By Bob Nightengale |
Major League Baseball general managers slowly trickled out through the resort courtyard late Thursday morning to catch rides to the airport, talking and laughing with one another, giving their best Thanksgiving wishes, and promising to catch up on the phone.
One GM stood off to the side, obscured by the tall bushes toward the check-in desk, not talking to a soul.
Jeff Luhnow, general manager of the Houston Astros, was the man everyone was talking about at these annual general manager meetings, but for all of the wrong reasons.
There may be 30 different agendas at these meetings, but this time virtually all were united on one front.
They want to see the Astros go down.
And go down hard.
They want the Astros to pay a fortune in penalties, being fined a record amount of money, forfeiting draft picks, international signing bonuses, and two even told USA TODAY Sports they wish MLB would force them to vacate the 2017 World Series title.
Over the last two days of the GM meetings, USA TODAY Sports spoke to 14 executives from around the league about the allegations made against the Astros. They requested anonymity because MLB instructed them not to publicly discuss the potential offenses.
“They’ve been cheating, they still are cheating, and it’s time MLB puts a stop to it,’’ one National League GM said. “Come on, they won 60 games at home this year. Look at their numbers when guys are on base (MLB-best .282 average) since 2017. The banging of garbage cans and pipes (as a way to convey signs). The whistles. Everything.
“It’s one thing to steal signs with your eyes. We all do that. It’s another to do it electronically, and that’s what they’ve been doing. This tarnishes everything they’ve done. There should be a huge asterisk next to their World Series title.’’
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the Astros in seven games in the 2017 World Series, are convinced more than ever that the Astros cheated. They closely reviewed tapes of Yu Darvish’s starts in Game 3 and Game 7. He was rocked in both starts, lasting just 1⅔ innings in each start, yielding a 21.60 ERA in the World Series. He faced a total of 22 batters and didn’t have a single strikeout, generating only four swing-and-misses out of his 96 pitches, and had a .474 batting average against.
The Dodgers knew something was amiss and heard the Astros boasting after the World Series that Darvish was tipping his pitches. Darvish acknowledged the same during the winter.
The Dodgers, after studying the video, said there are no signs at all that Darvish tipped his pitches. They couldn’t find a single time when he openly displayed a tendency to let the Astros know what pitch was coming.
“They would do it in different ways,’’ one executive said. “If they weren’t banging on the pipes, they would disguise it by yelling out from the dugout. If they called your first name, it was a fastball. If they called you by your last name, it was a breaking ball.
“And there’s no way they could pick that up unless they had a live feed off the TV cameras.’’
The league has launched an investigation in which it plans to speak to former and current Astros players. Oakland Athletics starter Mike Fiers, who played for the Astros in 2017, told The Athletic that the Astros had a secret center field camera stealing signs.
New York Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who played for the Astros in 2017, insists that the Astros did nothing against the rules. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was the bench coach on Houston manager A.J. Hinch’s 2017 staff, has publicly declined to comment.
“I think people have always been suspicious of different ways teams get signs,’’ Tigers GM Al Avila said. “I remember when Justin Verlander was pitching for us, he was always very aware of things that might be going on. Chris Sale got upset thinking guys were getting signs from center field. This stuff has been going on forever.
“All we want is a level playing field, that’s all. You can steal signs, but you can’t do it by electronic means. MLB has made that very clear.’’
Said Yankees GM Brian Cashman: “I don’t think it’s a technological question as much as how you want to operate. You decide to play by the rules or you don’t. And if you don’t, there’s consequences. You’re putting yourself at risk whether it’s future employment, current employment or sanctions or what have you.’’
It’s unknown whether MLB will find the Astros guilty of using electronic equipment to steal signs, but the allegations alone has the baseball world furious.
Just imagine if Darvish wasn’t crushed in the World Series. Would he have had to wait until February 2018 to sign a six-year, $126 million contract with the Chicago Cubs? How much money did it wind up costing him?
And even if the Astros receive the biggest punishment in baseball history, is it really going to stop teams from trying to cheat. There’s a reason why players privately believe that PED use is on a rise and the baseballs aren’t the only thing being juiced.
“Why are the pitch stealing allegations a surprise to anyone?’’ free agent infielder Trevor Plouffe tweeted. “Do you know the stakes involved? That’s why guys still get popped for PEDs. The reward outweighs the risk for many. That goes for organizations and players.’’
The best way to put a stop to it, once and for all, several GMs told USA TODAY Sports, is to simply eliminate signs by using more technology.
If the NFL can send in plays to the quarterbacks using helmets with speakers, why can’t baseball have catching masks with audio or earpieces for pitchers?
At the very least, one NL GM said, why not follow NFL rules and prohibit teams from having their own cameras throughout stadiums? The NFL permits only its own camera feeds.
“It would be a start for sure,’’ the GM said. “Right now, everywhere you go, there’s a center field camera feed pointed directly at the catcher. There’s really no reason for that but to steal signs.
“So if MLB takes over, every team would be prohibited from having any of their own cameras.
“Come on, we’ve got to do something, or no one is going to trust anyone anymore.’’