In This Episode
This week on Takeline, Jason and Renee talk to author Andy Martino, author of “Cheated’ about the Astros sign stealing scandal. They also discuss how USA Gymnastics needs to change to better protect its athletes and give a preview of the WNBA playoffs starting this week. Plus, Take Survivor!
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Renee Montgomery: But for a team to make the playoffs with a 12 and 20 record, I think it was like a .34 win percentage, the lowest ever in WNBA history. I don’t know, but sometimes things like that, I don’t know, but sometimes that little bit of luck is momentum. It’s like a spark. I don’t know.
Jason Concepcion: You know what? I agree with you. And you know what I’m hearing? I’m hearing the Liberty made history. That’s what I’m hearing.
Renee Montgomery: [laughs] Oh! Is that how you, that’s how you heard it? I’m mean, it’s a fact.
Jason Concepcion: That’s how I hear it.
Renee Montgomery: It’s a fact!
Jason Concepcion: Renee, last week, USA gymnast stars Simone Biles, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols testified before the Senate on the sexual abuse investigation involving the former USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. The gymnasts also received an apology from FBI director Christopher Wray for the handling of the case. However, that apology is far from the justice for hundreds of female, literally hundreds, hundreds, over 200, female gymnasts deserve after Nassar’s widespread abuse. What’s so alarming here is that not only did USA Gymnastics do an awful job in their handling of this case, but now we find out the FBI also failed in numerous ways. One of the FBI agents handling the case has been fired. The other was able to retire without receiving any punishment. I guess the question is, why has this system continued to fail these athletes?
Renee Montgomery: Yeah, I mean, look, people are starting to see it more and more, but athletic sports is a business. Athletes are seen as a product. So when you start to think in those terms of gymnastics is the business so that everyone’s going to make sure that the business is OK. You have to make sure the business is running. We have to get to the Olympics. We have to perform. We have to excel. Well, if the product is suffering like the athlete, even when you think about emotions, you know, mental health is now a thing that’s talked about a lot. But if you look at the history of sports, mental health has never been a thing for athletes because we’re the product. We’re supposed to just perform and be almost mechanic. You see the NFL, what they’re doing now with the celebrations. Like athletes and their personalities and their feelings are not a part of the business. That’s like the real answer that people just don’t, it’s simple and it’s, and you can look at it across all of sports, how athletes are treated, how their mental health is treated, how their feelings are treated. Athletes get thrown away left and right. Isaiah, think about Isaiah Thomas for the Boston Celtics. We all know his story. His sister passed away during the playoffs. And what did he do? He played in the playoffs and that’s it. Nobody from the Celtics told him, no, man, take care of yourself, we got you next season—no one said that because why? They traded him away the very next season, even though he gave his blood, sweat, and all of his tears to that organization and even after he pleaded to stay with them. So I gave all those examples to say that when you look at sports and how it’s managed, the business is the only thing that matters to a lot of people, and so the women didn’t.
Jason Concepcion: I think you could argue in the specific case of Isaiah Thomas that—and I think you could argue very persuasively—that that, the reputation that that organization got from that has stayed with them, and it has had a chilling effect on the way players, I think, view the Celtics. The thing is, with the NBA, you have 30 teams. There’s a players association. There’s choices. Like USA gymnastics, they’re the only game in town. These athletes had no choice but to work through this organization that was simultaneously covering up the crimes of Larry Nasser and other coaches who had stepped over the line, either abusing athletes verbally, physically, or what have you. I keep thinking about the criticism of Simone Biles during the Olympics.
Renee Montgomery: What a hot mess.
Jason Concepcion: And the fact that here we are, it’s 2021. This is years now after the fallout from this case, years after Nasser was committing these crimes without any seeming penalty to him. And where are the former execs from USA Gymnastics? Why is it always Simone and McKeyla and Aly Raisman out there talking about what happened? They have already been the focus of this. They’ve already spoken at length about what happened. They are in the spotlight all the time. They were criticized no matter what they do, despite having lived through all this stuff. What about the people like who actually allowed this to go on? That actually like were people with some sort of management power within USA gym—why is it that we never hear from them? Any of these people. Like anyone, that had any—
Renee Montgomery: What a good question. Where are they now, basically, in a sense of I think the U.S. gymnastics, they need to clean house top to bottom, clean it all out. It’s rotten there. It stinks. It’s rotten. Like there’s nothing, like the more that these gymnasts talk, the more that I’m like, how? Like how did so many people, to your point, that works for USA Gymnastics, how, how do you know what’s going on? Like, see, that’s what I mean. Like, I know myself. Like so I just like, I can speak first hand. I know if I was management, look, I’m an executive right now for the Atlanta Dream. If I get even a whiff of something fishy like that, like something crazy like that, I’m setting it off. Like I’m a set it off. I’m a ring the alarm, I’m a set it off. I don’t care about the season. And I think that people are starting to realize that about us too. Things have to function a certain way, people have to function a certain way, a professional manner. We don’t care otherwise, like the sports is, is a certain thing that is—we’re talking about these women’s lives in the sense of, you know, listening to Ali talk, and I, you know, I was on the Bob Costas show with her and listening to her talk, she said after they talked to the senator, after they do an interview and after they relive what happened, she says sometimes she struggles for two weeks afterwards. She’s debilitated, sometimes can’t move. Just, it’s still there. This is a still a real thing in their world. It’s not like, oh, yeah, that happened before, now these women are being strong and telling their story. They are being strong and telling their story, but these women are still hurt.
Jason Concepcion: Why do they have to be the only ones constantly telling their story? I feel like it’s, you know, at this point, we’re continuing to put them through it. You know what I mean? Like, I, again, like, where are any of the executives that were involved in USAG or with the U.S. Olympic Committee? Like who dealt with USA Gymnastics, who were there at the time that this was going? What did they know about it? What can they say about it? What reforms have been put in place? How did this slip through? Because reports were filed. Like, people—
Renee Montgomery: Official reports.
Jason Concepcion: Official reports were filed. People would later come out, knew about this before it broke. It was constantly being suppressed. The FBI agent in charge who was fired was fired because he was asked, why, like what they knew about the case? And then he later lied on an interview and then he since been let go. But where are any of these people to talk about what happened? Because from the perspective of the athletes, we understand what happened. They had no power in that situation to alter anything that was happening, to change—like they did what they were supposed to do. They competed and they survived the situation. But what about any of the people at the controls? It’s just wild to me that we don’t hear from them.
Renee Montgomery: It’s wild in the whole—so to that point, the entire board of the USA gymnastics stepped down in 2018.
Jason Concepcion: So they have free time to come to the Senate and speak on it.
Renee Montgomery: Yeah. Because was there not, and like I’m not saying that every single person there knew. But of all the people there that did know, I just can’t believe there wasn’t anyone that took the lead. Like to your point that we see these young women and now we know it was, you know, the amount of of people that whose lives Larry Nassar ruined, we know it’s a high number. Was there not one person that was like, you know what, I’m a tell it all. I’m a tell everything I know from day one. I’m a tell you who told me to—because I want to know who was pulling the strings. Like, to me, that’s, who told who to be quiet, who hushed the paperwork, who, I want to know a full-on—and that’s what the gymnast want to know too. They want to know who, what, where, when and why? Because once you get all that figured out, then you can now understand how it can’t happen again. You have to have like, so we know that this terrible systematic problem was going on at USA Gymnastics, but we still, to your point, we don’t know what the solution is moving forward. What if another Larry Nasser-esque type of creep comes through? What happens now? Like we need to know, like I mean, like if I’m going to send my daughter or my son to do gymnastics, I would want to hear out loud what the USA Gymnastics whole organization is doing to make sure that no foolishness is going on anymore.
Jason Concepcion: McKayla Maroney said in front of the Senate panel, quote, “Not only did the FBI not report my abuse, but when they eventually documented my report 17, 17 months later, they made entirely false claims about what I said.” I mean, isn’t your next question like, OK, where is this, where is the FBI agent who took the report. Aly Raisman said, quote, “We needed one adult to do the right thing, and that is yet to happen and there are a lot of people in positions of power that covered up our abuse.” It should be noted that because of the FBI’s mishandling of this case, Nassar continued to treat patients at Michigan State, where he practiced in and around Lansing, Michigan, which allowed him to continue to abuse people. It’s so gross and troubling to me that all of this—and I’m not saying like if Nassar was famous or powerful, it would make sense. None of this makes sense. But there is an entire mechanism that kicked into gear to cover up hundreds of sexual abuse cases in order to protect one guy, who is not, who is—you can’t get another doctor? You know what I mean?
Renee Montgomery: Yeah, like who is Larry Nassar?
Jason Concepcion: Who the fuck is he? And that is I think that is, when they talk about the systemic issues, there is a system that kicks into gear to protect itself and to protect people in power who do wrong.
Renee Montgomery: And Jason, that’s the business.
Jason Concepcion: Yeah, and that’s the business.
Renee Montgomery: That’s what I’m talking about, the business of sports. To where even how ugly that was, the business of sports went into the normal business of sports, which is protect yourself at all costs, basically. Like, so what is it? How can we minimize the impact? I mean, this is normal things that, damage control, these are normal things that people in business know about. But there was nobody that had that moral ground to stand on, like, yes, there’s the business of sports and I get it, you know, like even when we have things going on with the Atlanta Dream, we’ve had a wild year this year. Everybody knows it. We’ve lost, we’ve lost two different coaches. We’ve had a GM leave us. We’ve, you know, there’s multiple things that’s happened with the Atlanta Dream. So, yeah, we want to make sure that the players feel as comfortable as possible and some damage control. Having said that, if there was funny business going on, there’s no damage control for me. Like like we got to get, you got to get the rot out. And I don’t understand why no one felt the need to get the rot out. But, you know, one thing that I did enjoy was that the judge. So her name is Judge Rosemary. She sentences Nassar to 40, for 40 to 175 years in prison, telling him I just signed your death warrant. Like, to me. I was like, [snaps], OK baby! Yes!. Like because it’s normal. I’m like, is there no one normal in this situation? That’s a very normal comment for the evil that Nassar has done. That’s a normal comment. But when you hear all these adults covering up the story, it’s like, was there nobody normal around there. Like what’s going on?
Jason Concepcion: I mean, to your point about cleaning house, so, you know, a lot of executives have left, like members of the board, etc. have either resigned or stepped away. The CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee resigned in the fallout for this. But it seems to me like with U.S. gymnastics, I don’t know, like just start over with a new organ—like literally just start a whole new organization from the ground up, because with the way this was covered up from within, aided and abetted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations—it just feels to me like, forgive me if I doubt that they are capable of reforming themselves.
Renee Montgomery: No. No, just start, just there’s nothing to build off of. So if you’re talking to, because you’re basically saying start it over and you’re right because there’s no rebuild. I don’t want to build off of nothing there. Like I would even, and look, I’m like detail oriented, so this is in the weeds but I would even give the whole facility a makeover. Like I would hit up Chip and Joanne Gains, I would tell them, look, we got a project for you. We want these girls to now walk into this gym. We don’t want any triggers of things that they might have seen because a training, like a training room is still a training room, even if Larry Nassar isn’t there. So they can still have memories that they associate with these rooms and these locations. Redo the whole thing. Start over, give it a makeover, make it feel fresh and new so that the women now, when they walk in there, they don’t get those triggers, that nasty feel that they might have gotten before. Like, that’s a real thing. Certain things can trigger, anything can trigger someone and so going in that same facility and those same places—redo, like you said, start it all over, redo the whole thing. We need a makeover. They need a makeover for all the people working there. They need to just start fresh. That’s it. It’s over.
Renee Montgomery: OK, so, Jason, the playoffs are here, baby! The WNBA playoffs, of course, is what I’m talking about. And now I know my team, the Atlanta Dream, we didn’t clinch a playoff spot, so Takeliners stay out of my [unclear] and everybody else. But, there’s still room to celebrate because it was another great season and we got playoff action starting this week. One of the playoff teams are your Liberty that just—
Jason Concepcion: Let’s go!
Renee Montgomery: —snuck into this weekend! And I have to break this down because this is a wild thing that happened. Everyone knows that the scenarios, oh, if this team wins and this team loses, we’re in. And if this team wins. So New York had themselves a very interesting situation. The last game of the season, so there was one, the last day of regular season play, there was a lot on the line, a lot of implications. Who would make the playoffs was one of those implications. And there were three teams fighting for it. There was the Washington Mystics, there were the Los Angeles Sparks, and then there were your New York Liberty.
Jason Concepcion: That’s right.
Renee Montgomery: Who had the worst odds of making the playoffs! Because for New York to get into the playoff.
Jason Concepcion: Never [unclear]
Renee Montgomery: For New York to get to the playoffs you guys had to have Washington and L.A. lose. For Washington to get in the playoffs, all they had to do was just win. They won. They control their own destiny. They could get in. L.A., if they, if Washington lost and L.A., won, L.A. was in. But as luck would have it, Jason! Boy, did L.A. and Washington really serve it up nice. Because, your New York Liberty are in the playoffs. They secured that 8th seed man. What!?
Jason Concepcion: Let’s go. Let’s go. With a 12 and—listen, won 10 more games in the last season, which is great. Let me just say this first, you never, you will sometimes see it in a situation like this where it’s like such and such team needs this team to lose and then they get it. That happens. I have, I can’t remember the last time I saw it where you needed two teams to lose for you to get in, and then that team got in. That said, forget the snuck, forget this, this is the way the system worked and the system worked. And the New York Liberty is in the playoffs, baby. And I love it. I love it.
Renee Montgomery: The New York Liberty are in the playoffs. And look, like I said, I’m not hating because the Atlanta Dream, we didn’t even make it. I’m not hating because the Atlanta Dream like I talked about, I’m still repping as you see, we didn’t make the playoffs. But for a team to make the playoffs with a 12 and 20 record, I think it was like a .34 win percentage, the lowest ever in WNBA history. I don’t know, but sometimes things like that, I don’t know, but sometimes that little bit of luck is momentum. It’s like a spark. I don’t know.
Jason Concepcion: You know what? I agree with you. And you know what I’m hearing? I’m hearing the Liberty made history. That’s what I’m hearing.
Renee Montgomery: [laughs] Oh! Is that how you how you heard it? I mean, it’s a fact.
Jason Concepcion: That’s how I hear it.
Renee Montgomery: It’s a fact! And like you said, you all face now the number five team, the Phoenix Mercury, in a single elimination game. So like, I don’t know, I consider things like that, you know, where everyone talks about it in sports. I don’t care how skilled you are. It always takes a little luck to win a championship.
Jason Concepcion: Yes, always. Always.
Renee Montgomery: And sometimes the luck can be just as simple as your team staying healthy, because that’s very fortunate if you have a healthy team at the end of the year. We see all the time NBA, WNBA, people are straggling to the finish line trying to stay healthy, be healthy. So the New York Liberty, they’re a little bit of luck was that on the last day of the regular season, two teams did not win. And they’re in and I don’t know, Jason, but I think that’s momentum. So in this single elimination game where you only have to win one game to get through to the next round, what are your thoughts on that, like, I mean?
Jason Concepcion: Well, my, listen, I’m excited. I’m excited for the team, I’m hoping, Diana Taurasi, to your point, about injuries and, I hope she, listen, it’s an opportunity to get a little extra rest for her. If she’s not feeling up to it, maybe don’t play.
Renee Montgomery: Oh, oh, that’s time to get some rest, huh? OK
Jason Concepcion: But listen, I the fact that the Liberty and the Knicks have both been in the postseason in a calendar year, I don’t take it lightly.
Renee Montgomery: That’s a good point.
Jason Concepcion: Yes. Yes. We snuck in, but like I’m not one of these rings or nothing people. Like it is, I have seen my teams struggle for so long that I just want to be in the mix. I just love being in the mix. I love seeing the postseason. If we get trounced, OK, that happened, but we were in the mix.
Renee Montgomery: I like that.
Jason Concepcion: For the Knicks, it was, listen, it was it disappointing to lose? Yeah, course. But being in the mix, having home court, like that is, that is a thing that I have experienced all too rarely in my fandom, following New York professional basketball. So I just enjoy it, like I just enjoy it. Bring on the game I can’t wait to see it.
Renee Montgomery: I like that. To that point, I agree. I think that there can be growth without winning a championship. Of course, when you’re on those programs that are used to winning, of course, it’s championship or bust. But everybody ain’t able. I wanted to ask you something, though, Jason. There’s been a lot of talk, the NBA was doing it as well, but there’s been a lot of talk about single elimination games in professional sports. What are your thoughts on that? Because there’s been, and I see y’all’s tweets. I don’t know what y’all want me to do. I can’t change the playoff format. But I’ve seen fans tweet me that they don’t like the playoff format of a single elimination because in pro sports, we need to do a series to determine who’s the best team over an extended amount of time. What are your thoughts on single elimination games?
Jason Concepcion: I love the drama and the excitement is off the charts always, because you get you get the absolute highest amount of effort and buy-in from jump in a single elim game. That said, me personally, I like a series, whether it’s five or seven game series, even a three. I want to see the better team move on, or the team that had the most answers for the other team move on. I just I love the excitement, again, but there’s a level of flukiness in a single elimination that to me, while it’s exciting, is unfair to both teams. What do you say?
Renee Montgomery: I think it’s tough. I feel like the single elimination, let’s leave it for March Madness. That’s what makes March madness, March Madness, that you could have a number one team—look, my UConn team, this is what I was terrified of. We were the number one seed going into my senior year. We were undefeated, hadn’t lost the game. I’m terrified because that does not matter in the NCAA championships, because whether or not we won, lost one game or zero games, if somebody beat us in the round of 32 or 64, we’re out of there. It doesn’t matter. And so to me, it’s like, oh, you work all season long for a certain ranking and then you could get knocked out, like you said, on the fluke game. We had an all shooting night, but we’re clearly the better team.
Jason Concepcion: Yeah, I hate that.
Renee Montgomery: Having said that, yeah, having said that, I get why the WNBA did it. I get why, again, the Business! I’m just going to start talking about sports so that people can understand. You get why the business did it, because single elimination brings all the drama that you talk about. It brings the excitement, it brings the heartbreak and it brings the fans mad. And I don’t know if people know but if the fans are mad or happy, it doesn’t matter. They’re invested. And so the more that you can get out of that, the better. So I get it for business wise. But as a player, it’s just like, if I earned a certain seed, I want to be able to play it out and see where we go from here.
Jason Concepcion: I’m hopeful, like the NBA moving from a five-game opening series to seven-game series throughout that, to your point, this is a way to generate excitement, get people invested, get new eyes watching the sport and maximizing the opportunity for them to witness something really dramatic, and that over time we will get those series. Because to me, like as a sports fan, as a fan of basketball, to me like the the strategic play, the counters, the changes, the way teams exploit mismatches, the adjustments—that’s all part of the experience of following the sport and is like the depth, and you realize, like, how much thought goes into these, the preparation for the games.
Renee Montgomery: You see a superstar have a bad game and then bounce back and come and you know they’re going to bounce back and kill it.
Jason Concepcion: So I hope that we get to a point where we we can see that earlier in the W playoffs.
Renee Montgomery: And real quick, I want to just break down the playoff match up so that people can understand. So the first round, that single elimination that we’re talking about, there’s two games. Your New York Liberty against the Phoenix Mercury, as we talked about. And then on the other side of the bracket, the Dallas Wings are going to be playing against the Chicago Sky. Single elimination. So the winners of those games will go on for another single elimination round game. Seattle is waiting for the winner of the New York Liberty-Phoenix matchup. And then Minnesota’s waiting for the winner of the Dallas-Chicago matchup. Then the winner of that round will go on to now a best of five series. So think about the WNBA’s format of single elimination, single elimination, best of five. That’s pretty wild. And then the Connecticut Sun will be waiting on the winner of that Seattle game and then the Vegas Aces will be waiting on the winner of that Minnesota game. So you only get a series once it’s the semifinals in the WNBA. So for me, that feels like we’ve gotten pretty far before we get a series. But again, it’s exciting. I’ll say that.
Jason Concepcion: It is exciting.
Jason Concepcion: Roughly 200 years ago, in the fall of 2019, baseball was rocked by the sign-stealing scandal of the Houston Astros, marked by high-definition ballpark technology, code signaling, and of course, the use of garbage cans to to signal players. But the story doesn’t end there. The legacy of the Astros still permeates baseball as the topic of cheating continues to stay in the news. For more on this, we’re joined by award winning journalist Andy Martino, who’s covered MLB for more than a decade. His new book, “Cheated” which details the Astros cheating scandal, is available now wherever you get your books. Andy, welcome.
Andy Martino: Thank you. Thank you for having me, guys.
Jason Concepcion: Andy, take us back through the evolution of this scheme and how it was first made public.
Andy Martino: So the Houston Astros starting in about 2017, well, let me remind you just a little bit more. The Houston Astros began their administration under a GM who’s no longer with a named Jeff Luhnow, started after the 2011 season and created a culture that was heavily praised in the first two years, in some sense, being very analytically forward and innovative. And all those things were, in many senses, still true. But there was also a culture of relentless pressure and innovation which led some of those under Luhnow to devise cheating schemes which manifested on the field in 2017 initially with the use of things like whistling and clapping to convey stolen signs to a batter and eventually evolved into the use of high-speed cameras, a feed of the catcher’s hands being pumped to a monitor right behind the dugout, and players hitting garbage cans and doing other things, other audio cues, to get those signs to the batter so the batter knew what pitch was coming. That is the most well known baseball crime that the Astros committed. That came out in dribs and drabs over the next few years through reporting and rumors, and then was busted wide open in 2019, a million years ago, as you mentioned, which was when Mike Fiers, the former Astros pitcher went on the record to the publication, The Athletic, basically detailing these teams and putting a name to some of these rumors and reports that had surfaced over the years. But the garbage cans weren’t it. Over the next two years, the Astros were credibly alleged to have used GoPro cameras in visiting dugouts.
Renee Montgomery: What!?
Jason Concepcion: Yeah.
Andy Martino: And flashing lights, but yeah, right, it gets crazy. Flashing lights in the scoreboard that the Yankees believe in the playoffs are indicating pitches. They continued whistling and doing other things that are not high tech but not legal. So there was a culture of winning at all costs and let’s just say not necessarily a whole lot of discussions of the ethics of how they got there.
Renee Montgomery: Yo, that’s so crazy to me. So you detailed—like I’m mind-blown—so you detailed all the different methods and ways that the scheme worked but how in the world is something so sophisticated get hidden so well by the Astros. Like this seems like a lot. This seems like a lot of people had to know about it. It seems like it had a lot of moving parts. It had to have a lot of people that were working together to make this happen. How did they hide it so well?
Andy Martino: Well, this is a great point. And clearly the circle was big enough where it was eventually going to get out. And one of the things that eventually took down this intelligent organization was, frankly, the arrogance of thinking that they could pull something like this off. And there was some willful ignorance, too. There were plenty of team officials who didn’t know every detail of what was going on, but maybe didn’t want to know the whole thing. However, you get us to the World Series, I don’t want to ask any questions. There was some of that. But it’s a great question because there were plenty of players, especially pitchers, in that clubhouse that did not like what was going on and grumbled about it to one another. And Mike Fiers, as I mentioned before, told every team that he subsequently went to after 2017, hey, the Astros are doing this, be careful of them. So it does eventually get out. And in retrospect, it is kind of inevitable, almost comically inevitable it would get out. But you guys know sports, too. And the other thing I say about this is that there’s a code of, in a locker room, what goes on in here stays in here. And in some ways, and I’m not telling an athlete anything that you don’t know, but in some ways that can be good, right? Like in a limited way, like there’s a bond in here that’s close and we’re not going to tell people what goes on. But in many ways, of course, when it comes to cheating or other behaviors that have nothing to do with cheating but things that are covered up with in locker rooms, that probably shouldn’t be. So there’s a little bit of that, too, I think of that cone of silence that took a few years for someone to violate.
Jason Concepcion: You mentioned the Astros were previously praised for being a very analytical organization, for using their wins and losses very strategically as they were building toward this team, that was eventually going to—
Andy Martino: Yes. You mean tanking?
Jason Concepcion: Yes, if you wanted to be diplomatic about it—as they were building towards this team that eventually made it to the World Series. Sign stealing in baseball is not new. It’s goes on currently. I’m sure it’s going on now. When did it in the minds of people involved, in the minds of the Astros critics, officially cross the line and become something that was, that was beyond the pale. That’s one. And the second thing is you mentioned like that the lights in the scoreboard, Altuve’s body buzzer is another allegation out there. Have we’ve gotten to the bottom of all the methods that have been used?
Andy Martino: Well, two good questions. The first one in terms of when did it cross the line and why is this worse, or is it worse than what had been going on for more than 100 years—that was my main question writing this book was is, were the Astros just the ones that got caught or are they really worse and less ethical than other organizations? And this one actually in a sport where there’s a lot of unwritten rules that can be unclear, I found that there was a very clear, consistent, so-called unwritten rule about this that’s persisted for more than a century and it’s basically this, and there’s a quote in the introduction in my book that really I felt satisfactorily answered this question from Ty Cobb, who, of course, played more than one hundred years ago, and he said, and this is what baseball people still tend to believe: that if you can use your eyes and your intellect and your knowledge of the sport to figure out what the pitcher is going to throw on the field of play between the lines, and if you can use hand gestures or some kind of very subtle little language to get it from one teammate to another, that’s all well and good. That’s on your opponent and that pitcher to protect his signs, not tip off what he’s going to throw, and that’s the work of being an intelligent baseball player. But once you go outside the field of play and use technology, in 1900 it was literally opera glasses like telescopes and little primitive electronic buzzers and things like that persisting into the 20th century. Basically the same moral thing, moral choice as a high speed camera, just for a different time, what the Astros did. Those things have gone on and they’ve always been considered wrong, really, beyond the pale. So in the Astros crossed the line was when they had video technology that was being used with no runners on base, nobody there to look at the catcher and use his brain, but just there’s the catcher’s hand on a video and thunk, let me bang on this garbage can or ring the dugout phone or drill a drill into the—there was another one, this one didn’t get as much publicity, yeah a coach would sit in the dugout and when a certain pitch was going to come, someone from behind—there’s this things called Theraguns, like massage [unclear] that are kind of like a drill, right? So you drill a Theregun into the wall, the coach feels the Thereagun vibration and goes, up, changeup. So those are all beyond the pale. Not OK, right? Yeah.
Renee Montgomery: What!?
Andy Martino: Yeah. So there’s an athlete saying, like, this doesn’t sound quite right. Like, it’s just over the line.
Renee Montgomery: That’s crazy.
Andy Martino: Now, your second question, where are we on some of these allegations? I dug into all of them and I actually found that in some ways Jose Altuve’s gotten a bad rap on all this because when the Astros go around the country, Altuve kind of becomes the face of this. And he, by all accounts, was actually not someone who ever wanted to know what pitch is coming. Now, this isn’t necessarily a moral choice. This can be just as simple as some batters don’t want to know. Their approach is, I don’t want to think, I just want to react. Whatever it was for Altuve, a couple of times in 2017, the garbage can with bang during his at-bat to give him a sign and he would stop what he was doing glare into the dugout. The teammates would be like, oh shit, he doesn’t want it, stop. And that was Altuve. Yeah. Yeah. So this allegation that he wore a buzzer—it’s hard to prove a negative, right, say this definitely did not happen. I will say that this is a guy that didn’t want the pitch and this is a guy—there’s nothing beyond some like Reddit and anonymous Twitter stuff, really where this comes from. So I actually didn’t find that allegation to be like verifiable on Altuve. I think where the Astros are at fault there is that they did some things so they don’t have credibility when they deny the things that they actually didn’t do. The flashing lights, the flashing lights in the scoreboard, which is in the same series, same game against the Yankees in 2019 playoffs, is the buzzer allegation—that is more credible because where that came from was a Yankee official was in the luxury box with the other Yankee officials, in the suite watching the game, saw the pitches flashing, asks the Yankee scouts: would you please look at that and tell me if that seems like it corresponds with a particular pitch. And the scouts are like, yeah, those blinking lights are saying fastball off speed. MLB looked into it. Told the Yankees, no, it was an LED TV in the session area. The Yankees didn’t believe it. They even looked into what LED TV’s do and they don’t flash in that way. So that one’s got a little more legs to it than the buzzer.
Jason Concepcion: Wow.
Renee Montgomery: That’s really crazy. And I’m still stuck on—because I’m an athlete—so I’m still stuck on the fact that the players knew. So the Astros won the World Series against the Dodgers in 2017, which we now know the Astros were using some sign stealing techniques, but the Dodgers, we know their views have changed but what do you think the players in that moment, like even you talked about the glare, I don’t want to hear the banging of the trash can, but what do you think the locker room was like for the Astros players just kind of knowing that we’re going into each game cheating?
Andy Martino: Great question. I think that people are really good at compartmentalizing. Right? And we all have coworkers that probably act in ways that we don’t like. To be clear, almost all the Astros hitters were in on this, so it wasn’t as if there was a ton of dissent, right?
Renee Montgomery: Wow, well there is that.
Andy Martino: There is that. There is the manager, AJ Hinch, who is no longer their manager, but who is said since that he was really opposed to it and he failed as a leader by not standing up to it and just by saying, I don’t want to rock the boat. And then there were players who felt like, oh, come on, what’s the big deal? Everyone’s doing it. All the other teams are doing it. And there was a lot of that mentality in the locker room, too, at the time. Like we have to, it’s part of what I was saying about the Astros front office before, they were so innovative, but they were also paranoid that they weren’t the biggest innovator. So if you think that’s another team is stealing signs, well, you better do that, too. And one Astros player, a couple of years later when I was reporting on the book, said to me, it was sort of like we were behind a curtain in 2017 and we were like, everyone else is doing this, and then the curtain came down and we looked around the league and were like, oh shit, not everyone else is doing this. So part of that, there was a little bit of a delusion at the time that you, exactly that, that it was more widespread than it was.
Jason Concepcion: Speaking of that series, Yu Darvish was infamously pulled during that series because he was just getting absolutely shellacked, would later talk about how he struggled with the kind of emotional fallout of that series. How do we, how do we view the legacies of the players who were directly affected by the Astros beating them in these big moments: the Yankees, the Dodgers—like what recourse is there, if any, for them in this?
Andy Martino: Well, other than winning in the future, and that’s pretty, and if you’re them that’s a pretty cheap answer because you were cheated of something at the time. The Dodgers are probably, the sting is probably off a little bit for those of the Dodgers who remain there when they actually did win the World Series few years later. The Yankees feel really victimized in a number of ways here in that they really had a window to win at that time and the Yankees are having a very mixed year right now, which is further evidence that that may have been their window. And we don’t know if they would have won the World Series if not for the Astros. But, the Astros stopped them in the ALCS twice during those years when they were cheating. So there’s that for the Yankees. And there’s the fact that the Yankees have been accused of doing a lot of these things. And each time they were investigated by MLB, those allegations haven’t checked out. So they’ve both been accused of being a perpetrator and they feel like a victim. Not a lot of people across the country, analysts, sports fans, are going to have a lot of pity for the New York Yankees, nor should they necessarily. But in this particular case, it affects the legacy of—I mean, Aaron Judge, what if he never plays in a World Series? These opportunities are fleeting. Aaron Boone, Brian Cashman, what if these guys in a certain point aren’t able to continue having their jobs because they haven’t won. These are the things that really do have consequences. And this is why, you know, I cover New York baseball for my day job and I was at Yankees spring training when all this was coming out in the spring of 2020, just before spring training shut down because of the pandemic, and the visceral anger—this wasn’t performative, this wasn’t sound bites—the Yankees front office, the players, the coaches, they were so mad at the Astros and so mad that the apologies that they were seeing seemed halfhearted and the Astros are claiming it didn’t help them actually win. Which is obviously absurd.
Jason Concepcion: I mean, come one, why do you do it for years if it doesn’t help you? [laughs]
Andy Martino: Well, exactly, exactly. And so there’s a lot of bitterness in the Yankee organization. And other teams too, teams that they played in the Al West, the Oakland A’s, etc. I mean, plenty of opponents have a lot of anger. And that, by the way, is one of the reasons why I felt like this was a legit story to tell, because it wasn’t just the media making this into a story, it was people in baseball, including star players like Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, [unclear], saying, no, this is wrong. And that is to be taken seriously, I think.
Renee Montgomery: I think I’m just still shocked about the whole thing. Even though I’ve known it, I’m still shocked just to hear how sophisticated, I think that’s was blowing my mind, because, like, sometimes if one person is cheating behind the scenes, it’s one thing, so, I’m just like, for so many people to be coming together to do it, for so many people to know it—I’m still curious, what’s the craziest conspiracy theory or story you heard about sign stealing, while like, while writing this book and gathering information, what was like something that just shocked you when you found out?
Andy Martino: Oh boy, that’s a good question. I mean, I think the buzzer thing is well known. That’s a pretty, if guys are actually wearing wearable technology that vibrated to show a pitch, activated by someone in the stands—that’s a pretty shocking allegation. And that would be, and as I said, it did check out. But the one, I’ll tell you, the one where Seattle Mariners came in to play Houston in 2018, which isn’t a season where there’s a lot of allegations there, but like I said before, they get to the dugout, their dugout in Houston’s ballpark, and they see GoPro cameras just under their bench and they cover them with towels and they complain to MLB and keep playing the game. Stuff like that never got resolved. Like, what were you hoping to do with that GoPro? What information were you hoping to gather? So there’s still are some pretty surprising threads that are out there.
Renee Montgomery: And do you know what they were trying to gather?
Andy Martino: On that one, no.
Renee Montgomery: Like I’m curious, what would the GoPros do, like under the seats like that?
Andy Martino: I do not know. And no one was able to answer that because the Astros deny it. But the Mariners were like, no, really, those were there, we covered them up and we played the game. So I would say there’s just an unlimited supply of weird stuff and allegations and things that I tried to get to the bottom of as many of them as I could. Like, I followed every thread that I could, but there’s so many and some of them just don’t, still don’t quite add up.
Jason Concepcion: The Astros faced some penalties. There is a five million dollar fine, draft picks forfeited, front office suspensions, but I think a lot of people and I think the general consensus is that the punishments were not strong enough. Do you get that sense, is that the consensus? And two, would the penalties be harsher if not for the pandemic?
Andy Martino: That’s an interesting question. You know, on the one of were they strong enough, this is one where the commissioner’s office is actually in a tricky spot because it’s the players association in this case that would fight every suspension. And then it was the players who were saying, the opponents were saying you didn’t punish the Astros players enough, or at all, really. So if you’re the commissioner on that one, you’re like your union wouldn’t have let me. So I do get help from a bargaining standpoint that was a tricky one. It wasn’t great optics because there was a crime committed to the sport and the players weren’t punished.
Jason Concepcion: I mean, Manfred is there primarily to be aggressively confrontational with the union like, so it is a weird one to be like, oh, I don’t know. I don’t know if we could—
Andy Martino: Yeah, yeah. That’s an interesting point. I think and that one he knew, he’s also been negotiating with them for like 30 years and he knew I can either put out this report on one day in January and try to put this behind us, or we can fight these one by one and battle out suspensions for players and this thing’s going to drag on forever. So there is a PR standpoint there. It may have been a PR miscalculation because it was seen to be not harsh enough. But I think that was the calculation. And also because they don’t have subpoena power, they felt like they had to, in order to conduct an investigation, they had to offer immunity prior to anyone coming in and testifying basically. So that’s all of why it happened. And then when other players said it wasn’t harsh enough, that was a gut check, it didn’t feel harsh enough but I’m not sure what you could do.
Renee Montgomery: You know, it’s interesting because you talked about the players union and when the players are involved in the infraction, it makes it a little interesting because the players union is supposed to be fighting for the players. So now that you talked about the position the commissioner is in, I’m curious then, the executive committee members of the players union, like what was their stance on it then if the commissioner can’t really come down as hard as he would want to because of the protection of the committee, like, well, what was their stance in it?
Andy Martino: These are great questions. And they’re the right ones for the commissioner in the sense, because, like, would it really have been impossible? Are you just saying it was impossible? Did you poll the executive committee? These are great questions. I can tell you that the executive board, which, of course, changes year to year, and I’m thinking of the players who—even right there, it would have been complicated. For example, Gerrit Cole is on the executive board. He wasn’t then but I’m just saying as like an intellectual exercise. Well, Garrett Cole was an Astro in the final two years of the Astros cheating. He wasn’t a hitter, but he was a teammate with these guys who did it. Now he’s a Yankee. The Yankees are mad about this. He answers, he works for Yankee management, but he also works on behalf of, as a member of the executive board, he works on behalf of the Astros players. So his job on the executive board would be to advocate for Altuve to not be punished. That almost makes your head spin.
Renee Montgomery: Yeah.
Andy Martino: All those complicated dynamics like, well, what how would he come down on that? Would Astros players and Dodger players on the executive board be opposed to one another? Could the commissioner have gathered that information and dealt with it with the union before making a decision. Now that is, I think you’re hitting on where there might be some room to question the process, because I can tell you from my reporting that the decision to offer immunity happened really quickly. There was like a day or so after that Athletic report came out where the commissioner’s office was thinking, OK, what do we do? How do we deal with this? Then they were thinking, is there any way we can get this information without needing the players? Can we talk to the managers, who aren’t represented by the union? Can we get all the full story from an ex-coach or something like that? And they eventually would just like naw, forget it, we’re just going to do what we usually do, which is offer immunity to talk and that’s what we’re going do. So that’s what they did. But that decision was made quickly enough with that diligence that you guys are talking about, those are fair questions for MLB.
Jason Concepcion: We recently saw some tensions in the Mets-Yankees Subway Series. Francisco Lindor said the Yankees were whistling signs, benches cleared. In the course of your reporting, in the course of you covering MLB, what are the rumors about the state of sign stealing right now? Who’s doing it? Is it happening and how?
Andy Martino: Great question. I actually strongly believe that the Astros scandal had a chilling effect on the most serious kinds of sign stealing because it was a gut check on how many players thought it was wrong, that now they think about it more. And also now a lot of this came from the new technology, from high speed cameras, the instant replay, all in the past decade, and it was like all these new toys to steal signs with for a couple of years and now players have had the chance to reflect on it. So I would be surprised if what was going on in 2017, 18, and 19 around the league—and to be clear, the Astros were the worst, but other teams were playing in the gray area of this stuff. Including the Yankees and Dodgers, admittedly, themselves admitted there in the gray area. Now, what we saw in the Yankees-Mets game that you mentioned was Taijuan Walker, the Mets pitchers, tipping his pitches, meaning he’s doing something with his actual body that shows what he’s going to throw, right? And someone in Yankee dugout either whistled to show he was tipping or didn’t, depending on who you believe—but so that’s, if he was doing that, that’s actually illegal. It’s against the rules. And it’s part of the whole package with the Astros were doing. But because it didn’t involve technology, it wouldn’t be the kind of violation that would rise to the level of scandal. And it’s often the kind of thing that one player can do on his own, it doesn’t require a systemic organizational culture, right? It can just be Wandy Peralta, the Yankee reliever is who it was, he might have seen something, and been like, yo, fastball.
Jason Concepcion: Right, right.
Andy Martino: And it’s not like the guy and the manager were invited. So that that obviously, again, it’s hard to prove a negative, and I’d hate to, you know, sit here and say that something’s not happening and we just haven’t discovered it yet. But talking to players, interacting with front offices, I really don’t think there’s serious electronic sign stealing going on right now. The pandemic put a chilling effect on it a little because you literally couldn’t use the clubhouse in the same way because of the COVID protocols, but also just the morality the players now see in it after the Astros.
Renee Montgomery: The book is Cheated: the Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing.
Jason Concepcion: Go get it!
Renee Montgomery: It’s available now where you get your books. Andy, thank you for joining us.
Andy Martino: You guys are a great, great conversation. Thank you.
[Take Survivor game]
Jason Concepcion: That’s it for us. Follow and subscribe to us on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcast. And check out my new podcast, X-ray Vision. Check it out, folks! See you next week.
Renee Montgomery: Let’s go!
Jason Concepcion: Takeline is a Crooked Media production. The show produced by Carleton Gillespie and Zuri Irvin. Our executive producers are myself and Sandy Girard. Our contributing producers are Caroline Reston, Elijah Cone and Jason Gallagher. Engineering, editing and sound design by Sarah Gibble-Laska and the folks at Chapter 4, and our theme music is produced by Brian Vazquez.