Day 28 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: A cheat sheet/check list as to who, what, how and why not try

“Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal
and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing”

The author:
Andrew Martino

The publishing info:
Doubleday Book
288 pages
Released June 8, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At The Last Book Store in L.A.
At Eso Won
At Diesel

The review in 90 feet or less

However many fans were allowed into Dodger Stadium last May 21, eventually they weren’t going to go away feeling cheated.

The Arizona Diamondbacks’ Josh Reddick took his turn at the plate in the eighth inning against the Dodgers’ Blake Treinen, but Dodger fans could see past this new skin he was wearing. A one-time Dodger half-season rental in 2016 who never really endeared himself to the L.A. home base before going to Houston, Reddick might not have guessed there were only about 15,000 COVID-restricted fans in the facility when the chant started in the right field pavilion, and soon became pretty obvious for those watching on TV.

“Cheater … Cheater …”

Maybe they were prompted a few innings earlier, when Dodger Stadium organist Dieter Ruehle played a peppy version of the song, “I Saw The Sign,” when Reddick was coming to the plate.

No matter what you choose to be still angry about concerning the recent actions of the Astros — winners of the 2017 World Series over the Dodgers, losers in the 2018 ALCS to eventual World Champion Boston, losers in a seven-game 2019 World Series to Washington and nearly winning the 2020 ALCS which would have put them over Tampa Bay and into a World Series rematch in against the Dodgers in last year’s bizarre finish in Texas — you should know as much of the facts as possible.

It was a perfect storm of advanced technology, arrogance, stupidity, pushing boundaries and “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” mentality.

It was a muddled plan endorsed by a subset of desperate players apparently too smart for their own good on the ancient art of stealing signs. It was another way for a franchise to break out of an inferiority complex, already seeded with a culture of bro-ness.

It was a chance for a city already hit by a deadly hurricane to pull itself up and ride the wave of something they didn’t realize was pretty tainted — but then again, they once saw teams like the San Francisco Giants win titles in ’10, ’12 and ’14 with a huge asterisk on their flags.

Ultimately, it led to the January 2020 demise of their manager and GM, as well as the Red Sox and Mets deciding they also needed to distance themselves from their newly hired yet tainted managers who were part of that mess.

In whatever ways you want to measure it, or which Yogi Berra phrase you choose to use, this ain’t over til it’s over, and the timing of this book will, if anything, tear off a nasty scab just in time for Dodgers reader to consume, process and provide more fuel for their fire.

So, really, what’s new to glean about this subject matter now that this this veteran MLB reporter for SNY in New York has done his own fact-searching mission and collated reports over the last few years? Martino says he wanted to focus on two main themes: What exactly happened with the Astros and other teams accused of electronic sign stealing, and did three people who he believed were decent folks — Stanford-grad manager A.J. Hinch, bench coach and former Dodger Alex Cora, and All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran — end up in the middle of this?

Martino targeted more than 100 interviews — we’re not sure with whom, or if any involved the main participants. It doesn’t matter. Martino mixes in enough professional knowledge and intrigue that this will definitely educate a baseball fan (such as telling ways how a pitcher and catcher have several templates to change signals with “chase the two,” “outs plus one,” or “ABE”) but also bring other readers up to speed.

There is a measured execution of connecting the dots of the history of cheating, where the Astros were at this moment in time of tanking games to get better draft picks, and then having key teachers in place to see if this could be pulled off based on access to new TV cameras and monitors.

What we learned:

** When it came to garbage can-banging, whistling, wearable technology or hidden GoPros, not everyone wanted in.

From page 140:

(Jose) Altuve was the most resistant of the Astros stars. … when Altuve was batting and there would be a bang, he would glare into the dugout. ‘He doesn’t want it,’ teammates would say frantically. On more than one occasion, Altuve returned to the dugout after his at-bat and yelled at the others to knock it off. He was one of those players who felt the additional information merely clouded his mind; he preferred to simply react to the pitch. (Catcher Brian) McCann was also iffy on participating, as we right fielder Josh Reddick.”

Hear that, right field pavilion? Start practicing your apology chants.

** When it came to how Beltran became such a renowned stealer of signs, go back to his days in Toronto when he was just coming up. His mentors — future Dodger Shawn Green, and teammate Carlos Delgato. Beltran, as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, had formerly come up on the Dodgers’ radar back in the 2013 NLCS when he supposedly figured out Clayton Kershaw tipping pitches in a Game 6 loss.

** The Dodgers and Yankees re-emergence as MLB powers at this time, while the Astros were still struggling a bit, set the stage for some under Houston’s umbrella to feel a need to cut corners if they were to exploit this window of time to succeed in their franchise play of building with high draft picks.

** For manager A. J. Hinch, “the situation was far more complicated,” Martino writes. “He was the leader of a team that included players who designed the scheme and players who disapproved of it. He did not personally think that sign stealing was a worthwhile pursuit … but while watching the cheating develop and registering quiet disapproval, Hinch did not try to stop it. People who knew him well believed it was because he wanted to preserve the largely positive environment and was conflict-averse to a fault. … (His leadership) was not of what you preach, but what you tolerate. In this way he was failing by his own standard.”

For L.A. readers, all Martino’s presentation seems to funnel into Chapter 13 on page 155 entitled “Yep, the Astros Used the Trash Can in the World Series” of 2017.

** Carlos Correa was one who noted the Dodgers changed their sign sequences for the series, “making it much more difficult to decode them. That is true. But again, the trash can and monitor were there, as were Astros players making the same ethical calculation about using them as they did during the regular season.”

One of things fans might not detect: Because of the louder crowd surroundings in the ballpark, the trash can noise couldn’t easily be detected on the TV broadcast. Martino is telling us it likely happened anyway.

The most glaring coincidence is Kershaw’s Game 5 performance at Minute Maid Park, when he threw 51 off-speed pitches that night — curveballs and sliders — and the Astros swung at just one of them.

“This simply does not happen to a pitcher, not to mention one whose curveball was among the best in his generation,” Martino writes. “The Dodgers had a hard time believing that it would have happened at all had the Astros not been cheating.”

Cora, who had issues with Hinch, left the team’s coaching staff, became manager of the Red Sox, and they defeated the Dodgers for the 2018 title. After the 2019 season, the Athletics’ Ken Rosenthal and Even Drellich told the story of former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, on the record, about the trash-can scheme, a follow up to Yahoo! Sports publishing details about the can-banging more than a year earlier. Impossible to ignore, it all came to a head with commissioner Rob Manfred’s decisions just before the 2020 season — no penalties against the players, and no rescinding the Astros of a World Series.

And here we still are.

Check the schedule: The Houston Astros slog into Dodger Stadium for two inter-league games later this 2021 season – Tuesday Aug. 3 and Wednesday Aug. 4. Attendance will likely exceed 50,000 for each contest in the post-reopening of the stadium, the city, and this interesting scandal.

This time, not because of some promotion giveaway. Unless it’s a trashcan for fans to beat on.

How it goes in the scorebook

If the reader is to draw his own conclusions, then maybe heed the quote from Salvador Dali: “Drawing is the honesty of the art. There is no possibility of cheating. It is either good or bad.” And there’s a good reason why this is already ranked a No. 1 best-seller on Amazon’s “Sociology of Sports” subcategory. People eat this stuff up.

And consider the source. A credible, veteran writer (with a background at the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Daily News) seeking truth and accuracy rather than an opportunist/opinionist trying to reinforce a narrative. Even more, it’s written in a style that doesn’t come from those who may be adept at researching but not so experienced in telling a story.

It explains, rather than tells, especially when it comes to an understanding of why someone of the smartest minds in the game could get caught up in taking their talents to new exploitative and unethical lows.

In the way Don Zminda uses the recently published book “Double Plays and Double Crosses” to break down the aftermath of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal and how it just kept going as long as no one would do anything, Martino lays out how the Astros’ greediness with its simplistic yet technologically advanced plan starting in 2017 lasted well past its expiration date.

It reminds us of last March 2020, we used a recently-updated version of a book by the esteemed Paul Dickson, “The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime,” to reintroduce the subject of the Astros’ sign-stealing, fresh of the MLB suspensions and team firings. It’s a book that Martino duly notes in the bibliography for a resource he used in Chapter 1 of his book.

In our Q&A, we asked: Doesn’t your book prove that, because of the history with sign stealing, this is just the next phase of something that isn’t bound to just go away? His reply: Absolutely as long as there are signs given by one team, the other team on the field will be trying to decode them.

We also asked: Are you OK with the penalties handed down? His reply: I am but I am also fascinated by the fact that so little attention has been played to the role of major league baseball this whole affair. MLB installed those cameras in Houston and other ballparks and apparently did nothing to insure that those cameras were not being used for espionage. I have been widely quoted recently when I said: “Major League Baseball brought the snake into the Garden of Eden and then wondered why (players) bit the apple.”

And more forbidden fruit-biting seems to be coming.

If you’re paying attention to how pitch-doctoring has come to light – and the Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer becoming one of the major supporters of doing it unless he’s been caught – theirs is likely a slew of more cheating stories to come.

Sports Illustrated has already referred to the Dodgers’ pitching staff this year as “Spin City” in a story headlined “This Should Be the Biggest Scandal In Sports.”

Wait for the book that drills deep on this subject in 2023.

More to cover

**This Thursday at 7 p.m., Martino will appear at Chevalier’s Books’ virtual event to discuss this project with the L.A. Times’ Dylan Hernandez. In a June 7 column on the topic of pitch doctoring,  Hernandez referred to Martino’s book. Hernandez also wrote for the back jacket blurb: “Leave it to an old-school journalist like Andy Martino to get to the bottom of a modern-day baseball crime. With his intimate knowledge of clubhouse culture and ability to humanize the sport’s most recognizable figures, Martino explains how an accepted form of gamesmanship gradually transformed into blatant cheating. This story couldn’t be told in 280-character blocks on Twitter.”

**Martino’s Q&A with the Pandemic Baseball Book Club included:
Q: What’s one noteworthy thing you learned during the research of your book?
A: I learned the exact date that the Astros cheating started, and that it did not in fact end when many people assumed it did. There was a lot of speculation about both ends of the spectrum, but the trash can scheme commenced on May 26, 2017, against Baltimore. Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette immediately suspected that something was up, but didn’t know what. It didn’t end when White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar noticed the banging in September. It paused, then resumed through the World Series. And there were plenty more non-trash-can techniques, too.

Q: How did your insider access at SNY help you with reporting the book? 
A: If I weren’t covering the game on a daily basis for SNY, I wouldn’t have been able to report the book. It is through that grind that you develop sources, not to mention see and hear things. I was covering the 2019 ALCS when I heard about the whistling incident, which launched my reporting on this issue. If I hadn’t been at the field talking to people, I wouldn’t have found out about it. And if I hadn’t already built up contacts from covering baseball day-to-day, I wouldn’t have been able to pick up the phone and confirm what I’d heard.

Q: Was there anything you felt was extremely difficult to cut?
A: There were a few rumors of cheating schemes that were a lot of fun but unverifiable on any level. If they weren’t fit to print I can’t responsibly get into too much detail, but I’ll say there was a lot of talk about baseballs that Astros pitchers were using. I was at least able to report that a Dodgers pitcher noticed this during the 2017 World Series.

**A review in the New York Times among the top sports books to read this summer: “Martino offers the definitive account … (and) offers this history not to condone the Astros’ bad acts, but to put them in context, and on a continuum. … Those Astros have their own share of the blame for the ensuing scandal. But Beltran’s descent down the slippery slope from all-but-sanctioned espionage to reprehensible cheating gives Martino’s narrative its compelling tragic arc.”

**From the Associated Press: “Andy Martino writes with a novelist’s touch, ratcheting up the tension as he proceeds. And while he doesn’t say so directly, Major League Baseball leadership emerges as less than bold and forceful in dealing with the Astros, Red Sox and other baseball cheaters, in part perhaps because of a culture of “everybody’s doing it” and baseball players’ code of dispensing their own justice through pitchers’ nailing offending hitters with a well-aimed fastball.”

**An interview on the Michael Kay Show in New York.

**A review in the N.Y. Daily News’ entertainment section.

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