COOPERSTOWN — The sign-stealing scandal consuming Major League Baseball is similar to the performance enhancing drug scandal of the past two decades, and ultimately the punishment may be more severe from the public than it is officially, a prominent baseball writer said Saturday, Feb. 8, during the Hot Stove Weekend.
“I think you just need to look at what happened to Barry Bonds,” baseball writer Jay Jaffe said during the presentation portion of the weekend fundraiser held by Friends of Doubleday Field. “Barry Bonds holds the home runs records ... but to some people Barry Bonds will unofficially always have an asterisk next to his name.”
In many people’s minds, the Houston Astros and Boston Rex Sox will also have asterisks next to their 2017 and 2018 World Series championships, after both teams were caught using technology to steal pitching signs during their championship years, Jaffe said.
“They’ve got that asterisk next to their names, in our minds, and that’s what they will have to wear,” he said.
Jaffe, whose book, “The Cooperstown Casebook,” has been credited with using statistics to boost the case for several players to be in the Hall of Fame, was originally supposed to speak about his efforts in successfully touting Hall of Fame candidates, including recent inductees Edgar Martinez and Tim Raines, and 2020 inductees Ted Simmons and Larry Walker.
However, with the sign stealing scandals of the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox still on the minds of baseball fans, Friends of Doubleday Field President Jeff Katz said he asked Jaffe to switch his speech to one about the scandals.
Jaffe wrote extensively about the PED scandals and is married to Emma Span, an editor at The Atlantic, which has been breaking much of the news about the sign-stealing scandals. Jaffe said he sees lots of similarities between the two scandals, including baseball officials’ slow reaction to rumors of cheating in both cases. He said he was shocked MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t learn from the mistakes of his predecessor, Bud Selig, about how to take effective action in the midst of a controversy.
“Right now Rob Manfred is making me pine for the wisdom and charisma of Bud Selig,” Jaffe said. “Those are words I never thought I would say.”
Jaffe said he was driving to Cooperstown when he heard the latest news. Although Manfred’s report said the Astros’ players initiated the sign stealing, a story Friday in the Wall Street Journal reported the sign stealing plot started in the team’s front office. The team’s then-General Manager Jeff Luhnow was more aware of the plan than the MLB report acknowledged, the new story said.
Luhnow and Houston manager A.J. Hinch were both suspended for a year by MLB for their roles in the sign-stealing plot, while the team was fined $5 million and had four top draft picks taken away from them. Houston then fired both Luhnow and Hinch.
Alex Cora, who was the Astros bench coach in 2017 and the Boston manager in 2018, was also fired by his team. MLB has not announced any discipline for Boston yet.
Carlos Beltrán, who played for Houston in 2017, was a special adviser for the New York Yankees in 2018 and 2019, and was hired as the New York Mets manager this winter. He was also fired by the Mets as the scandal grew.
Cora and Beltrán were allegedly key to the Houston plot, which evolved into players signaling hitters by banging a trash can if a fastball was coming. In Boston, the sign stealing involved relaying messages via an Apple watch. In both cases, the use of technology made what would have otherwise been a violation of baseball’s unwritten — and often broken — rules about sign stealing into actual wrongdoing. MLB warned teams about using technology to steal signs in 2017, about the same time the Astros apparently took their sign-stealing spreadsheets and applied them to games.
Jaffe said the punishment to Houston was more severe than some people think. The four draft picks have a statistic value of about $30 million of production for the team, he said. However, he said there will likely never be any punishment for the Houston or Boston players, because punishment is something the league and its players agree to in collective bargaining, and there isn’t anything in the current agreement about sign stealing. A new collective bargaining agreement will likely include new rules and punishments, he said.
Jaffe said he had been ready to use his statistics to argue for the Hall of Fame candidacy of Beltrán, “but now, (expletive) him.”
Sign stealing and PED use were also both issues for far longer than the public realizes, Jaffe said, reading a passage about a player 50 years about talking about using steroids. Sign stealing has been around for more than 100 years, he said, and most famously cost the Brooklyn Dodgers the pennant in 1951 after Bobby Thomson hit a home run off pitcher Ralph Branca at the Polo Grounds in New York City.
Replay rooms, advanced technology and live MLB broadcasts have made sign stealing high tech, and with every team and player looking for competitive advantages, it is possible more teams will be caught having cheated in the past few years, Jaffe said.
“We’ll have to see where this goes,” he said. “This is still a scandal in progress.”