The Houston Astros’ Cheating Scandal: Sign-Stealing, Buzzer Intrigue and Tainted Pennants

The team fired its manager, A.J. Hinch, and general manager, Jeff Luhnow, after they were suspended for one year. Carlos Beltran also resigned as the New York Mets’ manager, and the Red Sox parted with Alex Cora.

A.J. Hinch, left, and Jeff Luhnow in 2017.
Credit...Bob Levey/Getty Images

Even though there won’t be opposing fans in the stands to jeer them at the start of this season, the Houston Astros can count on being reminded about the sign-sealing scandal that tainted baseball’s winningest franchise over the past three years.

The team confiscated signs of hecklers during spring training back in February, which seems so distant in this time of social distancing.

But pitcher Trevor Bauer of the Cincinnati Reds hasn’t forgotten. He wore a T-shirt mocking the Astros when workouts began in early July. It said “TRASH-TOWN,” a twist on the nickname H-Town for Houston. It showed a World Series trophy on top of a trash can, a reference to the trash can that Astros players thumped with baseball bats to tip off teammates on the opponent’s pitch selection.

Here is what we know about the cheating scandal.

The Astros fired Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow in January after Major League Baseball fined the club $5 million and docked several top draft picks over the scheme.

Both had been suspended for one year by Robert D. Manfred, the baseball commissioner, who has been intensely criticized for not punishing any of the players and not vacating the Astros’ World Series title from 2017.

Then, the Boston Red Sox parted ways with Manager Alex Cora after the M.L.B. report implicated him in the scheme from his time as the Astros’ bench coach in 2017.

The next domino to fall was the newly hired manager of the New York Mets, Carlos Beltran, who resigned before he ever managed a game for the team. He was an outfielder for the Astros during the 2017 season.

No. Players around the league wondered if they had been robbed of baseball immortality because of Houston’s cheating ways.

“I don’t think players have forgotten about it at all, and I expect it to be brought up again in some capacity once baseball starts getting more coverage,” Bauer wrote on July 13 in a first-person account for the website The Players Tribune.

Bauer said that opposing pitchers should not try to seek retribution by hitting Astros batters with pitches, though he acknowledged that it could happen this season, which gets underway on July 23.

“Just understanding the temperature of baseball players and coaches around the league, and the sentiment of how many players were upset with how the Astros conducted themselves — not only the cheating scandal, but also pointing a finger in everybody’s faces and mocking them,” he wrote. “There’s a lot of bad blood toward them.”

No. Manfred has said he thought about stripping the Astros of their 2017 title, which culminated with their victory in the World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games.

But during a news conference at spring training, Manfred said he was concerned about the extraordinary precedent of vacating the title of the Astros, who won the American League pennant in two of the past three seasons.

“Once you go down that road of changing what happens on the field, I just don’t know how you decide where you stop,” Manfred said.

Manfred didn’t do himself any favors when he referred to the Commissioner’s Trophy, which is made by Tiffany & Co. and given to the World Series winner, as a “piece of metal” during an interview with ESPN in February.

The commissioner later apologized for his remarks, but was criticized by baseball players — and even LeBron James.

It was the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series in the fall, with the score tied at 4 between the New York Yankees and the Astros. Jose Altuve was ahead in the count, two balls and one strike against the Yankees’ hard-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, when Altuve turned on an 84-mile-per-hour slider for a home run over the left center field wall, sending the Astros to the World Series.

As Altuve rounded third base and his teammates were about to mob him at home plate, he motioned for them not to tear off his jersey.

The video of the curious reaction is baseball’s version of the Zapruder film.

Fans of opposing teams — and even some rival players — have questioned whether Altuve was wearing a buzzer underneath his jersey that alerted him of Chapman’s pitch selection. A batter would have been more likely to get a fastball in that count.

Manfred has said that Major League Baseball found no evidence that could corroborate that the Astros players used buzzers as part of their sign-stealing ruse. At the same time, the commissioner also said that he couldn’t be 100 percent certain that they didn’t.

For their part, the Astros players, including Altuve, have insisted that they did not use buzzers. Chapman characterized Altuve’s actions as “suspicious.”

In 2017, Altuve won the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award over Aaron Judge of the Yankees, who was the runner-up and congratulated Altuve at the time on Twitter. Judge has since deleted the tweet.

“Since I heard that, I was sick to my stomach,” Judge, speaking at the Yankees’ spring training complex in Tampa, Fla., earlier this year, said of the sign-stealing scandal.

For more than a century, baseball players have been trying to decode the unspoken cues exchanged by pitchers and catchers over what pitch to throw next and the location: a practice known as sign-stealing. The biggest advantage a pitcher has over a batter is the element of surprise.

For a fastball, a catcher will usually put down one finger as his sign. Two fingers is the signal for an off-speed pitch like a curveball. Catchers will relay multiple sets of signs if there is a runner on second base or if they think someone is trying to steal the signs. Pitchers will sometimes shake off catchers if they disagree on the pitch selection.

There was even a scene in the movie “Bull Durham” in which Nuke LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, shook off his catcher, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), who then tipped off the batter that he would get a fastball. The batter hit a home run.

Some of the earliest accounts of sign-stealing go back to the 1870s, when the Hartford Dark Blues, a charter member of the National League whose fans included Mark Twain, were accused of using a shed and a telegraph pole outside the ballpark to steal opponents’ signs, according to the book “The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime” by Paul Dickson.

Numerous teams have been implicated in sign-stealing plots over the decades, including the Philadelphia Phillies in 1898, the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and the New York Giants in 1951, James E. Elfers wrote for the Society for American Baseball Research.

Since the 2014 season, Major League Baseball has given managers one chance per game to challenge a call on the field — but not balls and strikes — using a video replay system. Each team has a video replay review room, including the Astros, who M.L.B. investigators said used the center-field camera feed to steal opponents’ signs.

At the start of the 2017 season, one of the Astros players would act as the “runner” and would relay the signs to teammates in the dugout and eventually to the batter, according to the investigation.

Credit...Bob Levey/Getty Images

Early in that championship season, the bench coach, Cora, would call the video review room to get the signs. On some occasions, the signs were relayed via text messages to either a smartphone in the dugout or a smartwatch of a staff member, the report said.

Cora eventually arranged for a television monitor to be installed outside the Astros’ dugout with the center-field camera feed on it for the players to watch, M.L.B. investigators said. The players then banged on a trash can with a bat or a massage device known as a Theragun once or twice to signal to the batter to be ready for a curveball or another off-speed pitch. If it was a fastball, they would not bang on the trash can.

No. While the baseball investigation said the sign-stealing scheme was driven by the players, the report ruled out discipline against individual players as “difficult and impractical.” The commissioner, Manfred, said he wasn’t in a position to evaluate whether the scheme helped Astros hitters or helped the team win games.

In 2017, Houston won 101 regular-season games before its championship run in the playoffs, during which baseball investigators said the team’s sign-stealing scheme continued. Last November, Mike Fiers, a former Astros player, provided details about the team’s sign-stealing culture to Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic, a sports journalism website.

Before the 2018 season, Joe Torre, the league’s chief baseball officer and a former New York Yankees manager, issued a warning to all teams that they could not use the video replay system or electronic devices to steal signs.

The directive stemmed from another episode, involving the Red Sox in 2017, when the team relayed stolen sign information using videos to an athletic trainer in the dugout who was wearing a smartwatch. M.L.B. fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount, with Manfred warning that future violations by teams would lead to penalties against managers and general managers.

Credit...Matt Slocum/Associated Press