Alex Cora’s doomed, but baseball’s to blame for sign-stealing fiasco

The sport let technology take over, with no real efforts to stymie the edge-seeking that's been part of baseball for a century.

A.J. Hinch (left) and Alex Cora (right) were forever linked by Houston's 2017 world championship. Scandal will further connect them.
A.J. Hinch (left) and Alex Cora (right) were forever linked by Houston's 2017 world championship. Scandal will further connect them. –2017 File/Jim Davis/Globe Staff

COMMENTARY

Bravo, Major League Baseball. I didn’t think you had it in you. And frankly, why should I or anyone else have? You’re why we’re here.

In the midst of an electronic sign-stealing scandal you did absolutely zero to truly prevent, and which you thus nurtured. A scandal of steroid-level depth and damage. A scandal which you either tacitly accepted for years, or in which you truly showed your rank incompetence, thinking a couple emails and the honor system would stop illegal edge-seeking despite a century of evidence to the contrary.

As usual, you owe your players a debt of gratitude for helping lead you out of the mess, but we’ll get there. Let’s first establish exactly where we are.

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The penalties handed down Monday to since-fired Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and since-fired Astros manager A.J. Hinch, and those pending for soon-to-be-fired Red Sox manager Alex Cora, rival those of the Black Sox scandal of a century ago. That was when gamblers influenced the result of the 1919 World Series.

Apt.

On Monday, the NBC Nightly News declared, “The champs are cheats,” the 2017 world champion Astros reduced to nothing more than scofflaws and rubble for a national audience. Good Morning America blared on Tuesday morning that, “Houston Astros accused of stealing World Series,” and they, NBC, and a whole bunch of others will do much the same thing again in a couple months. Except then, about the 2018 world champions, our 119-win, “Damage Done,” greatest-team-we’ll-ever-see Boston Red Sox.

Simply brutal.

And just think: The casuals don’t yet know what we do. That it goes far deeper. That the same Athletic report exposing the Red Sox quietly noted, “As far back as 2015, the Yankees used the video replay room to learn other teams’ sign sequences.” That the Los Angeles Dodgers may be no cleaner than the teams who stole World Series from them.

These aren’t the Texas Rangers we’re talking about. These are the jewel franchises. And we are systematically watching each of them be exposed. Undermine one World Series? This one’s already hit two, and it doesn’t feel done yet.

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How did we get here again? Because what I felt above is what baseball’s rank and file felt. Luhnow, Hinch, Cora, and everyone else who was using replay cameras or other electronic means to steal the opposing signs of catchers and pitchers didn’t think baseball had it in it either. Certainly not the Manfred administration, innovators in the field of “study everything, do nothing.”

Those criticisms are history now. Manfred hit his red line, in a way his predecessor Ford Frick — who was worried about nefarious use of center-field cameras 60 years ago — and all the commissioners who came since never did.

Alex Cora’s history, too. Barely a year from basically daring anyone to unseat his Red Sox from baseball’s pinnacle, he’ll be a “dead man walking” if he follows through on scheduled appearances at Thursday’s Baseball Writers’ Association of America dinner and the Red Sox Winter Weekend in Springfield. Houston’s dismissal of Hinch and Luhnow on Monday sets a precedent, if that even matters: Reports suggest Cora’s punishment will be “far longer” than a one-year suspension, which could mean an indefinite one with only the possibility of future reinstatement.

Fair? Who cares. I told you last week Alex Cora would wear this scandal like no one else, and Manfred’s nine-page report proves that point. Quoting:

  • Early in the 2017 season, Cora, in his capacity as Hinch’s bench coach in Houston, “began to call the replay review room on the replay phone to obtain the sign information.”
  • When Houston players — among them Carlos Beltran, who just got his first managerial job with the Mets in November — wanted a more efficient system, “Cora arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout.”
  • “With the exception of Cora, non-player staff, including individuals in the video replay review room, had no involvement” in the trash-can-banging scheme that warned hitters when an off-speed pitch was coming.
  • The trash-can system “with the exception of Cora,” was “player-driven and player-executed.” And Manfred’s not punishing the players, perhaps because it is “both difficult and impractical,” but perhaps because he doesn’t want to tangle with the players union when they’re already girding for a labor war in a couple years.
  • The conclusion: “Cora was involved in developing both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs. Cora participated in both schemes, and through his active participation, implicitly condoned the players’ conduct.”

And that’s just what he did in Houston. It’s nothing to do with the accusations of video room replay use in Boston, immediately after the league issued a memorandum in March 2018 that said, in part, “To be clear, the use of any equipment in the clubhouse or in a Club’s replay or video rooms to decode an opposing Club’s signs during the game” was forbidden.

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He’s guilty. As sin. Whether 29 other teams are right there alongside him in the shadows is entirely beside the point.

Except when you look at things the way Manfred did in his report.

“The Club’s General Manager and Field Manager are responsible for ensuring that the players both understand the rules and adhere to them,” the commissioner wrote, explaining why he wouldn’t be punishing individual players. “Our office issues a substantial number of detailed rules and procedures to Clubs … it is the obligation of the Club, and, in this case, the General Manager and Field Manager, to educate and instruct their players on the rules governing play on the field. Here, because the Club’s Bench Coach [Cora] was an active participant in the scheme, and the Club’s Manager [Hinch] was aware of the scheme and did nothing to stop it, I recognize that some players may have understood that their conduct was not only condoned by the Club, but encouraged by it.”

OK, Rob. So how do you explain following that March 2018 directive with this. Quoting The Athletic, emphasis mine:

“Red Sox sources said [their] system did not appear to be effective or even viable during the 2018 postseason, when the Red Sox went on to win the World Series. Opponents were leery enough of sign stealing — and knowledgeable enough about it — to constantly change their sign sequences. And, for the first time in the sport’s history, MLB instituted in-person monitors in the replay rooms, starting in the playoffs. For the entire regular season, those rooms had been left unguarded.

Paging Captain Renault.

Baseball’s had instant replay (and thus replay rooms) since 2014, which itself came years after clubs began to prioritize video study to improve hitters, scout opposing pitchers, and so much more. You think all those cameras weren’t picking up all sorts of things they shouldn’t have been, catcher signs included? You think teams threw that information in the trash out of honor? The greatest baseball moment of the Boomer generation, The Shot Heard Round the World, was almost certainly aided by a sign stolen via telescope, buzzer, and telephone.

That was 1951, and athletes certainly didn’t develop stronger moral compasses as the thousands of dollars at stake became millions and billions. Heck, former MLBer Tim Flannery wrote years ago about to what extent teams would go for slivers of information like signs. And the stuff he’s talking about, logging tapes of third-base coaches in the hopes they wouldn’t change their systems from game to game, is the legal, relatively luddite stuff.

Baseball let the technological revolution overtake its sport, and quietly hoped everyone behaved themselves. It had to know they wouldn’t, and weren’t. Yet the league that’s bringing in almost $11 billion in annual revenues now couldn’t stick 15 people in 15 active replay rooms every night around the country.

Which brings us back to the beginning. My plaudits to Manfred and Co. were mocking, because they didn’t expose much of anything here, and they certainly didn’t prompt a response to it. The players did: Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers was The Athletic’s public source about what was happening in Houston, and “three people who were with the Red Sox during their 108-win 2018 season” opened the door in Boston.

If this story keeps growing, it’ll be the players at the lead, much the same as the steroid years, when former pitcher Rick Helling was among those who finally prompted baseball to do something about performance-enhancing drugs warping the sport.

Peter Gammons quipped on Tuesday morning about that old-school baseball so many of its fans miss: “When Roger Clemens thought Willie Wilson was feeding signs from second base, they had a yelling match. When Wilson came up to hit, Roger drilled him in the back. End of sign-stealing.”

We hear it all the time: Sports police themselves. Left unsaid is a big piece of why.

Because the billionaires supposedly in charge rarely do it right. They certainly didn’t here, and those of us who love the sport are stuck having to apologize again for their incompetence.