On the Cheating Scandal That Nearly Ruined Baseball
Andy Martino Digs Into the Sign-Stealing Affair That Rocked America’s Pastime
“Tell your fucking hitting coach I’m gonna kick his fucking ass!” Yankees coach Phil Nevin screamed at Astros third baseman Alex Bregman.
It was not long after the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees began Game One of the 2019 American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
The trouble had starred a few minutes earlier, when the Astros were batting. As Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka began his windup, he noticed a whistling sound but assumed it was coming from the stands. Opposing fans often tried to distract him, and Tanaka figured that’s all that was happening here.
Inside the Yankees’ dugout, the coaches knew better. They believed that Astros hitting coach, Alex Cintron, was the whistler and that he was doing it to convey stolen signs. The exact tone and volume of the whistle would vary, depending on the pitch that Tanaka was about to throw.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone and a few of his coaches started yelling across at Cintron, telling him to stop.
“What the fuck are you gonna do about it?” Cintron called back from the Astros’ dugout, dismissing Boone with a flip of his hand.The tone and volume of the whistle would vary, depending on the pitch that Tanaka was about to throw.
”I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do,” yelled Boone. “I’m gonna raise it with Bill.”
As promised, Boone left the dugout between innings to notify home plate umpire Bill Welke of his concerns. Boone explained that in spring training, top MLB officials Joe Torre, Chris Young, and Peter Woodfork had visited his office during their annual rounds to all 30 clubs and explicitly said that whistling in the dugout to communicate with the batter was illegal and the rule was going to be newly enforced.
Welke told the Astros to knock it off. Coaches and players jawed at one another from across the field.
When Nevin jogged out to his position next to third base, he looked back at the Astros bench to see Cintron sticking his middle finger in the air and pointing it at Boone: Fuck you, skip.
Nevin now turned to Bregman and barked the epithet about Cintron. The Yankees were sick of suspecting the Astros, sick of having to change their sign sequences constantly, and sick of trying to beat a team they viewed as deeply unethical in order to advance to the World Series.
The Yankees won the game anyway. Afterward, general manager Brian Cashman walked into the clubhouse, smiling and ready to celebrate, only to find a current of anger rippling through the players and coaches.
“Those guys are fucking cheating,” one of the coaches said.
Cashman’s fust thought? Well, I’m not surprised. After all, his own front office had asked MLB to search every crevice of the ballpark that same afternoon for clues of illegal activity.
Still, neither he nor anyone else in the ballpark could have guessed that this heated moment—a spat about whistling, of all things would end up as one of the final on-field incidents in one of the worst scandals ever to befall American professional sports.
In a matter of weeks, it would all come apart.
The scandal that destroyed careers and left fans questioning the integrity of the national pastime began three full seasons earlier, but it was rooted deeply in baseball’s traditions.
Cheating and sign stealing had been part of the game for more than a century, with many colorful examples sprinkled through its history. But beginning in 2017, the Astros incorporated technology in new ways to win illicitly, and chat changed everything.
That year, they used a camera mounted in center field to steal signs and relay them to hitters in real time. The 2018 and 2019 seasons brought a wave of complaints from other clubs about increasingly advanced methods of cheating and resulted in MLB investigations into the Astros during that period.
During the 2019 playoffs, the era of electronic sign stealing began to crumble. First, the Tampa Bay Rays lodged several complaints with the league before the American League Division Series, hinting at the wilder charges later leveled against Houston-some that have never been reported, and some of which were later debunked. Then in the ALCS, the Yankees made their complaint about Houston’s whistling. Five games later, the Yanks caught the Astros using flashing lights in center field. All through that series, whispers about the Astros’ behavior in recent years-the garbage-can banging, whistling, wear able technology, hidden GoPro cameras, and more-spread through the Yankees clubhouse and executive suites. No one was yet sure what exactly was true and when it had happened, but suspicions ran hotter than ever.
Reporters were picking up on the gossip, too. What had long been a secret, the game-within-a-game that the world never heard about, percolated closer to the surface.
As the National League champion Washington Nationals prepared to face Houston in the World Series, they heard from contacts around the game about how to defend against the Astros. The Nats developed extra sign sequences and other preventive measures, and won the series. By now, everyone knew you had to be extra careful when playing in Houston.
That November, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers went public, laying out the 2017 trash-can scheme in an interview with the online publication The Athletic. Innovative Twitter sleuths found video proving Fiers’s claims, which went viral and lent a unique modern touch to this scandal.
The revelations shocked fans and led Major League Baseball to launch a major investigation. “When it was over, three of the smartest managers in the game had lost their jobs, and America found itself talking about baseball more than it had in years- though not for reasons the league wanted. The sign-stealing fallout crossed over from ESPN to NPR, from MLB Network to the Today show and Fox News.
Even Congress would join the conversation, when Representative Bobby Rush, Democrat of Illinois, requested hearings on sign stealing. In his letter to the chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Rush called the Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltrán “the mastermind in the team’s systematic cheating.” Baseball bad gone mainstream again.
When opposing players reported to spring training in February 2020, many launched stunning verbal attacks against their union brothers on the Astros. Ballplayers almost never speak out against one another, but anger over this issue was too intense to contain. Stars Like Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers and the Yankees sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton told the world that they had lost all respect for the Astros, and some called for MLB to strip them of their 2017 World Series tide.
Players also openly questioned baseball commissioner Rob Manfred’s ability to lead the sport. The union, for years the strongest in sports history, found itself torn between members who hared the Astros and chose who played for them.
Players and the general public alike were able to sense that nothing less than the perception of fair play was at stake. Baseball was drowning in the problems of modern tech and needed to find a way forward to preserve its competitive integrity.
In order to buy into a sport—to invest time, money, and emotional capital—fans must believe that the game they are watching is an honest competition. They spend on tickets and cable TV and screaming packages because they love unpredictable drama and assume chat the result is determined on the field, not off it.
When fans learned of the Astros’ misdeeds, it led to a crisis of faith in the legitimacy of baseball itself. Once the competition isn’t happening on the field of play, but in a tunnel or computer monitor out of sight, the air goes out of the fan experience . You can no longer trust what you are watching.
Sure, baseball teams had been stealing signs forever, but this felt worse. In Houston, a number of factors converged to create a uniquely troubling scandal.
The front office, led by general manager Jeff Luhnow, had long been questioning received wisdom and challenging what baseball people considered acceptable. Admirers saw Luhnow as a brilliant innovator. Detractors saw him as ruthless and amoral.
The team Luhnow assembled in 2017 employed two ravenous baseball minds in positions of influence: bench coach Alex Cora and DH Carlos Beltran. A. J. Hinch, an otherwise brilliant manager, failed to muster the strength or leadership to stop what he considered wrong .
Add to chose characters the fact that the team had access to technology that no other generation of cheaters could use. There was a video-replay room, iPads, smart watches, and phones, and allegedly wearable buzzers or devices activated remotely. This was a 21st-century scam, pulled off by a group of people with the right blend of intelligence and moral flexibility.
Houston won the World Series in 2017. The following year, Cora departed to become manager of the Boston Red Sox, and Boston hoisted the World Series trophy at the end of that season (the team was also later disciplined for a far less serious electronic-sign-stealing offense, in which Cora did not directly participate). The following year, 2019, the Astros won the American League pennant.
The scandal ran deep. Soon after, the game found itself in crisis.
In 1926, Ty Cobb summarized the sign-stealing issue in a succinct way that still applies:
“If a player is smart enough to solve the opposing system of signals he is given due credit . . .There is another form of sign stealing which is reprehensible and should be so regarded. That is where mechanical devices worked from outside sources . . . are used. Signal tipping on the fields is not against the rules, while the use of outside devices is against all the laws of baseball and the playing rules. It is obviously unfair.”
Clearly, this wasn’t new. The roots of the Astros scandal stretched back for the entire history of the game, but Houston—and to a lesser and more complicated extent, a handful of other teams—pushed the limits far enough to change the sport forever. Just as the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” scandal forced the league to reckon with gambling, and the steroid era led to new rules about performance-enhancing drugs, the era of electronic sign stealing brought a reckoning on technology.
The story all started in the late 1800s, and its recent iteration ensnared the Astros and the Red Sox, and also had a deep impact on the Yankees and the Mets, largely innocent bystanders. The story is sordid, and at times ethically ambiguous. One thing, however, is clear: There is much that has not been told.
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.