BASEBALL LOST ITS mind Thursday. Every sport endures this: part-cleansing, part-reckoning, part-recalibration — a day to release everything, good, bad and otherwise, a full-throated scream into the void. It was inevitable, building up over the previous three days, each unforgettable in its own right. History will treat Thursday as a footnote, even if it said as much about the sport’s current state as Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday combined.

It started with a discussion about whether the player who helped expose the game’s biggest cheating scandal in a century was a whistleblower or a narc, moved on to the firing of a manager who hadn’t even managed a game, degenerated into anonymous Twitter accounts lobbing entirely uncorroborated accusations of even worse cheating, giddily grew into a miasma of conspiratorial, frame-by-frame breakdowns of jerseys and lip-reading and confetti. It was a beautiful, ugly, transfixing, maddening, godforsaken mess, simultaneously addictive and repulsive. For one day, baseball felt like a real modern sport, full of verve, and not one stuck in the morass of its past.

“This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” one general manager said midafternoon, when — and this is a real thing — he called to ask whether the fired New York Mets manager actually had a niece who was tweeting about the 2019 Houston Astros wearing buzzers under their uniforms that let them know which pitch was coming. “I want to take this day and freeze it in time so I can keep living it.”

By the end of Thursday, Major League Baseball and a target of the accusations both had chimed in, players across the sport had offered their feelings on the matter — a matter that still, it is important to note, has zero factual backing — and the 12-hour fire hose of raw, uncut content had satiated the masses with plenty of leftovers for the next day.

On the baseball calendar, Jan. 16 is typically nondescript, just a day to X off on the countdown to spring training, and not a “Real Housewives” episode dressed in a tinfoil hat. The thing is, for all of the drama, the disappointment, the pettiness, the anger — for how so very 2020 the day was — this particular Jan. 16 told a story, and a fine one at that. Of where baseball has been, where it is now and where it is going next.

***

EXACTLY 15 MONTHS before Thursday, on Oct. 16, 2018, the Houston Astros hosted the Boston Red Sox in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. During Game 1 in Boston, a low-level baseball-operations staffer for Houston named Kyle McLaughlin had been removed from a camera well for aiming a cellphone toward the Red Sox’s dugout. The Astros claimed they were worried the Red Sox were cheating. For more than a year before that ALCS, teams around the league had expressed fear the Astros were the ones cheating. Two players told me at the time that Astros players had been hitting a garbage can to share stolen signs. Major League Baseball said it was investigating. Nothing came of it.

Today, both teams are without their managers from that ALCS, which represents the highest-profile meeting between the two teams that have personified the game’s cheating scandal. In 2017, when the Astros won the World Series, they were banging on garbage cans to relay signs filched from the catcher using an illicit center-field camera. And in 2018, when the Red Sox won the World Series, they spent the season, according to a report by The Athletic, using a video-replay room to decode sign sequences and pass them along to hitters to convey while on the basepaths.

Editor’s Picks

  • Why anger is boiling behind the scenes about Astros’ sign-stealing punishments

  • How the internet helped crack the Astros’ sign-stealing case

  • Everything you need to know about MLB’s sign-stealing scandal

2 Related

What unfolded Jan. 16, 2020, then, wasn’t some anomalous event, a string of accidents and coincidences and happenstance. It was an evolutionary byproduct of a baseball world gone bonkers, one in which the ridiculous — hammering a trash can with a bat — is true. Just because you’re paranoid, Joseph Heller might have said, doesn’t mean they aren’t wearing buzzing Band-Aids.

The fallout from The Athletic’s story in November, which provided a clear picture of how the Astros cheated thanks to on-the-record quotes from former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers, has been unlike anything baseball has seen since the 1919 Black Sox threw the World Series. The MLB investigation prompted by the story included interviews with dozens of witnesses, reviewed tens of thousands of documents and led to a nine-page report from commissioner Rob Manfred that left little doubt of the hubris it took to engage in such systematic cheating.

Released Monday, the report buried the Astros and led to full-season suspensions of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch. An hour after the report’s distribution, Astros owner Jim Crane went on TV and fired Luhnow and Hinch. Barely a day later, the Red Sox wasted no time in firing their manager, Alex Cora, whom the report had singled out as a mastermind of the Astros’ trash-can-banging scheme when he served as their bench coach in 2017. On Wednesday, Mets executives huddled in Port St. Lucie, Florida, their spring home, arguing over the fate of their manager, Carlos Beltran, who was a player for the 2017 Astros and was named in Manfred’s report. His situation called for contemplation: The Mets were considering firing Beltran even though Manfred had not disciplined him.

Carlos Beltran out as Mets manager

The only player named in MLB’s sign-stealing investigation is out before managing his first game with the Mets.

Doolittle: Why Beltran lost his job

Olney: Mets catch a break

It began earlier than anticipated, with ESPN Sunday Night Baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza, who is also employed by the Mets as an adviser, enduring a deluge of criticism for telling the Golic and Wingo radio show that she disagreed with Fiers’ decision to reveal the Astros’ cheating publicly. This is not an uncommon view within the sport, where Fiers is regarded more as a snitch than the person who exposed baseball’s dirtiest secret.

Hours later, the Mets reaffirmed the decision they were leaning toward the previous night despite Beltran’s protestations that he could weather whatever troubles the future might pose: They would fire him 77 days after they hired him. It mattered not whether the decision was right or just or prudent. Scandals are nasty and unwieldy, and their unpredictability incentivizes excision. Rehabilitation is too difficult.

Just look at the reputation of the Astros — of their swift descent from loved to loathed. It was on full display in the aftermath of Beltran’s dismissal, which prompted a Twitter account that purported to be run by a niece of Beltran to accuse Astros stars Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman of wearing electronic buzzers. Such rumors have percolated for months without substantiation. The social media masses, drunk on schadenfreude, nevertheless spread the tweets with glee. ESPN’s Marly Rivera reported that Beltran’s wife, Jessica, said the account wasn’t run by anyone related to the family. It did nothing to stop the speculating. Context is no match for bloodlust.

• Key questions on MLB’s discipline for Astros
• Passan: Why many think Astros got off easy
• Olney: The five biggest victims
• Luhnow, Hinch fired for sign stealing
• Daily Podcast: Astros’ Consequences

And … so did the trash can. That, more than anything, gave Thursday its oxygen. If the Astros were willing to engage in that scheme, what would stop them from taking it a step further? Technology is baseball’s lodestar; its limitlessness is something to be exploited by those who found no moral or ethical issues with the trash can. The buzzer will not go away because reason dictates it oughtn’t.

It’s part of why Thursday was so troublesome for MLB: The narrative got away from the league. From the beginning, MLB has looked into only what has been alleged by reputable sources. The Athletic’s story about the Astros spurred an investigation into the Astros, and its story about the Red Sox had the same effect. When asked a week after the initial Astros story broke about the possibility of a wide-ranging, independent investigation to ensure a full accounting of baseball’s cheating, Manfred said he did not believe one was necessary.

That approach, sources said, has not changed — not even with Crane saying after firing Luhnow and Hinch: “The commissioner assured me that every team and every allegation will be checked out, and he’ll conduct the same investigation he conducted on us.” Players, for one, would be unlikely to participate in a larger-scale, leaguewide investigation, according to sources. In the completed Astros investigation and ongoing Red Sox investigation, the league has promised players immunity in exchange for truthful testimony. Manfred didn’t discipline any Astros despite calling the scheme “player-driven.” Still, he did name Beltran, whose firing frustrated multiple player representatives in the MLB Players Association, including one who said: “It’s easy to say players got off easy when all the info is out. None of that info is gathered if immunity isn’t granted. Doesn’t really feel like Beltran got immunity right now, does it?”

Sounding off on sign-stealing scandal

Did the Astros get what they deserved? How aware were opposing players? Here’s what those around the game told us.
MLB players, execs on sign-stealing scandal

Communication between the league and union will continue, including in conversations about an overhauled set of rules regarding the use of technology in games. The sides, sources said, are considering a wide array of options — everything from an outright ban on in-game video to no video from that day’s game to less restrictive measures intended to discourage players from cheating. One addition that’s almost certain, sources said: suspensions for anyone — players included — that uses technology-driven cheating. An announcement on new rules, sources said, is expected before spring training.

Reclaiming control after a calamitous day like Thursday could take time. MLB can’t play puppeteer with anyone. All it takes is one person with one social media account to denounce the omertà keeping almost everyone silent and explain everything — if there’s anything to explain. Manfred’s report said investigators talked with 68 people connected to the Astros, and 23 of them were players. That means there are plenty of Astros from 2017 to 2019 to whom MLB didn’t speak, though that investigation is closed unless someone gives the league reason to reopen it.

Players know the consequences if any additional information surfaces, which is why denials quickly followed accusations Thursday. Former Braves general manager John Coppolella broke rules about international signing bonuses. It was a misdemeanor to the Astros’ felony. But Coppolella lied about it. And for that, he remains permanently banned from baseball.

This sign-stealing scandal poses by far the greatest threat of Manfred’s commissionership, and a day like Thursday, which introduces something like a buzzer into a landscape ready to believe anything, certainly does no favors. Thursday synopsized what Manfred faces: a scandal that no matter how tidily he tries to bow-wrap it remains, at least for now, maybe forever, amorphous, full of surprises, ever ready to grow another tentacle. It’s represented in the nervous calls of executives wondering if disgruntled ex-employees are saying anything, in the feverish Twitterverse fiending for content, in the opportunity for one man to change baseball history just like Mike Fiers did. It’s there, coiled and poised, all possibility, every day ready to lose its mind like Jan. 16, 2020.