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A “most thorough” investigation

Here’s an Astros update for you.

The ongoing electronic sign-stealing investigation against the Astros is “probably the most thorough” ever conducted by the commissioner’s office, Rob Manfred said Wednesday.

Addressing reporters during the final full day of the winter meetings, Manfred said his office has interviewed more than 60 witnesses, has 76,000 emails through which to sift and “an additional trove of instant messages.”

“That review has caused us to conclude that we have to do some follow-up interviewing,” Manfred said. “It is my hope to conclude the investigation just as promptly as possible, but it’s just really hard to predict how long something like that is going to take.”

[…]

Maintaining a stance he’s taken since the query began, Manfred declined to elaborate on possible punishments, calling such predictions “wholly inappropriate.” A timeline for the investigation’s conclusion remains a mystery, though follow-up interviews suggest it could drag longer into the winter.

“I’m going to get all the facts in front of me and make a decision as promptly as possible on discipline and, obviously, you all will know about it as soon as it happens.”

See here for the last update. As a reminder, this is two investigations in one, the sign-stealing allegations and the Brandon Taubman debacle. I have to assume MLB will wrap this up during the off-season, but beyond that we have no idea how long this will take. We’ll know when they’re ready to tell us something.

Don’t shrink the minor leagues

Bad idea, MLB.

Last month, we learned that Major League Baseball proposed a radical reorganization of the minor leagues, involving slashing the number of teams by 25 percent — mostly short-season and rookie ball clubs. The New York Times has reported which teams specifically are on the chopping block, 42 in total. [UpdateBill Madden of the New York Daily News reported more details this morning. It is certainly worth a read.]

It isn’t for a lack of interest that MLB wants to hemorrhage MiLB teams. As The Athletic’s Emily Waldon notes, 2019 was the 15th consecutive season in which 40 million-plus fans attended minor league games. 2019 saw an attendance increase of 2.6 percent over the previous year. Waldon also points out that 2019 saw the ninth-highest single-season attendance total in the history of the industry.

MLB’s suggestion to shrink the minor leagues comes on the heels of increased public pressure to improve the pay and conditions of the players. MLB successfully lobbied Congress to amend language in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, classifying players as seasonal workers thus they are no longer entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay, among other protections. As a result, more players have become vocal about the lack of pay and more reporting has been done on the issue, creating a bit of a P.R. problem for the league. Slashing the minor leagues would allow MLB, whose individual teams are responsible for the overhead of their minor league affiliates, to publicly say they improved pay while not actually costing them much money, if any at all. MiLB president Pat O’Conner foreshadowed this nearly two years ago, by the way.

[…]

Beyond the very obvious effect of eliminating upwards of 1,000 minor league baseball player positions, scores of related jobs would be eliminated as well, such as those of the minor league front offices, clubhouse personnel, ticket-takers, security, concessions, memorabilia stores, umpires, and many more. Many cities would lose an integral part of their local economies and cultures.

Perhaps most importantly, if the minor leagues were to be shrunk, many fans would lose access to professional baseball. If, for instance, you are a baseball fan who lives in Billings, Montana, the three closest major league teams to you are the Seattle Mariners (west), Colorado Rockies (south), and Minnesota Twins (east). The Mariners are about a 12-hour drive, the Rockies about seven and a half hours, and the Twins about 12 hours. But Billings has a minor league team: the Mustangs, a Pioneer League rookie affiliate of the Reds. Montana has two other minor league teams on the chopping block as well: the Missoula PaddleHeads (Diamondbacks advanced rookie) and the Great Falls Voyagers (White Sox advanced rookie). The minor leagues, for fans in certain areas of the country like Montana, are one of the few local connections to the sport. Eliminating those teams would sever those connections and drastically reduce the chance to create new baseball fans in that region.

As this piece notes, the Astros were pioneers in this, reducing their number of affiliates from nine to seven in recent years. Look, we know that the vast majority of minor leaguers never get close to the bigs. The MLB draft runs for forty rounds, and then they sign undrafted free agents, and that’s before we take into account the large number of international players that are outside the draft system that MLB signs. Most minor leaguers are there to fill out the teams so the real prospects can actually play regular games. But not every major leaguer was a prospect (see: Altuve, Jose, for one example) and as noted, the minor leagues have a ton of value on their own. MLB could very easily afford to pay every single existing minor leaguer a living wage (say, a minimum of $30K per year) and not even notice the payroll increase. The cost in shrinking the minors and making live professional baseball completely unavailable to vast swaths of the country far outweighs any cost savings. C’mon, MLB. For once, can you see that doing the right thing is also the better choice for you? Pinstripe Alley has more.

UPDATE: More as well from Baseball America and Fangraphs.

MLB investigating more than 2017 for Astros’ alleged sign stealing

This sounds ominous.

Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Astros’ alleged sign-stealing will include the 2018 and 2019 seasons, commissioner Rob Manfred revealed Thursday, adding two more years to an inquiry already involving Houston’s World Series-winning 2017 team.

“We are talking to people all over the industry, former employees, competitors, whatever,” Manfred said at the conclusion of the owners meetings on Thursday. “To the extent that we find other leads, we are going to follow these leads. We will get to the bottom of what we have out there in terms of what went on to the extent that it’s humanly possible.”

[…]

“Every time we’ve gotten a lead, we chased that lead down to the extent we felt was investigatively possible,” Manfred said. “Obviously, an individual breaking what is a pretty firm commitment to silence about what goes on in dugouts and clubhouses is a big break in an investigation and an opportunity to push forward that we hadn’t had previously.”

The expanded investigation into sign-stealing is being combined with MLB’s other probe into the Astros for comments made by former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman and the team’s response.

[…]

Manfred clarified Thursday that the league’s investigation into Taubman and sign-stealing started independently of one another and “ended up as one big thing.”

“It’s hard to separate them out,” Manfred said. “I hope at the end of this undertaking, I’ll put both of these issues to bed at one time.”

See here and here for the background on the sign-stealing, and here for some background on the Taubman investigation. It makes sense to combine the two – if nothing else, I presume MLB has only so many investigators available at any one time – though what effect that may have on its direction or timeline is unknown. Of greater interest is what kind of penalties the Astros may face. Craig Edwards from Fangraphs takes a look. There’s too much to easily summarize (go click over, the first paragraph has links to more reporting on the sign stealing allegations), but the bottom line is that it doesn’t look great for the Astros. If Rob Manfred comes down on them, it’s going to leave a mark. Be prepared. ESPN has more.

MLB has had its eye on the Astros

The story develops.

Early in the 2019 season, Major League Baseball instructed video monitors working in Minute Maid Park to listen for banging sounds emanating from the Astros’ dugout, a person with knowledge of the directive said Monday.

The Astros are alleged to have stolen signs during their World Series-winning season of 2017 using a system that included players banging on trash cans to signal certain pitches. That MLB directed those working at Minute Maid Park to listen for such sounds is an indication the league already had an eye on Houston.

Conversely, a video monitor who worked in another American League ballpark told the Chronicle they were not “implicitly told” to listen for any sounds from either dugout.

MLB began investigating the Astros last week after former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers outlined how the team stole signs in 2017, using a camera in center field and a video screen in the tunnel next to the dugout, then banging on trash cans.

[…]

The Athletic’s report detailed alleged wrongdoing in 2017 only. Whether the Astros continued their practices into 2018 or 2019 remains unconfirmed. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said he was “confident that in general, we did things right and we try and follow the rules.”

The team has said it is cooperating with MLB’s investigation.

“Beginning in the 2017 season, numerous clubs expressed general concerns that other clubs were stealing their signs,” MLB said last week. “As a result of those concerns, and after receiving extensive input from the general managers, we issued a revised policy on sign stealing prior to the 2019 season. We also put in place detailed protocols and procedures to provide comfort to clubs that other clubs were not using video during the game to decode and steal signs.”

Part of that revised policy included a group of video monitors at each ballpark responsible for ensuring clubs adhered to the new regulations. Each game last regular season had at least one person around both the home and visiting dugouts monitoring the replay room, clubhouse, tunnel and any other area.

“What they told us was we were essentially looking for people who were using technology to steal signs,” said one video monitor.

One person familiar with the Astros’ video monitoring said those who worked at Minute Maid Park were instructed “early on” to “make sure there was no one in the dugout banging.”

See here for the background. We don’t know the extent of what may or may not have happened yet, and MLB hasn’t said when their investigation will end. What we do know is that if MLB does conclude the Astros were breaking the rules, the penalties could be harsh.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has “no reason to believe” Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation into electronic sign-stealing will involve any club aside from the Astros — a franchise that could feel the full authority of Manfred’s power under the major league constitution.

Manfred has levied only one public punishment for electronic sign-stealing — an undisclosed fine to the Boston Red Sox during the 2017 season. That same year, the Astros are alleged to have electronically stolen signs with a center-field camera at Minute Maid Park, actions that are now the center of MLB’s investigation.

“Any allegation that relates to a rule violation that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter,” Manfred said Tuesday. “It relates to the integrity of the sport. In terms of where we are, we have a very active, what is going to be a really, really thorough investigation ongoing. Beyond that, I can’t tell you how close we are to done.”

When he issued the fine to the Red Sox in 2017, Manfred warned any future violations were subject to “more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

MLB’s most recent revised policy on sign-stealing promised “progressive discipline” for rule-breakers, “including fines, suspensions, and penalties or loss of benefits.” The benefits, according to the policy, included draft picks and international signing penalties.

“I’m not going to speculate on what the appropriate discipline is,” Manfred said. “That depends on how the facts are established at the end of the investigation. The general warning that I issued to the clubs I stand by. It certainly could be all those things, but my authority under the major league constitution could be broader than those things as well.”

Nothing to do but wait and see. Who says the offseason is dull?

Astros accused of stealing signs

The post-season is off to a roaring start.

Former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers told The Athletic that the Astros stole signs electronically at Minute Maid Park during their World Series-winning 2017 season, adding another inglorious instance to the franchise’s recent run of cheating accusations.

The Astros have begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball, the club said in a statement on Tuesday. It’s unclear if this investigation is independent of the ongoing one involving the firing of former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman.

Citing three anonymous sources along with an on-record interview and confirmation from Fiers, The Athletic reported the Astros had a camera in center field at Minute Maid Park fixated on the opposing catcher. A television located below the dugout showed the feed. Players watched the catcher and soon were able to detect what was coming, sometimes banging trash cans to alert hitters.

“That’s not playing the game the right way,” Fiers told The Athletic. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”

[…]

Using technology to steal signs is against major league rules. The Red Sox were fined in 2017 after the Yankees filed a complaint against them. Major League Baseball discovered they were “sending electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout.”

In his ruling that year, commissioner Rob Manfred said “all 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

Whether the Astros will be punished remains to be seen. Major League Baseball still has an open investigation against the franchise as a result of Taubman’s tirade against female reporters following the American League Championship Series.

Here’s the Athletic story. It’s a pay site, but you can sign up for a free seven-day trial if you want to read the whole thing. This NJ.com story has a couple of excerpts, including this one that explains how the scheme allegedly worked:

The Astros’ set-up in 2017 was not overly complicated. A feed from a camera in center field, fixed on the opposing catcher’s signs, was hooked up to a television monitor that was placed on a wall steps from the team’s home dugout at Minute Maid Park, in the tunnel that runs between the dugout and the clubhouse. Team employees and players would watch the screen during the game and try to decode signs — sitting opposite the screen on massage tables in a wide hallway. When the onlookers believed they had decoded the signs, the expected pitch would be communicated via a loud noise — specifically, banging on a trash can, which sat in the tunnel. Normally, the bangs would mean a breaking ball or off-speed pitch was coming. Fiers, who confirmed the set-up, acknowledged he already has a strained relationship with the Astros because he relayed to his subsequent teams, the Tigers and A’s, what the Astros were doing.

Twitter user and video genius Jomboy illustrated this with a live example. The pitcher in that clip, Danny Farquhar, noticed the banging noises and is quoted about it in the Athletic story. Jomboy has subsequent examples here, here, and here.

The key to all this is the allegation that cameras were used, as it is the use of technology to steal signs that is illegal. If the MLB investigation bears that out, expect the Astros to suffer stronger punishment than what was meted out to the Red Sox in 2017, since Commissioner Rob Manfred has emphasized that this is illegal. As the Athletic story notes, while the Astros are under investigation, using tech to steal signs is a league-wide problem, with other teams also under suspicion. Expect to hear a lot more about this over the next few weeks. Jerome Solomon, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the Press have more.

Firing Taubman wasn’t enough

Just putting down a marker.

Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Astros will stretch beyond the World Series as the league looks into “aspects that go beyond” Brandon Taubman’s clubhouse incident.

Taubman was fired on Thursday, five days after he unleashed a profanity-filled tirade toward three female reporters in the Astros’ clubhouse following the American League Championship Series.

Commissioner Rob Manfred said Friday the Astros “reacted quickly and in an appropriate way” with their decision to terminate Taubman, the team’s 34-year-old assistant general manager. Manfred said results of the ongoing investigation “will be public.”

Manfred said his office began its current investigation because it was “concerned” about the Astros’ initial statement in response to the incident, one that falsely claimed Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein “attempted to fabricate” Taubman’s actions.

[…]

After the two exchanged unreturned voicemails earlier in the day, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and Apstien met for about 15 minutes at Nationals Park on Friday night. Apstein requested a written retraction of the team’s first statement. It is unclear if the Astros will oblige.

On Thursday, Luhnow repeatedly declined to reveal who wrote or approved the statement. The general manager acknowledged he saw the 76-word writeup before it was released. The Athletic reported on Friday that Anita Sehgal, the team’s senior vice president of marketing and communication, oversaw it.

See here and here for the background. Let me remind you, that first statement by the Astros accused reporter Stephanie Apstein of making the whole thing up. If even a little bit of that were true, her career would be over. It’s not just that the Astros were completely wrong about that, it’s that they didn’t care enough to be concerned about it before going ahead and smearing her. The Astros did finally formally retract that statement, five whole days later. To say the least, we are here now because that statement was issued in the first place, then left to fester for the entire work week.

Let’s be clear: This wasn’t a slip-up committed by some underpaid low-level employee. General Manager Jeff Luhnow saw that statement before it was released. The senior vice president of marketing and communication, Anita Sehgal, oversaw and thus presumably approved it. Brandon Taubman is deservedly unemployed now, but he’s far from the only sinner here. The Astros didn’t have a Brandon Taubman problem. They have a whole-organization problem. That remains true even with that apology and retraction from Jim Crane to Stephanie Apstein. That’s MLB’s problem now, and I hope they are considering that as they do their investigation.

After I started writing this post, I came across this story, which notes the Crane letter to Apstein and moves things along a little bit.

How Houston’s original statement was crafted remains vague. Who wrote it remains a mystery. Senior vice president of marketing and communications Anita Sehgal refused to “name names” in a six-minute interview with three reporters prior to Game 5 of the World Series on Sunday.

“This statement really is owned by the entire organization,” Sehgal said. “This team needs to wear this statement. We screwed up. And we’re going to own it as a team. We’re going to share responsibility for it and we’re not going to point fingers at any one person. We’re going to own it as a team. And that’s the right decision.”

The Athletic reported this week that Sehgal, an Astros employee since 2015, had oversight of the statement. Asked if that report was true, Sehgal said “I oversee all of (public relations) and communications. Lots of people were involved.”

“Listen, this statement was wrong and it was wrong on a number of fronts,” Sehgal said. “It’s disappointing. It’s embarrassing for the organization and we are very, very sorry that it happens. But the team owns it. The entire organization owns the decision that that statement went out. We’ve apologized. We’ve recognized it. And we feel really, really bad.”

That’s better, and it’s good that she recognizes this is owned by the whole organization, but it doesn’t address the question of how the whole organization should be held accountable. Again: Jeff Luhnow and Anita Sehgal have responsibility for the original statement. Likely other senior executives do as well, not to mention Jim Crane. Firing Brandon Taubman doesn’t get all of them off the hook as well. What, if anything, are we going to do about that? I’ll be honest and admit I don’t know what a just outcome to all this should be, but the Astros and MLB need to figure it out. This will remain a stain on the Astros organization until they do.

Astros fire Taubman

It’s something.

The Astros fired assistant general manager Brandon Taubman on Thursday afternoon and issued an apology to a Sports Illustrated reporter whom they falsely accused of fabricating a story about his clubhouse tirade.

The Astros “proactively assisted” Major League Baseball in an investigation over the last two days, the team said in a statement disseminated on Thursday. MLB separately interviewed eyewitnesses to Taubman’s actions on Saturday in the Astros’ celebratory clubhouse.

[…]

When Sports Illustrated’s story first published on Monday — one for which the Astros initially declined comment — the club issued a defiant denial that claimed reporter Stephanie Apstein attempted “to fabricate a story where one does not exist.”

“We were wrong,” the Astros said in their Thursday statement that terminated Taubman.

“We sincerely apologize to Stephanie Apstein, Sports Illustrated and to all individuals who witnessed this incident or were offended by the inappropriate conduct. The Astros in no way intended to minimize the issues related to domestic violence.”

See here for the background. This would feel a whole lot different if the Astros had taken more decisive and more appropriate action in the immediate aftermath of Taubman’s rant, even if all they had said originally was that they took the allegations seriously and would look into them. It would also feel different if this had happened before Jeff Luhnow’s ridiculous claim that “we may never know” Taubman’s intent. (Pro tip: Maybe try asking him.) At this point, it mostly comes across as damage control, and leaves one wondering why it was so hard to get it right in the first place.

But it is what it is, and so here we are. Late is still better than never, and I’m glad the Astros eventually got to the right place. I hope they truly learn something from this. Nonequiteuse and Texas Monthly have more.

For shame, Astros

I hate to harsh anyone’s World Series buzz, but this was and still is appalling.

Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman apologized to “anyone that was offended by my actions” after directing an expletive-filled tirade toward a group of female reporters in the team’s celebratory clubhouse following the American League Championship Series.

As Sports Illustrated first reported Monday night and the Chronicle later confirmed, Taubman yelled ““Thank God we got (Roberto) Osuna! I’m so (expletive) glad we got Osuna! about a half dozen times” toward the group. Osuna had just blown a save in the ninth inning of Houston’s 6-4 win against the Yankees.

“I used inappropriate language for which I am deeply sorry and embarrassed,” Taubman said in a statement on Tuesday. “In retrospect, I realize that my comments were unprofessional and inappropriate. My overexuberance in support of a player has been misinterpreted as a demonstration of a regressive attitude about an important social issue.”

[…]

Sports Illustrated reported that one of the women to whom Taubman directed his vitriol was wearing a purple domestic violence awareness bracelet. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Sports Illustrated offered both the Astros and Taubman a chance to comment before the story published on Monday. Both parties declined. In a statement released after Sports Illustrated’s story ran on Monday night, the Astros called the piece “misleading and completely irresponsible” while adding they were “extremely disappointed in Sports Illustrated’s attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist.”

Sports Illustrated released a statement on Tuesday in which it “unequivocally” stood behind the reporting of Stephanie Apstein, the article’s original author.

Not once in the statements released on Tuesday did the Astros deny that Taubman used offensive language. Eyewitnesses told The Chronicle that no players were in the area of the female reporters who were yelled at, disputing the Astros’ assertion that Taubman’s rant was about “an Astros player was being asked questions about a difficult outing.”

Literally everything about this incident, which MLB is now investigating and for which the Astros were thoroughly dragged on the internet, is awful. The “apology” is utter bullshit – the offending statements were not “inappropriate language” but an honest representation of what Brandon Taubman believes, because no one says stuff like that without having thought about it first. The Astros’ initial response was monstrous and a libel against reporter Apstein. There’s not enough bleach in the state to wipe clean this stain.

I’m not going to tell you not to root for your Astros. The players you love (minus Osuna, of course) aren’t responsible for this, the underlying misogyny is a societal problem, and domestic violence is a problem that sports in general and MLB in particular have not come to terms with. Plenty of other teams have dirty hands on this issue as well. But all of us need to deliver a loud and clear message to our favorite teams that this shit is not acceptable. They need to clean up their act, and they need to do it now. Jenny Dial Creech has more.

Astros to extend netting

Glad to hear it.

The Astros are joining the growing list of Major League baseball teams that are extending protective netting around ballparks amid growing concern over fan safety.

The team’s decision to extend netting beyond each dugout at Minute Maid Park comes 10 weeks after a 2-year-old girl suffered head and brain injuries after being hit by a foul ball during a game there on May 29.

The netting will be in place for the Astros’ next home game on Aug. 19 against the Detroit Tigers.

Since the incident at Minute Maid, the Chicago White Sox and Washington Nationals have installed expanded netting, and the Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays have announced plans to do so for next season.

The Astros had been one of the first teams to extend netting to the far edge of each dugout in 2017, a policy later adopted by MLB for all teams in 2018.

“I think that it’s important that we continue to focus on fan safety,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said after the girl was hit at Minute Maid. “If that means that the netting has to go beyond the dugouts, so be it. Each ballpark is different.”

[…]

The website FiveThirtyEight examined 580 foul balls in June and found that every line-drive foul ball with a recorded speed off the bat exceeding 90 miles per hour had landed in areas not protected by netting.

The young girl who was hit at Minute Maid was seated in section 111, just beyond the third-base dugout and the first section that is not protected by netting. The ball, hit by the Cubs’ Albert Amora, left his bat at a speed of 106.3 mph.

“I was two sections away when that child was hit,” Matthew Seliger said. “I would rather watch through a net than have to witness that again.”

Richard Mithoff, the Houston attorney who represents the family of the child, said family members were pleased to learn of the Astros’ plans.

“They are gratified to hear that the Astros have made the decision to extend the netting.” Mithoff said. “I wanted to give (Astros owner) Jim Crane the opportunity to do the right thing, because I thought he would, and so I congratulate the Astros and Jim Crane on the decision. It is the right decision for the fans and the right decision for baseball.”

Mithoff said the child remains on anti-seizure medication “and will for some time.” She is scheduled for another MRI exam next week and also continues dealing with other medical issues, he said.

“There is some kind of stumbling issue with her, and they are watching her closely,” he said. “She does not have headaches quite so severely, so there is some improvement.”

See here and here for the background. I’m glad to hear the little girl is doing better, but it’s clear she still has a long road to travel. Extending the nets is the only way to ensure that there won’t be more injuries to fans like this in the future. It’s 100% the right call.

More on stadium netting

Here’s an update on that little girl who was hit by a foul ball at Minute Maid park recently.

A 25-month-old girl who suffered a fractured skull when struck by a foul ball at an Astros game last month continues to recover from her injuries, and her family has hired a prominent Houston attorney to consult with the Astros about the matter.

In a letter addressed Wednesday to Astros owner Jim Crane, attorney Richard Mithoff provided the first public details about the child who was hit in the head May 29 by a line drive off the bat of Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. during a game at Minute Maid Park.

While no legal action has been filed, attorneys say Mithoff’s letter represents the first public overture to the Astros toward conversations that could lead to a financial settlement.

It also satisfies, for now, the public’s interest in the condition of the crying child who was photographed being carried toward a ballpark exit by her grandfather as Almora slumped behind the plate in distress after seeing the ball hit the child.

“The family wanted to thank everyone for their concern, and that was first and foremost,” Mithoff said. “Secondly, we wanted to see whether any conversations can take place that can lead to a discussion of options that would make sense for the fans and the ballparks and the clubs.

“I know Jim Crane and know him to be a responsible owner, and I think he will do the right thing.”

[…]

The Astros, meanwhile, said Tuesday that they are studying options for additional netting but at this point have no plans to make any additions at Minute Maid Park during the 2019 season.

See here for the background. There’s more on the girl’s condition and what the family is asking for in the article, so read the rest. I really hope the Astros do the right thing and extend their nets to the foul poles. Three teams have already pledged to do this, with the White Sox being the first to make an announcement. The Dodgers made their move after a fan was injured at their stadium. No need to wait for that to happen at your stadium, other teams. This now slightly outdated list shows the netting status at your team’s home. Feel free to tell them that you want them to care for your safety and the safety of your fellow fans.

Stadium netting

You may have heard about this last week.

A foul ball struck by Cubs center fielder Albert Almora, Jr. during the fourth inning hit a small child along the third-base line at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday night, causing a stoppage in the game and a sobering scene.

Play was halted for a brief stoppage after the incident. Almora dropped to two knees and needed to be consoled by Cubs manager Joe Maddon and another teammate. The entire Astros infield sunk to their knees, too, as a man rushed the child up the stairs.

“He rips a line drive down the third-base line and it comes in and it looks like it hits someone hard,” said David LeVasseur. “It bounces, comes down and hits the guy to my left off (a) ricochet and the next thing you know it’s at my feet. I pick it up and all we heard was screaming.”

LeVasseur, a Houston resident sitting in the first row of section 111, did not see the ball hit the child, whom he estimated was sitting in row seven or eight, but did rush upstairs after the incident to check on the injury. The baseball had no traces of blood and, according to LeVasseur, there was none near the seat.

“All we heard was screaming,” said LeVasseur, 26. “We saw this dad pick up a child and run up the stairs. He took off running.

I was watching that game, and this was very upsetting, to say the least. All MLB teams were required to extend netting to at least the end of their dugouts after a similar – and, unfortunately, more serious – incident with a foul ball and another child at Yankee Stadium in 2017. Some teams have done more than others.

The injured child was seated with her family in an area along the third base line, about 10 feet behind the edge of the expanded dugout-to-dugout netting installed by the Astros prior to the 2017 season and mandated since 2018 by Major League Baseball for all ballparks.

However, given the speed and power of today’s game — the Cubs and Astros on Wednesday launched six balls in play that traveled more than 100 mph and 11 more that topped 90 mph, and that doesn’t include foul balls such as the line drive by Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. that struck the child —the accident is generating discussion as to whether more safety measures would be prudent.

[…]

The Astros in 2017 installed nets extending over the dugouts, covering an area 12 feet high over the dugouts and 32 feet high behind the plate, extending from sections 112 to 126.

Section 111, where the child was seated Wednesday, is the first section not protected by netting.

“Safety is a paramount for us, both for our safety and the safety of the fans and the families that are coming to watch us,” [Astros player representative Colin] McHugh said. “It’s obviously up to Major League Baseball to make those adjustments.

“We’ve seen the adjustments made in the last few years, and anything to protect our game and the people who have come out to watch our game and support us is huge.”

Several MLB teams have elected to provide additional netting, although none approaches the foul pole-to-foul pole netting that is used in some other countries.

In the American League, the Tigers at Comerica Park, the Red Sox at Fenway Park and the Yankees at Yankee Stadium have installed nets that extend to the seating curvature where it is closest to the field down each foul line.

Nets at the Twins’ U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis extend 15 to 20 feet beyond the dugouts. The Rangers’ new Globe Life Field, in Arlington, which opens in 2020, includes in its design an extended net that will extend where the side walls turn to become parallel to the foul poles.

In the National League, nets at Marlins Park in Miami extend about 120 feet past the far end of each dugout. Nets at Oracle Field in San Francisco extend 70-plus feet past each dugout, and the netting at the Mets’ Citi Field extends to the bend in the outfield wall along each foul line.

Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati has coverage for two seating sections beyond the mandated dugout protection area, and Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia has coverage for an additional section on each side.

Foul pole to foul pole netting is the norm in Japan, where the legal doctrine for the risk one assumes for attending a ball game is different than it is in the US. Some people complain about the visibility with the netting, but I disagree. I’ve sat behind netting, and it’s never bothered me; you may recall that the most expensive seats in the house are behind home plate, which has always had netting. Balls are being hit harder these days, modern stadium design minimizes foul territory, thus having the spectators closer to the action, and there are a lot more foul balls being hit today than there used to be. All of which to me adds up to an unacceptable and unnecessary risk. All teams should extend their netting beyond the league minimum before someone (else) dies.

The Orbit lawsuit

Now here‘s an interesting case.

A Montgomery County woman has filed suit against the Astros, alleging she suffered a broken finger when her left hand was struck by a T-shirt fired from an air-powered cannon wielded by Orbit, the ballclub’s costumed mascot, at an Astros game last July.

Plaintiff Jennifer Harughty seeks damages in excess of $1 million from the Astros in the suit, which was assigned to 157th state District Court Judge Tanya Garrison.

The lawsuit, filed by Houston attorneys Jason Gibson and Casey Gibson, says Harughty has required two operations to repair damage to her left index finger, which was shattered when her hand was struck by a T-shirt fired from the Orbit character’s “bazooka-style” air cannon during the seventh inning of an Astros game July 8, 2018, at Minute Maid Park.

Harughty, 35, of Montgomery, who works as a real estate broker, said her finger remains locked in an extended position with little to no range of motion and that she continues to suffer discomfort from the injury, the lawsuit said.

Jason Gibson said the lawsuit was filed only after the Astros refused to pay Harughty’s medical bills associated with the injury.

“Nothing was going to be done,” the attorney said. “We were directed to the general counsel, and he basically said ‘file your lawsuit.’ He asked for it, and he got it. We were hoping to get this resolved, but that didn’t happen.”

The suit said Harughty was struck on the palm side of her left hand and required treatment at an emergency room after the game. She required surgery four days later to insert two screws into the injured finger and a second operation in October to remove the screws and attempt to restore range of motion to the finger.

Major League Baseball tickets include what has become known as the “baseball rule,” which states that a ticket holder “assumes all risk and danger incidental to the baseball game, and all other activities, promotions or events at the Ballpark before, during and after the baseball game, including, but not limited to, the danger of being injured by baseballs, equipment, objects or persons entering spectator areas.”

That stipulation, which is included on the Astros’ website under season ticket policies, says that by attending a game, the ticket holder releases the Astros and Major League Baseball from liability for “injuries or loss of personal property resulting from all risk and danger incidental to the baseball game and the risks or any incidents associated with crowds of people.”

Gibson said he is acquainted with Astros owner Jim Crane and with members of the Astros’ ownership group and that “everyone loves the Astros.” However, he said he did not believe that the liability waiver covers cases such as Harughty’s.

“That’s not the type of risk you assume going to a baseball game, although they may take that position,” Gibson said. “Ours will be that you don’t assume the risk of having someone fire a cannon at you that creates that much force at that proximity that can cause that kind of damage.”

A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the story. Let me remind everyone that I Am Not A Lawyer, so what I say is simply the speculation of a layman. I find myself rather sympathetic to the plaintiff’s arguments. T-shirt cannons, as fun as they are, are totally the team’s decision to use, and not an inherent risk of attending the game as they are a recent innovation. I mean, no one was hurling things into the crowd when I was attending Yankees games back in the 70s and 80s. (Things may have occasionally been hurled out from the crowd, but that’s another story.) People understand that a batted ball may be coming their way and they need to pay attention when the game is in progress. But mascots like Orbit do their thing in between innings, when you’d think it’s safe to check your phone. And by the way, teams have been putting up more netting around the lower decks of the stadiums, to better protect people from those increasingly hard-hit balls. If teams are willing to mitigate those risks, it’s not unreasonable to think they might mitigate a non-game risk like a projectile fired at high velocity from a T-shirt cannon. My advice, for all that it’s worth, is to offer to settle the suit for the woman’s medical costs and a bit more, and to take a closer look at how those T-shirt cannons are being operated. Why make a bigger deal out of this than necessary?

The Osuna trade

When I heard that the Astros had traded for Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, currently serving a 75-game suspension for violating MLB’s policy on domestic violence (and also still awaiting his day in court for charges relating to said domestic violence), my first thought was to wonder what Chron spotrswriter Jenny Dial Creech would think about it. Now I know.

Based on the acquisition of Roberto Osuna, zero-tolerance policy means something a little different in the Astros organization.

On Monday, the Astros completed a trade that sent pitchers Ken Giles, David Paulino and Hector Perez to Toronto in exchange for Osuna. And even though the closer already has 104 major league saves at age 23, the deal is a head scratcher, considering the Astros have a zero-tolerance policy related to abuse of any kind and Osuna is close to completing a 75-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy.

By definition, a zero-tolerance policy is one that gives uncompromising punishment to every person who commits a crime or breaks a rule. Osuna was arrested in Toronto on May 8 and charged with assaulting a woman.

On Monday, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said he was “confident that Osuna is remorseful.”

So the zero-tolerance policy is in effect only for those who aren’t sorry?

This sends a very bad message.

One of the greatest things about last year’s World Series champion Astros was that the team was composed of a lot of “good guys.” They didn’t have attitude, they didn’t have drama, and they were great in the community.

Now the Astros have brought on a player whom MLB deemed guilty enough to serve a 75-game suspension.

And the court proceedings are still going. The newest Astro is due back in court on Wednesday.

Let’s say this up front: Baseball is a business, the Astros are in the business of winning ball games, and Roberto Osuna will help them win those games when he comes back from suspension. The Astros have a better shot today at repeating as World Series champs than they did before the trade.

None of which should make anyone feel good about this. Read more of Creech’s column and you’ll see that several of Osuna’s new teammates don’t feel so great about it. That includes Justin Verlander and Lannc McCullers, who had some salty things to say to a former Astros minor leaguer, whom the team released after he was caught on video hitting his girlfriend. We can talk all we want about how leagues and teams should respond in these situations, and we can talk all we want about rehabilitation and second chances, but do keep in mind that Osuna may yet face legal punishment, and as far as I know hasn’t yet taken any steps towards making amends for his wrongdoing.

There is perhaps one positive to come out of this:

“People are speaking out about it, which I think is actually fabulous,” [Sonia Corrales, interim president and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Center] said Tuesday morning. “People know that this is a problem in our community, when historically, it’s been thought about as private. Something at home. No one’s business. So the fact that the community is talking about it shows that people are aware of the issue, and that it really is a community problem, that’s good.”

At the center, which provides free services that include a shelter, counseling and all-hours hotline, Corrales has noticed a surge in victims and survivors willing to step forward and say they need help since the #MeToo movement picked up steam last fall in the wake of revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

“There are a few things we’ve seen with #MeToo,” said Corrales. “There’s a public accountability that if you’re doing something, we’re going to hold you accountable. So the message now to survivors is ‘I believe you.’ And that’s a difference, because so many times, they have not been believed.”

One can feel however one wants to about this. One can also make a donation to the HAWC or a similar organization if one would like to make something positive happen. I’ll leave that up to you. Campos, Jeff Sullivan, and Think Progress have more.

Minute Maid 2.0

The Astros are staying in their home stadium for the long term.

Now that the Astros are in Minute Maid Park for the long haul, “Minute Maid Park 2.0” is in the works.

The Harris County Houston Sports Authority on Monday unanimously approved an extension through 2050 on the club’s lease at the downtown, 18-year-old stadium.

“It’s difficult to build stadiums now,” said Astros owner Jim Crane. “We felt the options were not very many around downtown where there would be a good piece of land if we even thought about building a new stadium. We thought with the proper maintenance program and the improvements we continue to make for the ballpark, that was a better option for the city and it certainly was a better option for us.”

[…]

[Astros president of business operations Reid] Ryan said the club has hired MSA — a Cincinnati-based architecture group that developed the plan for recent renovations in center field — to begin planning what he termed “Minute Maid Park 2.0.”

“We’ve got a big white board and we’re looking at all kinds of things,” Ryan said. “Our goal, and with Jim’s direction and this lease, is to make sure our stadium stays the best in class for the next 20-30 years.”

Exceptions like Fenway and Wrigley aside, the life span of sports venues is in the 40-50 year range. Fifty is how old Minute Maid will be at the end of this lease extension. For all the reasons given above, it makes a lot of sense to plan for upgrades rather than think in terms of the next location, especially if they like the current location. It’s also likely to be cheaper to renovate, and you can amortize that expense over multiple years. This is a good plan all around.

That’s the Texas State Historical Astrodome to you, pal

It’s got a marker and everything.

All this and history too

More than 56 years after ground was broken on what would become the world’s first domed stadium, the Astrodome is now a bonafide recorded Texas historic landmark.

Installed on the stadium’s southwest end, a Texas State Historical Marker it will be visible for years to come just yards from neighboring NRG Stadium. The $2,000 price tag for the marker was picked up by the Houston Astros, who called the Dome home for decades before moving to Minute Maid Park across town.

[…]

The Dome has already been declared a state Antiquities Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The marker further solidifies its place in history and its permanence. The text mentions the part that the Dome played in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when it housed 16,000 refugees from the violent storm that hit New Orleans.

The 2017 state antiquities landmark designation provides special safeguards against demolition and requires Texas Historical Commission approval for any future changes.

See here for some background. I know some people don’t like the Astrodome redevelopment plan. Like it or not, your choices are the plan that’s been approved, some other plan that has not been vetted or approved, and going back to doing nothing and letting it rot. Which, now that I think of it, may be expressly forbidden by this latest designation. Point is, the Dome ain’t being demolished. Get used to it.

2017 EV daily report: Final numbers and our attempt at projecting turnout

Here are the final numbers. Believe it or not, people did vote on Friday despite the fact that the entire metro area appeared to be at the Astros parade. Here are the daily totals from previous years:

2015

2013

2011

2009

2007

And here’s a select comparison:


Year    Early    Mail    Total   Mailed
=======================================
2017   46,224  12,205   58,429   19,875
2015  164,104  29,859  193,963   43,280
2011   49,669   8,676   58,345   15,264
2007   43,420   6,844   50,264   13,870

So 2017 early voting is almost identical in total to 2011 and ahead of 2007, but the source of the votes are different. 2017 trails 2011 with in person voting but makes up for that in absentee ballots, and holds a sizable lead in absentee ballots over 2007. That’s a clear change in voter behavior, and something to continue to watch as we go forward.

One other difference to point out, which requires another set of numbers. Here are the last day in person totals for the odd year elections going back to 2007:

2017 = 9,092
2015 = 35,493
2013 = 18,893
2011 = 10,559
2009 = 17,072
2007 = 10,473

Even with more people voting early, this year’s last day totals are the weakest we’ve ever seen. I’d attribute some of that to the Astros parade, and some of it to the overall lack of campaign activity compared to previous years. One possible effect of this is that more people will wind up voting on Tuesday than we would have expected. Turnout wasn’t just lower than one might have thought on Friday, after all. The whole week was lighter than it might have been, and to the extent that was a real thing and not just the way this year would have played out anyway I’ll cite the World Series as a reason. Unless the term limits referendum gets thrown out and we get put back on two year terms, we’ll next have a chance to see what a non-Mayoral election year is like in 2021. And who knows, maybe the Astros will be in the World Series again then.

So we turn our attention to final turnout. For once, I’m not going to overthink this. As we’ve already established, city turnout in odd years is roughly 70% of the county; it ranges from about 67% in years where there isn’t something that specifically drives non-city voters to the polls to 73%, and we’re splitting the difference. In odd years past, early voting has been between 40 and 50 percent of final turnout. I continue to believe that early voting will be a higher share of this year’s tally, partly because of trends we’ve seen in other years and partly out of the belief that hardcore voters are more likely to vote early, but I’m not going to put all my eggs in that basket. If we assume the range of outcomes is that early voting will be between 40 and 60 percent of the final total, then when the dust clears we should expect between 54,000 and 81,000 voters. Which, again, corresponds pretty well to my original gut-feel estimates of 50 to 75 thousand. I love it when reality seems to line up with my intuition. All that said, I could be off in any number of directions, and that guesstimated range is wide enough to cover a lot of potential error. Feel free to make your own guesses in the comments.

Friday random ten: All hail the Astros

I break the pattern once again in honor of the Astros’ World Series win.

1. Born To Win – Hurray For The Riff Raff
2. Playing To Win – Shalamar
3. The Winner Takes It All – ABBA
4. You Win Again – Mary-Chapin Carpenter
5. We Are The Champions – Queen
6. Sittin’ On Top Of The World – Asylum Street Spankers
7. Top Of The World – Bridgit Mendler
8. No Surrender – Bruce Springsteen
9. Heaven Help My Heart – from “Chess”
10. The Magnificent Seven – The Clash

Today is Parade Day. Nobody’s getting much (any) work done. But at least we’re starting that long, dark tea-time of the soul known as the off season in style.

Astros win the World Series

I think you can find some stories about this particular news item on your own.

On behalf of every sleep-deprived Houstonian, congratulations to the Astros! A great achievement, and a huge burden relieved. Now go get ready for a parade.

Saturday video break: The Altuve Polka

We interrupt the procession of cover/same name songs to bring you this, the most important video of 2017:

If the Astros don’t adopt that as their official team song, they are badly mistaken. This is easily the best Houston-centric sports song since It’s a Ming Thing.

The Rangers and the Astros

Oh, come on.

The historic flooding in Houston caused by Tropical Storm Harvey will displace the Astros for at least three games and most likely the entire six-game homestand they had scheduled for this week.

For at least their three-game series against the Texas Rangers that begins Tuesday, the Astros will play as the home team at the domed Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., home to the Tampa Bay Rays, MLB announced Monday. Their three-game series against the New York Mets that starts Friday also likely will shift to Tropicana Field, though no final determination was made Monday.

[…]

Although it would seem more logical for the Astros-Rangers series to simply be played in Arlington, swapping home series presented logistical challenges that apparently couldn’t be overcome.

The Astros offered flipping this week’s home series for their scheduled visit to Arlington on Sept. 25-27, but the Rangers declined. The Rangers offered to put on a series at Globe Life Park as the visitors with the Astros getting all revenue, Texas general manager Jon Daniels told Dallas-area media. The Astros declined that alternative.

“We didn’t think that playing six games in Arlington was fair to the competitive balance of the wild-card race, not to mention that if we’re not able to play our games in Houston against the Mets that we would be having another trip,” [Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan] told the Chronicle. “So we felt like getting out of Texas and going to a neutral site was in the best interest of our players and in the best interests for the integrity of the schedule this year.”

The Astros will now be on a 19-game road trip, thanks to the loss of the six games at home this week. One reason the Rangers declined the swap was because that would have put them on the road for twelve straight games. Understandable from a baseball perspective, but not very charitable.

In terms of both baseball and business, it’s a perfectly logical decision for the Rangers. But in terms of compassion, it’s pretty crummy. The quick takeaway here isn’t and won’t be that the front office made a measured decision about the welfare of their own team. It’s that they decided to shut out a club forced from its city by natural disaster, putting clear baseball needs over what might be seen as more abstract humanitarian ones. The Astros—with no major damage to their ballpark, their players physically safe, and the financial means as an organization to navigate whatever’s to come—are hardly an equal stand-in for thousands of suffering people in their region who have lost everything. But they still serve as a symbol of Houston, and so turning them away can only make the Rangers look insensitive and selfish.

At one point today, [Rangers general manager Jon] Daniels said he was “almost cringing” when he discussed the Rangers’ baseball-related needs in comparison to those of the Astros. That reaction is reasonable—which should have been enough to make him think that those listening might react the same way, too.

Yeah, pretty much. The Rangers are still chasing a wild card spot – yes, even after trading Yu Darvish – and they have a big advantage over the Stros in Arlington, which I’m sure was a factor in their decision. They’re playing to win, and I can’t crime them for that. But still, this was cold. And people will remember. Sleep well, y’all. Campos, Jenny Dial Creech, and Dan Solomon have more.

(To be fair, the Rangers are making a nice donation to Harvey relief, so kudos to them for that. Kudos also to the Cowboys and Texans, Steve Francis, JJ Watt, Amy Adams Strunk, and especially Les Alexander. We’re really going to miss that guy.)

Who still misses the National League?

The Chron’s Brian Smith makes the case for acceptance of the Astros’ league change.

Those were the days

Admit it: You don’t think about the old National League that much anymore.

I devote a lot of my daily brain space to the Astros, and I rarely do.

Saying “Jose Altuve, American League starting second baseman and leadoff hitter” sounds just fine. Seeing George Springer and Carlos Correa in the AL’s lineup against stars from Washington, San Francisco and Cincinnati felt perfectly normal Tuesday.

“Baloney. Houston has always been a National League town. This was all about money and never about the fans,” wrote Glenn, in the same year the rebuilding Lastros lost a franchise-record 111 games. “I cannot in good conscience root for a team that fields a (choke) designated hitter (i.e. washed-up fat guy) and plays the Noo York Yankees on a regular basis. How far a drive is it to Cincinnati?”

About 1,050 long and boring miles, Glenn. And I guarantee you never would think about making that slog now, especially when you can watch the best team in the American League at home and are just three months away from being able to buy a playoff ticket at Minute Maid Park.

Look, the hate was real. I got it then, and I get it now. One of the greatest things about baseball is its history, and any time that’s threatened – steroids, cheating, realignment – all of us believers get very, very serious.

“It became evident the move to the AL was an issue,” owner Jim Crane said in November 2011, after MLB approved the Astros’ sale and dictated the move to the AL, giving each league 15 teams and all divisions five clubs apiece.

Isn’t time funny? And isn’t it crazy what winning – and players and a team you believe in – can do?

The late-night West Coast games are still a chore. Outside of the Texas Rangers – who are 16½ games back, if you haven’t heard – I’m still not sold on any of the Astros’ other AL West opponents.

But Selig’s move is actually helping the AL’s best team in 2017. Four of baseball’s five best clubs are in the NL, and the Astros actually would be second overall in their old league, trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers by half a game.

Selig also helped push the Astros into the postseason in 2015. The two NL wild cards had at least 97 wins. The 86-win Astros needed until Game 162 to clinch the sport’s last playoff spot and wouldn’t have sniffed a Division Series if they still played in the NL Central.

Smith got some passionate feedback on this, as you might imagine. I’m a Yankees fan from Staten Island, so I have no emotional investment in this, though I can certainly understand why longtime fans would not be over it yet. On the plus side, consider that if the Astros make it to the World Series this year, they could be the first team ever to win a pennant in both leagues. For that matter, if they wind up playing the Milwaukee Brewers, then both teams in the World Series would have that distinction – the Brewers won a pennant in 1982 when they were still in the American League. Given that they’re the only two teams to switch leagues, there’s not much competition for that distinction, but it would be pretty cool nonetheless. Whether it makes anyone feel better, or at least less upset, about the league switch, I couldn’t say.

More about the hack of the Astros

Fascinating stuff.

A federal judge has unsealed details about former St. Louis Cardinals executive Chris Correa’s hacking of the Astros’ email and player evaluation databases, clearing the way for Major League Baseball to impose sanctions against the Cardinals as soon as this week.

Three documents entered into court records but made public by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes on Thursday reveal new information regarding Correa’s intrusions, for which the former Cardinals scouting director is serving a 46-month sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty in January 2016 to five counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer.

[…]

According to the documents, portions of which remained redacted, Correa intruded into the Astros’ “Ground Control” database 48 times and accessed the accounts of five Astros employees. For 21/2 years, beginning in January 2012, Correa had unfettered access to the e-mail account of Sig Mejdal, the Astros’ director of decision sciences and a former Cardinals employee. Correa worked in St. Louis as an analyst under Mejdal, who came to Houston after the 2011 season with Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, also a former Cardinals executive.

“(Correa) knew what projects the Astros’ analytics department was researching, what concepts were promising and what ideas to avoid,” said one of the documents, signed by Michael Chu, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case against Correa. “He had access to everything that Sig Mejdal … read and wrote.”

Correa also attempted to gain access to the accounts of Bo Porter, the Astros’ manager in 2013-14, and pitching coach Brent Strom, and he used passwords belonging to Luhnow, Astros analyst Colin Wyers, and three Astros minor league players to gain access to the Astros system, the documents show.

A third document includes a subpoena from Correa’s attorney to obtain documents from the Astros, based on Correa’s statement that he was combing the files looking for information taken from the Cardinals. Hughes denied the request, which sought access to emails from Mejdal, Luhnow and former Astros assistant GM David Stearns and analyst Mike Fast regarding a variety of topics, including Cardinals minor league pitching coach Tim Leveque, Cardinals assistant general manager Mike Girsch and the Cardinals’ player information database, known as RedBirdDog.

See here and here for some background. The sanctions have since been imposed – the Cardinals will give their top two draft choices and two million bucks to the Astros as redress – but it’s the details of what Correa did that are so riveting. Deadspin, which was a key player in this as well, elaborates:

The sentencing document also points to a motive beyond the obviously useful scouting data: Correa was furious and envious of Mejdal’s acclaim in a June 25, 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story about the Astros’ embrace of analytics, with the cover predicting them as the winners of the 2017 World Series.

The account the feds lay out reads like a downright sinister revenge plot by Correa: On June 27, two days after the SI cover story, Correa attempted, unsuccessfully, to log into Mejdal’s, Luhnow’s, and Wyers’s Ground Control accounts. He then tried to log in via the accounts of Astros pitching coach Brent Strom and Astros manager Bo Porter. Thwarted but not deterred, he tried another tactic.

[…]

The same day, June 28, Deadspin was emailed a tip from a burner email service that linked “to a document on AnonBin, a now-dead service for anonymously uploading and hosting text files.” On June 30, Deadspin published the contents of the document, which detailed the Astros’ trade discussions between June 2013 and March 2014.

A year later, Deadspin deputy editor Barry Petchesky laid out the information we received, and why he believed we were the intended recipients. We had and have no additional information that indicates who the leaker was, and would not reveal the leaker’s identity if we knew it—as Petchesky later explained to an FBI investigator.

Regardless, the feds speculate that Correa himself emailed us the information.

Damn. I will watch the hell out of the eventual 30 for 30 documentary on this. The Press, Craig Calcaterra, and Jeff Sullivan, who thinks the Cardinals got off too lightly, have more.

Bagwell, Raines, Pudge elected to Hall of Fame

Congratulations!

Jeff Bagwell

The most exclusive team in sports has five new members.

Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez join John Schuerholz and Bud Selig as the Class of 2017.

Today’s Game Era candidates, John Schuerholz and Allan H. “Bud” Selig were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, Dec. 4, becoming members 313 and 314 of the Cooperstown shrine.

They will join Bagwell, Raines and Rodriguez as the Class of 2017, to be inducted July 30 in Cooperstown as part of the July 28-31 Hall of Fame Weekend. The Weekend festivities will also feature the presentation of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award to Claire Smith for writers and the presentation of the Ford C. Frick Award to Bill King for broadcasting excellence.

Since the inaugural Class of 1936, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has honored the game’s legendary players, managers, umpires and executives. Included in the 317 Hall of Famers are 220 former major league players, 30 executives, 35 Negro Leaguers, 22 managers and 10 umpires. The BBWAA has elected 124 candidates to the Hall while the veterans committees (in all forms) have chosen 167 deserving candidates (96 major leaguers, 30 executives, 22 managers, 10 umpires and nine Negro Leaguers). The defunct “Committee on Negro Baseball Leagues” selected nine men between 1971-77 and the Special Committee on Negro Leagues in 2006 elected 17 Negro Leaguers.

There are currently 74 living members.

Here’s the Chron breaking-news story about the vote, and a longer story with some reactions from the man himself.

Jeff Bagwell has autographed countless baseballs. On Wednesday, he signed his first ball with this inscription accompanying his signature: “HOF ’17.”

Bagwell, synonymous with the golden age of the Astros and one of the best first basemen of his era, was elected Wednesday to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He will be only the second player enshrined in an Astros cap, appropriately joining 2015 inductee Craig Biggio, Bagwell’s teammate for all 15 seasons of his major league career.

Overwhelmed by the news, Bagwell was at a loss for words in describing the feeling.

“It’s just kind of surreal right now,” he said.

Bagwell, 48, spoke emotionally in a terminal at George Bush Intercontinental Airport minutes before boarding an evening flight to New York City, where he and fellow electees Tim Raines and Ivan Rodriguez will share a news conference stage Thursday afternoon. The Astros icon was only two hours removed from receiving his life-changing phone call while at home with his wife and children.

[…]

“I’m still kind of in shock,” said Bagwell, for whom the Astros will hold a public rally at 5 p.m. Monday at Minute Maid Park’s Union Station lobby. “I’m excited. I’m happy. It’s just very cool.”

This year’s induction ceremony will take place July 30 in Cooperstown, N.Y. Bagwell is the 50th Hall of Famer to spend his entire major league career with one team. He and Biggio are the fourth pair of Hall of Fame teammates to accomplish that while playing together for at least 15 years. Their company includes Roberto Clemente and Bill Mazeroski (Pittsburgh Pirates), Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott (New York Giants) and Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle (New York Yankees).

“It’s a great day for him and his family and obviously the Astros organization and his teammates and the fans,” Biggio said of Bagwell. “He was a tremendous player who did some amazing things here, and now to have two Astros be in the Hall of Fame who played together for 15 years, it’s pretty exciting stuff.”

I didn’t realize the teammates angle. In case you’re curious, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were teammates for 10 years, from 1925 to 1934. Fifteen years really is a long time.

Bagwell was the headliner as he received the most votes, but the even better news was the long overdue induction of Tim Raines, who was on his final year on the ballot. Getting those two plus Ivan Rodriguez in clears the logjam a bit, which may help the candidacies of a few other players who fell short. I feel like I have less to complain about regarding this year’s voting than I’ve had in some time, and that to me is an even bigger win. ESPN, SI, MLB.com, and the Press have more.

Astros hacker sentenced to 46 months

Away he goes.

Former St. Louis Cardinals executive Christopher Correa was sentenced Monday to 46 months in prison for illegal incursions into the Astros’ computer database, wrapping up a case of sports-related cybercrime that a federal judge and prosecutors summed up as plain, old-fashioned theft.

Correa, 35, will report within two to six weeks to begin his sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, who accepted the government’s recommended sentence in the wake of Correa’s guilty plea in January to five counts of illegal access to a protected computer.

Now the case moves into the hands of Major League Baseball, where commissioner Rob Manfred will decide if the Cardinals will face sanctions because of Correa’s actions in 2013 and 2014.

Manfred also may be asked to consider a heretofore undisclosed element: that Correa intruded into the Astros’ system 60 times on 35 days, far more the five reported cases to which he pleaded guilty, according to an Astros official.

[…]

U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson said he was pleased with length of the sentence. Correa could have been sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison on each count, although prosecutors agreed in return for his guilty plea that sentences would be served concurrently.

“This is a serious federal crime,” Magidson said. “It involves computer crime, cybercrime. We in the U.S. Attorney’s office look to all crimes that are being committed by computers to gain an unfair advantage. … This is a very serious offense, and obviously the court saw it as well.”

Astros general counsel Giles Kibbe, who also attended the hearing, described Monday as a “sad day for baseball” and emphasized that the Astros were the victims of Correa’s unauthorized access into a computer database that included scouting reports and other information.

Referring to Correa’s statements in January, he added, “I don’t know what Mr. Correa saw in our system or what he thinks he saw in our system, but what I can tell you is that the Astros were not using Cardinals’ proprietary information.”

Kibbe, for the first time, also acknowledged that Correa’s intrusions into the Astros computer system were more frequently than the instances set out in the information to which he pleaded guilty – 60 intrusions over 35 days, he said, from March 2013 through June 2014.

He also said the Astros would rely on Major League Baseball to complete its investigation of the Cardinals, with the possibility of sanctions against the team.

“We have full faith in his actions,” he said, referring to MLB commissioner Manfred.

See here for the background. Correa had previously claimed to have found Cardinal information on the Astros’ system while he was hacking around. There could be some effect from that if there’s anything to it when MLB wraps up its investigation and imposes any sanctions on the Cards. In the meantime, I’d say this will serve as a pretty strong deterrent to any other baseball front office folks who may have been tempted to take an unsanctioned peek at what their rivals are doing. No one can say they haven’t been warned at this point.

Take transit to the game

If you can, you should.

HoustonMetro

The transformation of downtown from a work place that empties after dark to a true community is finally underway in earnest, with residents, retail shops, and restaurants that remain open long after the lunch rush. The building boom is everywhere, and that includes the area around Minute Maid, which had been the domain of abandoned warehouses and repeating squares of blacktop.

As new development gradually alters the timeworn tableau of skyscrapers, hotels and parking lots, the matter of where to put all the cars that flood into the area – be it for work in the day, governmental dealings, or nighttime entertainment – becomes a bit less obvious. Nowhere is that more true than in downtown’s eastern precinct, home to the Astros, Rockets, Dynamo, George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green.

For the sold-out baseball games, competition for the close-in surface lots will become increasingly fierce. The Astros control about 3,000 parking spaces in their own lots east of the stadium, but high-demand games see most of those spaces sold when tickets are purchased. Parking in their lots is reserved for ticket buyers, though a small number last-minute cash sales typically are offered for lower-demand games.

Another 4,000 to 5,000 parking spaces can still be found in surface lots mostly north of the stadium. The pricing for many of them is dynamic, fluctuating game to game, or sometimes hour to hour, depending on attendance. Some parking management companies offer advance online purchase, some don’t. An Astros spokesman said that a range of $10-20 is likely for lots within a two to three-block radius.

When those lots are filled, drivers will have to look toward the garages to be found to the west and south. Costs will vary according to distance from the stadium. Fans willing to walk a half-mile can get a good deal, well below $10, though the sweaty summer months make for a challenging trade-off.

One option, which may become more common in future years, is for drivers to park on the west side of downtown in or near the theater district and take the Metro rail purple line across town. It has a stop just two blocks north of Minute Maid. A drop-off lane also is available in front of the stadium on Texas Street.

The Downtown Houston Management District says that 26 construction projects with an estimated cost of $2.2 billion currently are underway. Another $2 billion worth of projects are on the drawing board, it says. There will be a day, perhaps sooner than once thought, when a majority of the remaining surface lots will give way to new development.

[…]

Because Houston’s central business district is large, plenty of parking remains available and will continue to be. It’s just not so close anymore. Or as cheap. For high-demand games, the available lots near the stadium will go early, with the choicest locations fetching $50 or more for the most desirable games.

The eventual thinning out of the visually unappealing and space-hogging surface lots will please urban designers and downtown advocates, but no doubt will annoy some baseball fans. As [Marcel Braithwaite, the Astros’ senior vice president of business operations] points out, Houstonians love the freedom that comes with their cars and the easier ingress and egress that these lots offer. Some may fondly recall the old days at the Astrodome, which was surrounded by acres of parking and nothing else.

But in a broader sense, the replacement of blacktop by new homes and businesses means that the decades-old dream of a lively city center is taking form. When it comes to taking in a ball game, a new way of thinking will be required.

“It’s neat to see this resurgence,” Braithwaite said of the residential development as well as new clubs and restaurants. “The city is getting life back into it. I’m excited about the urban redevelopment, but that means change. There is no getting around that.”

As was the case for lots of people with the Final Four and the rodeo, taking transit to the game is going to be cheaper and in many cases more convenient than driving. Just the prospect of paying $20 to park, never mind $40 or $50, should make most people at least consider this. It’s also in the Astros’ best interests to get people to not drive to the game if it’s feasible for them. It’s like I’ve said about bike parking in places like Montrose and on White Oak where parking is scarce: It’s in everyone’s interests for the people for whom it is reasonably convenient to take transit to be encouraged and enabled to do so. Note that you don’t have to actually live near a bus or train stop to do this. Drive to a station that has adjacent parking, like the Quitman stop (which has a small Metro-owned free parking lot) or the Ensemble/HCC stop (where there’s a parking garage), and go from there. Again, those of you that have no choice but to drive and park really ought to want everyone for whom this is a decent option to choose it, for they each represent one fewer car competing with you for a parking space and clogging up the roads after the game. Are there any park and ride buses that run to and from the games like they do for the Rodeo? If not, maybe the Astros should inquire with Metro about that. Everyone wins with this.

Astros-hacker pleads out

One chapter closes in of one of the stranger sagas I’ve seen in sports.

The former scouting director of the St. Louis Cardinals pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to hacking into the player database and email system of the Houston Astros in an unusual case of high-tech cheating involving two Major League Baseball clubs.

Chris Correa pleaded guilty to five counts of unauthorized access of a protected computer from 2013 to at least 2014, the same year he was promoted to director of baseball development in St. Louis. Correa, 35, was fired last summer and faces up to five years in prison on each charge when he is sentenced April 11.

“I accept responsibility in this case,” Correa told U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes. “I trespassed repeatedly.”

“So you broke in their house?” Hughes asked Correa, referring to the Astros.

“It was stupid,” replied Correa, who is free on $20,000 bond.

U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson said the hacking cost the Astros about $1.7 million, taking into account how Correa used the Astros’ data to draft players.

“It has to do with the talent that was on the record that they were able to have access to, that they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to,” he told reporters. “They were watching what the Astros were doing.”

MLB could discipline the Cardinals, possibly with a fine or a loss of draft picks, but said only that it looked forward to getting details on the case from federal authorities. The Cardinals, whose chairman, Bill DeWitt Jr., had blamed the incident on “roguish behavior,” declined comment.

See here, here, and here for the background. Given that he pleaded out, I don’t expect Correa to get jail time, though perhaps a suspended sentence might be in the works. He’ll never work in baseball again, that’s for sure.

There’s still a lot more to this, however. As Craig Calcaterra notes, Correa claimed to have found Cards information on the Astros’ system when he was traipsing around in there.

That may not raise to a criminal level — there is no allegation Astros people hacked into the Cardinals’ system — but it could be relevant to Major League Baseball in a larger team-to-team information security matter. All of that depends on what Correa is saying he saw, which we do not know yet.

That aside, the level and the amount of information Correa got from the Astros is extraordinary. The defense some have offered — that he was merely checking to see if the Astros stole something — seems like a tiny part of this compared to what he accessed. And the argument I have heard from some people that, “hey, Correa was just walking in an unlocked door, so it’s not a big deal,” is not really true. He walked in, the Astros locked it, so then he broke into Jeff Luhnow’s office, as it were, and stole the keys so he could walk back in again. That is not just idle perusing. That is a concerted effort to carry out corporate espionage.

All of which is to say that this is far from over, especially from a baseball perspective. Correa performed his duties as Cardinals scouting director for over two years while in possession of extensive amounts of Astros’ confidential information. That benefitted him personally and, by extension, benefitted the Cardinals via the acts he took on their behalf with that information in his head. And that’s the case even if he was the sole person involved. If anyone else accessed Ground Control or was made privy to the information Correa obtained, it makes the Cardinals’ collective informational advantage all the greater.

Major League Baseball needs to find out what, if anything the Astros have of the Cardinals, as Correa claims. They need to learn — as they may still learn given that the investigation and the case is not over — what law enforcement knows about anyone else’s involvement. There is still a long way to go. However, based on what is known at the moment, the data breach here was extensive and extraordinary and the Cardinals will likely be facing some stiff, stiff penalties as a result. Maybe financial penalties. Maybe draft pick penalties. Maybe some combination.

Either way, this case is way bigger than people thought it to be yesterday.

We’ll see what MLB does once they have all the information that the prosecutors gathered. Hair Balls and the Chron have more.

Cardinals identify a fall guy

The latest Hacked-Stros news.

The St. Louis Cardinals have terminated the contract of their scouting director, Chris Correa, as investigations continue into alleged hacking of a Houston Astros database.

A Cardinals’ lawyer, James G. Martin, confirmed the move Thursday, saying Correa already had been on an “imposed leave of absence.” Martin declined to comment on the reason. And he would not say whether any employee has admitted hacking the Astros, citing ongoing investigations by the club, Major League Baseball and the FBI.

Correa declined to comment.

In a prepared statement, Correa’s lawyer, Nicholas Williams, wrote: “Mr. Correa denies any illegal conduct. The relevant inquiry should be what information did former St. Louis Cardinals employees steal from the St. Louis Cardinals organization prior to joining the Houston Astros, and who in the Houston Astros organization authorized, consented to, or benefited from that roguish behavior?”

Giles Kibbe, the attorney for the Astros, reaffirmed an earlier denial that neither the Houston organization nor any previous Cardinals employees now with the Astros had taken anything proprietary from the Cardinals.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who as head of the Cardinals’ analytics department had helped build the database used here to evaluate players, has said that everything he and others did in Houston was accomplished “from scratch.”

“We stand by all of our previous comments,” Kibbe said. “We’re looking forward to the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation. I stand by all that Jeff has said on this matter.”

Correa has admitted hacking into a Houston database but only to determine whether the Astros had stolen proprietary data, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.

Correa did not leak any Astros data and is not responsible for additional hacks that the FBI has alleged occurred, said the source.

[…]

The source said that Correa’s involvement in the hacking began in 2013, in an attempt to determine whether Luhnow or any other former Cardinals employees took proprietary data to the Astros.

Correa’s suspicions were aroused in part by a résumé in which a job seeker claimed expertise that Correa believed could have come only from working with Cardinals data, the source said.

He used an old password from a former Cardinals employee working for the Astros to access the Houston database “a few” times but did not download data, the source said. The source claims Correa located some data on the website, but did not report it to his bosses because the information was outdated and unreliable without being redone.

The source said that others must have accessed Houston’s database if federal investigators’ claims about the number of hacking attempts are correct.

See here and here for the background. The counter-charges are interesting and I suppose could be a potential line of defense in the event this ever goes to a courtroom in some fashion. Whether it might mitigate any future punishment by MLB is another matter. The Chron story adds a bit more detail.

Giles Kibbe, the Astros’ general counsel, said in an e-mail, “We stand by all of our previous comments. We look forward to the FBI concluding their investigation.”

Major League Baseball, similarly, plans to await the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation, a person familiar with the league’s thinking said. A league spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

The FBI has not commented on details of its investigation but repeated a previously issued statement: “The FBI aggressively investigates all potential threats to public and private sector systems. Once our investigations are complete, we pursue all appropriate avenues to hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace.”

[…]

Washington D.C.-based attorney Peter Toren, who handles cases involving intellectual property and commercial litigation, said that were a civil case to be filed, the Cardinals might be able to allege as a counterclaim against the Astros that Astros personnel improperly used information obtained in their time as employees for the Cardinals that could be classified as a trade secret.

Major League Baseball forbids clubs from suing each other, instead directing disputes to the commissioner as arbitrator. He can then award the Astros damages.

Luhnow and director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal worked with the Cardinals before joining the Astros, for whom they launched a database called “Ground Control.” The Cardinals had their own database, called “Red Bird Dog.”

“Ground Control” includes statistics, player evaluations and, at least up until last spring, logs of trade negotiations. Those logs were posted online and widely viewed at the website Deadspin last June, prompting an FBI investigation.

As first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by the Chronicle, the Cardinals had a master list of passwords, and at least one of the Astros’ departed executives did not alter his password well enough upon departure.

While Astros amateur scouting director Mike Elias also worked with the Cardinals in St. Louis and came over to the Astros with Luhnow, a person familiar with the investigation said Elias’ log-in credentials were not at issue. It’s unclear if the log-in information of both of Luhnow and Mejdal or just one of the two was in some way utilized in accessing Astros information.

Luhnow told Sports Illustrated he knows “about password hygiene and best practices” but did not directly address whether both he and his employees followed those practices to the necessary extent. Luhnow has turned down repeated requests for comment.

“I’m very aware of intellectual property and the agreements I signed,” Luhnow told Sports Illustrated. “I didn’t take anything, any proprietary information. Nor have we ever received any inquiries from anybody that even suggested that we had.”

Regarding the use of information obtained while working for another employer, Toren said, “That scenario is probably the most common type of trade secret case. One employee moves jobs and takes information with him to a new job for his use. The question then is: Is the employee generally allowed to take with him general knowledge?”

Toren said courts have ruled that employees can use general knowledge and skills gained on one job when they move to their next employer. However, he said lines can become blurry over “the type of information that really belongs to the employer that goes beyond … and really is specific knowledge.”

I still say having a master list of passwords is a terrible idea, whether Luhnow and the others who jumped from the Cards to the Stros practiced good password hygiene or not. I can’t wait to see the FBI report. Craig Calcaterra, who is not impressed by Correa’s attorney’s claims, has more.

“Roguish behavior”

The Saint Louis Cardinals admit they hacked the Astros’ proprietary database.

Thursday’s tacit admission by St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. that someone in his organization was involved in hacking the Astros continued a saga that holds the potential for more tawdriness once the FBI has completed its investigation and all the details are released.

The Chronicle on Thursday learned that the Cardinals had unauthorized access to Astros information as early as 2012, a year earlier than was previously known. DeWitt, meanwhile, acknowledged for the first time that his organization played a role in accessing proprietary information belonging to the Astros, blaming “roguish behavior.”

Meeting with reporters in St. Louis on Thursday along with Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, DeWitt said his organization’s own investigation was still ongoing. He did not specify which employees were responsible, but he told club workers “we’ve all been tainted.”

“Those responsible will be held accountable,” DeWitt said, “and we will continue what we feel is a great franchise.”

The extent of the Cardinals’ reach inside the Astros’ organization isn’t fully known. But it was not limited to one or two occasions, a person familiar with the details of the investigation said. The source asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case. The Chronicle has previously confirmed two breaches into the Astros’ system – one in 2013 and one in March 2014. The FBI began its investigation after the 2014 breach.

[…]

DeWitt expressed confusion over the intrusions, which he said were limited to a handful of people. The Chronicle learned this week the list of suspects was down to four or five.

“We’re committed to getting this resolved, we hope sooner rather than later,” DeWitt said. “We’re a little bit at the government’s pace. We’re not in a position of pushing them, as you might imagine.”

DeWitt said he was shocked to learn of the scandal.

“I still don’t know the reason for it,” he said of the hacking. “I can’t come up with a reason for it. It goes against everything we stand for. We don’t know who did what here.”

See here for the background. The story suggests that the Astros could have a claim for compensation for their data loss. Let’s see how the FBI investigation goes first, and what if any action Commissioner Rob Manfred takes. I suspect we’re a long way from any resolution just yet.

In the meantime, I love the use of the word “roguish” to describe the actions by whoever did this. It reminds me of a song.

I hereby declare that the official theme song of this scandal, for its use of the word “roguish”. Hair Balls has more.

The Hacked-Stros

WTF?

The F.B.I. and Justice Department prosecutors are investigating whether front-office officials for the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the most successful teams in baseball over the past two decades, hacked into internal networks of a rival team to steal closely guarded information about player personnel.

Investigators have uncovered evidence that Cardinals officials broke into a network of the Houston Astros that housed special databases the team had built, according to law enforcement officials. Internal discussions about trades, proprietary statistics and scouting reports were compromised, the officials said.

The officials did not say which employees were the focus of the investigation or whether the team’s highest-ranking officials were aware of the hacking or authorized it. The investigation is being led by the F.B.I.’s Houston field office and has progressed to the point that subpoenas have been served on the Cardinals and Major League Baseball for electronic correspondence.

The attack represents the first known case of corporate espionage in which a professional sports team has hacked the network of another team. Illegal intrusions into companies’ networks have become commonplace, but it is generally conducted by hackers operating in foreign countries, like Russia and China, who steal large tranches of data or trade secrets for military equipment and electronics.

Major League Baseball “has been aware of and has fully cooperated with the federal investigation into the illegal breach of the Astros’ baseball operations database,” a spokesman for baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, said in a written statement.

[…]

Law enforcement officials believe the hacking was executed by vengeful front-office employees for the Cardinals hoping to wreak havoc on the work of Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ general manager who had been a successful and polarizing executive with the Cardinals until 2011.

[…]

The intrusion did not appear to be sophisticated, the law enforcement officials said. When Mr. Luhnow was with the Cardinals, the organization built a computer network, called Redbird, to house all of their baseball operations information — including scouting reports and player personnel information. After leaving to join the Astros, and bringing some front-office personnel with him from the Cardinals, Houston created a similar program known as Ground Control.

Ground Control contained the Astros’ “collective baseball knowledge,” according to a Bloomberg Business article published last year. The program took a series of variables and “weights them according to the values determined by the team’s statisticians, physicist, doctors, scouts and coaches,” the article said.

Investigators believe Cardinals officials, concerned that Mr. Luhnow had taken their idea and proprietary baseball information to the Astros, examined a master list of passwords used by Mr. Luhnow and the other officials who had joined the Astros when they worked for the Cardinals. The Cardinals officials are believed to have used those passwords to gain access to the Astros’ network, law enforcement officials said.

Emphasis mine. Allow me to put my IT security hat on for a moment: There should never be a “master list of passwords”, because writing passwords down is poor security practice. Keep passwords in your head or in a password-keeper app. Two-factor authentication is a fine idea, too. And for goodness’ sake, don’t reuse old passwords, especially if you know that someone else knows what those old passwords are. The weakest link in any enterprise system is always an end user with bad security habits. Thus endeth the lesson. I can’t wait to see what Commissioner Manfred makes of this “Spygate” allegation. Hair Balls and ThinkProgress, from whom I got the embedded image, have more.

RIP, Tal’s Hill

One of the more distinctive features of Minute Maid Park is going away.

In the relatively short, rapidly changing history of Major League Baseball in Houston, nothing in recent years has represented the Astros’ brand of baseball more distinctively than Tal’s Hill, the idiosyncratic incline in Minute Maid Park’s center field that has confounded outfielders and entertained fans since the park opened in 2000.

With the 2016 season, that landmark will be no more.

Tal’s Hill, named for former Astros executive Tal Smith and designed to replicate the quirks of 20th-century ballparks for the enjoyment of 21st-century fans, will give way to a $15 million redesign that includes a center-field observation tower, a field-level club section, and gathering spots for groups, season-ticket holders and fans who want to enjoy baseball from multiple angles rather than a single seat.

The Astros, who will pay for the alterations to the publicly funded ballpark, announced plans for the redesign Thursday afternoon. The ballclub will solicit bids next week for the project, which required approval from MLB and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

Tal’s Hill lasted 16 years as a defining characteristic of Minute Maid Park, drawing praise from some for its throwback elements but criticism from others as a nuisance, an eyesore and even a danger zone, even though no one was ever injured flagging down a well-hit ball.

[…]

Eliminating Tal’s Hill will allow the Astros to move the center-field fence in from 436 feet, the deepest in Major League Baseball, to 409 feet, at roughly the outer edge of the current warning track.

Seating capacity will be reduced by about a hundred seats, but eliminating Tal’s Hill, with its 30-degree incline, will create more space for the Astros to entertain fans at, potentially, premium prices.

[…]

Elements of the redesign include:

A field-level club in center field with about 50 seats, located behind a 10-foot-high outfield fence.

A new section of seats atop the field-level boxes, on the right-field side of the batter’s eye backdrop in center field.

Moving the Budweiser-sponsored patio section from behind Tal’s Hill to atop the batter’s eye along the Home Run Alley concourse section.

A 92-foot tower with a winding staircase, enclosing an elevator between the main concourse and mezzanine equipped with LED lights and, at the top, the Astros’ name and logo.

A smaller, self-contained section of mezzanine seats in center field, replacing three sections of current seats that will be removed as part of the redesign, and about 35 feet of ribbon boards that will display team statistics, plus an icehouse-style bar and concessions area.

Additional retail stores, bar areas and concession stands on the main concourse and space that could house, among other things, a public set for Root Sports Southwest pre- and postgame broadcasts.

This related Chron story mentions the Hill’s homage to Crosley Field, the old home of the Cincinnati Reds, which had a notorious incline in its outfield. I once read a story about Babe Herman, a colorful outfielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1920s and 30s who was much better with a bat than with a glove. His manager, Wilbert Robinson, a/k/a “Uncle Robbie”, once had a friend and former Reds outfielder give Herman some tips on how to navigate the hill at Crosley Field. At the game that night, a batter hit a fly ball to deep right with runners on first and second. Herman expertly ran back to catch the ball, then fell flat on his face as he tried to throw it back into the infield. The runners rounded the bases as the ball rolled away from him during his pratfall. After the inning, Robbie accosted Herman in the dugout. “What happened? I thought he showed you how to go up that hill!” he yelled. “Yeah, but he didn’t show me how to come back down,” Herman replied.

I have no idea if that’s a true story, but really, does it matter? I kind of liked Tal’s Hill, but it was far enough out there that it was easy to ignore most of the time. I hadn’t given it much thought since the stadium formerly known as Enron Field first debuted, with Tal’s Hill the subject of much fanfare and derision. The main effect of this change will likely be to make Minute Maid even more homerun-friendly than it is now, though probably not by much. What do you think? Hair Balls, Sean Pendergast – both of whom are happy to see Tal’s Hill go – and Swamplot have more.

Losing our sports history

This is sad.

The original championship banners for the Rockets and the WNBA’s defunct Comets remain on display at Toyota Center, as do banners saluting both teams’ representatives in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

After that, Houston’s legacy of pro sports banners gets a little fuzzy.

The latest collection of banners to depart the city left in 2013 with the Aeros. The minor hockey team was moved by the NHL’s Minnesota Wild to Des Moines, Iowa, when the team could not reach agreement on a new Toyota Center lease with the Rockets.

Team officials said the Aeros’ 2011 banner for winning the American Hockey League’s Western Division title is on display at the Wild’s training center in Des Moines.

As for the other Aeros banners, they are presumed to be in storage in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, although team officials could not provide details on their location. A team spokesman, in fact, was not familiar with any banners that existed other than the 2011 flag.

Regardless, Toyota Center once was home to banners commemorating the 2003 Calder Cup title, the 1999 International Hockey League Turner Cup title, the 1974 and 1975 Avco Cup titles won by the World Hockey Association team, and the retired No. 9 jersey worn by Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, who played for the WHA Aeros.

[…]

NRG Park spokeswoman Nina Jackson, asked this week about the location of the Astros memorabilia, said, “Nobody knows anything about any banners.”

There was no indication whether the banners were sold during the Astrodome “garage sale” in 2013 and, if not, whether they still are stored somewhere within the building.

Similar questions surround the Oilers’ championship banners and retired number banners. The Oilers left Houston after the 1996 season for Nashville, Tenn., and a spokesman for the Tennessee Titans said the Oilers banners have not been seen in storage in Nashville.

So thanks to two relocated (and renamed) franchises plus one that changed its home stadium, a lot of tangible pieces of Houston’s sports history are at best in unknown locations. The obvious solution to this would seem to be a local sports museum, whose first task would be to try and track down these things that no one will admit to having at this time. Maybe this story will be a catalyst for someone with the money and the inclination to pursue that. Until then, at least we still have people who remember that these things did once happen.

Hall calls for Biggio

Third time’s the charm.

Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio were elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame on Tuesday, the first time since 1955 writers selected four players in one year.

Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz earned induction on their first tries, and Biggio made it on the third attempt after falling two votes shy last year.

Steroids-tainted stars Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa remained far from election.

Johnson, a five-time Cy Young Award winner with 303 victories and 4,875 strikeouts, was selected on 534 of 549 ballots by veteran members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. His 97.3 percentage was the eighth-highest in the history of voting.

Martinez, a three-time Cy Young winner, appeared on 500 ballots (91.1 percent). Martinez was 219-100, struck out 3,154, led the major leagues in ERA five times and in 2004 helped the Boston Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years.

Smoltz was picked on 455 ballots (82.9 percent) and will join former Atlanta teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who were inducted last summer along with Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas. Smoltz, the 1996 NL Cy Young winner, was 213-155 with 154 saves, the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves. He went 15-4 in the postseason.

Biggio appeared on 454 ballots, 42 more than the 75 percent needed and up from 68.2 percent in his first appearance and 74.8 percent last year. He had 3,060 hits in 20 big league seasons, all with the Houston Astros.

The quartet will be inducted in Cooperstown on July 26. The BBWAA had not voted in four players in a single year since selecting Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons and Dazzy Vance 60 years earlier.

I’m guessing you could win yourself a few beers at your favorite sports bar with the trivia question “Who was inducted to the Hall of Fame the same year as Joe DiMaggio?” (In case you’re wondering, Gabby Hartnett was a catcher in the 20s and 30s for the Cubs, Ted Lyons pitched for 20 years with the White Sox – check out the season he had in 1942, when he was 41, it’s the sort of stat line you’d never see anyone have today – and Dazzy Vance was Sandy Koufax 40 years before Sandy Koufax was Sandy Koufax.)

I have to say, other than my usual spittle-flecked rant about steroid hysteria, I have few complaints about this year’s voting results, which if you’ve followed this blog for awhile is saying something. The three top non-qualifiers – Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, and Tim Raines – all improved their standing over last year, and ought to be in decent shape for 2016. I’d have voted for those guys and a few others over Smoltz, but he’s deserving and would only have been left off my ballot this year because I’d have been limited to ten selections. Biggio, Johnson, and Pedro were all no-brainers. In addition to his prowess at the game, Craig Biggio was also the inspiration for the greatest sports-related blog of all time. He was Hall-worthy just for that, to be honest. I don’t expect to say this again any time soon, but well done, writers. Now get over your steroid idiocy and get to work electing everyone else that belongs. The official HOF announcement is here, the MLB.com story is here, and Hair Balls, Pinstripe Alley, Charlie Pierce, and Ultimate Astros have more.

Somebody doesn’t like something about the Astros

I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to conclude from this long but mostly unsourced screed about how the Astros are running their team.

The Astros have become one of baseball’s most progressive franchises as they try to rebuild and avoid a fourth consecutive 100-loss season.

But general manager Jeff Luhnow’s radical approach to on-field changes and business decisions has created at least pockets of internal discontent and a potential reputation problem throughout baseball.

“They are definitely the outcast of major league baseball right now, and it’s kind of frustrating for everyone else to have to watch it,” said former Astros pitcher Bud Norris, now with Baltimore. “When you talk to agents, when you talk to other players and you talk amongst the league, yeah, there’s going to be some opinions about it, and they’re not always pretty.”

The criticism, through interviews with more than 20 players, coaches, agents and others, comes in two parts:

On the field, the Astros shift their defenders into unusual positions to counteract hitter tendencies more than any other team, including in the minor leagues. They schedule minor league starting pitchers on altered and fluctuating rotation schedules, what they call a “modified tandem” system, a development strategy unique in baseball.

Off the field, the Astros are said to handle contract negotiations and the timing of player promotions with a dehumanizing, analytics-based approach detected by some across their operation.

The central question is how much criticism should be inherent to their process and how much should signal trouble in a game where word of mouth spreads quickly?

“Ninety-five percent of what we do is very similar to what all of baseball does,” Luhnow said. “We’re being a little bit different for very good reasons in some areas that we think are important.

“It doesn’t affect our ability to make people happy at the big league level. It just doesn’t. It affects their ability to perform better and be more prepared. That’s at least our hypothesis, and what we believe. And to tie that together with (how we handle) contracts is ridiculous.”

As far as the shifting goes, we all know that the basic idea for this dates from the 1940s, right? Lots of teams are employing it heavily these days, due to a combination of much better data about where each individual batter tends to hit the baseball plus a crop of managers and GMs that are willing to do what the plain facts say they ought to do. As the widespread deployment of this tactic is still new there are sure to be adjustments and countermeasures taken along the way, but for now whatever griping there is about it – the story basically had none – is the usual reactionary BS that tends to dominate baseball conversations. This is why we can’t have a better Hall of Fame balloting process.

As far as the “tandem rotation” system in the minors goes, that’s another stathead pet rock that goes back at least 30 years. The basic idea behind it is to develop young arms while minimizing the risk of injury. For all the advances we’ve made in tracking and measuring what happens on the field, we still have no idea what causes some pitchers to thrive and others to blow out their arms. A team that can crack that enigma, or just show some tangible advantage over doing what everyone has always done, will reap a huge benefit. I have no idea if this particular idea will work, but it can’t hurt to try, and the minors is the place to do it since player development and not a team’s won-loss record is the primary goal.

It almost feels silly to even discuss these things because despite being prominently mentioned early in the story, the rest of it has nothing to do with them. I guess those things are proxies for the real gripe, about how the Astros evaluate players and handle contracts.

When players are first promoted to the majors, they need not be paid more than the standard minimum salary of $500,000. Once in the majors, a player’s service-time clock begins, which eventually will determine when he is eligible for salary arbitration (three years, or two-plus in some special cases) and free agency (six years) – both vehicles for bigger paydays.

The Astros have benefited from making contract offers to young players at low rates and holding back players in the minors for service-time reasons.

Last year, Jose Altuve, signed a guaranteed four-year, $12.5 million deal (the Astros can extend it to six years) that made him even more valuable than his statistics alone – players who are productive and inexpensive are the game’s most valuable commodity.

Top prospect George Springer, who was promoted to the Astros after the season started, will not be eligible for free agency until he is 30 after the team delayed his move to the majors. The Astros said service time wasn’t a factor in the move that could potentially save them millions.

The Astros saved themselves money. But the question is whether the team handles these matters in a way that fosters confidence, and how much they should care about that perception in a business worth half a billion dollars based on a core product of 25 players.

“Players are people, but the Astros view them purely as property that can be evaluated through a computer program or a rigid set of criteria,” one player agent said, echoing the comments of others. “They plug players into it to see what makes sense from a development or contractual perspective, and it does not engender a lot of goodwill in the player or agent community.

“They wield service time like a sword (in contract extension negotiations) and basically tell a player, ‘This is what you are worth to us, take it or leave it.’ ”

Extension offers for players who have little or no major league experience have grown in popularity in recent years as teams try to get them at a bargain price, and the Astros have made several such offers.

The premise is not what some agents said bothers them, but how the Astros approach dealings and appear to handle clients.

Springer had an offer last year that reportedly was worth about $7 million guaranteed with the potential to earn more. The Astros also have made third baseman Matt Dominguez an offer worth $14.5 million for five years, plus two options, and outfielder Robbie Grossman received at least one similar offer – $13.5 million for six years plus two options, a person familiar with the offers said.

None of the players accepted. Luhnow has a policy of commenting on contracts only if a deal is finalized.

None of this is unusual. Every team does it to some extent. Offering multi-year extensions to young players that might sign for huge amounts elsewhere once they become free agents is standard practice now, to the point that teams like the Yankees that have traditionally done business by signing such players have had to make adjustments because the free agent talent pool ain’t what it used to be. Generally speaking, teams make this kind of offer to their rising stars with a year or two left in their team-control years – it doesn’t make sense to do it much earlier than that. If the Astros are insulting or alienating the kind of players they’d like to retain at a competitive salary, they’ll find those players will choose instead to play out the string and sign with another team. It’s just too early to say whether they’re headed down that path or not.

What was really amazing about this story was just how few people were quoted in it. One unnamed Astro, one unnamed agent, and two former players – Jed Lowrie and Bud Norris. Lots of potential axes to grind in there, but no objective outsider/analyst perspective, other than one positive statement about the effect of the shift defense. I have no idea what we’re supposed to make of this. Sure, it’s easy to point at the on-field performance, but we all know they started from a point of having zero talent. They’re finally developing that talent now, and it would be nice if they could keep the players they grow. It’s fine to point out that their managerial style – talking contract negotiations here, not player positioning or pitcher rotations – might be a hindrance to that. There was so much smoke in this piece it’s hard for me to say if that’s a legitimate concern or a bunch of mindless nattering by the handful of malcontents that every organization has. If it’s the former, there will be plenty of visible evidence for it soon enough. I’m not going to worry about it until then. Chron columnist Randy Harvey, who sees things more or less as I do, and PDiddie, who sees it differently, have more.

Lance Berkman

Former Astro and Rice Owl Lance Berkman hung up his spikes this week.

Lance Berkman
(credit: Photo Mojo on Flickr)

Lance Berkman, who starred at Rice before becoming one of the most clutch hitters in Astros history, is retiring after a 15-year career in the major leagues.

“He’s going to go down as one of the great players in Astros history,” said Phil Garner, who managed Berkman during the team’s playoff runs in 2004 and 2005. “A local Texas kid, goes to Rice, makes good, comes to the big leagues. He’s been a fabulous player in the big leagues, and he’s done it all with a touch of class.”

It was at Rice where Berkman’s smooth swing first got noticed. He hit 41 homers in 63 games as a junior and was drafted in the first round (No. 16 overall) by the Astros in 1997. Just two seasons later, Berkman was in the majors to stay.

From 2000-09, Berkman hit .300 for the Astros, averaging 31 homers and 103 RBIs.

“There aren’t many better in this generation,” baseball historian/statistician Bill James said at the time.

Among switch hitters, Berkman ranks among the best of all time. His career on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .943 is second only to Mickey Mantle’s .977 among switch hitters, and he ranks third among switch hitters in on-base percentage (.406, behind Mantle and Roy Cullenbine) and fourth in home runs (366, behind Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones).

No question Berkman was a great hitter. But is he a Hall of Fame player? There’s certainly local sentiment for that. My gut intuition was that his career was a little short and left his overall numbers, especially the kind of counting stats that tend to most impress Hall of Fame voters, a bit below the standard. Cliff Corcoran took a deeper look and agreed with that.

Berkman ranks second in baseball history among switch hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances in OPS+, behind only Mickey Mantle, and fourth among switch-hitters in home runs (behind Mantle, Eddie Murray and Chipper Jones, though Carlos Beltran will likely pass him this year). However, he doesn’t fare quite as well in the other cumulative stats (which covers everything from hits to wins above replacement), and that reveals the soft underbelly of his Hall of Fame case. For the bulk of his career, Berkman was a tremendously productive hitter, but not only did he play just 15 seasons, he only played in 140 or more games in eight of them.

[…]

Berkman’s retirement doesn’t come as a great surprise, particularly given how close he was to hanging it up a year ago. It does leave us with the question of whether or not he is a Hall of Famer. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS stats say no. Berkman’s 51.8/.38.9/45.3 career/peak/JAWS scores all fall short of the standard at first base and left and rightfield, his three primary positions (he also played 166 games in center early in his career, which yielded this gem on Tal’s Hill).

It may be surprising that Berkman doesn’t at least meet the standard on peak score, but the combination of the offense-heavy era in which he played, the Astros’ move to the hitter-friendly Enron-cum-Minute Maid Park in 2000, and some brutal fielding scores undercut those impressive statistics above. That, in combination with his short career, make the Hall seem like a longshot for Berkman, though he may get some extra points from the voters for his postseason performance, being a switch-hitter, and for his personality and honesty with the press.

In terms of a comparable candidate, one player that jumps to mind is Edgar Martinez. The legendary Mariners DH was also an undeniably great hitter who also had a memorable postseason moment, made essentially no contribution on defense by virtue of having been a designated hitter for the bulk of his career and had a similarly short career (just 12 qualifying seasons). Martinez hit .312/.418/.515 (147 OPS+) in his career to Berkman’s .293/.406/.537 (144 OPS+). Berkman hit more home runs (366 to doubles-hitter Martinez’s 309), but Martinez, perhaps crucially, surpassed 2,000 hits while Berkman did not (2,247 to 1,905). Martinez also played in more games (2,055 to 1,879) made more plate appearances (8,674 to 7,814), and had superior WAR (68.3 to 51.8) and JAWS scores (55.9 to 45.3). Martinez can also stake claim to being the greatest ever at his position, even if that position was designated hitter. Despite all of that, after five years on the ballot, he has yet to surpass 36.5 percent of the vote.

Edgar Martinez is a good comp, but I think it’s fair to say that Jeff Bagwell belongs in the Hall of Fame before Berkman gets there. He’s got a case, and I’ll be interested to see who argues for him in five years’ time, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate or insulting to say that the Big Puma was a great player and a fearsome hitter who falls a bit short of Cooperstown.

One thing for which there should be no argument at all is for Berkman to retire as an Astro. The team needs to make this happen.

The Astros should sign Berkman, give him his No. 17 to wear one last time for a farewell news conference, and let him retire as one of them, at home in Houston, where he belongs.

Berkman was a clutch hitter who gave the Astros many happy endings. Now they can give him one.

“He’s really an Astro,” said Phil Garner, who managed Berkman in Houston for parts of four seasons, including the teams that reached the playoffs in 2004 and the World Series in ’05. “He knows it. We all know it.”

That is the mother of all no-brainers. The Yankees did this last year for Hideki Matsui, who was a popular and well-regarded player that made key contributions to the 2009 World Series win and the 2003 LCS win over the Red Sox, but is hardly a franchise cornerstone. Whatever you think about the Yankees, they do this sort of thing right. If the Stros want to ensure at least one sellout crowd this year, they need to start planning for Lance Berkman Day at Minute Maid. (They should be planning JR Richard Day, too, but that’s another story.) It’s great that the team wants to bring Nolan Ryan on board, but one way or the other they need to give Lance Berkman a proper sendoff. Make this happen, y’all.