As the 2021 MLB playoffs continue, one half of the World Series is set: The Houston Astros beat the Boston Red Sox 5-0 Friday night to win the American League Championship Series and advance to their third Fall Classic in five years.
Houston won its only championship in 2017, defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games. But that season has since been clouded in scandal. Major League Baseball investigated — and punished — the organization for stealing signs, and the team and its core players have faced constant reminders of it ever since.
With the Astros back in the World Series for the first time since one of the biggest scandals in baseball history broke, here are some of the key moments — from the initial allegations to today:
Nov. 12, 2019: In an article published by The Athletic, former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers alleged the team used various sign-stealing methods during the 2017 season. Fiers said the team used a center-field camera to feed video to a room behind the team’s dugout. From there, players would bang on a trash can to alert hitters to what pitches were coming.
MLB’s official investigation, which began with The Athletic story, found that about two months into the 2017 season, then-Astros outfielder Carlos Beltran and other players discussed how to improve decoding techniques. Then-Astros bench coach Alex Cora had a TV monitor installed in the dugout for players and staff to use. From there, they devised a trash can-banging code to tip pitches. According to MLB’s investigation, this effort was largely player-driven.
Following the initial report, internet sleuths went to work, dissecting and posting video clips to track all of trash can banging.
Nov. 22, 2019: Sources told ESPN that MLB officials had asked players associated with the organization what they knew about a range of alleged sign-stealing techniques.
At the time, those techniques were rumored to include: “buzzing,” via the use of Band-Aid-like wearable stickers; furtive earpieces; pitch-picking algorithms; and other potential methods.
Jan. 13, 2020: MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced the findings of the investigation.
He said he held general manager Jeff Luhnow “personally accountable for the conduct of his club. It is the job of the general manager to be aware of the activities of his staff and players, and to ensure that those activities comport with both standards of conduct set by club ownership and MLB rules.”
The report stated that manager AJ Hinch did not devise or participate in the scheme. However, he also did not stop it. Though he did twice smash the video monitor to show his displeasure.
The report also said that the scheme was not used when the Astros returned to the World Series in 2018 and lost to the Washington Nationals.
As a result, Luhnow and Hinch were fired by the Astros. The team was fined $5 million, the maximum amount it could be penalized financially. Hinch was suspended from managing for one year.
Jan. 14, 2020: After being implicated in the report, Cora, who was hired as the Red Sox manager in 2018, and the club mutually agreed to part ways while awaiting punishment from the league.
This was the day of the Carlos Beltran “niece” tweets that alleged the use of buzzers and the internet went wild — though none of that was ever proved.
Jan. 28, 2020: The Astros announced the hiring of Dusty Baker as their new manager. The deal was for one year and included a team option for the 2021 season.
Feb. 6, 2020: Hinch, in an interview with MLB Network, didn’t dismiss the idea that Houston’s 2017 World Series championship had been tainted by the sign-stealing scandal.
Altuve said the Astros had a “great team meeting” and said the “whole Astros organization feels bad for what happened in 2017.”
“[I] especially feel remorse for the impact on our fans and the game of baseball,” he said.
Feb. 13, 2020: New York Yankees reliever Aroldis Chapman said that Altuve’s actions at the end of the 2019 ALCS were “a little suspicious.” Chapman was also part of the Yankees team that lost to the Astros in the 2017 ALCS.
In the final game of the 2019 ALCS, Altuve hit a series-ending walk-off home run against Chapman. As Altuve rounded third base, he clutched at the collar of his shirt, yelling at teammates not to rip off his jersey — actions that have since raised speculation about whether he might have been wearing some kind of device that tipped him off to the identity of the forthcoming pitch. Those allegations were never proved, and teammate Carlos Correa said Altuve didn’t want to have his jersey torn off because he didn’t want to show a bad tattoo.
Feb. 16, 2020: Manfred defended the punishments handed down in response to the sign-stealing scandal, even though no Astros players were punished and the team kept its 2017 World Series title.
In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravech, Manfred said MLB would institute new rules to police the use of technology before the 2020 season.
Feb. 18, 2020: At the start of spring training, players around the league were not pleased about the scandal.
“You cheated and you didn’t earn it,” Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge said of the 2017 World Series championship won by the Astros. “It wasn’t earned the way of playing the game right and fighting to the end. The biggest thing about competition is laying it all out on the line, and whoever’s the better player, better person, comes out on top. And to know that another team had an advantage — nothing that you can really guard against — I just don’t feel like that’s earned.”
Feb. 22, 2020: In the spring training opener of 2020, the Astros were booed upon taking the field to face the Nationals.
In addition to the team being immediately booed at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, many fans in the stands had signs with asterisks.
July 20, 2020: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, no fans were allowed to attend games and no fans were in any ballpark to boo the Astros.
July 28, 2020: During the first meeting between the Dodgers and Astros since the sign-stealing scandal came out, Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly threw a fastball behind Bregman’s head and later taunted Carlos Correa on the way back to the dugout. MLB initially handed out an eight-game suspension to Kelly for inciting the bench-clearing incident. After an appeal, the suspension was reduced to five games,
Kelly said his anger toward Astros players had more to do with how they handled the sign-stealing investigation than the actual cheating itself.
“The people who took the fall for what happened is nonsense,” Kelly said as a guest on “The Big Swing,” a podcast hosted by teammate Ross Stripling. “Yes, everyone is involved. But the way that [sign-stealing system] was run over there was not from the coaching staff. … They’re not the head boss in charge of that thing. It’s the players. So now the players get the immunity, and all they do is go snitch like a little b—-, and they don’t have to get fined, they don’t have to lose games.”
Oct. 8, 2020: After going 29-31 and getting into the postseason because of the expanded playoff format in 2020, the Astros defeated the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS to reach their fourth straight ALCS. They eventually lost to the Rays in seven games.
Oct. 19, 2020: Luhnow again denied knowing about the Astros’ sign stealing, and said individuals who were involved with the scandal were still working for the club.
Luhnow told Houston TV station KPRC he got access to 22,000 text messages from Astros video room personnel after he was fired. He said the messages — which were part of MLB’s investigation into the scandal — clearly showed the scope of the cheating and exonerated him from wrongdoing.
In response, Manfred disputed Luhnow’s account of the events: “I think it’s pretty clear from the facts that Mr. Luhnow failed to discharge that obligation. He damaged the game, and as a result, he was disciplined.”
Nov. 9, 2020: Luhnow filed a lawsuit against the Astros for breach of contract, seeking more than $22 million after alleging his firing was through a “negotiated resolution” between owner Jim Crane and Manfred that allowed the Astros to keep their 2017 World Series championship.
Luhnow’s attorneys wrote in the filing that the agreement between Crane and Manfred “scapegoated Luhnow for a sign-stealing scandal that he had no knowledge of and played no part in.”
April 2, 2021: Playing on the road in front of fans for the first time since news of the scandal broke, the Astros were booed loudly in Oakland with chants of “Cheaters!” heard regularly during the series with the A’s. “Got to hear some boos, finally. That wasn’t fun to listen to, I didn’t think, but we played good so it didn’t matter,” pitcher Zach Greinke said after Houston won the series opener 8-1. “Hopefully we’ll keep playing good and it won’t be as big of an issue.”
In addition to signs, there were many chants of “Astros suck!” “Cheaters!” and “Where’s your trash can?” Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Yuli Gurriel also received nonstop boos when up to bat.
“You can tell the amount of hostility and the amount of hatred in the stands,” Baker said after one game. “How many in the stands have never done anything wrong in their life? We paid the price for it. How many people have not cheated on a test or whatever at some point in time? I mean it’s easy if you live in glass houses, but I don’t think anybody lives in glass houses.”
July 11, 2021: With the Astros facing the Yankees, Altuve and Judge went head-to-head. The Astros shortstop got the last laugh with a walk-off home run. Altuve rounded home with his shirt off.
Oct. 10 2021: White Sox reliever Ryan Tepera implied the Astros might have stolen signs during their division series, saying, “They’ve obviously had a reputation of doing some sketchy stuff over there,” and pointed to Houston’s home/road splits this season. Baker pushed back against Tepera’s comments, calling them “heavy accusations,” and pulled no punches himself: “I had never even heard his name before we played the White Sox.” He added: “So I don’t have much response to that other than I was listening to Eric Clapton this morning, and he had a song, ‘Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look at Yourself).’ … You know what I mean? That’s all I got to say.”
Houston went on to defeat the White Sox to reach their fifth straight ALCS.
Oct. 22 2021: The Astros eliminated the Red Sox in Game 6 of the ALCS to reach their third World Series in five years.
MLB Players Association to make counteroffer to league in Monday meeting
The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to make an in-person labor proposal to the league on Monday, sources told ESPN, countering MLB’s offer last week that did little to loosen the gridlock that has gripped the sport after the league locked out the players Dec. 2.
Should the players’ offer do little to advance the negotiations that thus far haven’t yielded any substantive progress, the scheduled start to spring training in mid-February will grow that much unlikelier. And the longer discussions on a new collective-bargaining agreement last, the more they jeopardize Opening Day on March 31.
The gap between the players and league remains significant, with the union seeking major financial gains in a number of areas and owners trying to hold firm with what they currently pay in salaries. Other issues players have said remain a priority include anti-tanking measures and fixing service-time manipulation.
Any concessions players make in their offer could provide a roadmap to the negotiations. Before implementing the lockout, the league asked the union to drop three areas of discussion: earlier free agency for players, salary arbitration after two years instead of three and changes to the revenue-sharing plan. The union did not agree to the condition when presented with it Dec. 1, and the league left the bargaining table, locking out the players hours later.
Forty-three days later, the league returned to the union with an offer that included paying players with two to three years of service based on a formula, slight modifications to the draft lottery it previously had proposed and a mechanism that would reward teams with draft picks when top prospects who started on opening day rosters win awards.
The proposal did little to entice players, who after losing financial ground during the previous labor agreement want to make gains this time around.
News of the MLBPA’s expected counterproposal was first reported by The Associated Press
Robot umpires at home plate moving up to Triple-A for 2022, one step away from major league baseball
NEW YORK — Robot umpires have been given a promotion and will be just one step from the major leagues this season. Major League Baseball is expanding its automated strike zone experiment to Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.
MLB’s website posted a hiring notice seeking seasonal employees to operate the Automated Ball-Strike system. MLB said it is recruiting employees to operate the system for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters and Tacoma Rainiers.
The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game in July 2019 and experimented with ABS during the second half of that season. The system also was used in the Arizona Fall League for top prospects in 2019, drawing complaints of its calls on breaking balls.
There were no minor leagues in 2020 because of the pandemic, and robot umps were used last season in eight of nine ballparks at the Low-A Southeast League.
The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to use the system at the major league level.
“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.
MLB said the robot umpires will be used at some spring training ballparks in Florida, will remain at Low A Southeast and could be used at non-MLB venues.
Tampa Bay Rays say split-season plan with Montreal rejected by MLB
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays‘ proposed plan to split the season between Florida and Montreal has been rejected by Major League Baseball.
Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg announced the news on Thursday.
“Today’s news is flat-out deflating,” Sternberg said.
The idea of playing in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal has been discussed over the past several years after attempts to build a new full-time ballpark locally failed.
Montreal had a big league team from 1969, when the expansion Expos began play, through 2004. The Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals for the 2005 season.
The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the team has played since its inaugural season in 1998, expires after the 2027 season.
Since Sternberg took control in October 2005, the once-struggling franchise has been a success on the field but not at the box office.
Despite reaching the World Series in 2008 and 2020, the Rays have annually ranked near the bottom in attendance. The Rays averaged about 9,500 for home games last season, 28th in the majors and ahead of only Miami and Oakland.
St. Petersburg mayor Ken Welch feels a new stadium in his city remains a possibility. Governmental officials have been working on a redevelopment plan for the Tropicana Field site.
“We are working with our county partners and city council to put together the best plan possible, which will work in conjunction with my planned evolution of the Tropicana Field master development proposals,” Welch said in a statement. “With this collaborative approach, I am confident we can partner with the Tampa Bay Rays to create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic equitable economic growth.”
Sternberg said the team will definitely explore options in the Tampa Bay area.
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