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Sources: Astros exec asked scouts to spy in '17

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Published in Baseball
Saturday, 16 November 2019 23:40

A high-ranking Houston Astros official asked scouts to spy on opponents' dugouts leading up to the 2017 postseason, hoping to steal signs and suggesting the potential use of cameras to do so, sources familiar with the request told ESPN.

The reaction among those who received an email from Kevin Goldstein, a special assistant to Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, was mixed, sources told ESPN. Some were intrigued by the idea, sources who received the email said, while others were bothered with the thoughts of pointing cameras from the stands toward opposing teams' dugouts, a plan that could have earned them scorn within the scouting community if caught.

The email, which was first reported by The Athletic and confirmed by recipients to ESPN, is the first indication of Astros front-office involvement in potential cheating and further reveals the scope of Houston's attempts to gain advantages through intercepted signs. Major League Baseball is investigating the organization's methods of sign stealing after pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic that during its World Series-winning 2017 season the team used a live video feed to steal catchers' signs and transmit them to hitters by banging on a trash can.

Goldstein, who did not return a message seeking comment, wrote in the email: "One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can [or can't] do and report back your findings."

MLB's investigation ramped up this week as interviewers spoke with on-field and front-office staff from the Astros and other teams. As the investigators attempt to confirm the allegations by Fiers, they continue to lay groundwork for other tentacles of alleged cheating, which people around baseball fear has grown into an epidemic in recent years.

"Technology and stealing info is going to be the black eye of this generation," one longtime Astros employee said. "It's really the last frontier that isn't banned. It's a way to get a competitive advantage without altering the actual players."

The Pandora's box of technology use, even with new rules put into place before the 2019 season, continues to vex a sport that encourages teams to meander into gray areas. Sign stealing long has been a part of baseball, supported by players and scouts alike, particularly runners on second base eyeing the catchers' signals and relaying them to the batter.

The use of cameras to do so is regarded as unethical by many and due to recent rule changes is now codified as illegal by MLB. The level of punishment for those involved in the Astros' alleged 2017 sign stealing might depend on commissioner Rob Manfred's interpretation of a rule against using technology for "stealing signs or conveying information." In 2017, the league fined the Boston Red Sox for using an Apple Watch in their dugout.

The breadth of the Astros' willingness to use technology for on-field advantages continues to come into focus. During the 2018 postseason, Kyle McLaughlin, an Astros baseball operations staffer, was removed from the camera wells next to the dugouts of the Cleveland Indians and Red Sox during the postseason after pointing a cell phone into the dugout. Luhnow said the Astros simply were running a counterintelligence operation against the teams to ensure they were not cheating.

The 2017 plans relayed by Goldstein involved a pro scouting department that since has been gutted, with the Astros' analytics-scouting balance since then tilting wildly to the side of analytics -- "99 to 1," according to a person familiar with the team's resources. Much of the Astros' scouting work today, sources said, involves cameras and video.

On-field personnel that has drawn the interest of the league includes Red Sox manager and former Astros bench coach Alex Cora, New York Mets manager and former Astros designated hitter Carlos Beltran, Astros manager AJ Hinch and Red Sox bullpen coach Craig Bjornson, who had the same job with Houston in 2017.

MLB's probe follows years of cheating allegations by teams regularly reported to the league office because of suspicious actions or anomalous results. The league has looked into past allegations against the Astros by the Oakland Athletics in August and the McLaughlin incidents in October and cleared Houston of wrongdoing. The scope of the investigation is expected to include other Astros teams, including the 2019 version that lost the World Series in seven games.

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