The secret Yankees ballpark inspection that set off the Astros

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AJ Hinch during 2019 ALCS news conference
AJ Hinch during 2019 ALCS news conference

From Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing by Andy Martino, published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Andy Martino.

Before that first game of the [2019 American League Championship Series], the Yankees’ front office demanded that Major League Baseball lead them on a deep inspection of Minute Maid Park.

As the Astros shagged fly balls during batting practice on the field, a small group of officials walked the concourse, looked closely at the scoreboard, and examined every scouting camera.

The Yankees’ representative on the tour, assistant GM Jean Afterman, made a show of taking notes and pointing to things; there was an element of gamesmanship there, but the Yanks also wanted the Astros to know that they were on to them.

It appeared to work. The Astros in the outfield looked up nervously at the inspection. Closer to the dugout, A.J. Hinch, Alex Cintrón, and the coaching staff seethed at the spectacle. Hinch believed that 2019 Astros were playing on the level, and he resented any implication otherwise.

The bad blood spilled over into the game and spurred on the outsize reactions to Cintrón’s whistling from the dugout in the first inning to signal Tanaka’s pitches. In the first inning, after the Yankees thought Astros hitting coach Cintrón whistled and Boone complained, Cintrón stuck his middle finger out at the Yankees manager. That was when Yankees third-base coach Phil Nevin, a close friend of Boone’s, told third baseman Bregman, “Tell your third-base coach I’m going to kick his f--king ass.”

The Astros had been caught cheating again, two years after the trash-can scheme. It was a different violation, but a violation nonetheless. As Astros sources now admit, Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez was tipping the fastball that night by rising higher in his crouch. The whistling conveyed the sign to the hitter.

While audio cues had been a part of baseball for many years, MLB had made a point in 2019 that they were banned. Top league officials, including Joe Torre, Chris Young, and Peter Woodfork, had personally communicated this to managers, including Boone, during spring training in 2019.

Despite all of the distraction, Tanaka won Game One anyway. In Game Two, Carlos Correa hit a walk-off homer in the eleventh inning to even the series at 1-1.

With bad feelings between the clubs still percolating, Gerrit Cole beat Luis Severino in Game Three back at Yankee Stadium.

It rained the next day, forcing a postponement of Game Four. In the afternoon of the forced off day, the website for the New York sports network SNY published a report about the whistling incident.

Major League Baseball launched a quick investigation. They reviewed the video, then told a few reporters that they had found nothing conclusive to indicate cheating by whistling. The Astros, of course, knew they were guilty and had dodged any disciplinary action.

As Hinch read the SNY story, he was filled with old, complicated feelings. It wasn’t pleasant. For two years, he had wrestled with guilt about abdicating his leadership with the trash-can scheme, and now it seemed that those skeletons would never stop chasing him.

“They are NASA,” one anonymous coach was quoted as saying, referring to the team’s ability to use advanced technology, in this case to spy and cheat.

Hinch bristled at this line. The trash can was in the distant past, and Hinch believed that opponents’ continued suspicions were left over from old schemes. For example, the hole in the dugout wall from the massage gun/drill was discovered in 2018, but had been drilled in 2017.

He was still hot when the teams reconvened the following afternoon. After stalking into the interview room, he sat at the table and took a question on the whistling story.

“Man, I’m glad you asked that question,” Hinch said, his voice loud and firm. “And I thought it would come up today. We talked about this the other day, and in reality, it's a joke, but Major League Baseball does a lot to ensure the fairness of the game.

“There’s people everywhere, if you go through the dugouts and the clubhouses and the hallways, there's like so many people around that are doing this. Then when I get contacted about some questions about whistling, it made me laugh because it's ridiculous. Had I known that it would take something like that to set off the Yankees or any other team, we would have practiced it in spring training, because apparently it works even when it doesn’t happen.

“To me, I understand the gamesmanship, I understand kind of creating a narrative for yourself or wondering how things are going. Now the game in question, we got three hits and no runs. Nobody heard it. You guys have audio, video, people in places and there's no evidence of anything.”

Hinch then looked at the camera and took the unusual step of addressing that night’s opponent—rather than the press—directly. On top of everything else that bothered him, the Yankees had disrespected Hinch when Nevin yelled at Bregman and Cintrón—a player and coach, not the manager.

“To the Yankees,” he said. “There's nothing bad going on. The problem that I have is when other people take shots at us outside this competition. When you guys ask me this question, my face, my name is by my quotes.

“My opinions, my reactions are all for you guys to tweet out and put on the broadcast, but when we have people that are unnamed or you guys have sources that are giving you information, I suggest they put their name by it if they're so passionate about it to comment about my team or my players.

“There’s nothing going on other than the competition on the field. The fact that I had to field questions about it before a really, really, cool game at Yankee Stadium is unfortunate, but we can put it to rest. That will be the last question I answer about pitch tipping or pitch stealing.”

Hinch had to have known that the phrase “To the Yankees—there’s nothing bad going on” wasn’t strictly accurate, unless the only definition of “bad” involved a monitor and a trash can. He also knew that questions about the whistling weren’t “ridiculous.” His team had broken the rules by doing just that.

But in delivering the extended rant, Hinch was doing his job—defending his players and reflecting the Astros’ internal anger about the Yankees’ accusations. No one in the public knew about the inspection of Minute Maid Park before Game One or how it had stuck in the Astros’ craw.

Hinch was also struggling with the realization that his team was forever tainted by the perception of cheating. He regarded their success as the result of talent and hard work, and he was coming to terms with the fact that opponents would never get over 2017. This gnawed at him.

The Astros won the game easily that night on the strength of Springer and Correa home runs and took a 3-1 lead in the series.

A few minutes after it the game ended, Boone left his office for the short walk down a hallway in the basement of the stadium to the press conference room. He answered questions from reporters, stood, walked out a side door, and returned to the hallway.

Hinch was about ten feet behind him, walking toward the door to hold his own news conference.

“Boonie!” he yelled, breaking into a jog to catch up.

Boone stopped and turned to Hinch.

Hinch cupped a hand over his mouth and whispered in Boone’s ear. Boone leaned in to hear.

“Hey,” Hinch said. “I wasn’t referring to you personally.”

Hinch wanted Boone to know that when he’d referred to “the Yankees”—not to mention when Cintrón had given Boone the finger—he hadn’t wanted Boone to feel insulted. Boone said he understood, patted Hinch on the shoulder, and continued on to his office.