In November 2019, Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic published an explosive piece on the Houston Astros‘ electronically-aided sign-stealing efforts. That piece had four people with the Astros during the 2017 season confirm they used electronic methods to steal signs that year, with pitcher Mike Fiers saying so on the record. It kicked off months of discussion, which included more details on the schemes, talk of what other teams were doing, and punishments for people with the Astros and elsewhere. Now, in an Athletic excerpt from his new book on the scandal Winning Fixes Everything: How Baseball’s Brightest Minds Created Sports’ Biggest Mess, Drellich (seen above with the book) discusses the process that led to this story, and he has some interesting insights there.
Drellich’s comments in this excerpt are particularly notable on two fronts: timing and response. On timing, he discusses how he got an early sense of the Astros’ efforts in the 2018 postseason while he was a Red Sox beat reporter for NBC Sports Boston. That included details on the centerfield camera, the dugout TV, and the garbage can, which would eventually be key parts of the final story, and it also included the famous photo of the removed TV and the garbage can.
But Drellich didn’t have enough to firmly publish at that point. And he didn’t feel he was at the right outlet to chase this further. Instead, he wrote a conservative piece on general electronic sign-stealing in November 2018. He then was let go from NBC Sports Boston in February 2019, and that eventually led to him going to The Athletic and working with Rosenthal, who he cites as having the “unmatched” industry catchet to get key sources to talk. And that led to intensive reporting efforts from both of them until the November 2019 publication of that first story. But one thing that really stands out here is how early Drellich talked to people inside MLB (during the 2018 World Series still, before he even got to The Athletic), and how little seeming response he got:
I met with a pair of MLB officials at Dodger Stadium, trying to understand what MLB was undertaking to combat electronic sign-stealing. I told them I had multiple accounts of the Astros stealing signs via electronic means in the prior year.
“I think that every club is always suspicious, but again—” one official said.
I cut the official off: “This is from within the Astros.”
“Within the Astros, they’re acknowledging that they’ve done this?” one shot back, surprised.
“They have acknowledged that?” one said. “I mean, I can’t speak to that. I mean, to our knowledge—you have your information, and we have ours, and that’s all we can go off. As to whether that has occurred, to our knowledge we are completely unaware. I am confident in the measures that we’ve taken.”
…“If you can tell your sources that they should—if they want to speak to the commissioner’s office, we’re all ears,” a different official told me once the World Series ended. “The problem is, nobody talks to us.”
As Drellich notes, he didn’t steer his sources to the league, as that’s very much not a reporter’s job. But it is remarkable that MLB officials were aware of Drellich looking into this, with confirmation from inside the Astros’ organization, as early as the end of 2018. And that makes the eventual MLB response in November 2019 and beyond, which largely started as “shocked, shocked” and even included criticisms of reporters doing their jobs, look even more absurd. Yes, this is not the first time team rule-breaking activity has come up and received a lackluster league response (it’s not even the first time specifically about sign-stealing!), but Drellich’s account here makes it seem like league officials should have been looking at this harder before The Athletic’s eventual published piece.
The other particularly interesting thing in this excerpt is the discussion of Rosenthal’s conversation with Fiers about Fiers going on the record. Fiers points out “I don’t want to be put out there like that” (and that’s completely fair considering the criticisms he wound up taking, including from analysts who should have known better), but ultimately decides to accept that in an effort to improve things. He says “I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in, they’re not knowing.” That’s a reasonable approach, and it does seem like that this particular avenue of rule-breaking has been “cleaned up” a bit since November 2019. And the reporting from Drellich and Rosenthal, and Fiers’ decision to go on the record for that, was key to that happening.
[The Athletic, Winning Fixes Everything on Bookshop; images from Amazon]