In public statements Tuesday, the Yankees and Major League Baseball both tried to remind fans that Commissioner Rob Manfred did not find the 2015-16 Yankees breaking the sport’s rules of character stealing.
This decision has been repeated time and time again by the team and the league – including in court as they tried and failed to block the release of the “Yankees Letter” – as if it were a decision made from heaven in the tall. As if it were so obvious that the Commissioner could not have decided otherwise.
In fact, the Commissioner made a crucial choice in 2017. He chose to find out that the Yankees (and the Red Sox, whose office was also investigating at the time) had not broken the rules of the sport by decoding signs in their video room. And since it was a choice, another result was possible.
Players and staff used the video equipment in place for the sport’s new replay challenge system to find out what the opponent’s character sequences were. Then the players would get the information for the excavation and for the runners, who could so easily crack the prisoners’ code and tell the butcher at the plate what was to come.
Yet this behavior in itself, Manfred decided, was not illegal.
The letter of the law in 2017 could and should have been more specific; Manfred and his people heralded extended replay in the sport, and should also have updated the rules before a problem arose. But he and his office did not foresee the problem (and the lack of foresight, in turn, helped increase the problem).
Nevertheless, there was already a rule on the books in 2017. It read: “The use of electronic equipment during a game is limited. “No equipment may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or disseminating information designed to give a club an advantage.”
Video playback equipment, last time we checked, draws power. It would not have been a stretch to say that the Yankees and Red Sox used electronic equipment far beyond the means intended and for illegal gain, and had done so in violation of the rule. It could even have been the obvious, correct assessment.
What Manfred decided instead was that it would be a violation if the information learned in the premises was subsequently communicated via electronics. If a portable device was involved, such as the Red Sox used, or a dugout phone, such as the Yankees used.
“At that time, the use of the playroom to decode signs was not expressly prohibited by the MLB rules as long as the information was not communicated electronically to the grave,” MLB said in its statement Tuesday.
But that specificity was actually not written in the rule at the time either. These are all interpretations that Manfred chose.
Now, Manfred might have thought it would be unfair to tell players that some use of replay video is legal and others are not, without limiting them in advance. But almost any device you imagine would have reasonable uses and illegal uses, and to think that each one should be so specifically designed in advance is a stretch. Just because a rule is broad does not mean it cannot be enforced.
Manfred’s concerns could have been more practical. It was September 2017 and the playoffs were approaching. Manfred would not have wanted to suspend players or crew from not one, but two soon-to-be playoff teams. If he went after players, he would be in a fight with the players’ union over penalties. And the Red Sox and Yankees have always been, let’s say, important franchises in the sport.
But also do not overlook the convenience of the decision. It avoids precedent. If other teams are caught doing the same thing until September 2017, Manfred does not have to punish them. And because Manfred determined that the behavior of the video room was not the basis for punishment, he then did not have to tell the public what was going on in those rooms. He could be vague.
So in his 2017 public release, Manfred wrote that “the proliferation of technology, particularly the technology used in the replay process, has made it increasingly difficult to monitor the appropriate and inappropriate use of electronic equipment.”
The commissioner also said that “our investigation showed that clubs have used different strategies to decode signs that do not violate our rules.”
It hardly explained the extent of what happened.
The Yankees letter revealed no more than the public already knew about what the Yankees were doing. Athletics reported on the Yankees’ video room behavior in 2020. But ask another question: How did the letter match what Manfred and MLB had told the world?
The Commissioner’s public statement in 2017, which was issued at the same time as the letter, does not clarify to nearly the same extent what was going on. It was a messy word soup that made the reader guess about a dugout phone and tried to suggest that the dugout phone was just a minor matter.
“During our investigation,” the statement said, “we learned that during a previous championship season (before 2017), the Yankees had violated a rule governing the use of the dugout phone. No club complained about that behavior on at that time, and without prompting from another club or my office, the Yankees stopped that conduct, and the content of the communications that took place on the dugout phone was not a violation of any rule or regulation per se. because the dugout phone technically cannot be used for such communication. “
Think how different it would have sounded if Manfred had stepped back 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 phone to pass on 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 the letter released Tuesday. “By using the phone in the video review room to instantly send sign information to the dugout in violation of the rules, the Yankees were able to provide real-time information to their players about an opponent club’s sign sequence – the same purpose of the Red Sox’s plan that was subject to the Yankees’ complaint. “
Manfred’s goal when he fined the Red Sox and Yankees was to end the behavior, and in the end it was perhaps there that his choice to clean up the Red Sox and Yankees to use the video room unfairly stings the most.
Players and teams did not take Manfred’s penalty by the Yankees and Red Sox seriously. As early as the next year, the Red Sox used the video room to decode signs again after hiring a manager who had come over from the 2017 Houston Astros. In 2017, these Astros continued to steal signs electronically, even after the Yankees and Red Sox were fined – and continued to do so in a way that was even more sinister than decoding video rooms.
Manfred’s decision in September 2017 was an important moment in the history of the sport and creates an interesting what if: If he had found the Sox and Yankees guilty of using the video rooms and punished them more aggressively, he could have scared other teams away. ? Have even the Astros turned it off?
Above all, the Yankees letter is a reminder of a commissioner’s process. Manfred faced a growing problem for the first time and found that two teams using their video room to decode signs had made it legal. That does not mean the Commissioner was right.
(Photo by Rob Manfred: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)