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A Cellphone, a Bad Suit, and a Guy Named Kyle: Wow, the Astros Sound Like Terrible Spies

The defending World Series champs have come under fire for attempting to steal signs or some other form of information from the Boston Red Sox. The organization employs literal rocket scientists, but its efforts at espionage fit into baseball’s larger history of low-rent attempts to gain an edge.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On August 11, 1951, the New York Giants trailed the Brooklyn Dodgers by 13 games in the National League standings. Then, Giants manager Leo Durocher decided to place a coach named Herman Franks in the Polo Grounds manager’s office, situated in center field. Franks, with the aid of a telescope, would read opposing catchers’ signs, then relay those signals to the Giants bullpen in right field by way of a buzzer system, and from there a coach or relief pitcher would use visual signals to warn the batter what pitch was coming. The Giants went 23-5 at home from then on, caught the Dodgers, and ultimately won a three-game playoff for the pennant on Bobby Thomson’s famous walk-off home run.

On Tuesday, the Metro reported that a Houston Astros employee was ejected from the media-credentialed area next to the home dugout at Fenway Park during Game 1 of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. That same employee was suspected of suspicious behavior against Cleveland in the previous round. Hours later, Jeff Passan of Yahoo reported that a man named Kyle McLaughlin was implementing a scheme to steal signs or some other vital information from opponents, and that it may have extended back into the regular season.

The Astros are reputed to be one of baseball’s savviest organizations. GM Jeff Luhnow comes from the business world, and brings with him a felicity with empirical data and an on-again/off-again relationship with the norms of the sport. As he was building the current Astros roster over the course of the past decade, Luhnow filled out his staff with the brightest minds in public baseball research, as a Viking-style raid on Baseball Prospectus netted R&D director Mike Fast, the man who kick-started research into catcher framing; special assistant Kevin Goldstein, one of the founding fathers of modern prospect writing; and analyst Colin Wyers, one of the top statistical modelers in the business. Luhnow also brought special assistant and former NASA researcher Sig Mejdal with him from St. Louis. Fast left the team this summer, but the other three are still in the organization.

These are smart folks who know their way around technology and put food on the table by dreaming up clever solutions to complex problems. If the Giants were using a telescope and buzzers in 1951, imagine what Luhnow’s team of quants and literal rocket scientists could dream up: tiny robots with cameras and microphones, perhaps, or a backdoor computer program that turned the bullpen phone into an eavesdropping device?

No, it’s literally a dude named Kyle in mismatched suit separates, standing straight up in the camera well, holding a cellphone like he’s taking video of his daughter’s U8 travel soccer team to post on Facebook for Grandpa. No shotgun mic, no ghillie suit, no James Bond–style pen that’s also a microphone, a transmitter, and a derringer all at the same time. McLaughlin’s scheme is somehow less sophisticated than one kid wearing a trenchcoat, standing on another kid’s shoulders, and pretending to be an adult.

Neither club, nor the league, is denying that something took place during Game 1 of the ALCS, and security has been beefed up for the games in Houston. On Wednesday afternoon, MLB closed the case, and the Astros’ explanation was that McLaughlin was only in the camera well to make sure Boston wasn’t cheating.

Sure, man. Whatever you say. But if McLaughlin’s motives were more nefarious, nobody seems to know what secrets, if any, he gleaned, or if and how they’ll affect the series. Maybe McLaughlin was after Boston’s signs, which convey information important enough to be worth encoding in the first place. But the point of signs is that they can be seen plainly from the field—you wouldn’t need to be that close to the dugout to tape them. If McLaughlin wanted to record audio from the dugout, wouldn’t he need better equipment than a cameraphone? Maybe he thought he could pick up some pages from a coach’s notebook that might give Houston a tactical edge, or maybe one of the Red Sox players just has a weird rash on his neck and McLaughlin wanted to get a closer look. The good news for Red Sox fans is that if Boston loses the series, you’ll have a built-in excuse. (Does that excuse have any basis in reality? Who’s to say?)

For those of us without skin in the game, the effects of McLaughlin’s apparent espionage are less interesting than just how hilariously low-rent and harebrained this scheme seemed to be. A playoff baseball game has thousands of cameras—one of them could be pointed at Boston’s dugout from just about anywhere in the stadium, instead of having Literally A Guy Named Kyle In Mismatched Suit Separates leaning over the bars of the camera well holding up his iPhone like he’s staking out a school for an NBA Desktop gag.

McLaughlin got caught only because he had the wrong credential, which admittedly is a blow for the theory that you can go anywhere if you have a lanyard and some self-confidence. Getting credentialed for the MLB playoffs isn’t just a matter of calling up the team PR staff and asking, but it’s also not like making it through a screening to work for the Secret Service—how hard could it possibly have been for the Astros to sneak a spy into the camera well with a legitimate photographer’s press pass?

This is of course in keeping with MLB espionage being extremely janky and low-tech. In this respect, the 1951 Giants were the exception—nowadays when you hear about spies in baseball, it’s a Red Sox trainer’s Apple Watch or Toronto’s Man in White or a bullpen coach just parked up against the fence with a pair of binoculars, manspreading so enthusiastically as to deter one from referring to him as “being in an exposed position.” Cardinals executive Chris Correa went to jail for hacking into the Astros’ secure team database, and he only got into the system because Luhnow picked a dumb password and never changed it.

What a bunch of jamokes. The best minds in baseball are working on exciting new frontiers in physics, biomechanics, and statistics, and someday maybe they’ll find time to figure out how to steal an opponent’s signs without tying their own shoelaces together.