BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 02/09/2020

Thiel: Astros scandal is beyond Manfred’s grasp

New reporting by the Wall Street Journal shows the Astros signal-stealing was called “dark arts,” and was more pernicious than the MLB investigation described.

Albus Dumbledore, leading candidate for a new position in MLB — ethicist. / youtube.com

Dark arts?

Somehow the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal has taken a trip down Diagon Alley into the world of Harry Potter.

The phrase from Hogwarts was borrowed by the Astros baseball-operations staff as a label in 2016 to describe an Excel spreadsheet program designed to out-smart the opposition by nefarious means.

That was not previously disclosed in the nine-page summary released last month regarding the investigation into the sign-stealing scandal by the Astros, which continues to stain MLB.

In fact, there were a number of facts previously unknown about how the story evolved until Wall Street Journal reporter Jared Diamond Friday afternoon pulled open the cloak of invisibility that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred apparently tried to keep in place to limit damage.

Diamond reported he saw MLB documents, including a Jan. 2 letter from Manfred to since-fired GM Jeffrey Luhnow, that disclosed Astros director of advance information Tom Koch-Weser claimed that Luhnow was in the know on the operation. Emails from Koch-Weser seen by MLB investigators were sent to Luhnow regarding “Codebreaker,” the name given to the algorithm by its inventor.

Derek Vigoa, at the time a front office intern but now the Astros’ senior manager for team operations, reportedly devised the program for deciphering the signs of the opposing catcher by logging each stolen signal into a spreadsheet, a practice that extended to some road games. From the WSJ story:

Other Astros employees told MLB’s investigators that they believed Luhnow knew about Codebreaker, but they provided no definitive proof. Matt Hogan, now the Astros’ manager of pro scouting analysis, told investigators there was no effort to hide the use of Codebreaker in front of Luhnow when he visited the video room. In fact, he told them, “it would have been something to show we were working and get validation of our work.” Luhnow denied seeing evidence of sign-stealing during those visits.

In October 2018, Luhnow met with Koch-Weser to discuss a potential contract extension. In preparation, Koch-Weser outlined his arguments for an extension in a Slack post that included the term “dark arts.” He wrote, in part: “Lastly, I know the secrets that made us a championship team, some of which he[’]d definitely feel a lot safer if they were kept in-house.” Koch-Weser told MLB investigators that during his meeting with Luhnow, he used either the term “dark arts” or “codebreaking” to tout his efforts. Luhnow denied that Koch-Weser referenced either of those things.

Koch-Weser also used the term “dark arts” in the Astros’ Advanced Scouting Department’s 2019 budget Excel spreadsheet. Luhnow acknowledged that he reviewed the document but denied reading the tab “dark arts” was written in and denied that any discussion of “dark arts” took place during the budget meeting.

The story also said Luhnow received information about Codebreaker in emails, but when asked by MLB investigators, Luhnow claimed he didn’t finish reading the emails.

Two major points stand out here.

Previously, Manfred’s original report said the sign-stealing, by using in-house technology for rules-breaking, was “player-driven,” even though no players were punished — they were given immunity in exchange for their cooperation. Also not in the original report was use of the banned technology for some road games, according to WSJ’s reporting.

Those mischaracterizations call into question the veracity of Manfred’s report about the  investigation, which was done completely in-house, and is still underway. The only inkling as to why that happened was that MLB found no evidence that Luhnow knew of the scheme apart from the claims of other Astros employees.

Nevertheless, that conclusion should have been made public, as well as the existence of the cheating on the road. Because the void creates a larger question: What else is being hidden, and why?

The answers to the questions are one or more of the following:

Ignorance, incompetence or intent to deceive.

None of these are a good answer.

Even though baseball now has an office of investigations, its conclusions are interpreted by a commissioner’s office that serves the 30 team owners, not the public. Their priority is the best business interests of the game. As irked as some owners may be regarding cheating (say, the Dodgers, who lost each of the past two World Series to teams suspected to have cheated), the business of the game is best served by minimizing, marginalizing and misrepresenting the consequences of these misdeeds.

But the WSJ story suggests that Manfred may be mishandling it. In the absence of thoroughness or transparency, or both, information threatens to drip throughout the season. Every time the Astros come to a town, or an ex-Astro plays for another team, the scarlet letter hangs above them.

Baseball will receive some cover from the industry’s fans in the media who vote on the game’s awards and tend to tut-tut the scandal by finding false equivalencies in corked bats, scuffed baseballs loaded with Vaseline, and primitive sign-stealing techniques a century old that get sepia-toned into quaintness. This episode is not eccentrism that makes baseball colorful.

We are learning, slowly, that the Astros, from the top of the org chart to the assistant trainers, devised and operated a scheme to defraud the game over parts of three seasons at a scale and a sophistication previously unknown, and in spite of a September 2017 letter from Manfred to cease and desist. The weak defense offered that all teams do some version of the same thing is all the more reason to bring down the hammer harder on the most egregious miscreants.

Given its long history in the American culture, as well as its many scandals, baseball should be the first sport to appoint an ethicist, someone independent of the payroll but imbued with the authority to demand that everyone color inside the lines, or be expelled. In keeping with the Potter theme, let’s call it the Dumbledore Imperative.

Imagine that — an iconic American institution running toward what’s right instead of away from what’s right.

That is neither the skillset nor the mandate of the commissioner’s office. In this particular case, it appears that Manfred has blown his first at-bat, and there’s reason to wonder whether he deserves a second AB, or instead hire a pinch-hitter to run an independent investigation. And if he doesn’t, please explain.

If Manfred still believes his punishments should include no players or other baseball-ops perps, then let’s just permit the Astros to run 85 feet to first base, while everyone else sticks to the old-fashioned 90.


YourThoughts

  • coug73

    Say it ain’t so, Art. Cheating in sport and life is a universal trait of humans. Our society claims to disdain cheating but also romanticizes the clever cheater evening up the odds or getting acceptable results. The charade of sportsmanship in sport is at best a glorified moment while cheating when exposed is quickly dealt with by superficial means and forgotten by many. However! I believe there are substantial numbers of people in sport and society who strive to live honorable lives.

    • art thiel

      I think all of us who’ve lived a little know that cheating is a part of all levels of life, coug. But shrugging just normalizes it. Sportsmanship is absolutely NOT a charade, and I’m sorry to read you think so. I think you don’t really mean it because of your last sentence.

      It’s my experience that there are many who hold it to be worthy, and some aspire but succumb. The Lance Armstrong-level crooks are relatively few, but occupy out-sized places in our memories when caught.

      I’ve covered nine Olympics in person so I know a little about state-level organized cheating. I’ve also met many clean athletes who’ve striven honorably and are aggrieved by the crooks. They’re my heroes.

      • Tian Biao

        ” . . . there many who hold it (sportsmanship) to be worthy, and some who aspire but succumb.” yes, but there is a third category: those who don’t hold it worthy, who simply don’t care, who will use any means possible, legal or otherwise, to get what they want. I would put the Astros in that category: the total lack of contrition by Altuve and Bregman, and by Hinch, seems to indicate that they have no understanding of the damage they caused, no sense of wrongdoing, and no regrets at all, beyond getting caught.

        Your point above is noteworthy: the commissioners are CEOs, they’ll take the quickest way out of any moral dilemma, and they won’t punish the owners, who are their bosses. Manfred also won’t punish the players: that leaves the folks with the least power, ie the managers and GM’s, as the expendable crew members (star trek reference). it’s a sorry state of affairs.

        • art thiel

          We’ll see what the players say when spring training starts. I get that most pro sports careers are short, but standards are set for every industry and business. Sports, to me, need a higher standard than the minimum.

          Good point about the easiest targets. We all can manage/coach better than the guys doing it, right?

      • coug73

        I honor sportsmanship, however what I too often see doesn’t meet the standard. Coach it, play it and live it. Last paragraph, true.

  • bevdog

    Well done Art. Plain and simple: Cheating is cheating. It stains the game of baseball and brings into question its credibility.

    • art thiel

      Thanks. Beware the threat from cynicism regarding rule-breaking.

      • Bruce McDermott

        Hmmm. Anybody who remembers Gaylord Perry’s gymnastics before every pitch, for just one example, and the way his pitches broke thereafter, understands that there was plenty of “cynicism about rule-breaking” in baseball, way back. For years and years, nothing was done about it. At least Perry was rule-breaking in plain sight, though. This sign-stealing stuff is more nefarious because it was hidden.

        • art thiel

          We long-timers all have our emery-board stories of baseball cheaters. But just because nothing has been done, doesn’t preclude doing something different. You recall tort reform, right?

        • Husky73

          “We are all part of the same hypocrisy, Senator.” (Michael Corleone)

        • jafabian

          And with the Astros it involved the whole team if not the organization whereas with Perry it only involved him.

        • Kevin Lynch

          Yes, Gaylord Perry! Now in the Hall of Fame. Someone should build a spread sheet for Dumbledore that includes all the players who created advantages for themselves, allowing the ethicist a way to evaluate ‘edge’ and results. Start with Cobb sliding spikes high into second base. Include the Black Sox, spitballers past and present, steroids, Astros, etc. Then rank the magnitude of the offenses with their likely impact on games won and lost.

  • Will Ganschow

    As coug73 references the 1919 BlackSox scandal allow me to continue. To save the popularity of baseball the owners agreed to appoint an independent commissioner, Mountain Kenneshaw Landes. His power over the game was absolute, something the owners agreed to. The parallels here to our current national nightmare I don’t think are a coincidence. All of these major sports institutions of ours are national resources. What if Congress assumed the power of appointing commissioners and the terms under which they served. Hmmmmm, maybe that could extend to some other ares of our national life.

    • art thiel

      Good point about Landes, but the office has devolved over time to a CEO post designed to help grow the business. None among Manfred, Goodell, Silver or Bettman has policing among their priorities, although it falls to them as a side gig when the public, or an owner, temporarily becomes outraged.

      While I was a little tongue in cheek with my Dumbledore reference, I believe that the position of ethicist is a worthy aspiration, especially in a time when we’re losing sight of right from wrong. Sports can be a lifeline in an ocean of moral ambiguity.

      • Will Ganschow

        Wow, looked it up. It should be Kenesaw Mountain Landis. So it looks like you think an internally appointed rules enforcer would do the trick. Maybe we could get that person from the Dept. of Justice.

        • art thiel

          I’d sooner take volunteers from the local pub.

          I’m not sure an ethicist would work, but I’m sure about what hasn’t worked.

      • Husky73

        I don’t think we want to put that much power into one man’s hands. We see what is happening in the other Washington with a dictator wanna-be, who “trusts” Putin, “admires” Xi and “fell in love” with Kim.

        • art thiel

          I certainly don’t want more abusers of power. My idea is for the ethicist to make a call about violations of norms, customs, values and rules of the game, and let his logic shape the punishment without being the executioner. It would be unique, but I’m ready to set a precedent.

    • Jonathan M Perez

      Bill Simmons, going back as far as his Grantland days, has advocated for the creation of a “Sports Czar”. Sort of like a Ministry of Sport. Their duties would fall to resolving scandals like this, or the kneeling issue in the NFL, or say prevent carpetbagging out-of-towners from stealing a franchise and moving it. Essentially a non-partisan advocate for fairness in sports.

      • art thiel

        I didn’t realize Simmons’ advocacy, but it follows my point about an ethicist. The advent of legalized gambling in the states may ironically provoke the need for governance over the integrity of outcomes.

  • James

    50% of the US population approves of cheating, see: Trump. Nothing is going to be done about it. If there were a god, all the cheaters, criminals, republicans, drug addicts, and terrorists would be euthanized.

    • art thiel

      I understand your point. I refuse to give into it.

    • jafabian

      IMO there’s enough evidence to warrant breaking up the Astros. Make them comparable to an expansion team. But MLB would never do that.

      • art thiel

        Franchise demolition isn’t warranted, but I’d prefer to make that decision AFTER an independent investigation.

    • 1coolguy

      Another snowflake with his head up it. Please go away and post elsewhere.

  • Husky73

    I have read a dozen stories on The Dis-Astros’ cheating scandal. This is the best piece of journalism on the subject.

    • art thiel

      Well, thanks.

    • DB

      And your’s is the best comment, H-73!

  • 1coolguy

    So the 1919 WS was found to be crooked, with 8 White Sox (the Black Sox) players banned for life. The games were rigged and the Sox gave away a few games and the Reds won the series.
    What this column tells me is, just as USC had to forfeit their national championship for much less a grievance, the Astro’s should forfeit their series wins and all those involved should be banned for years, depending upon the player and management person’s involvement.
    Cheating over many games is completely inexcusable, let alone to include playoffs and a WS. Give the Dodgers their due and suspend / ban all involved, immediately.

    • art thiel

      Manfred’s mandate to run the business successfully puts him at odds with the belief than fans have that he should run it ethically. He should eliminate the conflict of interest by bringing on an independent investigation and hire an ethicist.

  • John

    Think about this. Fay Vincent, Commissioner from 1989 to 1992, was essentially ostracized by the owners for his handling of the 1990 lockout by the owners. That’s when the owners, starting with Bud Selig, decided that the commissioner did their bidding and not the greater good of baseball. I think that’s why we’re seeing the lack of accountability by Manfred despite evidence showing more involvement within the Astros organization.
    The sad result is going to be that the Astros are going to have a pall hanging over them, just as you noted, and it’s going to be the pervasive thought whenever the Astros win big in games, even against the M’s. I am surprised, so far, that I haven’t seen a meme showing an Astros jersey with a bright scarlet A on the jersey. Maybe ballparks that Houston visits, this coming season, will allow fans to bring in garbage can lids to bang on just to mess with Houston’s hitters.
    I believe that prior to Bud Selig, baseball commissioners had greater enforcement powers and it got to a point that the owners didn’t like it. Now, we see commissioners whom are bending to the owners will, not the public as you’ve noted, and the game loses some of its allure because of the actions of an organization. Too bad that Frank Robinson is no longer around to be in charge of discipline.

    • art thiel

      You’re tracking it well. The financial investment in the franchises, players, RSNs and MLB.com are so significant owners demand a commissioner who puts business first, second and third. Ethics are tied for last.

  • DB

    Ultimately, the finger points at all of us. However much we love it, Baseball is a for-profit private enterprise in the entertainment industry. There is incentive to play fair, but not as much incentive as there is to win and get rich for some. Fans vote with their feet and eyeballs. As long as we tolerate these kinds of scandals through our attention and attendance, there is little reason for ownership to do much. As we see, their impulse is to cover up and move on. If fans began routinely boycotting Astros games, seriously affecting revenue, we might see some real action.

    • art thiel

      You’re right that we are responsible for indulging the miscreants. And Manfred’s light touch enables them. If you ask fans if they would take a WS win if they knew substantive cheating influenced the outcome, most would say yes.

  • ll9956

    If the fans want to their disdain for the Astros’ behavior, they should stay away from the ballpark in droves. Picture an Astros home game on a sunny July day with, say, 200 spectators in the stands. Picture how it would play if this kept up all season.

    • art thiel

      Fans are certainly entitled to boycott, but the the gates of teams hosting the Astros shouldn’t be victimized.

      • ll9956

        I stipulated that it would be an Astros home game.

  • Richie Rich

    I actually expected more of an outcry from players on other teams. All of the success was at the expense of another team, another player. I suspect that other teams are guilty of various levels and styles of cheating – the money in the sport is too big – and don’t want to call attention to themselves.
    Bah-humbug – I’m just grouchy.