If you are just joining us, the Houston Astros (if you don’t know that’s a baseball team, then none of this will make sense to you, and neither does the United States in all likelihood) were slammed by Major League Baseball after it was determined that the team, primarily through the efforts of then-coach Alex Cora and veteran player Carlos Beltran, systematically utilized cameras at home games to steal catchers’ signs to opposing pitchers and relay them to Astros batters during their at-bats. This, the investigation found, continued through the 2017 season, post-season and World Series, which the Astros won. (Ethics Alarms covered the cheating scandal from many aspects, here.) The punishment meted out to the Astros was substantial, though not as severe as some, including me, would have liked. I think the team should have been stripped of their 2017 World Championship.
Shortly after the Astros scandal was first revealed by the baseball news media, the next year’s World Champions, the Boston Red Sox, were accused of another sign stealing scheme during 2018, one that involved using the team’s video replay equipment, which is near the dugout during games, to study the opposing team’s signs and relay them to batters. This seemed especially ominous since the bench coach who had been identified as the mastermind behind the Astros scheme in 2017 was the manager of the Red Sox in 2018, and had led them to a record-setting World Series run.
MLB interviewed Red Sox players and management in a mysteriously long investigation, and only yesterday revealed the results and the sanctions. Boston’s video replay system operator J.T. Watkins was suspended without pay for one year, and banned from holding that same position with any team. Boston was stripped of the its second-round draft pick in the2020 amateur. Alex Cora, who was fired by the Red Sox in January after the revelations from the Astros investigation, was suspended for this year, but only for his Astros conduct in 2017. The investigation exonerated him of any role in the Sox matter, which MLB found to be confined to Watkins acting on his own intermittently, and a few players.
Unlike in the Astros case, MLB concluded that Red Sox upper management had properly emphasized how technology could and could not be used within baseball’s rules, and had no way of knowing about the limited cheating. (The Astros manager and general manager were both given long suspensions without pay.)
The suspension of the obscure Watkins, with no coaches or players receiving penalties for their actions during the 2018 season, was welcome news to Boston fans, who dreaded the team receiving the kind of public condemnation that has attached itself to the Astros.
While Watkins certainly cheated , he may deserve some sympathy because the team placed him in a conflicted situation. Similarly, the Red Sox deserve blame for putting him in such straits. Watkins was the team’s advance scouting assistant, meaning that part of his job was to ferret out opposing teams’ signs the old fashioned way, by watching games. He was also the team’s video replay coordinator, which required him to check controversial plays on video and alert the manager regarding whether an umpire’s call should be challenged. The report states that Watkins “on at least some occasions during the 2018 regular season, illegally utilized game feeds in the replay room to help players during games.”
On game days, Watkins worked with the coaching staff to prepare the team for opponents, while also checking on video in the replay room whenever needed. In announcing the sanction against him, Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred acknowledged that Watkins’s dual roles created a conflict.
“He was placed in the difficult position of often knowing what the correct sequences were but being prohibited by rule from assisting the players by providing the correct information,” Manfred explained. “While this does not excuse or justify his conduct, I do believe that it created a situation in which he felt pressure as the club’s primary expert on decoding sign sequences to relay information that was consistent with what he naturally observed on the in-game video.”
Yes, I’d say that’s a conflict of interest, and both a serious and obvious one. Neither Watkins nor the Red Sox were able to figure out that the two roles made cheating regarding signs ridiculously easy?
I don’t believe it.