The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lit up by the 2017 Astros, he never pitched in MLB again. Now he’s suing.

Toronto's Mike Bolsinger, left, waits for Houston's Marwin Gonzalez to round the bases after giving up a home run on Aug. 4, 2017. (Eric Christian Smith/AP)

In what turned out to be Mike Bolsinger’s final major league appearance, the Blue Jays relief pitcher was lit up by members of the 2017 Astros. Now Bolsinger is suing the Astros, claiming that the team’s sign-stealing scheme “resulted in economic harm” to him.

“For a journeyman pitcher in the MLB like [Bolsinger],” stated his lawsuit, filed Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, “a disastrous inning, such as what took place in Houston on August 4th [2017], could and did prove to be the death knell to [Bolsinger’s] career in the MLB.”

The world just learned of the Astros’ cheating. Inside baseball, it was an open secret.

Bolsinger, now 32, was a former starting pitcher for the Diamondbacks and Dodgers who was converted to a reliever by the Blue Jays in 2017. He entered that Aug. 4 game at Houston’s Minute Maid Park in the fourth inning, and got one out while giving up four earned runs, four hits, three walks and a home run, with no strikeouts, on 29 pitches to eight batters.

According to his lawsuit, Toronto “immediately” sent Bolsinger down to the minors, and despite performing well at the Class AAA level he was not recalled and could not latch on with any major league team the following season. Instead, he played in Japan the next two years, and he is “currently a free agent hoping to secure a job in the United States” this season.

The Post's Barry Svrluga detangles the Houston Astros' cheating scandal and talks about the history of wrongdoing in baseball. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Illustration: William Neff/The Washington Post)

The Astros went on to defeat the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, resulting in, among other benefits, millions in postseason bonuses for Houston players. After an Athletic article late last year in which former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed the team’s sign-stealing scheme, which MLB deemed illegal because it involved the use of technology, Commissioner Rob Manfred launched an investigation that resulted in major penalties for the franchise and an uproar that continues to roil the sport.

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a resolution last month calling on Manfred to strip World Series titles from the 2017 Astros and the 2018 Red Sox, who also defeated the Dodgers for that year’s championship and are under investigation by MLB for similar allegations of cheating. Bolsinger’s lawsuit claimed that though he is a resident of Texas it was proper to file it in Los Angeles County both because the Astros have “member-investors involved in the fraudulent scheme” who reside there and because the “impact and damages” caused by the scheme was greater there than anywhere else.

Accusing the Astros in his complaint of violations such as unfair business practices and intentional interference with prospective economic relations, Bolsinger is seeking damages for what he claims has been his suffering. In addition, he wants the approximately $31 million in playoff bonuses handed to the 2017 Astros to be redirected to youth-focused charities, in particular those operating in the Los Angeles area, and to also go toward a fund benefiting aging former professional baseball players in need of financial assistance.

Thomas Boswell: Baseball has a problem, and the Astros are only a symptom

“There’s a message to be sent to youth out there. Especially athletes, more specifically baseball players,” Bolsinger told USA Today. “It was awesome to [grow up and] watch game played the right way. We’ve kind of drifted from that.

“It’s something we can really express to these kids: You don’t have to cheat to get to where you want to go.”

As detailed in Manfred’s report last month, Houston used a center field camera to record signs opposing catchers were giving their pitchers for upcoming pitches. Once the signs were decoded, information from the camera was relayed to the dugout area, where Astros players would bang on a trash can with a bat to signal to teammates at the plate what type of pitches to expect.

Bolsinger’s lawsuit cited an Athletic article that claimed the Astros went from striking out 1,452 times in 2016 to just 1,087 times in 2017, the lowest total in the majors that season. To bolster their argument that Bolsinger was specifically harmed by the Astros’ scheme, he and his legal team included results from a recent study by an Astros fan who set out to document every instance of trash can-banging by the team in 2017.

The most such instances in one game, per that study, occurred on Aug. 4, and of Bolsinger’s 29 pitches, 12 were said to have been preceded by audible tipoffs from the Houston dugout.

“I don’t know if I’ve had a worse outing in my professional career,” Bolsinger said of that game to USA Today. “I remember saying, 'It was like they knew what I was throwing. They’re laying off pitches they weren’t laying off before. It’s like they knew what was coming.’ That was the thought in my head.

“I felt like I didn’t have a chance.”

“Mike’s damages tell you the human toll. It’s more than balls and strikes and home runs,” Bolsinger’s attorney, Ben Meiselas, said to the Houston Chronicle. “This is someone’s life. It’s no different than someone who is my competitor in the legal industry coming into my office and stealing my file and is prepared for my arguments. It’s a violation of legal rules and the law. Because it takes place on the mound or in the dugout doesn’t cloak unlawful conduct. It’s a violation not only of trust but the law, and it has cost people their careers.”

What is sign stealing? Making sense of Major League Baseball’s latest scandal.

To Talmage Boston, a Dallas-based attorney specializing in commercial litigation and an author of two books on baseball history, Bolsinger’s case for damages represented “a stretch.”

“He’s pursuing a legal theory of civil liability against a Major League Baseball team for cheating, which is something that has never been done before, and thus there’s no real precedent,” Boston told The Washington Post by phone from Texas. “As I read the complaint, the main thing is, yes, he obviously had a very bad outing, and yes, after it occurred he was sent down to the minors and has never returned to the majors. But almost every big league pitcher has had a bad outing that caused him to get sent down to the minors at some point in his career, and if they’re any good they show in the minor leagues that they are worthy of being called back to the major leagues, and they do [return]. …

“Big league teams are always looking for quality relief pitchers, and if [Bolsinger] demonstrated that kind of high-caliber performance in the minor leagues or in Japan, surely some team would want him to come to spring training with them, and potentially make the team. So I think his causation between the bad outing against the Astros being the ‘death knell’ for his career is a little bit far-fetched.”

Manfred levied year-long suspensions to Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager at the time, and A.J. Hinch, the team’s manager. Both men were quickly fired, and the ensuing fallout also caused to other managers named in the report, Alex Cora of the Red Sox and Carlos Beltran of the Mets, to part ways with their respective teams.

No Astros players were named apart from Beltran, who was in his final season as a player in 2017, and none have received punishments from MLB, but the revelation of their sign-stealing scheme has reverberated around the major leagues.

Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, whose New York team fell to the Astros in the 2017 American League Championship Series, agreed with a reporter’s suggestion Monday that he might be feeling “cheated” out of a possible trip that year to the World Series.

“You do feel that way,” he said (via SNY) while speaking at the Yankees’ spring training facility in Tampa. Tanaka added, “They’re obviously not abiding by the rules, so yeah. That’s what I thought.”

Hinch himself, asked recently if his 2017 Astros’ World Series title was “tainted,” replied, “It’s a fair question."

“We’re going to have to live and move forward and be better in this sport, but unfortunately no one can really answer that question,” Hinch said. “I can’t pinpoint what advantages or what happened or what exactly would have happened otherwise, but we did it to ourselves.”

Boston, the attorney and baseball historian, asserted that the only previous cheating scandal in baseball comparable to that of the Astros involved the notorious “Black Sox” in 1919, when eight Chicago players were accused of having been paid by gamblers to throw the World Series.

“I think it is an extremely serious scandal. … What the Astros did in 2017 clearly impacted the outcome of games,” Boston said.

Hank Aaron thinks sign-stealing Astros players should be banned from baseball

As for Bolsinger’s lawsuit, Boston predicted that lawyers for the Astros would first go to the presiding judge in the case and push for a summary judgment that “an MLB team cannot have civil liability to an opposing player under these set of facts.”

Boston thought that the unusual nature of the case, though, could lead the judge to declare something along the lines of, “I don’t think there’s any controlling precedent, or even persuasive analogous precedent [from outside the world of sports], so let’s just try it.”

By far the most likely outcome, even if the Astros were to win a summary judgment, will be some kind of settlement, according to Boston. That’s simply because almost all civil lawsuits end that way before trial these days, he said, and the team could have a compelling desire to “just to stop the litigation” and keep the proceedings confidential.

Meiselas, Bolsinger’s attorney, said the lawsuit has “the potential to expand” to other major league players who may also feel harmed by the Astros’ scheme.

“This impacted a lot of players’ careers,” Meiselas said (via the Houston Chronicle). “With respect to Mr. Bolsinger, it directly impacted him in such a unique way because he never got another opportunity to play in the big leagues.”

What to know about the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal

The Houston Astros engaged in an extensive sign-stealing scheme throughout the 2017 season, including during their World Series victory, and in the 2018 season, using cameras and video monitors. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed the scheme to The Athletic in November.

What is sign stealing? It’s a long-standing baseball practice in which one team tries to decode the signs of its opponent. It’s not illegal, but the way the Astros went about stealing signs is.

What’s happened since? The Astros fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow in January after MLB suspended both for their roles in the scheme. Dusty Baker and James Click were hired to replace them. Owner Jim Crane and several Houston players, including stars José Altuve and Alex Bregman, apologized at the start of spring training; Crane said players shouldn’t be punished.

• Read more: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred defends his decision not to punish Astros players

How does the rest of baseball feel? Many around the league weren’t satisfied with the Astros’ apology, and some opponents have been outwardly angry, saying they’re ready to dole out justice of their own. Here’s what baseball’s stars are saying about the Astros.

Go deeper …

The Astros want to ‘move forward.’ The rest of baseball isn’t eager to let them.

This was the time for the Astros to own their cheating. Maybe they missed the sign.

Cheating ruins everything about sports. The Astros got what they deserved.

Baseball has a problem, and the Astros are only a symptom