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No Yankees letter yet

May we all keep following this, all the other news about baseball is terrible.

The Yankees and Major League Baseball on Monday asked the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals to prevent public release of a 2017 letter from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to the Yankees that disgruntled fantasy league players say may contain evidence about cheating violations by the ballclub.

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff last week granted a request to unseal the letter by attorneys representing a group of DraftKings daily fantasy players who sued MLB over the impact of the Astros’ and Red Sox’ electronic sign-stealing scandals of 2017-18.

The letter from Manfred to the Yankees was included in discovery materials handed over during the fantasy players’ lawsuit, which was filed in the southern district of New York. It was sealed from public view because the Yankees said that making the letter public would cause “severe reputational injury.”

Attorneys for the fantasy players, however, say the letter may provide evidence that the Yankees were involved in a “more serious, sign-stealing scheme” than the ballclub’s technical violations cited by Manfred in 2017.

See here for the background. Judge Rakoff has since put his original ruling on hold pending appeal, so who knows how long this could take, and for something that may ultimately be about not very much that’s new. But until then, we all get to speculate and post stuff on Twitter. That counts as entertainment in these troubled times. CBS Sports and NJ.com have more.

A twist in the sign stealing story

We’ll see how twisted it gets.

A federal judge ordered the unsealing of a 2017 letter from Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to the New York Yankees that, according to court documents, detailed a “more serious, sign-stealing scheme” than the league initially revealed that September.

The Yankees and Major League Baseball have until Monday at noon to submit “a minimally redacted version” of the letter, according to the 12-page memorandum order filed in the Southern District of New York.

The letter itself may not be unsealed until June 19 in order for the Yankees to file an emergency appeal.

[…]

The letter in question was obtained during the discovery phase of a $5 million class-action lawsuit brought by DraftKings players against the league, the Astros and Boston Red Sox in the wake of the sign-stealing revelations earlier this winter.

A group of more than 100 plaintiffs, led by daily fantasy player Kristopher Olson, claimed the league and two teams were liable for any money lost during games where either the Red Sox or Astros cheated.

Judge Jed S. Rakoff dismissed the suit in April, but the plaintiffs are appealing the decision to the 2nd Court of Appeals.

Rakoff wrote Friday’s memorandum order that called for the letter’s unsealing, finding in favor of the DraftKings players who remain as plaintiffs. In their argument to keep the letter’s contents sealed, the Yankees said releasing the letter would inflict “significant reputational injury.”

“Much of the letter’s contents have already been revealed in the 2017 press release,” Rakoff wrote in his decision. “Furthermore, embarrassment on the part of MLB or the Yankees about the precise contents of the letter is not particularly weighty, and the privacy interests of any individuals mentioned in the letter may be remedied by minimal redaction.”

See here for more on the DraftKings lawsuit, to which the Yankees were not a party. My guess is that the single most likely outcome of this is that the letter tells us very little we didn’t already know, based on what Judge Rakoff says in his ruling, but the possibility certainly exists for something juicy to be in there. It’s not going to change anything the Astros did, but it might contribute to their “everyone else was doing it too” defense. It’s also possible that this will make MLB look bad – again – for the way they handled the investigation and the punishments that were handed out. We’ll find out soon enough. At this point, all I can say is that I’m glad for some baseball news that isn’t about the owners’ latest ridiculous season-starting proposal to the players. Views from 314 and Pinstripe Alley, both Yankees blogs, have more.

Manfred finally disciplines the Red Sox for their sign stealing

Here’s the MLB press release, written as a letter from Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Executive Summary

Following an exhaustive investigation into allegations of improper use of the video replay room by the Boston Red Sox, I have come to the following conclusions:

• I find that J.T. Watkins, the Red Sox video replay system operator, on at least some occasions during the 2018 regular season, utilized the game feeds in the replay room, in violation of MLB regulations, to revise sign sequence information that he had permissibly provided to players prior to the game.

• I find that unlike the Houston Astros’ 2017 conduct, in which players communicated to the batter from the dugout area in real time the precise type of pitch about to be thrown, Watkins’s conduct, by its very nature, was far more limited in scope and impact. The information was only relevant when the Red Sox had a runner on second base (which was 19.7% of plate appearances leaguewide in 2018), and Watkins communicated sign sequences in a manner that indicated that he had decoded them from the in-game feed in only a small percentage of those occurrences.

• I do not find that then-Manager Alex Cora, the Red Sox coaching staff, the Red Sox front office, or most of the players on the 2018 Red Sox knew or should have known that Watkins was utilizing in-game video to update the information that he had learned from his pregame analysis. Communication of these violations was episodic and isolated to Watkins and a limited number of Red Sox players only.

• I find that the Red Sox front office consistently communicated MLB’s sign stealing rules to non-player staff and made commendable efforts toward instilling a culture of compliance in their organization.

Discipline

Based on the findings described above, I hereby issue the following discipline:

1) J.T. Watkins shall be suspended for the 2020 season and 2020 Postseason. When Watkins returns from his suspension, he will be prohibited from serving as the replay room operator during any game for the 2021 season and 2021 Postseason.

2) The Boston Red Sox will forfeit their second round selection in the 2020 First-Year Player Draft.

3) Alex Cora will be suspended through the conclusion of the 2020 Postseason for his conduct as the bench coach of the Houston Astros in 2017. While I will not impose additional discipline on Cora as a result of the conduct engaged in by Watkins (because I do not find that he was aware of it), I do note that Cora did not effectively communicate to Red Sox players the sign-stealing rules that were in place for the 2018 season.

No other member of the 2018 Red Sox staff will be disciplined because I do not find that anyone was aware of or should have been aware of Watkins’s conduct. The Club’s front office took more than reasonable steps to ensure that its employees, including Watkins, adhered to the rules. Notwithstanding these good faith efforts to comply with the rules, however, the Red Sox organization ultimately is responsible for the conduct of a member of its advance scouting staff.

The full report is here. As with the Astros, Manfred did not discipline individual players, in part because he needed their cooperation in the probe, and in part because the collective bargaining agreement did not allow for it. Judging from what I saw on Twitter, the overwhelming response is “that’s it???”, which I can understand. For sure, it seemed like Cora, who was already fingered in the Astros’ 2017 banging scheme and then apparently brought that experience to Boston, would get a harsher sentence. Apparently not. No idea why it took this long to release the report – it was likely ready to go in March, before everything was about COVID-19 – but whatever. It is what it is at this point, and if we can ever get to being able to bitch about it while real games are being played, I’ll be grateful for that. Fangraphs has more.

DraftKings lawsuit tossed

Score one for the Astros.

Did not age well

A federal judge in New York mixed technical points of law with humor and theatrical flourishes in delivering a rousing defeat Friday to a group of baseball daily fantasy players who sued the Astros, Red Sox and Major League Baseball, claiming they were defrauded by the sport’s electronic sign-stealing scandal.

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff’s 32-page opinion in the case, filed by fantasy players from Massachusetts, California, Texas, Florida and California, begins by quoting from the 1956 film “High Society” and then dismantles the plaintiffs’ case while delivering a brief scolding to the Astros and Red Sox for their misdeeds.

While Rakoff, according to a 2014 magazine profile, is a Yankees fan who keeps a baseball autographed by Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera on his desk, he nonetheless dismissed the fantasy players’ complaint as “verbose, rhetorical and conclusory” — conclusory referring to a conclusion that is unsupported by facts — in dropping the case against two teams that are hardly on any list of Yankees fans’ favorites.

Rakoff began by noting that baseball celebrates stealing, if only of a base, and noted that it also can “lead our heroes to employ forbidden substances on their (spit) balls, their (corked) bats or even their (steroid-consuming) selves.

“But as Frank Sinatra famously said to Grace Kelly in the 1956 movie musical ‘High Society,’ ‘There are rules about such things,’” the judge wrote. “One of these rules forbids the use of electronic devices in aid of the players’ inevitable efforts to steal the opposing catcher’s signs.

“In 2017, and thereafter, the Houston Astros, and somewhat less blatantly the Boston Red Sox, shamelessly broke that rule, and thereby broke the hearts of all true baseball fans. But did the initial efforts of those teams, and supposedly of Major League Baseball itself, to conceal these foul deeds from the simple sports bettors who wagered on fantasy baseball create a cognizable legal claim?

“On the allegations here made,” the judge concluded, “the answer is no.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the judge’s ruling is embedded in the story. There are still other lawsuits out there for the Astros to contend with as a result of the sign stealing scandal, but this one is done for now. We’ll see if the plaintiffs try to appeal. ESPN has more.

MLB, Astros, Red Sox respond to DraftKings lawsuit over sign stealing

It’s motion to dismiss time.

Did not age well

As baseball’s electronic sign-stealing case joins the long list of sports-related court cases, attorneys for the the Astros, Red Sox and Major League Baseball all say that while fantasy sports bettors may be angered by rules violations, that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to monetary damages as a result of cheating.

All three parties filed responses late last week in a proposed class action case filed in a New York City federal court against the two teams and MLB over purported damages resulting from the 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal.

The two cases filed in New York have effectively been rolled into one case as bettors have joined forces against the MLB entities.

All three responses to the lawsuit filed by DraftKings customers cite court decisions in such past brouhahas as the New England Patriots’ “Spygate” case in 2010, boxer Mike Tyson’s ear-biting assault upon Evander Holyfield in 1997 and the New Orleans Saints’ “Bountygate” scandal of 2009-11 in asking U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff to dismiss this case.
“Every court that has been faced with similar claims by disappointed fans … has soundly rejected such a claim recognizing that these types of issues are best resolved on the field and not in the courtroom,” attorneys for MLB wrote. “The same result should obtain here.”

In similar fashion, attorneys for the Astros wrote that fans “have no express or implied right to an event free of penalties, undisclosed injuries, rules violations, cheating or similar conduct. … There is no legal claim for a violation of a sports league’s internal rules.”

See here for the background, and here for more sign-stealing-lawsuit stuff. A copy of the Astros’ motion to dismiss is in the story. I don’t have anything to add to this, but if you’d like to hear an actual lawyer give real lawyer-like opinions and analysis of the various sign-stealing lawsuits and their merits, I recommend you listen to this episode of Effectively Wild, which will give you a firm footing on the subject. Courthouse News and the Associated Press have more.

More Astros lawsuits

This one was filed by a dissatisfied customer.

Did not age well

An Astros season ticket holder has filed suit in Harris County District Court against the ballclub, accusing the team of negligence, breach of contract and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act in conjunction with the 2017-18 electronic sign-stealing scandal.

The suit, filed Friday by Beaumont attorneys Mitchell A. Toups and Richard L. Coffman on behalf of season ticket holder Adam Wallach of Humble, seeks class action status for Astros full and partial season-ticket holders from 2017 through 2020 and damages in excess of a million dollars.

The Astros are accused of “deceptively overcharging (fans) for season tickets while defendants and their employees and representative knowingly and surreptitiously engaged in a sign stealing scheme … and secretly put a deficient product on the field that could result (and now has resulted) in severe penalties” from Major League Baseball.

As a result of the scheme, the lawsuit claims, season ticket holders are owed refunds of what attorneys say were inappropriate increases in ticket prices for the last four seasons. The suit also seeks treble damages for the Astros’ “knowing, willful, intentional, surreptitious, wrongful and unconscionable conduct.”

In addition, attorneys seek an order that would prevent the Astros from increasing season ticket prices for at least two years.

There were already two other lawsuits against the Astros over the whole sign stealing thing; this story notes yet another, a hand-written (!) lawsuit from a guy in Nevada who lost money in both 2017 and 2018 betting on the Dodgers to win the World Series. The day will come when this sort of story will end, but today is not that day. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have my doubts that this will survive a motion to dismiss, but the Chron asked some actual lawyers, and maybe it can.

With three potential class action lawsuits pending against the Astros in Harris County courts, the scene is set for what attorneys say is a multi-layered, landmark legal battle that could test the wits and knowledge of lawyers, judges and jurors and perhaps extend beyond information disclosed in Major League Baseball’s report.

“This is a complicated mess,” said Talmage Boston, a Dallas attorney who has written two books on baseball’s history and is a member of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. “We have never seen anything like this before. There will be nothing easy about this case.”

Two additional lawsuits were filed against the ballclub Tuesday, bringing to at least seven the number of cases in state and federal court stemming from the electronic sign-stealing scheme in 2017-18 that resulted in Major League Baseball sanctions against the ballclub.

In the two latest suits, filed by the Hilliard Martinez Gonzales law firm in Corpus Christi, attorneys will seek authority to collect testimony that could go beyond details collected by the MLB probe that led to the firing of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow by team owner Jim Crane.

John Duff, an associate with the Hilliard firm, said attorneys for the ticket holders will attempt to question not only current and former Astros players and management but also MLB executives and players and managers from other teams, extending the boundaries of the MLB probe.

[…]

Sports-related lawsuits are not uncommon, with examples including the NFL’s “Spygate” affair with the New England Patriots and cases filed by disgruntled New Orleans Saints fans over officiating decisions that affected playoff games.

None of those cases proceeded to trial. Boston, however, said he believes the three Harris County cases, each of which seeks to represent season ticket holders who say they were defrauded by the Astros’ misdeeds, have a chance to proceed.

“The Astros will try to get them dismissed, but I think they will get teed up in front of a jury,” Boston said. “There are some compelling facts, and the evidence discovery will go deeper than anything we know in terms of what (MLB commissioner Rob Manfred) had in his investigation.

“It really is a can of worms.”

So who knows what might happen. Each case is in a different court, and there may be an effort to move them to federal court, which the plaintiffs will resist. I still have my doubts, but it sure would be interesting to see what the discovery process might uncover.

Astros offer an apology

We’ll see how it goes for them.

From a local newscast in LA

Astros players issued their first public apology after being involved in a cheating scandal that rocked baseball in the offseason.

“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team by the organization and by me,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said in a press conference at the team’s spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I have learned from this and I hope to regain the trust of baseball fans. I would also like to thank the Astros fans for all of their support. We as a team are totally focused on moving forward to the 2020 season.”

Jose Altuve followed up with a similar apology and said the team had a meeting Wednesday to talk about how they should move forward.

“I want to say that the whole Astros organization and the team feels bad about what happened in 2017,” said Altuve in a 38-second statement. “We especially feel remorse for the impact on the fans and the game of baseball, and our team is determined to move forward, to play with intensity and to bring back a championship to Houston in 2020.”

[…]

“At that meeting last night, the players showed tremendous remorse, sorrow and embarrassment for their families, organization, city of Houston and baseball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “I want to ask for the baseball world to forgive them for the mistakes they made.”

Astros owner Jim Crane, who fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow when baseball released its report on the Astros’ cheating scandal, also apologized.

“I want to say again how sorry our team is for what happened,” Crane said. “I want to repeat this will never happen again on my watch.”

I’ll get to Crane in a minute, but suffice it to say not everyone was convinced. I do think this will simmer down over time – if nothing else, the Red Sox punishment is coming, and that will provide a distraction and another target for fans to aim their displeasure – but it will be present for the season, if not longer. Every first meeting against another team, every time an Astros player gets hit by a pitch, any time someone pops off on Twitter, the whole saga will get rehashed. And if there are further revelations, well, as the man once said, hold onto your butts.

As for Astros owner Jim Crane, maybe he should have hired a better apology-writer.

The Astros, who now stand, in the words of one analyst, as “baseball’s unfaithful spouse,” tried to address the 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal Thursday with a hybrid communications strategy that observers say left questions unanswered and failed to mollify the team’s critics.

While observers were more generous toward comments by Astros players in the spring training clubhouse at West Palm Beach, Fla., they were less complimentary of the 30-minute news conference staged by owner Jim Crane, which included brief remarks by players Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman.

Gene Grabowski, a partner at the crisis communications firm kglobal in Washington, D.C., said the Astros were ill-served by advisers in planning the opening news conference that got the morning off to a rough start.

“The core of the problem is that the team’s owner and players tried to declare the crisis over before it’s really over,” Grabowski said. “They sounded arrogant when they said they are moving on. That’s for the fans and sports writers to say — not guilty players and owners.

“The team’s news conference was ill-conceived and poorly presented. It was a horrible performance that has actually made the situation worse for the Astros.”

Mike Androvett, who owns a public relations, marketing and advertising firm that works with attorneys in Dallas and Houston, said the news conference failed to put the past to rest and, instead, “reinforced that the 2017 World Series win will likely be forever tainted.”

[…]

Marjorie Ingall with the website sorrywatch.com, which tracks and rates messages of public contrition, said the Astros news conference “was spectacular in its horridness. It’s the way not to apologize. It’s every example of terrible corporate policy.”

Among Crane’s failures during his news conference, Ingall said, was refusing to acknowledge the damage the Astros inflicted on their opponents.

“You have to apologize to the people you’ve harmed,” she said. “If you’re not doing that, you’re not really apologizing.”

She did, however, have good words for Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who began his remarks in the clubhouse with the phrase, “We were wrong for everything we did in 2017.”

“That’s the first sentence of a good apology: ‘We were wrong,’” Ingall said.

Well, maybe the worst is now over. Gotta think positive, right? Sports Illustrated has more.

Lawsuit filed over sign stealing effect on fantasy baseball

This ought to be interesting.

Major League Baseball (MLB) teams secretly distorted player statistics and deprived fans of an “honest fantasy baseball competition,” a lawsuit filed by a fan alleges in the fallout to a sign-stealing scandal involving the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox.

The lawsuit, which named MLB, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox as defendants, was filed in a Manhattan federal court on behalf of all fans who participated in DraftKings’ fantasy baseball contests, which plaintiff Kristopher Olson claimed were tainted by the sign-stealing scandal.

“At the very least, all of DraftKings’ fantasy baseball contests from early in the 2017 baseball season through the end of the 2018 regular season and into the 2019 season, were tainted by cheating and compromised, at the expense of DraftKings’ contestants,” according to the filing on Thursday.

DraftKings’ fantasy sports and betting operations are big business; it said in December it would go public this year in a deal putting its value at $3.3 billion.

The complaint claimed MLB has actively promoted fantasy baseball competition through its equity stake in fantasy sports and gambling company DraftKings.

CBS News and ClassAction.org have more details about the lawsuit if you want a deeper dive. I don’t play fantasy sports, but the basic idea is you draft a team, you designate which players “start” in a given game that is actually being played, and you get points based on the statistical performance of your players in those games. The idea here is that pitchers on fantasy teams who were designated to start against the Astros did worse than they would have because of the sign stealing, and since MLB knew about the sign stealing and didn’t do anything about it at the time, while they were also promoting and profiting from fantasy baseball, they were essentially defrauding the fantasy team owners. It seems a bit of a stretch to me, but there’s real money at stake. It’s also pretty clear that there’s more to the sign stealing story than what has been made public so far, and if this suit is allowed to proceed there’s a good chance we’ll learn a lot more about what really happened. So I’m very interested to see what happens.

Luhnnow and Hinch suspended by MLB, then fired by Astros

Wow.

Did not age well

Astros owner Jim Crane fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow on Monday shortly after Major League Baseball announced the pair would be suspended for a year as part of the penalties for the investigation into alleged electronic-sign stealing.

“Today is a very difficult day for the Houston Astros,” Astros owner Jim Crane said in a press conference Monday. “MLB did a very thorough investigation and the Astros fully cooperated and we accept their decisions and findings and penalties.”

The franchise also was stripped of its first- and second-round picks in both the 2020 and 2021 drafts and fined $5 million.

MLB’s report detailed the Astros’ efforts to steal signs in 2017 and laid out the punishment handed down to the Astros. Crane opted to go a step further.

“I have higher standards for the city and the franchise,” Crane said.

Well, at least the Astros found a way to make everyone forget about the Texans’ playoff disaster. The full report is embedded in the story, and it’s not long, so go read the whole thing. (Or just read the highlights here, but really, read the whole thing.) I’d say this was on the high end of what I thought might happen, but it’s not out of line with my expectations. The key is that the activity continued to occur after the 2017 Red Sox Apple Watch incident, in which Commissioner Manfred (the author of the report) explicitly promised strong punishment if anyone was caught doing stuff like that again. If I’m Alex Cora, who was directly named as a mastermind behind the scheme and is now the manager of another team under investigation I’m probably not sleeping well right now. We can debate at length whether this was fitting or not, or if any punishment is worth winning a World Series, or just put on some oven mitts and read Twitter about it. Let’s just say 2020 is off to a rough start for Houston sports fans.

This also wrapped up the Brandon Taubman investigation – he too was suspended for a year, and will have to apply to the Commissioner’s office for reinstatement. He was also singled out in the report for some sharp rebukes. I’ll be thinking about all this for some time. The Press has more.

UPDATE: This did not age well.

Allegations of electronic sign-stealing “surprised” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, who acknowledged Saturday he has participated in and cooperated with Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation into his team.

Appearing at an autograph show alongside Alex Bregman and George Springer, Correa offered the most elaborate comments of any Houston player since the scandal broke last November.

Correa expressed little worry about the organization’s reputation and no thought the 2017 World Series title is in any way tainted. He revealed subtle antipathy toward former teammate Mike Fiers, whose on-the-record allegations about the 2017 team’s actions spurred the investigation.

“He’s a grown man, and he can do whatever he wants to do. It’s a free country,” Correa said. “Knowing Fiers, it was surprising, because we were a team. We were a team. We were all together, and we had a bond, and we won a World Series championship. But this is America, the land of the free. You can say what you want to say.”

I’d say at least a little worry about the team’s reputation is in order at this time. There’s no evidence to suggest that the sign stealing actually benefited the Astros, but that doesn’t matter. Fair or not, this scandal will forever be associated with that title.

It’s not just the Astros

Oh, boy.

The Dodgers have not won the World Series since 1988. They have only appeared in the World Series twice since then, in 2017 and 2018.

Both teams that beat them — the Houston Astros in 2017 and the Boston Red Sox in 2018 — now are under investigation by Major League Baseball over allegations they improperly using technology to steal signs.

During the 2018 regular season, according to a story posted by the Athletic on Tuesday, the Red Sox visited the replay room during games to review signs flashed by opposing teams.

“It’s cheating,” one person who was with the 2018 Red Sox told the Athletic. “Because if you’re using a camera to zoom in on the crotch of the catcher, to break down the sign system, and then take that information and give it out to the runner, then he doesn’t have to steal it.”

The league monitored replay rooms during the 2018 postseason, making it unlikely the Red Sox would have been able to use the system during the World Series.

The Red Sox said in a statement Tuesday: “We were recently made aware of allegations suggesting the inappropriate use of our video replay room. We take these allegations seriously and will fully cooperate with MLB as they investigate the matter.”

See here and here for the most recent updates on the Astro investigation. As a Yankees fan, I’m torn between stifling a giggle, and lighting a thousand candles in the fervent hope that my team isn’t the next one in the barrel. I can believe that some teams may have been doing this more (and more egregiously) than others, but I have no trouble believing that most if not all of them were at least dipping a toe into this kind of illegal activity. In the meantime, Astros fans, enjoy the schadenfreude while you can.