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MLB Tried to Bring the Astros Scandal to a Close. Instead, It’s Only Getting Bigger.

Carlos Beltrán, Alex Cora, and A.J. Hinch may be taking the fall for Houston’s illicit actions, but the blame game is only starting. And if Thursday was any indication, there will be more to come.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Thursday morning, the Mets and local government officials from Port St. Lucie, Florida, held a ceremony to celebrate the renaming of the road that leads up to the club’s spring training complex after Mike Piazza. It was supposed to be a victory lap for the Hall of Fame catcher, a nice excuse for fans to reminisce about a franchise legend, and an easy positive headline for the club on a slow news day in January. Instead, Mets COO Jeff Wilpon found himself facing questions about his manager, Carlos Beltrán, who was recently named as one of the masterminds behind the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing scandal in an MLB report.

Wilpon responded to those questions with a terse “We’re talking about Mike Piazza Drive today,” and tried to change the subject, but it wasn’t going away. And while Wilpon is not ordinarily a figure who’s worthy of sympathy, in this specific instance, it’s hard not to feel for him.

Beltrán seemed like a slam-dunk hire when the Mets brought him in at the beginning of November. He was himself a legendary player, with five All-Star appearances in his six and a half seasons in Mets colors, and is well respected and well liked throughout the sport. In an offseason that saw the upper echelons of power in MLB get noticeably whiter, Wilpon and the Mets—who are hardly ever at the forefront of such things—handed over the keys to a native of Puerto Rico. Overall, things seemed to be looking up in New York.

But Thursday, less than two hours after Wilpon’s press conference, Beltrán resigned before he’d managed a single game in the big leagues. He’s now the third manager in four days to lose his job in the fallout from Monday’s report; Houston cashiered A.J. Hinch (along with GM Jeff Luhnow) almost immediately after the league suspended him for a season, and a day later the Red Sox parted ways with Alex Cora, who’d been Hinch’s bench coach in 2017 and reportedly helped devise the camera-and-monitor rig that helped the Astros decode opponents’ signs.

Since the accusations against Houston went public in November, one of the most persistent threads of baseball discourse has surrounded the Astros’ ability to anticipate opposing pitchers—from their hitters’ ability to decode Tyler Glasnow’s tells in Game 5 of the ALDS (which is in-bounds and legal) to their camera in center field (which isn’t). In the meantime, at least 10 other teams have been accused—either by players on social media or through anonymous leaks to reporters—of similar illicit activities. The Mets aren’t one of them. As far as we know, they didn’t do anything wrong, and yet there they are, like Alan Ruck in Speed, having been grudgingly sucked into a perilous journey that was not of their own making and is entirely outside their control.

The original report in The Athletic, in which former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers blew the whistle on Houston, was titled “The Astros stole signs electronically in 2017 — part of a much broader issue for Major League Baseball.” When I wrote about Cora’s de facto firing (on Tuesday night, which feels like 10 years ago now), I lamented the possibility that MLB was trying to direct attention toward the first clause of that headline so that it could get away with not addressing the second. By dousing the Astros and Red Sox with penalties, the league would send a strong message to its teams that electronic sign-stealing is verboten. And in so doing, MLB could solve this one specific problem without going through an arduous, messy, and deleterious industry-wide ethical accounting the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Mitchell Report.

That might not be possible anymore. Shortly after Beltrán and the Mets parted ways, a Twitter user—anonymous but claiming to be Beltrán’s niece—posted that Astros players José Altuve and Alex Bregman had worn remote buzzers under their uniforms in 2019 so that someone with access to a live camera feed could relay which pitch was coming. The Beltrán family quickly denied that the Twitter account belongs to a relative of the former Astros outfielder, but according to Baseball America executive editor JJ Cooper, that tweet—whatever the sourceechoed rumors he’d been hearing for months. That would directly contradict the report issued by the commissioner, which stated that the Astros abandoned their sign-stealing scheme in 2018, and MLB’s claim that it found “no evidence to substantiate” that players were using wearable devices. MLB has not suspended any players, and as of Monday did not intend to. But this is the first time during the entire affair that a public accusation about a specific player cheating has seemed to stick.

That’s not all. Images deemed as proof of wrongdoing blew around Twitter in Thursday afternoon’s agitation. Those included a clip of José Altuve telling his teammates not to tear his jersey off after his ALCS-clinching home run last fall, and stills of Josh Reddick doing an interview with either a buzzer or a piece of confetti on his chest. (Reddick says it was confetti.) Either way, he’s definitely wearing a Dragon Ball Z singlet. It’s been that kind of a story. Even the whistleblower himself had most recently made headlines for appearing in a game with a beard straight out of The Fifth Element. Players who lost to the Astros in the postseason in the past three years have broken their silence, including Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers, Mike Clevinger of the Indians, and Trevor Bauer, who played for Cleveland until this past summer. (Because irony is dead, both the Dodgers and Indians have been accused of using cameras to steal signs themselves, though those accusations aren’t as detailed as those against the Astros.)

Calling this scandal “the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme,” in addition to not being particularly pithy, is no longer accurate. This is no longer a brushfire that MLB could attempt to contain in Houston or Boston; this is now a gigantic monster that’s burst out of the earth’s mantle, swinging its tentacles around and knocking club after club, player after player, into the crater from which it emerged. No one, it seems, is free of sin, and each new twist is more unexpected and bizarre than the one that preceded it.

This started as a fairly orderly scandal—rumors led to reporting and a whistleblower, which led to official sanctions—but it’s since descended into chaos. Official documents and vetted reporting now sit beside open secrets and anonymous rumors on social media that could quite easily be a total fabrication. And the line between what’s false and what MLB just would rather not talk about has never been blurrier.

This kind of chaos is exciting for fans and reporters, but it could be disastrous for MLB, whose credibility has already been damaged by years of stonewalling and obfuscation about the nature of the very item that gives the sport its name. MLB will have lots of questions to answer in the months to come, and it’s hard to take the league at its word these days.

One of the more precarious places the sign-stealing tentacle monster could strike next is MLB’s newly cozy relationship with gambling. After nearly a century of holding sports betting at a distance—understandably, considering that the Black Sox incident 101 years ago was not an isolated event but the culmination of a systemic problem—MLB signed an official sports betting pact with MGM in the winter of 2018. Considering that both gambling and baseball are predicated on games being on the level, this is a rather inconvenient time for the sport’s dominant story to be about whether the league is crooked.

If there has ever been some sort of code of silence about electronic sign stealing, dictated by a professional omertà among players and the financial interests of the league, that facade is falling apart day by day. Right now, there really isn’t any hard evidence to tie Altuve, Bregman, or any other Astro to wearable devices used to steal signs—just a few rumors and some blurry TV still shots. As Thursday’s events showed, that’s enough to spawn more memes than the entire Real Housewives franchise put together, but it isn’t enough to force Rob Manfred to backtrack on his stance that no players will be suspended for their role in the scandal. At least not yet; while turning around and suspending players now would be embarrassing for MLB, it would be colossally embarrassing for MLB to continue to maintain that all is well while more damning evidence turns up elsewhere.

We don’t know where the next blow will fall, only that it’s coming. And it’s going to be weird.