Buzzers, burner accounts and conspiracies: Inside baseball's day of epic chaos
BASEBALL LOST ITS mind Thursday. Every sport endures this: part-cleansing, part-reckoning, part-recalibration -- a day to release everything, good, bad and otherwise, a full-throated scream into the void. It was inevitable, building up over the previous three days, each unforgettable in its own right. History will treat Thursday as a footnote, even if it said as much about the sport's current state as Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday combined.
It started with a discussion about whether the player who helped expose the game's biggest cheating scandal in a century was a whistleblower or a narc, moved on to the firing of a manager who hadn't even managed a game, degenerated into anonymous Twitter accounts lobbing entirely uncorroborated accusations of even worse cheating, giddily grew into a miasma of conspiratorial, frame-by-frame breakdowns of jerseys and lip-reading and confetti. It was a beautiful, ugly, transfixing, maddening, godforsaken mess, simultaneously addictive and repulsive. For one day, baseball felt like a real modern sport, full of verve, and not one stuck in the morass of its past.
"This is the greatest thing I've ever seen," one general manager said midafternoon, when -- and this is a real thing -- he called to ask whether the fired New York Mets manager actually had a niece who was tweeting about the 2019 Houston Astros wearing buzzers under their uniforms that let them know which pitch was coming. "I want to take this day and freeze it in time so I can keep living it."
By the end of Thursday, Major League Baseball and a target of the accusations both had chimed in, players across the sport had offered their feelings on the matter -- a matter that still, it is important to note, has zero factual backing -- and the 12-hour fire hose of raw, uncut content had satiated the masses with plenty of leftovers for the next day.
On the baseball calendar, Jan. 16 is typically nondescript, just a day to X off on the countdown to spring training, and not a "Real Housewives" episode dressed in a tinfoil hat. The thing is, for all of the drama, the disappointment, the pettiness, the anger -- for how so very 2020 the day was -- this particular Jan. 16 told a story, and a fine one at that. Of where baseball has been, where it is now and where it is going next.
EXACTLY 15 MONTHS before Thursday, on Oct. 16, 2018, the Houston Astros hosted the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. During Game 1 in Boston, a low-level baseball-operations staffer for Houston named Kyle McLaughlin had been removed from a camera well for aiming a cellphone toward the Red Sox's dugout. The Astros claimed they were worried the Red Sox were cheating. For more than a year before that ALCS, teams around the league had expressed fear the Astros were the ones cheating. Two players told me at the time that Astros players had been hitting a garbage can to share stolen signs. Major League Baseball said it was investigating. Nothing came of it.
Today, both teams are without their managers from that ALCS, which represents the highest-profile meeting between the two teams that have personified the game's cheating scandal. In 2017, when the Astros won the World Series, they were banging on garbage cans to relay signs filched from the catcher using an illicit center-field camera. And in 2018, when the Red Sox won the World Series, they spent the season, according to a report by The Athletic, using a video-replay room to decode sign sequences and pass them along to hitters to convey while on the basepaths.
What unfolded Jan. 16, 2020, then, wasn't some anomalous event, a string of accidents and coincidences and happenstance. It was an evolutionary byproduct of a baseball world gone bonkers, one in which the ridiculous -- hammering a trash can with a bat -- is true. Just because you're paranoid, Joseph Heller might have said, doesn't mean they aren't wearing buzzing Band-Aids.
The fallout from The Athletic's story in November, which provided a clear picture of how the Astros cheated thanks to on-the-record quotes from former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers, has been unlike anything baseball has seen since the 1919 Black Sox threw the World Series. The MLB investigation prompted by the story included interviews with dozens of witnesses, reviewed tens of thousands of documents and led to a nine-page report from commissioner Rob Manfred that left little doubt of the hubris it took to engage in such systematic cheating.
Released Monday, the report buried the Astros and led to full-season suspensions of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch. An hour after the report's distribution, Astros owner Jim Crane went on TV and fired Luhnow and Hinch. Barely a day later, the Red Sox wasted no time in firing their manager, Alex Cora, whom the report had singled out as a mastermind of the Astros' trash-can-banging scheme when he served as their bench coach in 2017. On Wednesday, Mets executives huddled in Port St. Lucie, Florida, their spring home, arguing over the fate of their manager, Carlos Beltran, who was a player for the 2017 Astros and was named in Manfred's report. His situation called for contemplation: The Mets were considering firing Beltran even though Manfred had not disciplined him.
It began earlier than anticipated, with ESPN Sunday Night Baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza, who is also employed by the Mets as an adviser, enduring a deluge of criticism for telling the Golic and Wingo radio show that she disagreed with Fiers' decision to reveal the Astros' cheating publicly. This is not an uncommon view within the sport, where Fiers is regarded more as a snitch than the person who exposed baseball's dirtiest secret.
Hours later, the Mets reaffirmed the decision they were leaning toward the previous night despite Beltran's protestations that he could weather whatever troubles the future might pose: They would fire him 77 days after they hired him. It mattered not whether the decision was right or just or prudent. Scandals are nasty and unwieldy, and their unpredictability incentivizes excision. Rehabilitation is too difficult.
Just look at the reputation of the Astros -- of their swift descent from loved to loathed. It was on full display in the aftermath of Beltran's dismissal, which prompted a Twitter account that purported to be run by a niece of Beltran to accuse Astros stars Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman of wearing electronic buzzers. Such rumors have percolated for months without substantiation. The social media masses, drunk on schadenfreude, nevertheless spread the tweets with glee. ESPN's Marly Rivera reported that Beltran's wife, Jessica, said the account wasn't run by anyone related to the family. It did nothing to stop the speculating. Context is no match for bloodlust.
Look at what the internet had done for the scandal in the first place. Soon after the original story ran, Jimmy O'Brien, a New York Yankees fan who runs Jomboy Media, found video clips of an at-bat between Houston DH Evan Gattis and Chicago White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar. In it, the audible trash-can bangs provide a soundtrack against which O'Brien illustrates how the Astros' scheme worked. It was brilliant and damning and birthed dozens more videos that laid bare the Astros' cheating. MLB didn't even need to go through tape. The evidence was one Reddit link away.
O'Brien's sleuthing success begat Thursday. He amplified the faux niece's faux tweets -- and got a retweet from Cincinnati starter Trevor Bauer saying he'd heard the same. He circulated a picture of Astros outfielder Josh Reddick wearing what looked like tape over a wire. It was actually a piece of gold confetti, from the Astros' 2019 ALCS celebration, that stuck to his skin and covered a skinny chain. Just as bad was the Zapruder-like breakdown of the final 90 feet in Altuve's home run trot after his pennant-clinching home run. Altuve didn't want his shirt torn off. Amateur lip readers thought he said one thing. Other amateur lip readers thought he said another -- in Spanish. If all the Astros were involved, why had Carlos Correa allowed his shirt to be ripped off after walking off Game 2?
The absurdity was multiplying, and that was before the players started talking. National League MVP Cody Bellinger, part of the Los Angeles Dodgers teams that lost World Series to Houston in 2017 and Boston in 2018, said: "For the sake of the game I hope this isn't true.. if true, there needs to be major consequences to the players. That Completely ruins the integrity of the game!!!" His Dodgers teammate Alex Wood tweeted: "I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch was coming."
Already MLB had addressed 2019 in its report: "The investigation revealed no violations of the policy by the Astros in the 2019 season or 2019 Postseason." Suddenly, this was up for debate, an interesting choice by the masses, which had accepted the rest of the report as fact. This was the paranoia, the acknowledgment that MLB hadn't pursued past cases with urgency, so why would it for this one? The crowd grew louder and included swaths of people in front offices, who texted the Reddick picture and the Altuve video and wondered whether there was a there there.
They want to believe there is -- that the Astros didn't just stop after winning the World Series or losing to the Red Sox in 2018, because that's illogical. Who finds grand success with something and ... stops? The Astros cheating in 2019 makes more sense than it doesn't. The Astros advancing beyond the trash can to something more technologically advanced does, too. And in this moment, where baseball is vulnerable, where the bounds of believability have been stretched, the plausible feels probable, and feelings serve as information's gatekeeper.
Altuve was trending No. 1 nationally on Twitter when the league released a statement: "MLB explored wearable devices during the investigation but found no evidence to substantiate it." Altuve offered a comment through his agent, Scott Boras: "I have never worn an electronic device in my performance as a major league player." Bregman said nothing.
When the chatter petered out, there was no clarity. The public was no closer to the truth. Beltran's dismissal had unleashed a circular firing squad. MLB wants the public to believe its investigation is thorough and valid, and some players don't seem inclined to buy that and fans just love the lolz and invalid opinions receive unwarranted validation. Monday was historic and Tuesday was drastic and Wednesday was pensive. Thursday was something different. Jan. 16, 2020 was, like the scandal itself, simply wild.
NARRATIVES ARE PARASITIC little beings, attaching themselves to hosts and sucking the life out of them, and the emergence of the buzzer theory, however specious it may be, affixed itself with aplomb Thursday to baseball's cheating scandal. Certainly the acceptance of skulduggery in 2020 didn't hurt the rapidity with which it spread, but let's not act like this is some sort of modern novelty. Sports loves a great conspiracy.
The frozen envelope that delivered Patrick Ewing to the Knicks. The reason behind Michael Jordan's first retirement. The power outage that allowed Cal Ripken Jr. to continue his consecutive-games-played streak. Every NBA ref story. Anything involving the Patriots. The buzzers fit this oeuvre.
And ... so did the trash can. That, more than anything, gave Thursday its oxygen. If the Astros were willing to engage in that scheme, what would stop them from taking it a step further? Technology is baseball's lodestar; its limitlessness is something to be exploited by those who found no moral or ethical issues with the trash can. The buzzer will not go away because reason dictates it oughtn't.
It's part of why Thursday was so troublesome for MLB: The narrative got away from the league. From the beginning, MLB has looked into only what has been alleged by reputable sources. The Athletic's story about the Astros spurred an investigation into the Astros, and its story about the Red Sox had the same effect. When asked a week after the initial Astros story broke about the possibility of a wide-ranging, independent investigation to ensure a full accounting of baseball's cheating, Manfred said he did not believe one was necessary.
That approach, sources said, has not changed -- not even with Crane saying after firing Luhnow and Hinch: "The commissioner assured me that every team and every allegation will be checked out, and he'll conduct the same investigation he conducted on us." Players, for one, would be unlikely to participate in a larger-scale, leaguewide investigation, according to sources. In the completed Astros investigation and ongoing Red Sox investigation, the league has promised players immunity in exchange for truthful testimony. Manfred didn't discipline any Astros despite calling the scheme "player-driven." Still, he did name Beltran, whose firing frustrated multiple player representatives in the MLB Players Association, including one who said: "It's easy to say players got off easy when all the info is out. None of that info is gathered if immunity isn't granted. Doesn't really feel like Beltran got immunity right now, does it?"
Communication between the league and union will continue, including in conversations about an overhauled set of rules regarding the use of technology in games. The sides, sources said, are considering a wide array of options -- everything from an outright ban on in-game video to no video from that day's game to less restrictive measures intended to discourage players from cheating. One addition that's almost certain, sources said: suspensions for anyone -- players included -- who uses technology-driven cheating. An announcement on new rules, sources said, is expected before spring training.
Reclaiming control after a calamitous day like Thursday could take time. MLB can't play puppeteer with anyone. All it takes is one person with one social media account to denounce the omertà keeping almost everyone silent and explain everything -- if there's anything to explain. Manfred's report said investigators talked with 68 people connected to the Astros, and 23 of them were players. That means there are plenty of Astros from 2017 to 2019 to whom MLB didn't speak, though that investigation is closed unless someone gives the league reason to reopen it.
Players know the consequences if any additional information surfaces, which is why denials quickly followed accusations Thursday. Former Braves general manager John Coppolella broke rules about international signing bonuses. It was a misdemeanor to the Astros' felony. But Coppolella lied about it. And for that, he remains permanently banned from baseball.
This sign-stealing scandal poses by far the greatest threat of Manfred's commissionership, and a day like Thursday, which introduces something like a buzzer into a landscape ready to believe anything, certainly does no favors. Thursday synopsized what Manfred faces: a scandal that no matter how tidily he tries to bow-wrap it remains, at least for now, maybe forever, amorphous, full of surprises, ever ready to grow another tentacle. It's represented in the nervous calls of executives wondering if disgruntled ex-employees are saying anything, in the feverish Twitterverse fiending for content, in the opportunity for one man to change baseball history just like Mike Fiers did. It's there, coiled and poised, all possibility, every day ready to lose its mind like Jan. 16, 2020.