Can Players’ Bosses Control Cheating in Baseball? ‘It’s Tough’


NORTH PORT, Fla. — As the Minnesota Twins prepare for this season, Rocco Baldelli, their field manager, and Derek Falvey, their president of baseball operations, have been talking with their team about the usual preseason topics, such as expectations and workplace culture.

This year, though, they plan to specifically address one more issue before opening day, on March 26: what the rules of their sport allow and what constitutes cheating during a game.

The reason for doing so is, of course, one of the biggest scandals in sports history: the Houston Astros’ illicit sign-stealing, which has tainted their 2017 World Series title. The fallout has cost four people their jobs: General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch of the Astros; Manager Carlos Beltran of the Mets, who was an Astros player in 2017; and Manager Alex Cora of the Red Sox, the Astros’ bench coach in 2017.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Commissioner Rob Manfred’s ruling last month on the scheme was his granting immunity from punishment to Astros players in exchange for their cooperation with Major League Baseball’s investigation. That decision has not been popular across the sport — especially among other players, many of whom have made a rare break from union solidarity with harsh comments about their Astros counterparts.

But the guideline for whom to punish was established in a 2017 memorandum about illegal electronic sign-stealing that Manfred sent to teams. It stated that club management, and not players, would be held accountable for any such cheating. As a result, Luhnow and Hinch were suspended for a year by M.L.B., then quickly fired by the Astros. But Manfred did not discipline Beltran, who later agreed to part ways with the Mets.

(Immunity has also been granted to players in the current sign-stealing investigation of Cora’s Red Sox, who won the 2018 World Series.)

So as rival general managers and managers have watched the fallout from the Astros scandal, they have wrestled with their own roles in policing their teams’ conduct and with how to prevent this sort of thing from happening again — as well as how to keep themselves from suffering the same fate as Hinch and Luhnow.

“It’s tough,” the Twins’ Falvey said. “When you have so many people in the organization, people may do some things you’re unaware of. Ultimately, I believe, as the leader of the organization, it’s my responsibility to create the right environment. Whether you like it or not, when you sign up for this job, it’s part of what you sign up for.”

Each club’s management controls a baseball operations department that can include at least a few hundred employees. They are spread throughout the United States — at the facilities for spring training, for the regular season of the 30 major league teams and for minor league clubs — plus overseas, such as in the Dominican Republic, where each franchise has a complex.

“Can you really be on top of every little thing?” said Al Avila, the general manager of the Detroit Tigers.

“It’s very hard,” he continued. “But that’s where people you hire you have to have a certain amount of trust, honesty and understanding of what is expected. And as the general manager, you better have your hand in” everything.

Keeping tabs on cheating has only become more difficult in recent years. New ways to skirt the rules emerged in 2014, when M.L.B. expanded its use of replay review, establishing rooms near each team’s dugout with live video feeds to help coaching staffs decide whether to challenge a play. Players were also allowed to visit these rooms during games to consult video of their pitching or hitting. (Any use of technology to decode or relay opponents’ signs during a game is prohibited.)

Although concern had been building, the first big public sign that technology was being abused came in 2017, when the Yankees accused the Red Sox of relaying signs from video replay personnel to the dugout via an Apple Watch.

After investigating and fining the Red Sox, M.L.B. admitted that it had become increasingly difficult to monitor the inappropriate use of electronics. The league has since taken steps beyond its 2017 memorandum to curb sign-stealing, including placing an official in the replay room starting with the 2018 postseason and requiring general managers to sign a document stating that their teams were not knowingly cheating.

More changes may be on the way for the 2020 season: M.L.B. and the players’ union are negotiating new rules regarding sign-stealing, including severe limits on access to the replay review room during games.

Avila said he likes to be a regular presence in the clubhouse to keep tabs on everything going on with his team. “At the end of the day, you are the person responsible,” he said.

Just being around, though, does not guarantee that managers or general managers see any rule-breaking, let alone stop it. According to Manfred’s report and subsequent news media reports, Luhnow failed to police his own team, while Hinch knew of the cheating schemes but never explicitly told his players to stop it.

“You try to make yourself as aware as possible,” Falvey said. “In the cases that have transpired to date, as best I could tell, maybe there were some signs.”

Among managers, there is a careful balancing act between being meddlesome and respecting the clubhouse as the players’ sanctuary.

“It’s important that they police it among themselves, but it is also important that I understand, implement and hold them accountable to policies,” said Mike Shildt of the St. Louis Cardinals, the 2019 National League manager of the year. He added that he had had several casual conversations with his players and staff about rules and conduct since the Astros scandal but expected to hold a formal talk before the season began.

Manager Aaron Boone of the Yankees said recently that he did not feel the need to remind his players or staff about the rules because they already understood them. “Hopefully,” he said, “our culture is something that handles those kinds of things.”

Brian Cashman, the longtime Yankees general manager, said he had often told his employees to operate as if there were no secrets. “If anything is going on that isn’t above board, it’s going to come out,” he said. “That’s obviously why the Houston Astros are going through what they’re going through.”

Brodie Van Wagenen, the Mets’ general manager, said his first message to his staff in spring training was a reminder to remain competitive — but within the rules. And if not, he vowed to take immediate action. To Avila, that message isn’t necessary.

“After all this, if it ain’t clear already, there’s something wrong with you, as a person,” he said. “Every single person in baseball is aware. And quite frankly, as a group, general managers have resolved to put a stop to it.”


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