By Terrance Turner
The Houston Astros have found a new manager just three weeks after an explosive sign-stealing scandal that made headlines.
The scandal came to light in 2019, with an article in The Athletic. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers was among several insiders interviewed for the story. “Electronic sign-stealing is not a single-team issue,” wrote authors Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich. But they singled out the Astros for a camera-centered scheme: “Four people who were with the Astros in 2017, including pitcher Mike Fiers, said that during that season, the Astros stole signs during home games in real time with the aid of a camera positioned in the outfield.” The sign-stealing also involved a camera in the dugout, the bench area between
Drellich and Rosenthal asserted: “The Astros’ set-up in 2017 was not overly complicated. A feed from a camera in center field, fixed on the opposing catcher’s signs, was hooked up to a television monitor that was placed on a wall steps from the team’s home dugout at Minute Maid Park, in the tunnel that runs between the dugout and the clubhouse. Team employees and players would watch the screen during the game and try to decode signs — sitting opposite the screen on massage tables in a wide hallway. When the onlookers believed they had decoded the signs, the expected pitch would be communicated via a loud noise — specifically, banging on a trash can, which sat in the tunnel. Normally, the bangs would mean a breaking ball or offspeed pitch was coming.”
Fiers confirmed this setup, along with three other sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That’s not playing the game the right way,” said Fiers, who played with the Astros from 2015-17. He went on to play for the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics, and he told both teams what had gone on. “I told the teams I was on,” he said. “I had to let my team know so that we were prepared when we went to go play them at Minute Maid.”
Fiers’ comments spurred MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to call for an investigation by the league’s Dept. of Investigations (DOI). The investigation was led by the DOI’s Bryan Seeley and Moira Weinberg, both experienced in this area. The investigation spanned from 2016 to the present and interviewed 68 witnesses, including 23 current and former Astros players. The DOI also reviewed thousands of emails, text messages and videos.
Manfred wrote the report, which was issued by his office and cited The Athletic as a key factor in beginning the investigation. “On Nov. 12, 2019, former Houston Astros player Mike Fiers publicly alleged in an article published by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic that the Astros had enegaged in sign-stealing methods in 2017 that violated MLB rules,” Manfred wrote. He also confirmed what Drellich and Rosenthal had alleged in the article, albeit in more verbose terms.
“At the beginning of the 2017 season, employees in the Astros’ video replay room began using the live game feed from the center field camera to attempt to decode and transmit opposing teams’ sign sequences,” the report said. “Once the sign sequence was decoded, a player in the video replay review room would act as a ‘runner’ to relay the information to the dugout, and a person in the dugout would notify the players in the dugout or signal the sign sequence to the runner on second base, who in turn would decipher the catcher’s sign and signal to the batter from second base. Early in the season, Alex Cora, the Astros’ bench coach, began to call the video replay room on the replay phone to obtain the sign information,” he wrote. Sometimes, employees in the replay room would send sign information via text message. That text would be picked up either by the ‘smart watch’ of a staff member or be sent to a nearby cell phone.
“Approximately two months into the 2017 season, a group of players, including Carlos Beltran, discussed that the team could improve on decoding opposing teams’ signs and communicating the signs to the batter. Cora arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout.” (The dugout is the team’s bench, located between home plate and either first or third base.)
One or more players would watch the live feed on the monitor. After decoding a sign, a player would bang on a trashcan with a bat to let the batter know what type of pitch the pitcher was about to throw. Players also would clap, whistle or yell to alert the batter, but the trashcan method was seen as the most effective. Players would also bang on cans with a “massage gun”.
The scheme was “player-driven”, according to the report. Manfred stated that “with the exception of Cora, non-player staff […] had no involvement in the banging scheme.” But Astros emplyees did decode signs with the monitor, and the Athletic article said that Cora would have had to recruit Astros personnel in the installation of the monitor.
In August 2017, the Boston Red Sox were caught in a similar scheme, transmitting signs from the replay room to those in the dugout using “smart watches” (aka Apple watches). On Sept. 15, 2017, Manfred issued a press release that said, in part: “the attempt to decode signs being used by an opposing catcher is not a violation of any Major Baseball League rule or regulation. [The MLB] regulations do, however, prohibit the use of electronic equipment during games and state that no such equipment ‘may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage.”
That same day, Manfred issued a memo to all teams reiterating these rules. But the Astros continued to use the replay room and monitor to decode signs throughout the 2017 regular season. This was also used during the postseason, in which the Astros went on to win the 2017 World Series.
In March 2018, a memo was sent to all teams warning them (again): “To be clear, the use of any equipment in the Clubhouse or in a Club’s replay or video rooms to decode an opposing team’s sings during the game violates this Regulation.” But the prohibition went even further. MLB also forbade uniformed staff or personnel from using or possessing electronic devices (including phones, walkie-talkies, laptops, tablets, smart watches, etc.) on or near the dugout, ballpens or field. No use was allowed once batting practice had begun — or within 30 minutes of the game starting.
Despite warnings, the Astros continued using live feed and in-person signals to decode and transmit signs throughout 2018. But the report found no evidence of the banging scheme during the 2018 season. The Astros eventually discontinued the sign decoding effort at some point during 2018, and no evidence of wrongdoing was found during the 2019 season.
Manfred wrote that “the 2017 scheme in which players banged on a trash can was, with the exception of Cora, player-driven and player-executed.” But no players were disciplined. Why? “Most of the position players on the 2017 team either received sign information from the banging scheme or participated in the scheme by helping to decode sings or bang on the trash can.” Players who were interviewed admitted that they knew it was wrong, but they weren’t fired or suspended. Why?
“Assessing discipline of players for this kind of conduct is both difficult and impractical. It is difficult because virtually all of the Astros’ players had some involvement or knowledge of the scheme” and Manfred could not determine each one’s level of guilt. “It is impractical given the large number of players involved, and the fact that many of those players now play for other Clubs.”
Instead, the comissionner singled out general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch because “the Club’s General Manager and Field Manager are rersponsible for ensuring that the players both understand the rules and adhere to them.” Despire Luhnow’s insistence that he knew nothing, there is evidence that he had some knowledge of the replay scheme. While Hinch disapproved of both schemes and even damaged the monitor to discourage its use, he did not tell players to stop the banging scheme.
That led Manfred to suspend both Luhnow and Hinch from the MLB. The unpaid one-year suspension will last until the day after the 2020 World Series. Neither of them are allowed to be in any MLB facilities until that date.
As a team, the Astros lost both first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. The team was also levied with a $5 million fine, the highest possible penalty. MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo that the league has no plans to strip the Houston Astros of their 2017 World Series title.
The same day of that decision, Astros owner Jim Crane took action of his own. In a press conference, Crane announced the firing of both Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch. “I felt with what came out in the report they both had responsibilities,” Crane added. “Neither one of them started this but neither one of them did anything about it.”
Now, the Astros have found a new manager. Dusty Baker was introduced as the Astros manager Thursday, according to ESPN. The former outfielder spent 10 seasons managing the San Francisco Giants and six managing the Cincinnati Reds. Baker, 70, will be the oldest manager in the league.