Red Sox

Three major Boston sports stories coronavirus has obscured and/or delayed

We await resolutions on Red Sox sign stealing, another Patriots spygate, and David Ortiz's shooting.

Alex Cora, Bill Belichick, David Ortiz
The coronavirus has obscured and/or delayed big stories surrounding Alex Cora, Bill Belichick, and David Ortiz. Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

It’s only been a month.

Saturday was April 11. Though it feels far longer ago, March 11 brought both the formal declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden suspension of the NBA season, the latter when the situation’s gravity began to materialize for millions of Americans. As everyday life has halted, so have our sports, the UFC on Thursday the latest and essentially last domino to fall.

It’s hard to deny sports feel trivial now, but it remains a multi-billion dollar industry, employing hundreds of thousands in one form or another and dictating the mood (and spending) of billions more around the globe. It can cross racial and social divides in a way many things can’t, and is an unassailable driver of civic pride — one look around New England the last 20 years makes that clear.

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When the world stopped a month ago, so too did much of the daily drumbeat around our leagues, teams, and players, including some significant stories. A moment, then, to remember where we stand and what we’re waiting on.

The Red Sox sign-stealing investigation

On Jan. 7, six days before Major League Baseball handed down significant penalties to the Houston Astros for illicit sign stealing throughout their 2017 championship season, the Red Sox were publicly dragged into the mire. The same Athletic team of Ken Rosenthal and former NBC Sports Boston reporter Evan Drellich which broke the Houston story reported, during Boston’s 119-victory 2018, that “at least some [Red Sox] players visited the video replay room during games to learn the sign sequence opponents were using.”

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That wasn’t news to Major League Baseball. Sports Illustrated reported the accusations arose in MLB’s investigation of the Astros, and MLB had planned to pursue them “privately” until The Athletic’s piece, which did come with a number of caveats and drew a clear line between Boston’s and Houston’s actions. Still, it was a second strike, both for the Red Sox — fined, along with the Yankees, for illegally using electronics in the dugout in 2017 — and for then-manager Alex Cora, Houston’s 2017 bench coach and a critical part of the Astros adapting a legal code-translation system developed in its front office to one illegally used in real time.

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Cora and the Red Sox parted ways on Jan. 14, one day after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred cited Cora’s “active participation” in Houston’s schemes as he suspended both manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for 2020. (Each was subsequently fired; new Mets manager Carlos Beltran, widely viewed as the player ringleader in Houston, was also dismissed.)

“I will withhold determining the appropriate level of discipline for Cora until after the [Department of Investigations] completes its investigation” of the Red Sox, wrote Manfred in the report released Jan. 13.

We still await that discipline, Manfred buried in previously absurd scenarios just trying to stage any semblance of a 2020 season. The commissioner said on Feb. 6 that he hoped to have the investigation complete before spring camps opened the following week, but was unable to do so, telling ESPN on Feb. 16 that things had gone “not as fast as I had hoped when we began.”

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The timeline changed to within two weeks. On Feb. 25, MLB Players Association boss Tony Clark said it was his understanding the investigation was complete and “we’re just waiting for the decision itself,” but late February became early March, then “before the regular season” as coronavirus began sweeping everything else to the side.

“We are done with the investigation. There’s been a delay in terms of producing a written report, just because I, frankly, have not had time to turn to it with the other issues,” Manfred said March 25 on ESPN. “But we will get a Boston report out before we resume play.”

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The daily fantasy players attempting to sue the team for its malfeasance at least got a resolution.

Spygate II

Three days before the Red Sox story broke, Tom Brady played the final game of his 20-year epic as New England Patriots quarterback. No. 12’s future has been resolved, but at least one detail from his final season in Foxborough hasn’t.

The Patriots once again were subject to NFL discipline when, on Dec. 8, a Kraft Sports Productions crew was caught filming the Cincinnati Bengals sideline from the press box during Cincy’s game in Cleveland. The immediate explanation seemed reasonable: As part of the “Do Your Job” shadowing series on Patriots.com, a video team was following one of New England’s advance scouts. It had been credentialed, and the work OK’d, by the Browns for the Dec. 8 game, but no one notified Cincinnati — whom the Patriots were playing the following week.

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There was nothing covert about the crew’s work, the videographer positioned in the front row of the press box, supporting the idea they were simply ignorant of rules banning filming the field or sideline from the press box. Had the crew wanted to film Cincinnati’s sideline and signals, it could have done so legally from elsewhere in the stadium. (They’re also available off normal game film, the NFL’s concern more with teams swiping them illicitly in real time.)

“The production crew is independent of our football operation,” the Patriots said in a statement the following day, also noting the crew turned over all footage to the league when questioned.

“I find it hard to believe that Bill Belichick, or anyone on that staff, would be this dumb to do something this blatant with someone in team gear,” posited Fox’s Howie Long the following week.

Given the history and success of the Patriots, however, the story was headline news. The Bengals, 1-12 at the time, were described as “livid.” Expectations were the Patriots would be severely punished, to the tune of “a fine in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and the loss of a low-level draft pick,” wrote the Globe on Dec. 15, when it reported the team was suspending the senior coordinating producer who oversaw the filming.

As above, an expected quick investigation dragged. The Washington Post reported on New Year’s Day that the NFL’s inquiry was “winding down and could be completed as soon as this week,” but commissioner Roger Goodell said during Super Bowl week it was still ongoing.

“Our responsibility is to make sure we’re being extremely thorough,’’ Goodell said on Jan. 29. “Our team has been on it. We have been focused on this. It has not been that lengthy of a time. We have obviously put our focus on it, but we’re going to get it right. When we come to a conclusion, we’ll certainly make sure people are aware of it.’’

NFL Security reportedly completed its final interview in the third week of February, the Globe‘s Ben Volin writing on Feb. 26 that “there is still no precise timetable for a release of the findings, but it is drawing close.”

At least it was before the pandemic.

David Ortiz’s shooting

It’s been 10 months since the Red Sox legend was nearly killed in his native Dominican Republic, but the story is far from resolved, even if its 43-year-old centerpiece is back to being the gregarious face of the franchise. (And well enough to sell people his unwanted area rugs and laundry detergent.)

Within three weeks of the June 9, 2019, shooting, 14 arrests were made, including the suspected mastermind, Victor Hugo Gomez Vasquez. Dominican police painted a case of mistaken identity. The target, with a bounty of $30,000, was actually Sixto David Fernández, Gomez Vasquez’s cousin who’d previously reported him to authorities. A friend of Ortiz, Fernández was sitting with him at a lounge in Santo Domingo that night.

Doubts ran rampant amid widespread police distrust, reports of love triangles and drug rings, and the simple struggle to believe a national hero of Ortiz’s stature could be mistaken as someone else. Ortiz had them as well. He first hired former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis as security when he was medflighted back to the US and admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital, then tasked Davis to look deeper into the case.

“I want to find out who did this,” Ortiz told the Globe in September. “I’m not going to sit around and chill if there’s somebody out there who wants to kill me.”

A month later, Ortiz’s mind was apparently at ease. In an October interview that got essentially no notice in English media, but that multiple Dominican outlets cited as with CNN, Ortiz said Davis — who founded his own private security firm in 2014 — found nothing that disputed the police findings.

“The attack was not directed against me,” Ortiz said. “I am not afraid to go to my country. I understand that I don’t have any kind of enemy there. … I will not be there walking in the street as I did before, because now I understand the danger, and that is what happened to me, but I am not afraid to return to my country.”

Ortiz returned to the Dominican Republic twice in December, appearing at a charity baseball exhibition in Santo Domingo and meeting with DR president Danilo Medina just before New Year’s. This February, speaking at Red Sox camp, the team ambassador attacked former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers for “look[ing] like a snitch” because Fiers went to The Athletic with the tip that berthed baseball’s recent sign-stealing scandal.

News surrounding the shooting had slowed to a trickle even before the pandemic. Alleged drug lord Cesar Emilio Peralta was arrested on trafficking charges in December, then extradited from Colombia to Florida in February. Dominican police said during the summer “Cesar The Abuser” wasn’t connected to the Ortiz case, but the suspected cartel leader was prominent among early reports tying the crime to a fight over a woman. (Peralta has reportedly claimed Ortiz is “like my brother,” which Ortiz disputed through a spokesman.)

In March, a Dominican investigation and arrest of former fringe major leaguer Eugenio Velez on arms trafficking reportedly unearthed evidence that could be tied to the shooting.

At least 11 of the 14 arrested suspects can be held for up to a year while a case is built against them. At least two more suspects remain at large.

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