Joe Torre, the Hall of Fame manager who now serves as MLB’s chief baseball officer, cut through the standard review of ground rules and other on-field matters with an unusual, “no-shenanigans” warning, according to people familiar with the meeting: No cameras trained on dugouts or catchers, and no electronics in the dugout.
Although the same message had been delivered before other playoff series in an era in which technology has crept ever closer to the dugout, neither Torre, his staff, nor the Astros knew what Rizzo and Martinez did: The Astros’ reputation for being rampant cheaters had so preceded them that the Nationals had arrived prepared.
By the end of the month, the Nationals would wrap up a World Series championship. Thirteen days after that, the Astros’ franchise would be stained by an electronic sign-stealing scandal that has tainted its own 2017 World Series title and consumed the sport for much of the offseason.
The Astros’ system for using electronics to steal signs came into full public view Nov. 12, when former pitcher Mike Fiers exposed the machinations in a story published by the Athletic. The report prompted an MLB investigation that resulted in the suspension and firing of both Luhnow and Hinch. Paranoia about the Astros’ methods had gripped baseball, affecting the way other teams scouted and prepared to face Houston — in some cases crippling officials with worry.
According to people at all levels throughout the sport — players, clubhouse staff members, scouts and executives — the idea that the Astros employed nefarious methods was an open secret.
“The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their a---- off for three or four years,” said an executive from a team that faced the Astros in the playoffs during that span. “Everybody knew it.”
Like most of the people interviewed for this story, the executive spoke on the condition of anonymity to defy an MLB request that personnel from other teams refrain from speaking freely about the Astros. He estimated “10 to 12” teams had complained to MLB about the Astros over the years. An executive from another team agreed with that number.
While the logistics of the Astros’ scheme — a camera in center field, a video monitor near the dugout, banging on trash cans to signal pitches and what the Wall Street Journal reported was an operation called “Codebreaker” to decipher the catcher’s signs — remained unknown as it was happening, suspicions that games against the Astros were contested on an uneven playing field skyrocketed.
“It was a big open secret, really big,” said a veteran scout from another team whose coverage included the Astros. “Throughout baseball, throughout the scouting community, for several years, not just starting in 2017. I would say probably 2016, maybe earlier, through , things were going on that were blatantly against the rules.”
Into this arena stepped the Nationals, appearing in the World Series for the first time in October. They entered the series as underdogs to 107-win Houston. But they came armed with two advantages: time to prepare, by virtue of their sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series; and an entire sport that had a vested interest in having anyone but the Astros win the championship.
As one member of the Nationals put it, “It was amazing, once [it was assured] we were playing the Astros, how many people were coming out of the woodwork to let us know what they were doing.”
A long time coming
In the first part of the 2017 season, an American League club made a trip to Minute Maid Park to face an Astros team that was loaded with talent. Second baseman José Altuve was on his way to an MVP season. Shortstop Carlos Correa had been the first pick of the draft five years earlier. Third baseman Alex Bregman was the second pick in the draft three years after that. Lefty Dallas Keuchel had won a Cy Young Award.
When the series ended, the manager and general manager of the visiting team met in the visiting clubhouse. They couldn’t help but think the Astros had something on them, something extra.
“They seemed to be all over certain pitches from our guys and laying off others,” the GM of that team recalled of the Astros’ hitters.
By the 2017 season, video was ingrained in baseball culture. Hitters had become so reliant on analyzing their at-bats that they frequently did so midgame, back in the clubhouse. When MLB introduced instant replay review in 2014, it served to bring a familiar tool even closer to the dugout because teams now relied on video staffers to relay to the manager whether he should challenge a particular call.
Late in the 2017 season, the potential for misuse of the video system became both explosive and obvious: The Boston Red Sox were caught relaying sequences of signs from the video room to a trainer who was in the dugout and received them on an Apple Watch. Commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Red Sox and issued a memo to all teams, outlining that electronic sign-stealing was illegal and that a team’s manager and general manager would be held accountable for violations.
But as the 2017 season wore on, the proximity of video equipment to the dugout remained. The Astros went into first place in the AL West on April 14 and never trailed again. They won 101 games. And as they did, a buzz spread: Something’s amiss. Scouts tasked with evaluating the Astros and then relaying their tendencies to their own clubs found their reports filled with material that had never before been necessary — essentially, counterespionage.
“It was all brought up” in the advance reports the scout handed over to his superiors, one AL scout said. “It was as much a part of the report as anything else, because we had to be prepared to counter it, if that were possible. [Use] a bunch of sign systems . . . just any way possible to try to combat an advantage we all knew they had but couldn’t do anything about. It felt helpless. You felt silly almost, sitting there knowing [they were doing something] but having to just put it in a report as if it was a normal thing to contend with. It sucked.”
That level of suspicion and frustration began to seep through opposing organizations. One AL executive described meetings of his team’s analytics department. The members were so frazzled before playing Houston that they seemed almost resigned to the idea, as the executive said, that “we can’t beat them if they’re cheating.” The executive said he implored them, in one meeting, to drop the speculation.
“Guys,” he said, “we’ve got to get it out of our minds.”
Word gets around
After the Nationals swept the Cardinals to win the pennant and waited to see whom they would face in the World Series, five of Rizzo’s top lieutenants scouted the Astros-Yankees ALCS in person. The Astros, who under Luhnow’s regime fired many scouts and instead relied heavily on video scouting, had no advance scouts at the Nationals-Cardinals series.
By this point, the suspicions about Houston’s illicit methods began to gain some public traction. The Yankees accused the Astros of using a system of whistles to relay stolen signs to batters — to which Hinch, at the time the Astros’ manager, replied, “It made me laugh because it’s ridiculous.”
Yet any Astros opponent felt it had to do its due diligence, just in case. So during the ALCS games in Houston, at least one of the Nationals’ scouts kept a pair of binoculars trained on the area beyond center field, keeping watch for any suspicious cameras or personnel. When that failed to turn up anything nefarious, one of the scouts, on at least one occasion, went out to the center field area in person to canvass it.
The Nationals never found anything suspicious, but they were told: Don’t let your guard down. And they trained their sights on Game 6 of the Yankees-Astros series, played at Minute Maid Park.
The Yankees occupy a unique place in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, having been beaten by them in the ALCS in 2017 — when they are known to have used their scheme — and in 2019, during which MLB said it did not find evidence of its use. The Astros went a combined 6-1 at home during those series.
That Saturday night in Game 6, the Yankees lost the pennant on a walk-off home run by Altuve, who hit a slider from closer Aroldis Chapman. Among baseball people, that play has furthered the circumstantial case against Houston throughout baseball.
A video of Altuve was widely shared online that showed him appearing to warn his teammates not to rip off his jersey as he approached home plate and immediately running to the clubhouse to change shirts afterward.
“You’re covering up and holding your shirt closed when you hit a homer to win the pennant?” the executive asked rhetorically. “Who ever hit a home run to win the pennant and goes to the clubhouse and 20 seconds later comes out in a different shirt? No. You celebrate with your teammates.”
Altuve has denied these accusations, and Manfred has said there was no evidence of the Astros using buzzers.
But with many of the industry’s suspicions confirmed by the investigation, some assume the lack of evidence regarding 2019 only means the Astros managed to hide those transgressions. In an interview with MLB Network last week, Hinch notably did not address head-on a question about whether the Astros used buzzers to signal pitches, instead pointing out MLB had investigated the Astros’ alleged use of buzzers and found no evidence.
One Yankees official believes that, by the 2019 postseason, the Astros had abandoned their scheme out of fear they were close to being caught. But many Yankees players and front-office personnel apparently believed otherwise — and the mere suspicion of an ongoing Astros scheme was itself a competitive disadvantage for the Yankees, because it made them spend too much time focused on counterespionage in the run-up to the ALCS.
“We’re so focused on them cheating,” one Yankees official blurted out during an advance meeting, “we’re forgetting we have to just go out and play.”
Many in baseball are asking why it took a whistleblower — Fiers, the former Astros pitcher — to spark MLB to action when so many people had suspected the Astros of wrongdoing for years, with some taking the extra step of reporting those suspicions to MLB.
“We investigate any allegation that’s brought to this office,” an MLB spokesman said Monday, declining to say how many of those allegations it received.
Gone but not forgotten
The Yankees’ failures against the Astros, particularly at Minute Maid Park, only made the Nationals’ success more remarkable.
Even before Houston had beaten the Yankees, the Nationals’ video department — along with Rizzo and uniformed personnel that included pitching coach Paul Menhart and Martinez, the manager — took measures to cleanse their mind of the chatter.
And there was lots of chatter. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost the 2017 World Series to Houston, were particularly forthcoming. Several Dodgers reached out to Washington second baseman Brian Dozier, who had been with Los Angeles the previous year, to say Houston was stealing signs, according to one person with knowledge of the talks.
Martinez spoke with Alex Cora, the former Houston bench coach, who was by that point managing the Red Sox, according to two people with knowledge of the conversations. Cora, named in the MLB report as a primary instigator of the Astros’ scheme, was subsequently fired by the Red Sox, with whom he won the World Series title in 2018 but failed to make the playoffs in 2019.
Martinez, according to one person, also reached out to Tony Sipp, a reliever for Houston from 2014 to 2018 who spent the first part of 2019 with Washington. Martinez and Sipp didn’t connect, but Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer took his own steps to track down Sipp. It is standard for pitchers and catchers to switch to a more complex set of signs with runners on second — to prevent the runner from stealing the sign and signaling it to the batter, a practice that for years has been considered acceptable — but Scherzer asked Sipp whether the Nationals needed to be concerned about the Astros even with no runners on base. Sipp said yes, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
So the Nationals’ plan took shape. The pitchers first met on the Friday before the World Series started. They assigned each pitcher five sets of signs, all of which could be affixed to the inside of their caps. They outfitted catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki with wristbands with all those signs, much like a quarterback who wears plays on his forearm. Although traditional sign-stealing requires a runner on second base who can see the catcher put down his fingers, the Nationals instructed their catchers to put down multiple signs even when there was only a runner on first or there was no one on base.
The idea was to cleanse the pitchers’ minds of any idea that Houston had an unfair advantage.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world stepping on that mound and having an idea that that hitter knows what’s coming,” Menhart said in November. “It’s one of the most unnerving feelings. You feel helpless. You just get ticked off to the point where you lose total focus and confidence.”
The Nationals’ diligence paid off across the taut, seven-game series. They won the championship by taking all four games in Minute Maid Park.
On Wednesday, pitchers and catchers from the Astros report for spring training at the West Palm Beach, Fla., facility the teams share. On opposite sides of the same ballpark, players from the two teams will face questions, externally and internally, about the scandal that dominated not only the offseason discourse but the inner workings of baseball going back years. The new season is beginning before the entirety of the impact of Houston’s improprieties is known.
“This is really frustrating,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle tweeted last week. “A month after MLB’s report and all we have now is more evidence and more questions. . . . The integrity of the game is at stake and players and fans deserve some answers.
“It feels like there’s still no closure and everything has been thrown into question — past outcomes are being second guessed and even future games will be cast in doubt. There can be no redemption arc after an institutionalized scandal like this until there’s some accountability.”
The Astros and Nationals open their Grapefruit League schedules against each other Feb. 22, four months to the day after Game 1 of the World Series.
Jesse Dougherty and Sam Fortier contributed to this report.