The Hot Corner: A Follow Up to the Red Sox/Yankees Scandal
Issue   |   Tue, 09/26/2017 - 22:19

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred announced Friday that the league office had decided to fine the Boston Red Sox an undisclosed amount for using an Apple Watch to steal signs from opposing teams. Major League Baseball will donate that amount to relief efforts for Hurricane Irma.

The Red Sox are not exactly a head on a stake. Although few expected the MLB to take wins away, the loss of a draft pick did not seem to be an unrealistic expectation. Instead, MLB gave Boston a slap on the wrist and warned the other 29 teams not to repeat their errors. Most seem unsure what to make of Boston’s punishment. Perhaps baseball’s front office is convinced that the Red Sox are only one of many teams that employ technology to decode opponents’ signals and felt that to drop the hammer on Boston would violate basic principles of fairness.

There are, however, other explanations for such a mild punishment. Recall that the Red Sox, shortly after they confessed to the Apple Watch antics, accused the Yankees of using YES Network cameras to spy on Gary DiSarcina, the Sox’s bench coach. Manfred’s office investigated this claim, yet found “insufficient evidence” to support it. One might think that this would end New York’s side of the affair, but it did not. Apparently, while investigating the Sox’s claim, the league discovered that the Yankees had at one point made illegal use of the bullpen phone and fined the team a lesser amount.

Manfred’s statement read, “In the course of our investigation … we learned that during an earlier championship season (prior to 2017) the Yankees had violated a rule governing the use of the dugout phone. No Club complained about the conduct in question at the time and, without prompting from another Club or my Office, the Yankees halted the conduct in question. Moreover, the substance of the communications that took place on the dugout phone was not a violation of any Rule or Regulation in and of itself. Rather, the violation occurred because the dugout phone technically cannot be used for such a communication.”

I have no idea what that means. First, Manfred uses the term “championship season,” which might suggest that this occurred during a year in which the Yankees won the World Series. That narrows the inquiry to 1923, 1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1943, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1977, 1978, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009. But even then, Manfred stresses that the Yankees were not using the phone for any illicit purpose, but merely for a communication for which the dugout phone cannot be used. This leads one to wonder what in the world this purpose might be. Was Nick Swisher asking the bullpen coach if his refrigerator was running? Was C.C. Sabathia using up the league’s long distance account, helping his son with his math homework like Jimmy Morris in The Rookie?

From Manfred’s release, this all seems patently ridiculous. Even if the sign-stealing operation should not be considered a big deal, it still must be a more serious offense than technical misuse of the bullpen phone. The Red Sox at least were attempting to gain an advantage from their loose relationship with the rulebook. Few seem to have any idea what the Yankees were doing, but surely it was not any kind of cheating. Yet Manfred’s release nonetheless creates the appearance that these are equivalent actions. Most headlines reported simply that both the Yankees and Red Sox had been fined, which a less-inquiring reader would take to mean that both the Yankees and Red Sox had been stealing signs. One outlet even erroneously reported that the league confirmed the Red Sox’s allegations regarding YES Network cameras.

This certainly is odd, and not just because it feels weird to demand charitable donations as a punishment. Some reports have suggested that Manfred is quietly unhappy that this issue made the press and wishes the Yankees had handled their grievance more privately. Perhaps this resurfacing of bullpen phone misuse is retribution for breaking understood etiquette. Red Sox general manager Dave Dombrowski, though certainly not an unbiased observer, did say that issues such as this one are typically handled between general managers without league office involvement.

This explains why the Red Sox would be annoyed with the Yankees and why they filed their counter-complaint. But why Major League Baseball would be upset remains unanswered. Unless Rob Manfred is a secret Red Sox fan, why would he care that the Sox have some egg on their face?

Just a week before Manfred released his judgment on the Red Sox, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared at the Patriots’ home opener in Foxboro. Goodell drew a furor from New England fans in 2015 after he handed Tom Brady a four-game suspension for his involvement in deflating footballs during the previous season’s AFC Championship. Goodell was so terrified of the Gillette Stadium crowd that he left the field well before the stadium was expected to be full. The Patriots agreed not to show him on the jumbotron, and he did not sit in team owner Robert Kraft’s luxury box. Boston fans are not ones to be forgiving and can be relentless in their hatred (see: David Price). Goodell had already become persona non grata to many sports fans for reasons far graver than a four-game suspension, but following “Deflategate,” he took over Bucky Dent’s position as New England’s Public Enemy No. One.

With the Apple Watch fiasco, the Yankees handed Manfred an opportunity to end up like Goodell. Like his NFL counterpart, Manfred had to find a suitable punishment for a crime that is hardly ever exposed. He may have wished to create a disincentive for other teams to air the league’s dirty laundry, or he may simply have wanted to avoid becoming the story.

One might also consider the effect this will have on Manfred’s proposed rule changes for the coming winter. One such idea is limiting a catcher’s mound visits to one per inning. Another is raising the bottom of the strike zone. These reflect baseball’s two major (and somewhat contradictory) aims: to make the games faster, and to increase offensive output. A light-handed response to sign stealing adds an interesting and complicated element to Manfred’s objectives. Catchers often visit the pitcher to change up the sign sequence when they think the other team has picked their code. If the catcher can no longer do that, a team with an Apple Watch and a runner on second can steal away until the inning is over. This might be a golden opportunity for Manfred to get everything he wants. If he can cut down on mound visits, insert a pitch clock and make offense more potent while he’s at it, baseball would become the fast-paced, must-watch slugfest of Manfred’s dreams. A proliferation of technologically-aided sign stealing could make the Players’ Association less likely to accept these rule changes, but if they get through it certainly is in Manfred’s interest to let the shenanigans continue. This is not to accuse Manfred of some elaborate conspiracy, but his decision showed that both rule-breaking and tattling will have consequences. We will have to wait to see which consequence teams fear more.