In public statements Tuesday, the Yankees and Major League Baseball both tried to remind fans that Commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t find that the 2015-16 Yankees broke the sport’s sign-stealing rules.
This determination has been repeated over and over by the team and the league – including in court, as they tried and failed to block the release of the “Yankees letter” – as though it were a decision handed down from heaven on high. As though it were so obvious that the commissioner could not have ruled otherwise.
In reality, the commissioner made a crucial choice in 2017. He chose To find out that the Yankees (and the Red Sox, whose office was also investigated at the time) had not broken the rules of the game by decoding signs in their video rooms. And as it was a choice, a different outcome was possible.
Players and staff used the video equipment in place to figure out what the opposing sign sequences were for the sport’s new replay challenge system. Then, players would get that information to dugout and runners, who could then easily crack the catcher’s code and tell the hitter what was coming on the plate.
Yet, this behaviorfast itself, Manfred decided, was not illegal.
The letter of the law in 2017 could and should have been more specific; Manfred and his people have ushered in a broader replay in the sport, and should also have updated the rules prioritizing a problem. But he and his office did not anticipate the problem (and that lack of foresight turned into an issue).
Nonetheless, there was a rule already in the books in 2017. It read: “The use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted. … No equipment may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage. ”
Video replay equipment, last we checked, draws electricity. It would not have been a stretch to say that the Yankees and the Red Sox were using electronic equipment well beyond intended means and for illicit gains, and had done so in violation of the rule. It may even have been a clear, accurate evaluation.
What Manfred instead decided was that it would be a violation if the information learned in those rooms was subsequently communicated via electronics. If a wearable device is used, such as the Red Sox used, or a dugout phone, such as the Yankees used.
“At that time, the use of the decode signs in the replay room was not expressly prohibited by MLB rules as long as the information was not communicated electronically to the dugout,” MLB said in its statement on Tuesday.
But that specificity wasn’t actually written in the rule then, either. These are all interpretations Manfred chose.
Now, Manfred could have thought it would be unfair to tell players that some of the replay videos are legal, and others are not, without delineating them ahead of time. But most any device you would imagine would have reasonable uses and illicit uses, and to think every single one would have been properly spelled out ahead of time is a stretch. Just because a rule is broad, doesn’t mean it can’t be enforced.
Manfred’s concerns may have been more practical. This was September 2017, and the playoffs were approaching. Manfred wouldn’t have wanted to suspend players or personnel from not one, but two soon-to-be playoff teams. If he went after players, he’d be in a fight with the players’ union over punishments. And the Red Sox and Yankees have always been, let’s say, important franchises in the sport.
But don’t overlook the convenience of the decision, either. It avoids precedent. If other teams are caught doing the same thing up until September 2017, Manfred doesn’t have to punish them. And because Manfred determined that the video room behavior was not grounds for punishment, he then did not have to detail what was going on in those rooms. He could be vague.
So in his 2017 publicly released statement, Manfred wrote that “the prevalence of technology, especially the technology used in the replay process, has made it increasingly difficult to monitor appropriate and inappropriate uses of electronic equipment.”
The commissioner also said that “our investigation revealed that clubs have employed various strategies to decode signs that do not violate our rules.”
That hardly explained the extent of what was happening.
The Yankees letter didn’t reveal more than the public already knew about what the Yankees did. The Athletic Reported on the Yankees’ video-room behavior in 2020. But ask a different question: How did Manfred and MLB tell the world what the letter line up was?
The Commissioner’s public statement issued in 2017, at the same time as the letter, does not make clear what was going on over the same scope. It was a jumbled word soup that left the reader guessing about a dugout phone, and tried to suggest that the dugout phone was just some minor matter.
“In the course of our investigation, however,” the statement said, “we learned that during an earlier championship season (prior to 2017) the Yankees had violated a rule governing the use of the dugout phone. No club complained about the conduct in question at the time and, without prompting from another club or my office, the Yankees halted the conduct in question. Moreover, the substance of the communications that took place on the dugout phone was not a violation of any Rule or Regulation in and of itself. Rather, the violation occurred because the dugout phone could not be technically used for such a communication. “
Think about how different it would have sounded Manfred stepped out in 2017 and said something along the lines of, well, what he said privately in the Yankees Letter (read it in full here), which was sent to general manager Brian Cashman.
“The Yankees’ use of the dugout to relay information about an opposing club’s signs during the 2015 season, and part of the 2016 season, constitutes a material violation of the Replay Review Regulations,” Manfred wrote in a letter that went public Tuesday. By using the phone in the video review room to instantly transmit information regarding signs of violations in the dugout, the Yankees were able to provide real-time information regarding their players regarding an opposing club’s sign sequence – the same objective. The Red Sox ‘scheme was the subject of the Yankees’ complaint. “
Manfred’s goal when he fined the Red Sox and Yankees was to end the behavior, and into the end, that might be where his choice of clear Red Sox and the Yankees using the video room stops improperly.
Players and teams didn’t take Manfred’s penalty of the Yankees and Red Sox seriously. The very next year, the Red Sox used the video room to decode signs again, after they hired a manager who had come over from the 2017 Houston Astros. Inside of 2017, those Astros kept stealing signs electronically, even after the Yankees and Red Sox were fined – and continued to do so in a way that was even more egregious than video-room decoding.
Manfred’s September 2017 decision-making was a major juncture in the sport’s history, and creates an interesting what-if: Had he found the Sox and Yankees guilty of using video rooms, and punished them more aggressively, he might have scared off other teams. ? Might even the Astros have knocked it off?
Above all, the Yankees letter is a reminder of a commissioner’s process. Manfred confronted a growing problem for the first time and found that two teams using decode signs to their video rooms had done so legally. That doesn’t mean the commissioner was right.
(Photo of Rob Manfred: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)
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