s not hard for a team’s conscience to be tested as far as the boundaries are concerned.

The problem for MLB is how to police this ever-changing landscape with increasing pressure to protect the game’s integrity. Before the 2019 season, new rules were put in place. Outfield TV cameras were prohibited from being locked specifically on the catcher, in-house feeds had an eight-second delay and league officials were stationed in the teams’ video-replay rooms during the game.

The continued finger-pointing suggests that those measures didn’t stop the sketchy behavior. As recently as last month, the Yankees complained that the Astros were whistling as part of a sign-stealing plot, an accusation that Houston manager AJ Hinch mocked during the ALCS. At the time, MLB insisted that it found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Remember, sign-stealing in itself is not a crime. Only when electronic methods are used, in real time, does the practice cross the line. Teams just keep flirting with that line, if not stepping over it entirely.

“It's a concern,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. “That's why you take all the necessary precautions that you can and then you live with the results. Major League Baseball has their security detail, trying to do what they can to make sure everybody's playing by the same rules, and then you let your athletes line up.

“You want the best team to win, on the field of play with no other outside interference. You just want the competition between great athletes to play out on the field properly. That’s all.”

Ideally, sure. But is that even possible? Cashman realizes that front offices are more involved in what the athletes do than ever before, and if there is a benefit to be had, it requires a team’s full efforts to do so. That’s what made the past week’s comments from Astros GM Jeff Luhnow so preposterous. For Luhnow to suggest that he was launching an investigation, in conjunction with MLB, to uncover his own team’s alleged misconduct was ridiculous.

Luhnow would have us believe that the Astros were rigging a special TV feed and orchestrating an illegal sign-stealing operation without his knowledge? At best, that would be extreme negligence on the GM’s part. At worst, he let it happen and tried to maintain plausible deniability. Well, we’ve seen how that’s worked out so far.

During the 2018 ALCS, the Astros were caught having a credentialed employee allegedly spying on the Boston dugout, taking photos from his nearby seat. Apparently, the Red Sox was tipped off by the Indians, who had lost to Houston in the Division Series, deepening the suspicion of the Astros’ rule-bending behavior that won’t go away.

“Some of the things that the Astros were doing were defensive in nature,” Luhnow said last week. “We took some actions to defend ourselves and it turned out to be the wrong thing to do. But that was what happened last year. I think there is a certain level of teams wondering what other teams are doing and trying to prevent them from gaining an edge, especially when it's something that goes against the rules.”

Based on his countermeasure defense, Luhnow was asked if he believes illegal sign-stealing is a pressing issue for MLB. While that seemed akin to interrogating the Marlboro Man on the perils of smoking, the Astros GM did exhibit some self-awareness in his response.

“I’m really not the right person to answer that,” Luhnow said. “I'm not in the dugout. I don't have any facts necessarily. I know that it's a topic that surfaces every year among the players, among coaches, among people in the industry. Generally, I’m not that well versed on that to say how I'm sure it's an issue. I just don't know how widespread it is.”

We may get a better idea now that MLB is more aggressively pulling on the Astros’ loose thread. A source confirmed that Hinch, new Mets manager Carlos Beltran and Red Sox manager Alex Cora will be called in by MLB for questioning, but the parameters of any punishment seem unlikely to extend beyond the Astros’ organization. In 2017, Beltran was a player and Cora was Houston’s bench coach. Even if they were complicit in the Astros’ illegal scheme, MLB seems more inclined to penalize the Houston franchise than any former employees who have moved on to another team.

The only certainty is that MLB wants to put this sign-stealing circus behind it as soon as possible. The paranoia is always going to be there, but the sport needs to silence any rumblings of impropriety. Maybe the best they can hope for is turning down the volume for a while.

 “I just don't want to spend a lot of mental energy on it because it falls under the purview of Major League Baseball,” Friedman said. “It is important for them to be on top of it and for us, we have too many things to do as is to spend too much time thinking about that. Now we have to be smart. And we have to be able to play defense to things that we think may or may not be happening. Whether they are or not definitively, I can't say.”

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