By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s an old-fashioned, Wild West report-off. On one end of the dusty road is The Wall Street Journal. On the other side of the staredown is The Athletic.
The Athletic has played an integral role in uncovering the sign-stealing operation put into use by the Astros during the 2017 season. The Journal has recently entered the fray, adding some key details that eluded both The Athletic’s reporting and commissioner Rob Manfred’s written ruling on the league’s investigation.
And now, it seems like the outlets are prepared to go tit-for-tat in terms of revealing whatever tidbits remain unknown.
That began Friday, when the Journal’s Jared Diamond reported with extensive detail on the “Codebreaker” system built by members of the Astros’ front office staff. On Tuesday, The Athletic re-shifted blame and attention back on Carlos Beltran and Alex Cora, who have been the scapegoats throughout the entire matter.
Now on Wednesday, Diamond has a new report that includes Beltran and Cora in the blame pie but also spreads that culpability across the entire Astros organization.
In Diamond’s new story, both Cora and Beltran are singled out as engineers of the famed trash can banging system. But the story challenged The Athletic’s narrative that depicted manager A.J. Hinch and the rest of the active roster as helpless captives forced to abide by Beltran’s bullying.
“Neither the players alone, nor the front office, are to blame,” Diamond wrote. “The Astros’ rule-breaking permeated the organization, involving executives, coaches and players.”
Diamond added: “Until now, it has been hard to know who really drove the cheating scheme.”
That answer, according to the report, is basically everybody — not just Cora and Beltran.
Diamond reported that as a rookie in 2016, Alex Bregman mentioned that other teams were better at stealing signs than the Astros were. The report is careful to note that Bregman did not suggest the Astros should embark on an illegal sign-stealing mission, but it does note that the effort began in 2016 — before Cora and Beltran joined the organization.
And an email from Houston’s Tom Koch-Weser (director of advanced information) to then-GM Jeff Luhnow in May of 2017 shows that Cora and Beltran merely helped advance a process that had begun before they arrived.
“I don’t want to electronically correspond too much about ‘the system’ but Cora/[Alex]Cintron/Beltran have been driving a culture initiated by Bregman/[Derek]Vigoa last year and I think it’s working,” Kock-Weser wrote to Luhnow. “I have no proof that it has worked, but we get real good dope on pitchers tipping and being lazy. That information, if it’s not already, will eventually yield major results in our favor once players get used to the implementation.”
Cintron was an assistant coach in 2017 and is currently the team’s hitting coach. The email from Koch-Weser to Luhnow named Cintron as part of “driving a culture” in the sign-stealing operation, yet he was not mentioned in Manfred’s report.
Vigoa is the Astros’ director of team operations and likewise has not been mentioned by MLB thus far. That’s despite Diamond revealing that Vigoa presented a PowerPoint slide to Luhnow in September of 2016 that broke down the “Codebreaker” system.
Diamond noted specifically that “Cora and Beltran [were] among the most responsible for [the trash can banging] implementation.”
“But while it started with Cora and Beltran, it quickly spread,” Diamond added.
Diamond included an email sent from Manfred to Luhnow, in which Manfred said the entire team was aware of the trash can banging.
“Most or all Astros players were active participants in the Banging Scheme by the conclusion of the 2017 World Series,” Manfred wrote to Luhnow. “The Banging Scheme was so prevalent, that witnesses regularly describe that everyone in and around the Astros dugout was presumptively aware of it.”
Diamond also shared a message from Koch-Weser, which noted that Marwin Gonzalez was benefiting greatly from the system, while ironically Beltran was not.
“Beltran, who is the godfather of the whole program, ironically just swings at everything after taking a strike and probably does the worst with the info,” Koch-Weser wrote.
A separate report from The Washington Post also added that not much of this information was particularly shocking among MLB teams.
“According to people at all levels throughout the sport — players, clubhouse staff members, scouts and executives — the idea that the Astros employed nefarious methods was an open secret,” the WaPo story from Barry Svrluga and Dave Sheinin said.
An anonymous executive told the Post this: “The whole industry knows they’ve been cheating their asses off for three or four years. Everybody knew it.”
Two anonymous executives agreed that an estimated “10 to 12” teams had made complaints to MLB regarding the Astros and suspicions of cheating prior to the matter becoming a full-blown scandal. It wasn’t until Mike Fiers blew the whistle that MLB felt compelled to actually act.
An anonymous scout told the Post: “It was a big open secret, really big. Throughout baseball, for several years, not just starting in 2017. I would say probably 2016, maybe earlier, through , things were going on that were blatantly against the rules.”
The Post report also detailed the steps the Nationals took in order to try to limit the effectiveness of Houston’s sign-stealing during the 2019 World Series, which Washington won in seven games.
All of this information is new, and it shows two things.
For one, this was not a simple scheme masterminded by Cora and Beltran and then forced upon the helpless Astros by the big, bad Beltran. This was an organization-wide initiative, one that began the season before Cora and Beltran were in the Houston organization, and one which involved all levels of the organization.
Secondly — and this would be the larger matter — it appears as though Manfred’s “thorough investigation” had far too many holes. Despite the 68 witness interviews, despite the review of “tens of thousands of emails” and other messages, and despite the imaging of numerous cell phones, Manfred was apparently unable to uncover the same information that a reporter from The Wall Street Journal was able to find.
Or, if one were to take a more sinister approach, Manfred may have also discovered that information but opted to centralize the focus of the findings on Cora and Beltran, in order to limit the spread of the story and the potential damage it could cause.
Only Manfred knows which case is true, and if reports like Diamond’s continue to emerge, the commissioner is eventually going to have to deliver some sort of answer.