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MLB’s Sign-Stealing Scandal Ends Not With a Bang, but a Whimper

Rob Manfred’s report on the Red Sox pins their entire scheme on a rogue video operator. The investigation raises further questions—and puts a tidy bow on the controversy that once seemed to threaten baseball’s future.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday afternoon, Major League Baseball issued its long-awaited second—and presumably final—investigative report into the intersection of video technology and illegal sign stealing. Exactly 100 days after commissioner Rob Manfred sanctioned the Houston Astros for using real-time video to route pitch information to hitters, Manfred docked the Boston Red Sox a 2020 second-round draft pick and suspended manager Alex Cora (who left the club in January after the Astros report was released) and team employee J.T. Watkins through the 2020 postseason. Watkins is also barred from serving as Boston’s replay room operator in 2021.

The Astros’ punishment was unprecedented, and yet even at the time seemed an insufficient remedy for misbehavior that may have resulted in the team’s first World Series title. The Red Sox, who dethroned the Astros as world champions in 2018, received lesser punishment for lesser crimes. For instance, while the Astros communicated to hitters about which pitch was coming whenever practicable, primarily by banging on a nearby trash can, the Red Sox passed along such info only when a runner was on second base, or 19.7 percent of the time, according to Manfred’s report. But the difference between Houston’s transgressions and Boston’s is one of degree rather than kind, and with every step of the Astros’ scandal, a swell of criticism, frustration, and embarrassment bubbled forth like flotsam from a backed-up garbage disposal.

The banging scheme was bizarre and scandalous on its own, and each revelation carried an added chaser of the league’s report either missing or soft-pedaling key details. The long-promised report on the Red Sox was supposed to be the next shoe to drop into an insatiable multitude of rubberneckers.

But now that it has, well, it’s hard to care. In the two months since Astros owner Jim Crane gave a one-man seminar on secondhand embarrassment under the guise of a press conference to clear the air, the world has all but stopped spinning. Between the Astros and Red Sox, four people—Watkins, Cora, former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, and former Houston manager A.J. Hinch—were suspended for the 2020 season. With each passing week, the idea of there even being a 2020 season looks more and more like a waning glimmer of optimism. Manfred might as well have barred those four from Brigadoon for all the practical difference their punishments will end up making.

Even the Red Sox report itself is underwhelming, but not in a way that inspires immediate and reflexive outrage. According to the report, Watkins used video to decode opposing catchers’ signs. Thereafter Boston base runners, armed with Watkins’s research, informed their teammates which pitch was coming. This is within the rules if and only if Watkins—or whoever was watching the video—used advance scouting information from previous games, not in-game video.

Of the 44 players who spoke to MLB investigators, “more than 30 stated that they had no knowledge regarding whether Watkins used in-game video feeds to revise his advance sign decoding work. However, a smaller number of players said that on at least some occasions, they suspected or had indications that Watkins may have revised the sign sequence information … through his review of the game feed in the replay room.”

Even that leaves open to interpretation the number of players who carried suspicions, and the extent to which those suspicions had been confirmed. Was Watkins merely feeding a trickle of tainted information to the Red Sox players, of whom only a handful even suspected something might not be on the up-and-up? Or was a third of Boston’s roster knowingly gaining an advantage through illicit intelligence-gathering practices, with the remaining players able to maintain a fig leaf of plausible deniability?

Equally vexing is the report’s assertion that Watkins was some sort of lone-wolf operator. It’s hard to believe that this anonymous and unremarkable baseball operations functionary is not just a convenient fall guy for the organization, but rather the sole and propulsive force behind a sign-stealing scheme that included dozens of players. All the while, according to the report, Watkins somehow escaped the notice of Boston’s coaches and executives, who—by the dictates of a 2017 league directive and the precedent set by the Hinch and Luhnow suspensions—can and should be held liable for merely being aware of illicit activity and not stopping it.

This is all the more incredible given Cora’s involvement in the larger sign-stealing controversy. During his lone season as Houston’s bench coach in 2017, Cora was reportedly one of the driving forces behind Houston’s scheme, and was spared discipline in January only because his behavior with the Red Sox could have resulted in additional punishment. Not so, it turns out. Cora’s suspension—a moot one, since even if there is a 2020 season, he won’t be managing in it—is only the price of his actions in Houston. With Wednesday’s findings, the commissioner’s office contends that despite Cora’s role in a similar video sign-stealing ring the year prior, the manager was not only uninvolved in but also ignorant of Watkins’s one-man sign-stealing band.

Additional reporting quickly undermined confidence in the supposedly definitive January report on the Astros’ sign-stealing enterprise. In the coming days and weeks, it wouldn’t be surprising if independent journalism also casts doubt on a framing of the Boston story with Watkins-as–Lee Harvey Oswald at its center.

It’s just hard to care right now. Not when the distinction between legal and illegal video decryption is so thin that players could plausibly benefit from outlawed behavior happening without their knowledge. Not when the public that was once rubbing its hands in anticipation of a season full of beanballs and trash talk has moved on to The Last Dance and the NFL draft. And certainly not with the ongoing public health crisis and attendant catastrophic breakdowns in the economic and political order. We pray for the days when we had problems as petty as the Red Sox and Astros cheating at baseball.

Just two months ago, MLB’s sign-stealing scandal looked like the most threatening and ungovernable beast to afflict baseball since the Mitchell Report. Instead, this is the way it ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper.