The Pandemic Has Interrupted Our Sign-Stealing Scandal Outrage

Before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped Major League Baseball in its tracks, the illegal sign-stealing scandal and its aftermath was one of the game’s top stories, not only as the Astros continued their half-assed apology tour around the Grapefruit League, but as commissioner Rob Manfred’s hotly-anticipated report into the Red Sox’s sign-stealing activities hung in the balance. For the past few weeks, more pressing matters have prevailed, but a few details of where things stand regarding the sign-stealing mess have emerged, enough to gather into a single roundup. Mostly, they all serve to remind us just how much we miss baseball, the booing as well as the cheering.

Hinch and Luhnow suspensions won’t extend beyond 2020

If you were lying awake at night wondering how the year-long suspensions of the Astros’ former manager A.J. Hinch and president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow would be affected by the stoppage, it appears that you now have an answer, though it may keep you tossing and turning. Sources told ESPN’s Buster Olney that in the event no baseball is played in 2020, the pair, who were almost immediately fired by Astros owner Jim Crane when Manfred released his report on January 13, would be considered as having served their suspensions. The specific wording in the report (PDF here) states that both suspensions end “on the day following the completion of the 2020 World Series” rather than mandating a specific number of games missed. The report obviously did not account for the contingency of the cancellation of part or all of the 2020 season due to pandemic, but likely any official declaration that the World Series is indeed scrubbed due to previously unforeseen circumstances would apply, thus ending the suspension.

Presumably, it’s the specificity of the report’s wording that has led to this conclusion. MLB must believe that it’s on thin ice if Manfred revises the punishment now, either on legal grounds or simply as a matter of precedent, and as we’ve seen throughout this saga, precedent is everything when it comes to handing down punishments. What’s more, one need only look at the league’s reluctance to launch investigations into both the Astros and the Red Sox despite the numerous complaints — 10 to 12 teams went to the commissioner’s office about the Astros “cheating their asses off for three or four years,” according to the Washington Post, and Manfred sounded assurances that the scandal was confined to the Astros even as rumors swirled — to draw the inescapable conclusion that the league’s desire for closure far outweighs its zeal to administer punishment.

Particularly given that no players were suspended for their parts in the illegal activity, it’s understandable that fair-minded fans and other observers would be angry about this outcome — and yup, one check of Twitter suggests that’s the case. The idea that those found guilty of breaking the game’s rules and subjected to punishment should benefit from this catastrophe relative to everyone else, by having their suspensions effectively waived off, certainly seems amiss. That said, roughly seven months out from when the 2020 World Series might start, it’s not yet a given that the entire season will be canceled, and it’s still true that both suspended parties are prohibited “from performing any services for or conducting any business” for any major league team until the suspension ends. Neither is being paid by the Astros or any other team, while managers and non-uniformed personnel are being compensated through at least April, according to reports from last week. In other words, it’s not as if Hinch and Luhnow aren’t being punished right now, even if the punishment doesn’t seem quite so severe.

Nor is it a given that either will have jobs waiting for them in 2021, or even if they’ll ever work again inside the game. The additional reporting that has followed since Manfred issued his report hasn’t made either Luhnow or Hinch look any better. About a month after the suspensions were handed down, the Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond reported on the front office-driven “Codebreaker” algorithm, of which Luhnow was clearly aware, an aspect of the scandal that appears to have been underplayed in the commissioner’s report. Wrote Manfred to Luhnow in a letter published by the Journal, “[T]here is more than sufficient evidence to support a conclusion that you knew — and overwhelming evidence that you should have known — that the Astros maintained a sign-stealing program that violated MLB’s rules.”

Hinch, by far the more visible and sincere-sounding of the two men both before and after the suspensions were handed down, particularly in the 25-minute interview he did with MLB.com’s Tom Verducci, might have an easier time getting hired again, though any team that does so risks becoming a target for a whole lot of derision and questioning, particularly if they fire a manager over a season that goes unplayed. Then again, there are managers whose contracts expire after the 2020 season, among them the Yankees’ Aaron Boone, the Nationals’ Dave Martinez, and the Braves’ Brian Snitker, but all of them took their teams to the postseason last year, are all known to have club options for 2021, and appear to be on solid footing. What’s more, both Boone and Martinez faced Hinch’s Astros in last year’s postseason, with the former losing to Houston in the ALCS and the latter beating them in the World Series; the outcry in those particular cities would likely be off the charts if either was replaced by Hinch. Likewise if Hinch were to replace interim manager Ron Roenickein Boston (more on that situation below).

The treatment of Hinch and Luhnow, neither of whom has the protection of the players’ union, contrasts with the way that players under suspension for domestic violence or drug violations will be handled. Via the Associated Press’ outline of last week’s agreement, players who are under suspensions that have 80 or fewer games remaining to be served — a list that covers the Yankees’ Domingo Germán (63 games remaining on a domestic violence suspension), the Twins’ Michael Pineda (39 games remaining on a PED suspension) and free agent Tim Beckham (32 games remaining on a PED suspension) — would not be carried over into 2021, whether the season is canceled or shortened. However, the 162-game suspension for the Astros’ Francis Martes, a two-time PED offender, would carry over.

Anyway, we can expect Manfred, Hinch, and Luhnow all to continue to take their lumps in the court of public opinion over the way this saga could play out, particularly if there’s no season and people are looking for outlets to vent their pent-up sports-related anger.

Meanwhile, in Boston…

Last week, Manfred told ESPN that his investigation into the Red Sox’s illegal sign-stealing efforts from 2018 was done, but that the report was not yet written. “Boston, we are done with the investigation,” he said. “There’s been a delay in terms of producing a written report just because I, frankly, have not had time to turn to it with the other issues, but we will get a Boston report out before we resume play.”

That’s understandable given the long laundry list of issues that the league and the union have been working through over the past few weeks with regards to the delayed season, as well as the timespan of Manfred’s Astros investigation. The Athletic‘s first article devoted to the Astros’ sign-stealing, the one in which Mike Fiers blew the whistle, was published November 12, two months and a day before Manfred issued his report. The Athletic’s first article implicating the Red Sox was published on January 7, presumably as Manfred was wrapping up his first report. Two months and a day from that was March 8, the day before the league announced its temporary limitations on clubhouse access due to concerns about COVID-19; by the middle of that week, the entire sports world had shut down, and Manfred’s attentions were elsewhere.

Given the timing of the Red Sox report — or lack of it — and the horizon for Hinch and Luhnow’s suspensions to end, the burning question is what will become of Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who as bench coach for the Astros was pivotal in the team’s sign stealing efforts (both Codebreaker and the so-called banging scheme). In Manfred’s January report, he withheld determining the appropriate level of discipline for Cora until the completion of the Red Sox investigation; the next day, Cora stepped down as manager. If Manfred releases a report concluding that Cora merits a one-year suspension but ties it to the conclusion of the 2020 World Series while knowing that there’s a significant chance there won’t be one, well, that’s going to look ridiculous. Then again, given Cora’s apparent involvement in the sign-stealing efforts of multiple teams, he’s probably facing a longer ban, in which case specifying a given date on the calendar (e.g., November 1, 2021) or “through the 2021 World Series or the playing of ___ regular season games” would make more sense and safeguard the application of the penalty.

Though the report on the Red Sox hasn’t been published, it appears that the team is aware of its findings. That assumption is based upon the oral arguments given in a lawsuit against MLB, the Red Sox, and the Astros brought about by daily fantasy sports contestants, who contend that those teams and the league engaged in unlawful business practices, corrupting DFS games. Via The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan, in a March 20 hearing in New York, Judge Jed Rakoff asked Lauren Moskowitz, a lawyer for the Red Sox, whether the team violated the rules. “We do not admit that,” replied Moskowitz, adding, “Your Honor, I think that there are distinctions between what the Red Sox believe occurred and what the commissioner found. And I think that certainly they’re entitled to disagree that that activity happened at the club level. Certainly, we did find on certain occasions in 2017, that this electronic device was used to communicate sign information.”

Elsewhere in the courts

Last week, MLB argued that it does not believe that its notes pertaining to the investigations are relevant to the DFS case. According to the league’s lawyers, not only are the plaintiffs overreaching, but the revelation of the notes could jeopardize future investigations. Via Evan Drellich:

MLB’s lead investigator, Bryan Seeley, argued in a court filing Monday that if the league must reveal greater detail from its interviews and findings, future investigations could be jeopardized. Lawyers for MLB also cited attorney-client privilege and other legal grounds in their objections.

“If players, club officials or the MLBPA suspected that conversations with our attorneys or investigators about potential rules violations could be revealed, it would significantly hamper the Commissioner’s ability to exercise his investigatory and disciplinary powers under the MLB Constitution,” wrote Seeley, a former federal prosecutor. “Interview subjects would be much less likely to voluntarily engage in candid conversations if those conversations, or DOI’s (Department of Investigation’s) legal analysis of them, were at risk of being disclosed.”

“Access to the interview notes, interview summaries and investigation memoranda from the Astros and Red Sox Investigations described above were (and remain) carefully controlled within MLB. Materials were marked as privileged and confidential,” Seeley wrote. “Apart from those individuals who conducted the investigations, only select senior MLB employees and external legal counsel have had access to the materials. They have not been shared with the interview subjects or other interview attendees from the MLBPA, or the Astros and Red Sox organizations, respectively. They have not been shared with anyone associated with other MLB clubs.”

Here the league’s stance seems quite reasonable. Exposing the names of the players and the specifics of their testimony could endanger their safety and limit the possibility of future cooperation in investigations.

[Update: A couple hours after this article was published, Judge Rakoff dismissed the DFS suit, writing that the concealment of “these foul deeds” did not create “a cognizable legal claim.”]

Speaking of lawsuits, there’s also one filed by former major league pitcher Mike Bolsinger, who fell victim to the banging scheme in what turned out to be his final major league appearance on August 4, 2017, when he retired just one of eight Astros hitters he faced while pitching for the Blue Jays, who designated him for assignment the next day and then outrighted him to Triple-A Buffalo. Bolsinger’s suit accuses the Astros of unfair business practices, negligence, and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations. He’s seeking damages against the Astros as well as the return of $31 million worth of 2017 postseason shares, which he contends should be donated to charities in Los Angeles.

Earlier this week, lawyers for the Astros filed a motion to dismiss the suit or have it moved from Los Angeles to Texas on the grounds that Bolsinger is “a Texas resident who claims to have suffered injury in Texas because of allegedly improper conduct that occurred in Texas at the hand of fellow Texans.” The lawyers also asked the court to throw out a summons for Astros owner Jim Crane to appear at a deposition. In a declaration that cited Manfred’s report, Crane wrote, “That report explicitly exonerated me and stated that I was unaware of and had no involvement in any rules violations by the Astros.”

Insert eye-roll here. While it’s true that Manfred’s report “revealed absolutely no evidence” that Crane was aware of the Astros’ violations, and found him “extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization” while fully supporting investigation, it did not “explicitly exonerate” him. Asked by The Athletic to comment on Crane’s claim, MLB declined to elaborate, writing, ““all of our comments about the investigation are included in the report.”

The Astros-related response that will induce the most snickering, however, is in relation to a lawsuit brought about by the team’s ticket holders. Again via Kaplan:

“The ‘sign-stealing’ controversy has been a source of great disappointment to Astros fans as well as to the Astros organization,” the team’s lawyers wrote. “On several occasions, members of the Astros organization – including individual players and its Owner, Jim Crane – have expressed their sincere apologies and remorse for the events described in the report by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.”

While some Astros have done a better job than others at expressing contrition, there probably isn’t a single person in baseball who fell for Crane’s shoddy performance on February 14, at the apology tour’s unofficial kickoff, during which the owner contended that the team’s illegal sign-stealing efforts “didn’t impact the game.” Pressed on that matter by a reporter, he immediately reversed course, saying, “I didn’t say it didn’t impact the game.” Elsewhere in the presser, he set a major league record for chutzpah by claiming, “I don’t think I should be held accountable” for the actions of his employees. The buck always stops elsewhere with Crane.

While there are undoubtedly bigger issues facing both baseball and the rest of the country as this pandemic plays out, the delay is likely to shield both the Astros and the Red Sox from the brunt of the justifiable anger they would face had the season started on time. To be fair, it’s good to see the Astros Foundation and Houston players such as Alex Bregman and George Springer donating money and services to COVID-19-related causes (likewise the Red Sox). But if one feels exasperated that the wrongdoers of this saga won’t get their just desserts as they make their way around the league, it’s another sign of the normalcy we so desperately crave, the opportunity to jeer villains in matters much less pressing than life and death, just as we cheer the heroes when we gather together in ballparks to partake in the rituals of baseball that bind us all together.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Nice to finally see someone (Evan Gattis) offer a legit apology.