How MLB can put stop to Red Sox, Astros-like video scandals


Think of the major league players in a clubhouse like the cool kids in high school. The world revolves around them. Their approval, friendship and respect are collateral in that universe.

I have seen owners gravitate toward star clusters in clubhouses, GMs dumb down their language, curse and spit to try to be one of the guys, and managers accept the unacceptable to avoid unleashing an us versus him with his own players.

Now, say you have a title like video-replay system operator or advance-scouting assistant. You travel with the club. You are in their world. But not. You want to climb the ladder. Stop having the word assistant tied to your title. The surest way to make powerful allies is to get on players’ good side is by making them better and keeping their secrets.

Who in that position is going to tell a player who wants to know what pitch is coming — even through illegally retrieved information — that it is against the rules? Especially in 2017 and ’18, when folks — especially players — could still play dumb about what the rules were. Sure, you could go to the front office and tell them about the pressure. But 1) most front offices will not care, and 2) you will, most importantly, violate that part about keeping the players’ secrets, and at that point you are as dead in the clubhouse as the nerd who tries to call out the quarterback in high school.

I do not know J.T. Watkins. I have no idea, when he was serving as the Red Sox’s video-replay system operator and advanced-scouting assistant, what kind of stresses players were putting on him — though he indicated there was some in a report released Wednesday by the Commissioner’s Office. That report detailed Boston’s illegal sign-stealing in 2018. The only person punished for that specific breach was Watkins. He was suspended this year without pay and not allowed to return to any video-monitoring role in 2021.

This played like investigating the Watergate break-in and punishing just the burglars.

At this point, baseball fans and opposing teams are not going to get fully what they want out of either the Astros or Red Sox investigations and penalties. We do not have full blow-by-blow of who did what and when and to what extent. We do not have punishment of all those who should have been punished for flaunting the rules and further decaying faith in the game.

We can continue to lob criticism at MLB’s investigations and at those who eluded scrutiny because for the grace of the baseball gods no whistleblower came out against their team. But the worse transgression now would be not learning from this and not implementing safeguards to prevent the next time. Some thoughts:

Put the replay decision in the hands of the manager. Period. Understand the slippery slope here. In 2014, MLB expanded replay and each team set up a person to review off of multiple monitors. It didn’t take long to recognize at least one monitor was always trained on the catcher and, thus, his signs.

As dirty as the Astros’ “Codebreaker’ sounds, it was not illegal in 2017-18 or now. Teams can do any pregame or postgame work decoding sequences, and the best clubs — and the 2018 Red Sox, for example, were known as terrific at this — could do the study to know before a game the two or three sequences each pitcher uses and arm runners at second with the information. This is why you see teams use cards now so each pitcher has more sequence variety.

The Red Sox and Astros were both embroiled in video scandals over the past year.
The Red Sox and Astros were both embroiled in video scandals over the past year.Getty Images

The problem is when the replay room was providing players information in real time — most egregious with the Astros doing it not just with a runner on second, but at all times. Think of that low-status replay official again trying to tell players they can’t have that info, especially when the players probably feel other teams are violating the rules. This was not what replay was intended for, so we should go back to what it was: eliminating the egregious call.

So close the replay rooms. Give each manager two challenges, and he must decide within five seconds after a play whether he wants to challenge by throwing, say, a red flag. This will stop the ticky-tack third inning stoppage in which a base stealer’s toe came a millimeter off the base. Managers will only use the precious challenges when most valuable. The manager has to decide when to pinch hit or use a reliever, he now will have to decide this.

Fringe benefit: have you watched old games without replay challenges during this pandemic? The pace is much better — particularly in the NBA — and one reason is no constant stoppage for replay decisions. Let’s limit the replay stoppages until they are vital, and let’s get the slippery-slope video-monitor system in-game shut down.

Players must be punished from now on. I get it. This time around the Commissioner’s Office was not getting cooperation from players without immunity. But let’s keep in mind that the players — the high school cool kids — were the primary offenders and beneficiaries of the cheating, and the dynamic is wrong that they go without penalty.

Many players complained about the cheating and wanted stiffer penalties. Good. Tell your union that no one can play dumb in the future about the rules and that breaking this rule will come with real games lost/pay loss. The Players Association and MLB should have common ground here, so that next time someone like Watkins is not the only one dealing with 15 minutes of infamy.

Look, there are 30 hyper-competitive teams built these days to find the loopholes and the exploitable elements in any rule regardless of whether it is good for the game or not. MLB has put front offices on alert with more stringent language in the rules, and with suspensions for GMs and managers and low-level functionaries such as Watkins. If you want a better chance of cleaning this up, players must face real penalties as well.

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