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Why Astros sign-stealing scandal is a ‘major black mark’ against baseball

Major League Baseball says teams may not use modern technology to carry out an age-old practice: decoding the signs opposing catchers and pitchers use to communicate. The Houston Astros’ general manager and field manager were both fired Monday for an elaborate sign-stealing system the team implemented during its 2017 champion season. The Washington Post's Dave Sheinin joins John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Baseball is a game of traditions, but the Major League commissioner made clear today that teams may not use 21st century techniques to carry out one age-old practice: decoding the signs opposing catchers use to communicate with pitchers.

    John Yang has the details on the cheating scandal.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, Major League Baseball said today that, in the 2017 season, when they won the World Series, the Houston Astros used an elaborate system to tell batters what pitch was coming. It involved a video camera in center field at their home stadium, a monitor near the dugout and banging on a trash can.

    As a result, commissioner Rob Manfred today suspended general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch for the 2020 season.

    Later, team owner Jim Crane took it even further when he fired them.

  • Jim Crane:

    We want to be known as playing by the rules. We broke the rules. We accept the punishment. And we're going to move forward. It's very unfortunate.

    Neither one of those guys implemented this or pushed it through the system. It really came from the bottom up. It's pretty clear in the report how that happened. But neither one of them did anything about it. And that's unfortunate, and the consequences are severe.

  • John Yang:

    Manfred also fined the Astros $5 million, the most allowed, and stripped the team of their two top picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts.

    Additionally, he handed down a one year suspension from baseball to a former Astros assistant general manager, Brandon Taubman, for a tirade directed at female sports reporters during last year's playoffs.

    Dave Sheinin covers baseball for The Washington Post. And he joins us from The Post newsroom.

    Dave, runners on second have traditionally tried to decode the signals that the catchers were sending their pitchers. As a matter of fact, whenever a runner reached second base, the catchers would always change it up a little bit.

    So, why is this different? I mean, why this big response from the commissioner?

  • Dave Sheinin:

    Well, there's a number of things.

    Number one, I think baseball doesn't want some sort of digital arms race going on in baseball to see which team could come up with the fanciest new equipment to decode signs.

    But, secondly, it's also created longer games, because catchers now have to go through these intricate systems of signs and change them up from inning to inning or day to day or even batter to batter to combat this espionage.

    So it's created longer games. And, you know, it just — the last thing baseball needs is people to question the outcome of games, especially World Series games, when one team has better digital equipment than the other.

  • John Yang:

    Longer games, something that Major League Baseball is really trying to fight against.

    Now, in the report, the commissioner said this was largely a player-driven system, that coaches, other than Alex Cora, who is now — who was bench coach of Astros then, now manager of the Boston Red Sox, were not really involved.

    But at the same time, he said he's not punishing any players. Why is that?

  • Dave Sheinin:

    Well, there's a couple of things.

    First of all, I think it's generally assumed that players on a team are going to talk to each other constantly about deciphering pitchers' movement, pitch tipping. If they pick up a catcher's sign from second base, they may bring information back from the dugout and confer with teammates. And that's just been part of baseball ever.

    The fact that the Astros ratcheted it up a step is more indicative of a culture of permissiveness with the Astros. And that, I think more than anything, is what baseball is coming down on.

    If you read the statement, there was a couple of paragraphs that were some very pointed criticism about the Astros' culture, as instilled by the general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and the manager, A.J. Hinch. And that's where, according to Rob Manfred, the responsibility for this falls.

  • John Yang:

    Alex Cora, we talked about, he's now manager at the Boston Red Sox. The commissioner's office is investigating a similar sign-stealing system at the Red Sox in 2018 when he took over. The commissioner said he hasn't decided the penalty yet because that investigation is an over.

    What do you think we should expect when that comes down against Alex Cora?

  • Dave Sheinin:

    Right.

    Well, I think that, given Cora's clear involvement as a participant or even an instigator of the Astros' scheme, and the evidence that the Red Sox in 2018, under Cora, were using a similar scheme, I would think that the punishment would have to be at least as severe as what was handed down to Hinch, which is a one-year suspension.

    And then it's up to the Red Sox to decide whether they're going to fire their manager, in the same way the Astros did. I think everybody in the game is expecting that punishment to be at least as severe as Hinch's.

  • John Yang:

    Dave, how much of a black mark against baseball is this?

  • Dave Sheinin:

    Well, that's a fascinating question.

    I mean, baseball, like all major sports, is seeing an increase and an influx in gambling. The legalization of gambling throughout the country is part of the equation here, because the integrity of the game and the individual games and the outcomes has never been more important than it is in the era of legalized gambling.

    So this is a major black mark on the sport. I mean, to me, it's the largest cheating scandal in baseball since the Bobby Thomson 1951 New York Giants that won the pennant, and their players admitted decades later, after the fact, that they had been stealing signs with binoculars and a system of buzzers.

    This is as big as that, if not bigger.

  • John Yang:

    Dave Sheinin of The Washington Post, thanks very much.

  • Dave Sheinin:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating story.

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