SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jeff Luhnow is well rehearsed at the art of avoidance by now. So when the general manager of the Houston Astros was asked about his team being accused of using a television camera to steal signs at Minute Maid Park in 2017, he was ready.
“We’ll see what the facts are,” Luhnow said. “I’m hopeful we’ll find out exactly what happened. If there’s an issue that needs to be addressed, we’ll address it.”
There’s always an issue with the Astros and that’s the problem.
One of baseball’s most successful teams is also it’s least-trusted. The Yankees and Nationals were up front and on the record last month about the steps they took to prevent Houston from stealing signs during the playoffs.
Catchers were told to run through a series of signs before every pitch and in some cases each pitcher was given a different set of signs. Catchers wore armbands with the details to keep it straight.
It was the same thing the Red Sox did in the 2018 American League Championship Series against Houston. They started practicing using multiple signs in August that season.
The Astros, according to a story in The Athletic, streamlined their cheating. They used a television adjacent to the dugout to pick up the signs, then banged a nearby garbage can to alert the hitters.
Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers was a source for the story.
A Twitter user who goes by the handle Jomboy posted a series of video clips that clearly show Houston hitters receiving signals from the dugout during home games.
When the catcher called for a changeup or breaking ball, there was a loud bang. When it was a fastball, there was no bang. Other pitches were identified with two bangs.
The Astros led the majors with 896 runs in 2017 and won five of their 11 postseason games by one run on the way to winning the World Series. It would be naïve not to believe stealing pitches had at least something to do with it.
The Red Sox are roped into this. Manager Alex Cora was Houston’s bench coach in 2017 and he is far too baseball savvy not to have noticed what was going on. The question is to what degree he was involved or whether he helped hatch the plan.
Cora did not respond to messages seeking comment. The Athletic reported Cora will be interviewed by Major League Baseball about his role.
New chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom was asked on Wednesday at the GM Meetings if he had any concerns about Cora’s involvement.
“Given that Major League Baseball obviously oversees that, we’re going to just let them do what they need to do and handle it as they see fit,” Bloom said. “It’s not really our place to comment on it.”
The Red Sox are hardly an innocent party. They ran their own scheme in 2017, using a television monitor to steal signs and relaying the info to the dugout via an athletic trainer wearing a FitBit.
Major League Baseball investigated and levied an undisclosed fine. The Red Sox accused the Yankees of using a camera in center field to steal signs at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees denied it and were hit with a smaller fine.
“We’re 100 percent comfortable that it is not an ongoing issue,” commissioner Rob Manfred said at the time. He also threatened that further violations would be dealt with more severely.
It’s important to note that stealing signs is a wholly legal part of the game when it’s done organically. Players and coaches are free to watch the catcher and pitcher closely and pick up what they can.
It’s why you often see a pitcher fidget when there’s a runner on second base who has a direct line of sight to the catcher.
But it’s against the rules to use cameras or other devices to aid in stealing signs. MLB issued rules prior to last season about what was allowed but teams are constantly on guard.
There are countless spots to hide a camera in modern ballparks and with wireless technology it would be easy to relay the information. Dugouts are loaded with extra players, injured players, coaches and team staffers. Any one of them could be a conduit.
That the Astros are again at the center of an investigation is no surprise.
They traded for closer Roberto Osuna in 2017 when he was serving a suspension for domestic violence and the Blue Jays were glad to be rid of him.
When the Astros advanced to the World Series this season, assistant GM Brandon Taubman approached three female reporters in the clubhouse and profanely remarked about how much he enjoyed having Osuna on the team.
When one of those reporters, Stephanie Apstein of Sports Illustrated, wrote about the incident, the Astros released a statement accusing her of fabricating the story.
Only after other eyewitnesses came forward and Taubman was fired did Houston apologize to Apstein.
Now there are details about how they stole signs. It’s all evidence of a win-at-all-costs culture.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman intended to dance around a question about the Astros. Then he paused.
“It just comes down to how you go about your business,” he said. “Are you going to follow the rules and the guidelines or are you not?”
HOUSTON HAS A PROBLEM
■ July 30, 2018: Astros acquire All-Star closer Roberto Osuna from the Blue Jays. Osuna was under suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy at the time, having been arrested for striking the mother of his child.
■ Oct. 8, 2018: Astros employee Kyle McLaughlin is ejected from an area adjacent to the Indians dugout during a playoff game after being caught taking photographs.
■ Oct. 13, 2018: McLaughlin is caught peering into the Red Sox dugout while wearing a media credential during Game 1 of the ALCS. He is removed from the area by security. Red Sox alert MLB and request an investigation.
■ Oct. 17, 2018: MLB clears the Astros, accepting Houston’s claim that the team was monitoring the Indians and Red Sox to see if they were breaking the rules.
■ Oct. 19, 2019: After the Astros beat the Yankees to win the ALCS, assistant general manager Brandon Taubman profanely mocks three female reporters in the clubhouse about the acquisition of Osuna.
■ Oct. 21, 2019: Astros release a statement accusing Sports Illustrated of fabricating a story about the Taubman incident.
■ Oct. 24, 2019: Taubman is fired after an internal investigation.
■ Nov. 12: A story in The Athletic details how the Astros used a television camera at Minute Maid Park to steal signs.
Peter Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.