A scapegoat for the Rogue Sox

So the Red Sox Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring was the masterwork of a rogue video room operator. Not then-manager Alex Cora, not the front office, and not any of the players who transmitted stolen opposition signs to Red Sox baserunners who'd send them on to Red Sox hitters.

Sure. And the iceberg obstructed the Titanic with malice aforethought. The Hindenburg was a kid playing with matches. World War II was a backyard argument. Apollo 11 was an episode of Star Trek. The renegades working with Richard Nixon's re-election campaign broke into Dunkin' Donuts. Bill Clinton perjured himself over an Oval Office quickie with his wife.

After an investigation that included interviews with 65 witnesses including 34 incumbent or former Red Sox players, say The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, those plus "scores of e-mails, text messages, video clips, and photographs" led commissioner Rob Manfred in a report issued Wednesday to declare it was all J.T. Watkins's fault.

Manfred suspended Watkins from baseball without pay for this year and barred from working as a video operator for 2021's regular season and postseason. The Red Sox got docked a second-round 2020 draft pick. If you even think about trying this kind of espionage again we're going to be . . . very, very angry at you.

Thanks to the same promises of immunity that Manfred gave the rogue Astros in return for spilling about Astrogate, we may not know for a long time if at all which Red Sox players took Watkins's stolen signs and ran with them.

The key to the RSRRR was that---unlike the illegally installed or altered real-time center field camera that anchored the Astro Intelligence Agency in Minute Maid Park---the Red Sox's espionage could be done at home or on the road . . . but it depended entirely on whether the Red Sox had a man on base.

Nobody banged the can slowly to send the pilfered intelligence to the Red Sox hitters availing themselves thereof. Watkins simply let someone, who knows whom, make life a little easier for Rogue Sox baserunners. In Fenway Park and elsewhere.

Usually, if you're on the bases and of a mind to gamesmanship, you've got to decipher and transmit from your own eye and in as quick a blink as possible. Watkins merely allowed the Red Sox to save their baserunners a little extra sight and brain work. How very thoughtful.

The video rooms behind the dugouts were supposed to be helpmates for managers in challenging close or errant umpire calls once replay was introduced in 2014. Hitters also use them for help correcting swing mistakes, pitchers to correct mound mistakes, or both to look again quick at opposing hitters or pitchers to see where they missed unexpected weaknesses or got beaten when they should have known better.

They weren't installed to enable spy operations on the other guys' pitch signs or to make life simpler for baserunners who now didn't have to figure out how to steal signs the old-fashioned way within about a minute's worth of time. You want to steal signs on base the old-fashioned way? Do your homework. No crib sheets, answers on your wrist, or cameras on the teacher's answer keys.

Even before Manfred handed down his Soxgate finding and decision, a few 2018 Red Sox were saying, essentially, Who, us? Remember Steve Pearce? 2018 World Series hero, and how. He was practically a one-man demolition derby late in Game Four and through most of Game Five. It landed him the World Series MVP award.

Last week, Pearce decided to call it a career. He also decided to say Who, us? "That’s such a joke to us,” he told WEEI. “When it came out we were all kind of joking about it. We just want this to pass us. We won it fair and square. Whatever they accused us of, we were all kind of like, ‘I can’t believe this is even an issue.’ Once the report comes out we’re all going to be free.”

All but one scapegoat, so far.

"[W]e have this floating over our head when we just had such an unbelievable season," Pearce continued. "We had the perfect team and great camaraderie with everybody and then this gets thrown out here. We’re just like, ‘What the heck?’ . . . We just want this to pass us. We just want to play some baseball. Another bump in the road, I guess.”

In fairness, one of the key moments that bumped the 108 game-winning Rogue Sox into the 2018 World Series in the first place---left fielder Andrew Benintendi's man-on-the-flying-trapeze catch of what would have been Astro third baseman Alex Bregman's game-winning three-run extra-base hit to deny the Astros an American League Championship Series tie at two each---had nothing to do with the RSRRR.

But what about the rest of the set? What about the Series? Not long after Pearce spoke up, Joe Kelly---then a Red Sox relief pitcher, now with the Dodgers in coronavirus limbo with everyone else in baseball---delivered his own who, us? "Whenever the investigation is done, I'm interested in seeing what is in the investigation," he, too, told WEEI last week. "If there is cheating involved with how good our team was, we should have won every single out.

"We should have not even lost an inning if there was some good cheating involved, which would have been a lot more fun because we would have won in four," he continued. "We would have swept through the playoffs and made it really, really fast and been able to go to Hawaii or go to Mexico and go on vacation a lot sooner than we did."

You can almost hear the 1919 White Sox culprits, who won three games during their scandalous World Series loss, thinking, "We should not have even won a single inning if there was some good profitable tanking going on, either."

Some Red Sox fans hit social media to denounce Kelly's pompous arrogance or arrogant pomposity, depending upon whom you read where and in which language. The man who surrendered Howie Kendrick's tenth-inning grand salami to lose Game Five and a trip to the National League Championship Series for his Dodgers knows enough about public humiliation and humility.

In all fairness, baseball government did monitor the replay rooms more arduously to guard against postseason espionage. Baseball's chief disciplinarian Joe Torre warned both the Red Sox and the Astros before the 2018 ALCS that if they were up to electronic no good it needed to stop tootie-sweet before (are you ready?) the press picked up leaks about it.

Unlike Astrogate, which had a whistleblowing genie named Mike Fiers come out of the bottle last November, Soxgate may not have had a signature whistleblower. Rosenthal and Drellich, the Woodward and Bernstein of Astrogate, reported shortly before Manfred's Astrogate finding and ruling that the 2018 Red Sox weren't just ducking into their replay room to fix mistakes, correct batter's box or mound mechanics, decide on challenging close calls, or watch Cheers reruns.

Rosenthal and Drellich dropped this curlicue into that report:

Three people who were with the Red Sox during their 108-win 2018 season told The Athletic that during that regular season, at least some players visited the video replay room during games to learn the sign sequence opponents were using. The replay room is just steps from the home dugout at Fenway Park, through the same doors that lead to the batting cage. Every team’s replay staff travels to road games, making the system viable in other parks as well.

Red Sox sources said this system did not appear to be effective or even viable during the 2018 postseason, when the Red Sox went on to win the World Series. Opponents were leery enough of sign stealing — and knowledgeable enough about it — to constantly change their sign sequences. And, for the first time in the sport’s history, MLB instituted in-person monitors in the replay rooms, starting in the playoffs. For the entire regular season, those rooms had been left unguarded.

So it's entirely likely that the Rogue Sox played the 2018 postseason straight, no chaser. But there'll always be suspicion. Would playing the postseason straight let them off the hook for reconnaissance cheating during the regular season when Watkins's replay room was about as heavily guarded as an angry drunk?

Give Manfred this much: If he thought Cora had anything to with the RSRRR, would it have been shooting fish in the barrel to discipline him? He'd already suspended Cora for this year over his Astrogate co-mastermind role. The Red Sox either let him quit, fired him outright, or strong-armed him to quit---never mind how well-liked he remains around the team and organisation---before he could be executed when the Astrogate report came forth.

If Manfred thought Cora was part and parcel of Watkins's roguery, would he have thrown mercy to the wind and banned Cora for half a decade? Full decade? Life? And does anyone really believe the man who cahooted with Carlos Beltran in the AIA was entirely innocent? Or did he remember his Houston boss, A.J. Hinch, smashing a monitor or two but otherwise fiddling while the AIA turned?

Letting the Rogue Sox escape with nothing more than a docked second-round draft pick and a scapegoat video room operator is at least as bad a look as Astrogate's been for the Astros. It also contravened Manfred's threat, when the Red Sox's AppleWatch and the Yankees' extra dugout phone inspired it, to fine any team caught playing CIA against the other guys.

So whom among the 2018 Soxgaters will be the first to stand up and own up? You may sooner strike oil with safety pins.

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