This may be the era that needs five takes to evaluate a game, but only two things stand out in the wake of the suspensions resulting from the sign-stealing saga that stunned baseball and seriously damaged two of its best teams, the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox.
Observation No. 1: Baseball is a victim of technology. First came the radar guns, which was innocent enough. Then came slow motion, super slow motion, animation for entertainment purposes (yes, that’s part of it), the challenge system, and review booths with monitors adjacent to the dugout. Next up? Robot umpires … enough already.
Observation No. 2: How stupid were the masterminds of this elaborate scheme to think they wouldn’t get caught? In this age of player movement did they really think this very amateurish plot would remain a secret? Please.
It was a pitcher with an axe to grind, Mike Fiers, who ratted out the Astros — after being bumped from the starting rotation and ultimately traded to the Oakland Athletics. But there had been plenty of anonymous rumblings, enough so that commissioner Rob Manfred issued a stern warning, threatening dire circumstances for any team using technology to steal signs from an opponent.
That happened in September 2017, and the Red Sox were the team called to the commissioner’s office for a lecture. Meanwhile the Astros, not completely under the radar, were perfecting a system that helped them win the American League pennant and World Series.
Carlos Beltran, then a player and until Jan. 16 the New York Mets’ manager, was the purported ringleader and Alex Cora, then the bench coach and until recently the Red Sox manager, was the reported mastermind.
There is no longer any debate that baseball, like most sports, has been overwhelmed by technological advancement. Period. End of sentence. End of debate. Too much information can be dangerous. Especially when used in clumsy fashion.
Like most of those affiliated with Major League Baseball, one way or another, I was intrigued by the allegations that the Astros, the most analytical and talented team on the universe, felt the need to resort to electronic means to steal signs. The old fashioned way, picking up telltale tip-offs, apparently doesn’t work anymore. Or maybe it just isn’t fashionable, which, by the way, isn’t exactly how you would describe the modern way of delivering the message.
What I find most fascinating — comical, actually — is how hitters got their information. The chosen method was to alert hitters of the impending arrival of a fastball that might reach 100-plus mph — by banging on a garbage can! One that apparently wasn’t very inconspicuous.
Among other pieces of evidence, there is a 25-minute video on YouTube that offers visual (and limited audio) evidence of the Astros sending messages to hitters. I watched a good bit of it and, honestly, it would be hard to convict anybody on that evidence. The most obvious instances where a hitter might have benefited came on breaking balls outside the strike zone on which hitters showed no inclination to even consider swinging. Seeing the “Boom Boom” on the screen when a fastball was en route seemed more comical than incriminating, but the fact there was little if any denying the charges indicates there wasn’t much to dispute.
Still, in this high-tech age, banging on a garbage can was the best method they could come up with? And why, pray tell, was there a garbage can in the dugout before the cleanup crew arrived at the end of the game? Heck, we knew about Dick Tracy watches more than half a century ago — no doubt the model for the Apple watches the Red Sox were said to have used when they got that wrist slapping back in 2017.
Evidently Dick Tracy is too old school.
Although there had been whispers that Manfred was going to level the Astros, I admit to being stunned at the severity of the penalties leveled on them. The $5 million fine, most allowed under baseball guidelines, was pretty much expected, and one-year suspensions for manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow weren’t total surprises, but the fact that both were then fired by Astros owner Jim Crone — and that the Red Sox didn’t wait for MLB to act and fired Cora — got everybody’s attention.
But Manfred’s real hammer was taking away Houston’s top two draft picks in each of the next two years. In addition two managers, both considered among the good guys, and one general manager (so far) have seen their careers tarnished, if not finished.
Welcome to the wild, wonderful world of technology, where too much information too often is just that. Too much.
At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy duddy, to borrow one of Buck Showalter’s favorite lines, it’s enough to wish for simpler times — when we could check cell phones at the gate, turn off the computers, log challenges in real time, shut down the jumbotron and just play the damn game. Might even make for a nice “turn back the clock” promotion.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
This story has been updated since its original publication.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox