Far too many questions remain in MLB giving the Astros a free pass on their dugout surveillance

HOUSTON – Of all the ways for the Houston Astros to talk themselves out of a penalty, a fine, even a reprimand for deploying a man to illicitly monitor the dugouts of two playoff opponents using a cellphone, they did it with the Chris Correa defense. Correa is the former St. Louis Cardinals scouting director who went to federal prison after habitually, unlawfully accessing an Astros database filled with scouting information and trade talks. His excuse: He believed the former Cardinals employees running the Astros had stolen proprietary materials and wanted to prove it. In other words: He was making sure the Astros weren’t doing something wrong.

Major League Baseball cleared the Astros of wrongdoing Wednesday after Yahoo Sports and the Metro newspaper reported that Kyle McLaughlin, a man with ties to Astros owner Jim Crane, had been removed from the photographers’ well in Cleveland during Game 3 of the American League Division Series and in Boston during Game 1 of the AL Championship Series. Houston argued that it directed McLaughlin to surveil the opposing dugouts to ensure their opponents weren’t using any illegal tactics to steal the Astros’ signs. In other words: The Astros were making sure the Indians and Red Sox weren’t doing something wrong.

“We were playing defense,” Astros president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow said. “We were not playing offense. We want to make sure it’s an even playing field.”

The league offering Houston the free pass enraged executives around baseball, who reached out to Yahoo Sports trying to understand the rationale. If the Astros were allowed to monitor another team’s dugout in-game without penalty, one wondered, shouldn’t every team be allowed to do the same? If the Astros were so concerned with opponents’ nefariousness, another said, why did they send a kid in his early 20s whose role with the team is opaque and not simply request MLB send a security professional to examine the dugout from the same spot and ensure everything is above board? Most of all, taking at face value the Astros’ explanation for using McLaughlin, if there is a rule forbidding in-game technology to help steal signs, why is a team allowed to use in-game technology to investigate whether its opponent is illegally stealing signs?

These are hard questions for MLB, and they’re ones the league wants to push off until the offseason, lest its postseason be dogged by questions about its defending World Series champions’ tactics. Sorry. That Pandora’s box is wide open, and whatever reasoning the league used to validate its decision, absolving the Astros will not close it.

Astros general manager, Jeff Luhnow speaks during a news conference before Game 4 of the ALCS in Houston. (AP)
Astros general manager, Jeff Luhnow speaks during a news conference before Game 4 of the ALCS in Houston. (AP)

The number of complaints MLB has heard from teams this postseason alone shows this problem runs far deeper than the Astros’ use of McLaughlin. Early in the Red Sox’s division series against the New York Yankees, MLB was alerted to an illegal coach on one of the team’s benches, sources familiar with the incident told Yahoo Sports. He was asked to leave the dugout. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ and Colorado Rockies’ tiebreaker, sources told Yahoo Sports, had multiple accusations of deceit as well, with concerns of someone signaling batters from center field and another in which signals were relayed to a third-base coach from the tunnel and then passed along to the batter.

Grumbling among teams is rampant in baseball today, as technology allows teams to theoretically plumb levels of treachery that even a decade ago were almost unimaginable. Just last year the Red Sox were fined by MLB for using an Apple Watch as part of a sign-stealing scheme against the Yankees. Players around the game constantly discuss ways in which they believe other teams steal signs, an art that was long reserved for players with keen eyes. Now, players fear, secret cameras are used to pipe video of catchers’ signals into secret video rooms, where teams decode them using an algorithm, feed them in real time to the dugout and pass them along to players at the plate using hand signals or code words or other methods of delivery.

John le Carré, meet Major League Baseball.

Such paranoia informs the actions of teams, including the Astros. Fining the Red Sox for using the Apple Watch clearly didn’t satisfy the Astros, who felt compelled, Luhnow said, to dispatch a body man in each road city to investigate opponents.

“There have been multiple instances of us identifying suspicious activity,” he said, though he wouldn’t identify the activity or the culprits. In a late-August series against the Astros, the Oakland A’s believed they caught Houston using claps from the dugout to replay signals to the field. While Luhnow said to reporters he had not “heard any [accusations against the Astros] personally myself,” sources said MLB reached out to the Astros regarding Oakland’s accusations. No penalty was assessed in that case, either.

Kyle McLaughlin aiming a cell phone into Cleveland’s dugout during the Indians’ 11-3 ALDS loss that ended their season.
Kyle McLaughlin aiming a cell phone into Cleveland’s dugout during the Indians’ 11-3 ALDS loss that ended their season.

Which leaves Luhnow essentially saying: They hate us ’cause they ain’t us. “What happens is when a team has success,” he said, “there’s going to be a lot of other people looking at ’em and trying to figure out what’s driving their success.” Not because the Astros have essentially replaced their scouting staff with cameras. Or because ex-Astros have told teammates how adept the team is at getting opponents’ signs. No. Just because they’re good.

Considering the hubris as it took to trade for Roberto Osuna during a domestic-violence suspension and claim they have a zero-tolerance policy as an organization regarding domestic violence, the Astros sending McLaughlin to snoop around the Red Sox’s dugout after he was removed by security in Cleveland was on-brand. MLB’s pardon gave the Astros ample cover to deny any wrongdoing, and in the eyes of the Commissioner’s Office, they are free and clear.

The rest of baseball remains ever wary. To rid baseball of the spy games, officials suggested, the league must hatch a plan before next season with harsh penalties for those caught using technology to affect in-game play. Between that and allowing some sort of secure wireless communication among the pitcher, catcher and dugout, MLB has a path to limit physical signs – thus limiting sign-stealing – and disincentivize teams from using technology to their advantage. If it helps eliminate the surfeit of passed balls and wild pitches this postseason attributed to cross-ups from missed signs as teams try to keep them from getting stolen, all the better.

“I hope that we can move past this topic,” Luhnow said, a wishful thought even as the Astros face elimination with a three-games-to-one ALCS deficit to the Red Sox. It’s too widespread, too pervasive, too important to baseball avoiding condemnation from fans. Already attendance is down. Already there’s concern about competitive balance. The gravity of technology’s unintended consequences cannot be understated, and whatever allowed MLB to look past the questions not answered by its exonerating the Astros must be addressed when it adjudicates new rules.

For now, as Red Sox manager Alex Cora said, “You don’t want to get caught up on the paranoia.” He knows better, of course. It’s too late for that. The Pandora’s box is open. The black helicopters are hovering above Major League Baseball. And they’re not going away any time soon.

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