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The Endless, Self-Sustaining Sign-Stealing Scandal

Buckle up, because the controversy that has rocked MLB this offseason doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Inconceivable as it seems in the midst of Major League Baseball’s nightmare month, there are at least two ways in which the sign-stealing scandal currently consuming the league could have been a bigger disaster for the sport. First, the ball that became Howie Kendrick’s World Series–winning home run in the seventh inning of Game 7 could have sliced a few feet farther toward the stands instead of clanging off the right-field foul pole. And second, four or more of the 17 BBWAA voters who listed the Astros’ Alex Bregman in second place on their 2019 American League MVP ballot could have bumped him up to first.

If those things had happened, the Astros might have won the 2019 World Series, and Bregman, at minimum, would have been the AL’s co-MVP, making Houston the first team ever to sweep the Cy Young award, MVP award, and Rookie of the Year award. Not only would the Astros—already widely reviled in the wake of the Roberto Osuna trade, assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s clubhouse outburst, and the organization’s ensuing parade of PR errors—have been unmasked as cheaters, but they would have been exposed while they were the reigning world champions, still basking in the afterglow of defeating the lovable underdog Nationals. Counting Boston’s 2018 title under ex-Astro Alex Cora, the legitimacy of the past three World Series would have come into question, and we would have spent the winter watching weeks-old footage of some of the same players who participated in the 2017-18 sign-stealing schemes dogpiling on the pitcher’s mound, spraying champagne, and taking a ticker-tape victory lap through the streets of Houston.

Thanks to Kendrick’s clutch dinger and the voters’ admiration for Mike Trout, that worst-case scenario didn’t quite come to pass. But baseball’s current reality isn’t far from that darkest timeline. More than three months after The Athletic reported that the Astros had illegally stolen signs in 2017, and more than a month after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred released a report on his findings from a lengthy investigation, the sign-stealing scandal shows no sign of winding down. Instead, it seems to be snowballing, inciting an escalating war of words waged among Manfred, the Astros, and the outspoken players on every other team—including several of baseball’s biggest, most marketable stars—who hold grudges not only against the cheaters, but also against Manfred for how he’s handled Houston’s case.

The sign-stealing scandal is a perpetual motion machine, a sordid, self-sustaining story that’s uniquely engineered to make more headlines, both now and for the foreseeable future. Let’s lay out all the reasons why the sign-stealing content keeps coming.

The Nature of the Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scheme

Very little in baseball hasn’t happened before, and 58 years ago this spring, MLB was awash with a wave of sign-stealing outrage that was comparable to today’s. As Paul Dickson wrote in his history of sign stealing, The Hidden Language of Baseball, the 1961 season was “notable for the number of sign-stealing accusations. … Sign stealing was becoming so sordid, so widespread, and such an embarrassment to the game that Major League Baseball even flirted with the idea of banning the practice during the winter of 1961-62.” The rhetoric ramped up in early ’62, fueled by a series of juicy stories.

Rogers Hornsby and Bill Surface wrote a magazine article and published a book, My War With Baseball, in which Hornsby detailed baseball’s long legacy of cheating, sign stealing included. “Every team with a scoreboard in center field has a spy inside at one time or another,” Hornsby wrote, adding that, “Cheating started when they threw out the first ball in the first game ever played and it’s been going on ever since.”

That same spring, pitcher Jay Hook, who had moved from the Reds to the expansion Mets over the offseason, alleged that the Reds had won the 1961 pennant with the aid of scoreboard spies. “I want to protect the Mets against that sort of thing,” Hook said. “I think it’s wrong.” Cincinnati personnel denied Hook’s claims. A few days later, Joe Reichler of the Associated Press reported that the 1951 Giants had stolen signs with a system of binoculars and buzzers, basing his story on a tip from an anonymous member of the 1951 team. Reichler’s report alleged that one of the sport’s most storied moments, Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning homer, had been assisted by a stolen sign. For the rest of the spring, Dickson wrote, “reporters were regaled by veterans with other hitherto unknown transgressions.”

The same year, Bill Veeck and Ed Linn published Veeck’s autobiography, Veeck As in Wreck. Veeck drew a distinction between the kosher kind of naked-eye sign stealing and more nefarious schemes. “Throughout the history of baseball, going back to the first time Abner Doubleday crawled out of a cave and lit a fire, information has been passed on to the hitter by less intellectual and less sportsmanlike means,” Veeck wrote. He continued, “I doubt if there is one club that hasn’t tried it at one time or another in recent years.” One such club, he confessed, was the Veeck-owned 1948 Indians, who had won the World Series.

At the NL’s annual meeting in December 1961, NL owners had given league president Warren Giles the power to declare a forfeit if a game could be proved to have been won with signs obtained through mechanical means. But the burden of proof was heavy. In an April 1962 edition of The Sporting News that featured extensive discussions of sign stealing that sound familiar in 2020, writer Dan Daniel traced the history of illicit sign stealing back to the National League’s inaugural season of 1876, mentioning many of the notorious sign-stealing incidents that had transpired since. Yet, Daniel concluded, “Absolute evidence is impossible to obtain, even if it were to come from leakers who had been connected intimately with the operation.”

Daniel didn’t anticipate the banging scheme. From the beginning, the banging set the Astros’ sign stealing apart from previous scandals. Not only was it shameless, audacious, and elaborate, but it was easy to detect once we knew it was there. The banging was audible on archived broadcasts that the public at large could comb through, and the “bang + pitch” format was well-tailored to viral video clips. Months after the initial flurry of Farquhar film breakdowns and sightings of the monitor and trash can, Astros fan Tony Adams, who painstakingly documented the audible bangs in 58 Astros home games from 2017, touched off a new round of analysis and finger-pointing by putting the results of his sleuthing online. The availability of Statcast data made it untenable for MLB to pretend that the behavior of the ball hasn’t changed, and the same data, paired with sophisticated software, made it possible to bring the bangs to light.

Crucially, Adams’s data allowed opposing pitchers to pinpoint and tally the bangs in games against them, which made Houston’s methods more personal. Nine pitchers lost their roster spots shortly after facing the Astros in 2017, and many of them have been eager to talk, or even to sue, in response to the experience. The Astros didn’t always decode pitch calls correctly, their opponents gradually adopted pitch-calling countermeasures, and it’s difficult to discern a net teamwide benefit through precise statistical analysis (although there’s no way to prove there wasn’t one). But whereas spies in scoreboards couldn’t be found after the fact, the banging scheme was undeniable, and it inarguably violated MLB’s ban on technological assistance in sign stealing. Without it, the Astros scandal might have receded, like so many sign-stealing scandals before it. With it, this story was never going to go away.

On Monday, I called 99-year-old Eddie Robinson, the oldest living former major leaguer. Robinson, who played first base in the big leagues between 1942 and 1957 and stayed in the game for decades more as a scout and executive, is the last living member of the 1948 Indians, who (as Veeck disclosed) stole signs using mechanical means late in the season as they sought to stay in a tight pennant race. (They edged out the Red Sox by one game to take the AL pennant, then beat the Boston Braves in the World Series.) In his memoir, Lucky Me, Robinson described Cleveland’s method: A pitcher would steal signs with a telescope mounted on a tripod in the center field scoreboard, then relay them to the Cleveland batters by moving his legs.

Robinson still follows the sport closely, and as a Texas native who still lives in the state and once worked for the Astros and the Colt .45s, he’s paid particular attention to the Astros scandal. “There’s always been sign stealing going on here and there, but it was haphazard,” he says. “Nothing sophisticated. This was absolutely abominable. It was sophisticated. It was, pure and simple, taking advantage of the other team unbeknownst to them. I don’t think it was in any way proper.”

Even a native Texan who played for a team that stole signs en route to winning a World Series and later worked for the Astros organization thinks the Astros’ behavior was way out of bounds. As ESPN’s Jon Sciambi observed, some of the players who’ve expressed their scorn for the Astros might not have acted more ethically if circumstances had sent them to that 2017 team (which Anthony Rendon appeared to acknowledge). But if Robinson has no sympathy for the Stros, it’s hardly surprising that the rest of the world would be so quick to condemn them.

The Sensational Details

Let’s take a moment to appreciate that the commissioner of Major League Baseball officially labeled the Astros’ sign-stealing method a “banging scheme.” It’s an accurate term, but calling it a banging scheme made it even more meme-worthy. And remember, a trash can isn’t the only object that the team could have used. If the Astros had been banging on something more mundane—the wall, a table, a bucket, anything that looked less like a World Series trophy or seemed less symbolic of their garbage behavior—it might not have been quite so spectacular.

On top of that, there’s the lingo Astros baseball ops staff attached to their spycraft: “Codebreaker,” “dark arts,” and “the system.” There’s the since-deleted Twitter account that falsely claimed to belong to Carlos Beltrán’s niece (but may have actually belonged to a notorious tout) and alleged that Astros hitters wore buzzers in 2019. There’s José Altuve’s reluctance to remove his jersey in the 2019 ALCS, coupled with Carlos Correa’s claim that Altuve didn’t want to expose an unfinished tattoo. That excuse led to breakdowns of tattoo timelines and examinations of pictorial tattoo evidence: no tattoo in summer 2019, at least a partial tattoo during the 2019 World Series, and a completed tattoo now.

Every far-fetched, unsavory, and downright ridiculous aspect of this scandal makes it ideal fodder for jokes, credible conspiracy theories, and irresponsible rumormongering. There’s no way that a sign-stealing scheme as extensive as the Astros’ could have been boring, but it could have been a lot less riveting than this.

The Mike Fiers Effect and the Proximity of the Report to the Sign-Stealing Seasons

Rumors and reports about sign stealing swirled around the Astros for years before Fiers broke the case open. As Manfred acknowledged in his press conference on Sunday, “Without the reporting ... and the availability of Mike Fiers, we probably wouldn’t have gotten where we got on this investigation.” It’s rare for a player to defy the clubhouse omertà and go public about bad behavior. It’s even rarer for that to happen so soon after the bad behavior occurred.

When Veeck detailed the 1948 Indians’ sign-stealing tactics in 1962, every member of that team was already out of the majors. By the time some members of the 1951 Giants went on the record, the events they owned up to were almost 50 years old. With some exceptions, such as Hook’s spring 1962 attempt to blow the whistle on the Reds, sign-stealing admissions by the players involved were reserved for memoirs, stories published long after the fact, and even deathbed confessions. If this scandal concerned the 2005 Astros, or if it had surfaced in 2035, it wouldn’t have caused the same commotion. The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal reached its current crescendo partly because the players responsible were still on the same team, the club was still near the peak of its powers, and it was easy to imagine that the cheating wasn’t over.

The Astros’ Success and Reputation

The mid-1980s White Sox used a camera to steal signs, which was whispered about long before Jack McDowell resuscitated the story last month. But those teams were mostly mediocre, so their tactics didn’t directly affect the climax of a season, and it’s obvious from their records that the performance-enhancing effect of their sign stealing was fairly limited. It’s easy to put those teams out of our minds. But the Astros cheated in the season when they won a World Series, and the Red Sox seemingly cheated in the season when they won the World Series. (MLB’s report on the Sox is still pending, which means we can expect even more news about sign-stealing soon.) That’s why this story became such a black eye for baseball. Any other guilty teams would have led to less need for damage control.

Maybe Houston’s and Boston’s activities were unearthed partly because those organizations’ success made them natural targets. But the Astros were unpopular for plenty of reasons: tanking, focusing on stats, firing scouts, trading for Osuna, Taubman, and more. The sign-stealing revelations reinforced the perception that the organization was ethically compromised, making the Astros convincing villains and adding an element of schadenfreude to the fallout from the reports. Perhaps no other team would have done what the Astros did. But it’s certain that no other team’s sign stealing would have caused the uproar that the Astros’ did.

Ramifications for Other Teams

The Mets and Red Sox replaced their managers because of their pivotal roles in the Astros’ sign-stealing efforts. The Astros raided the Rays front office for their new GM. Many 2017-18 Astros players have migrated to other teams and have felt compelled to apologize. Most teams and players faced the Astros in 2017-18, and most fans can say they suffered at the Astros’ hands. And the teams that the Astros eliminated in the playoffs will never know whether Houston would have beaten them fair and square.

The Astros’ collective embrace of sign stealing makes them hateable heels, focusing fans’ rage in a way that was harder during the steroid era, when it was difficult to identify the cheaters and likely that no clubhouse was clean. Yet the knowledge that the Red Sox also illicitly stole signs, and the reports and suspicions of more pervasive sign-stealing activity, have undermined many fans’ faith in a level playing field in much the same way that PEDs did. The banging scheme specifically may have been confined to one club, but almost everyone has grounds to get mad.

The Offseason/Spring Training Spotlight

The sign-stealing scandal would have been a big deal regardless of when the story broke, but the timing meant that it didn’t have to fight for attention for fans. Because The Athletic published its bombshell in the slow weeks soon after the World Series but before the winter meetings, it briefly had the sport’s stage to itself. And when Manfred’s report arrived on January 13, the hot stove had cooled, clearing the way for days of nonstop Astros scandal discussion.

Then players reported to spring training, which lit the latest spark: No games are going on, but reporters are present, with little pressing business besides sign stealing. The Astros took their lumps, and opposing player after opposing player graded their apologies and passed judgment on their misdeeds, with the staggered schedule of player report dates keeping the comments coming. Sprinkle in occasional comments from Manfred and the player responses to those, and you have a formula for sign stealing owning every news cycle.

The Astros’ Initial Lack of Contrition, MLB’s Missteps, and the Lack of Player Punishment

The Astros were slow to sound remorseful: At Astros FanFest in January, Altuve and Bregman largely stuck to a script and declined to apologize. And while many Astros players sounded sincerely contrite in the clubhouse last week, Astros owner Jim Crane overshadowed their answers with his own inflammatory comments, claiming that he shouldn’t be held accountable for his club’s cheating, that the players weren’t responsible, and that their sign stealing made no impact on the game. Crane is an extremely unsympathetic spokesman, and his poor PR approach inflamed opposing players’ passions, prompting a back-and-forth between teams that still hasn’t fully subsided.

Manfred isn’t much more sympathetic than Crane. MLB was content to keep the Astros’ sign stealing quiet until The Athletic took that option away, and the league’s report omitted details about the Astros’ front office’s sign-stealing involvement that the Wall Street Journal subsequently reported, which undercut Manfred’s claim to comprehensiveness. On Sunday, Manfred made matters worse by sarcastically congratulating Diamond on his scoop. Manfred also declined to punish Crane personally for the Astros’ lapses, and he didn’t discipline the players, a controversial call.

“I thought the punishments were pretty good,” Robinson says. “The ballplayers are really guilty, but how can you just sit a whole team down for a year? The one thing you could’ve done, I guess, is take their rings away, declare that a non-World Series, that could have happened. But other than that, what do you do? You go on from here, [and] you use this to warn everybody else that they shouldn’t do it and they better not do it.”

Robinson’s stance is reasonable. Manfred had his reasons for not punishing players: For one thing, he believed that granting them immunity was the only way to discover the depths of their cheating. It would have been difficult to determine whether certain players had made more use of the system and deserved stiffer suspensions, and considering the failures of Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch to relay the league’s policies, it might have been tough to make suspensions stand up to the MLBPA’s appeals. What’s more, if the 2017-18 Astros who now play for other teams also received suspensions, those teams would suffer for the Astros’ sins.

That said, it’s still galling that the players who perpetrated and profited from the banging scheme haven’t paid a price aside from their figurative flogging in the public square. Baseball’s dander is up, and Luhnow and Hinch weren’t fully satisfying fall guys.

Player Amplification

Players are pissed, and only partly at the Astros. Several stars have been unsparing in their assessments of the ‘Stros, and in contrast to Altuve, Gary Sánchez, Mike Trout, and Cody Bellinger have all expressed their willingness to have their clothes ripped right off. But some players have been almost equally critical of Manfred’s managing of the crisis. Trevor Bauer, Justin Turner, Yu Darvish, and even the mild-mannered Trout, among others, have called the commissioner’s punishments inadequate or even dunked on Manfred by name. In the past two winters, as free agency froze and labor unrest rose, the players harnessed their collective clout on social media to advocate for causes in the upcoming CBA battle. Now they’re redirecting that ire at a management figure that fans are already inclined to dislike. The faces of baseball are in open revolt, and there’s nothing more newsy than that.

The Scandal Won’t Stop When the Season Starts

The best strategy for the Astros is to stop talking, wait for the season to start, and play up to their projections, which still see them as the best team in baseball. If they’re as tough to beat as they have been in each of the past three years, some doubters may conclude that they were great all along. Then again, just as many might believe that they’re still cheating. The Astros had their strongest season yet in 2019, playing like one of the best teams ever and coming within a few innings of winning the World Series, and no hard evidence has surfaced that they were still stealing signs. Yet plenty of players and fans are convinced that they were. “100 percent,” said Cody Bellinger. “I don’t know why they would stop.” The Yankees’ Gleyber Torres said the same.

There are valid reasons to think that the sign stealing stopped in 2018, including the steps rival teams took to safeguard their signs and the measures MLB put in place to make 2017 Astros-style sign stealing more difficult. But the insidious thing about past sign stealing is that it makes present sign stealing seem plausible. As Manfred conceded on Sunday, “Can I tell you I’m 100 percent sure of that? You’re never 100 percent sure in any of these things.” There’s no way to prove that the Astros aren’t cheating, and their past transgressions have destroyed their credibility.

And so, after the offseason earthquake is over, we’ll settle in for a season of sign-stealing aftershocks. When the games begin, other action will compete for our attention, but the sign-stealing scandal will never be far from our minds. If the Astros hit well, some fans will wonder whether they ever needed the help, while others will wonder how they’re passing signs now. If they slump, fans will wonder whether they were a mirage all along. If they make another run at a title, talking heads will debate whether they should have been eligible for postseason play. Whenever opposing fans chant about cheating, bring signs to troll the visiting team, or attend a game in trash-can cosplay, we’ll flash back to 2017. Whenever a player partially strips after a walkoff, we’ll wonder whether he did it to prove he had nothing to hide. And whenever an opposing pitcher comes inside or hits an Astros batter, we’ll question whether it was an accident or an intentional act.

The Astros and MLB brought this unstoppable, spiraling scandal on themselves. Now they’ll have to stew in it for many months to come.

Thanks to Rob Mains of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.