SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The water keeps heating up for the Yankees’ primary (non-Boston) nemesis.
The Astros, already under investigation by commissioner Rob Manfred for conduct during an off-the-field incident last month, announced Tuesday their intention to cooperate with Major League Baseball in investigating allegations they illegally, electronically stole signs from opponents in 2017 by utilizing a center-field camera in Minute Maid Park focused on the other team’s catcher and then deploying methods — most notably relying on employees or players to bang on a trash can to signal when a breaking pitch or offspeed pitch was coming — to alert the hitter at the plate.
Given the timing of the accusations, which current A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, a member of the 2017 Astros, voiced on the record to The Athletic, the Yankees must wonder whether they were cheated out of a World Series appearance that season. Houston edged the Yankees in that American League Championship Series, winning all four games at home and losing all three at Yankee Stadium.
As Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge tweeted, above a link detailing the story, “Wait…what….?”
Another member of the 2017 Yankees, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “To actually have somebody hitting a garbage can, pretty much the whole game, that’s pretty much your job, whoever is doing that. It stinks. You wish you could go back in time and figure that out earlier, because we thought we were the better team. We probably were the better team.”
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, here at the GM meetings, refused to directly engage in questions about the 2017 ALCS, saying, “I think it’s in our industry’s best interest right now that I don’t comment.” However, Cashman — who said he skimmed the story — slipped in some jabs at the club that has eliminated his in two of the last three when asked whether advances in technology led to such reindeer games.
“I don’t think it’s a technological question alone. It’s just conduct,” Cashman said. “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 not a technology question as much as how you want to operate.”
Asked how much concern he held over opponents cheating, Cashman said, “There’s a lot of concern that it exists in some places.”
The sanctions, which figure to feature a heavy fine at minimum and could include the forfeiture of draft picks, will be determined by MLB, which already resided knee-deep in Astros muck due to a scandal that started last month when Houston assistant GM Brandon Taubman harassed a trio of female reporters, targeting one of them in particular, and his bosses reacted by accusing a Sports Illustrated journalist (one of the three women) of fabricating the story before ultimately reversing course, firing Taubman and apologizing to the reporter. Because Manfred can expand the scope of his investigation however he sees fit, he can integrate this new, on-the-field imbroglio into the information his investigative team had previously compiled.
“We take the allegation seriously and we’re going to look into it,” Astros president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow said Tuesday. “If you’re not following the rules, it’s a serious matter. We want to find out.” He declined to get into more specifics, citing the ongoing investigation.
Fiers, who pitched for the Astros from 2015-17 before being non-tendered, blew the whistle on what went down, confirming tales of the center-field camera being connected to a television monitor positioned in a tunnel connecting the home clubhouse and dugout and the banging on the trash can.
“That’s not playing the game the right way,” Fiers told The Athletic. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.” After ousting the Yankees, the 2017 Astros won that World Series in seven games over the Dodgers, with the clincher coming on the road. Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman acknowledged Tuesday that his team was aware of the Astros’ reputation for rule-breaking and put themselves on high alert during that series.
Fiers acknowledged he educated his two employers since then — the Tigers and the A’s — of the Astros’ hijinks. Confirmed A’s general manager David Forst: “I have not spoken to Mike directly about it. I was aware that he had concerns.”
Retired pitcher Danny Farquhar, who made a failed comeback with the Yankees this past season and now works as a minor league pitching coach in the White Sox organization, recalled to The Athletic a White Sox-Astros game at Minute Maid in September 2017 when he stepped off the mound because he strongly suspected Houston knew what was coming.
“There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting the bat rack every time a changeup signal got put down,” Farquhar told The Athletic. “After the third one, I stepped off. I was throwing some really good changeups and they were getting fouled off. After the third bang, I stepped off.”
Shortly after the story launched, Twitter baseball detective @Jomboy_ unleashed footage of a Sept. 21, 2017 matchup at Minute Maid between Farquhar and the Astros’ Evan Gattis. A banging noise can be heard clearly three times before Farquhard prepares to throw a changeup; Gattis took the first one and fouled off the second one before, just as Farquhar said, he stepped off to change his signs with catcher Kevan Smith.
White Sox GM Rick Hahn refused to say whether his club raised objections at the time, though he certainly didn’t deny that occurred.
“Anything that involves the leagues and clubs with each other, we try to keep quiet between us. It’s more dignified that way,” said Hahn, who referred to this phenomenon as “club-on-club crime.”
During that same 2017 season, the Yankees found themselves victimized by similar electronic espionage from their chief rivals, the Red Sox, who used Apple Watches in their dugout to relay stolen signs from, again, a monitor positioned near their dugout. Manfred fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount; he also fined the Yankees a lesser undisclosed amount for improper usage of a dugout phone.
“All 30 Clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks,” Manfred said in a statement at the time. Now Manfred has a chance to back up those threats with actions. The Yankees will be watching closely.
— With Joel Sherman and Kevin Kernan
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