Baseball May Be Missing, But Baseball Ethics Marches On; The MLB Verdict On The Boston Red Sox Sign Stealing Allegations

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.

9 thoughts on “Baseball May Be Missing, But Baseball Ethics Marches On; The MLB Verdict On The Boston Red Sox Sign Stealing Allegations

  1. “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) ”

    I believe this is a biased statement.

    Which I heartily agree with, making it confirmation bias.

    But can either be true if that statement is objective truth?

    I’d like to think I’m learning in my travels here…

    • Jacques Barzun, the cultural philosopher, famously said, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game.”

      It can’t be objective truth, since reasonable minds may differ, and there is no certain way to prove the proposition, which is why I said “in all likelihood.” I’m giving a Smithsonian lecture on how baseball has influenced American culture, including the arts, history, literature, values, ethics and more. I’m not at all certain that someone who doesn’t understand baseball can get why Jackie Robinson being a baseball player mattered, and why him breaking the color line was so momentous.

      Ideally, there should be someone credible who detests baseball but who has concluded that it has had immense influence on society and culture. Kind of like me and drugs.

  2. To round out Arte Johnson’s statement: Verrry interestink..but schtupid. What’s schtupid?? No serious penalties for any of the players who participated — and benefitted. Shame on you, Mr Manfred. RIP Arte, who died the day before Independence Day last year. Baseball and 4th of July. Couldn’t get more American than that.

  3. JT Watkins was “conflicted.” Sob. He lacked courage. Sob. He should have gone to management and explained his perceived conflict and try to get it fixed. But a second later comes the question: Gone to whom? His manager, Cora, who masterminded the entire system the year before for the Astros? Watkins is just the fall guy, when Cora should be.

    Cora should be banned from baseball for life. I liked him as manager of the Red Sox, was thrilled for him, etc., etc. But now I learn he has no conscience, no sense of fair play, and no ethical underpinnings at all. The Red Sox are my team, but if they bring him back I won’t watch them. Just as I stopped watching all Woody Allen movies (even on TV) after he divorced Mia Farrow to marry his (albeit adopted) daughter. He helped raised that girl, and that means fatherhood (and later, incest) to me.

    So that’s one small protest of mine. I’m sure Woody (and millions of others) couldn’t care less. But I’ll protest Cora the same way if he comes back: sometimes darkness of heart and mind reveal themselves in very different ways. And don’t anyone dare tell me “it’s only baseball.” Don’t you dare…

  4. The comment was a bit tongue in cheek, as I agree with your premise. Sadly, baseball has not been the #1 sport, popularity wise, for a while now. But its influence on our culture is undeniable.

    The only other comment I’ll make is 3.5 hours a game is not baseball, sorry. Pet peeve of mine. Minor league games I attend are sometimes a little shorter, but not by a lot.

    Still, nothing beats being at a ball park.

    • I certainly agree with your comment about the lengths of games now but it is not likely to change because oh… we get to sell a lot more commercial time during a four-hour modern-day game than we could in a one and a half hour Randy Jones pitched game in the 1970s.

      • In this year’s Bill James Almanac, he proposes 35 ways to speed up games, reduce strikeouts and home runs, and eliminate dead time. More than half were easily implemented. Great essay.

        • But does M.L.B. have the will to substantially shorten games and substantially cut into the number of commercials that can be aired? I think they should as I think the better pace would increase the audience share enough to offset the shortened duration of games. But can Rob Manfred and the owners be convinced of this?

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