In which two bloggers (yours truly and Chris Jones, of Esquire, Grantland and his own blog, Son of Bold Venture) discuss “Signs of trouble in Toronto,” the ESPN: The Magazine story by Amy K. Nelson and Peter Keating about allegations that the Jays steal signs at the Rogers Centre.
This will be fun: a little journalism, a little baseball... Someday we'll be perfect? That day is today, my friend.
Why don't we start off by getting our biases out of the way up front?
I cash a monthly paycheck (paycheque) from ESPN for my work at Grantland. I also know Amy. I wouldn't say we're best friends, but we hung out as part of a larger group during the World Series in 2008—so much rain!—and I like her and respect her work very much. (I should also say here that I haven't spoken to her about this story, and I want to make it clear that the things I write here are my thoughts alone. In no way am I speaking on behalf of Amy or ESPN.)
I also grew up a hardcore Jays fan, commemorating their 1992 World Series win by losing my virginity that same night, an eventful evening I've documented many time before.
You, I presume, are a huge fan of the San Diego Padres. Is that correct?
You have no idea what a Padres fan I am. I still weep for the day we traded away Winfield.
Obviously, yes, I am a long-time, devoted Jays fan. So much so that I have spent countless hours over the past five seasons NOT drawing a paycheque in order to type away my almost daily thoughts on the team's progress (and regress). So there's that.
The second thing that probably needs to be said—and will likely serve as an open, inviting chin to an angry uppercut by the time we're done—is that I am an ANONYMOUS blogger. Some days, I wish someone would show up with a moderately sized cheque and say: "Leave your days of toil behind and come write your blather for us!" But I have a mortgage and a wife and other ways to make my daily wage, and while I'm passionate about this side gig I've created for myself, the day job and the blog aren't ready to co-exist quite yet.
A last quick note before we dig in: I've liked Amy K. Nelson's work enough to follow her on Twitter for some time, so nothing out of the past few days should be taken to be a personal attack on her. I know that some of my initial language about this article was heated, and if that helped to fuel the ugliness of the past two days, I sincerely apologize to her.
Now, let me propose a jumping off point to the discussion, since this was the first thing that struck me about the piece: The way it was branded—"An Outside the Lines/ESPN: The Magazine Investigation"—needs to be taken into consideration when evaluating the merits of the article. If this were a brief article airing some scuttlebutt on a random Wednesday, then I'm sure that it might have run and raised some ire amongst the fans, but not like this.
But this piece presented itself as enterprise journalism, and my complaint is that it was not entrepreneurial enough. And yet, it carries that seal of quality that comes from long history of the good pieces done by Outside the Lines, which lends the article the both credibility and importance.
I'll always thank the Padres for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter. They're my second-favorite team for that reason alone.
You're right, Tao, that the Outside the Lines branding made this a bigger story. It was heavily promoted by ESPN online and with the in-studio interview with Amy. It wasn't a quick hit. Which I think is a good thing, but I see your point.
I'm going to take a guess at how this went down—and it's a guess. I repeat: ONLY A GUESS.
Earlier this season, as you no doubt know, the Yankees—specifically Joe Girardi—essentially accused the Jays of stealing signs. (Catcher Russell Martin did, too.) The Red Sox also change up their signs when they come to Toronto. These weren’t new stories, really.
I'm guessing that somewhere along the way, Amy, who's a dogged reporter, had decided to ask around about the Jays in major-league clubhouses. There's a line in the story about players not liking to discuss such things, which, for me, was a signal from Amy that this was a tough story to report and that she probably isn't all that happy about having only anonymous sources for confirmation.
That being said, two points:
1) Anonymous sources are a standard part of investigative journalism, from Deep Throat on down. No journalist likes to use them, but we use them, because many important stories wouldn't get told without them.
2) Amy had four individual sources corroborating a single incident, which is pretty different from quoting some dude in a bar somewhere. And those sources provided Amy with a very specific account of said curious happening.
Amy (and Peter, I should add)—again I'm guessing—then looked for statistical evidence to support the various accusations. (Even though I would say that those accusations alone are newsworthy.) They found it, most particularly, in the statistic about the home run differential between the Jays and visiting teams at Rogers Centre—the third highest in the last sixty years.
Then they wrote the story, and then shit went nuts.
I'm not going to tell you it's a perfect story. I would have liked to see more quotes from the Jays. I would have liked to see historic comparisons between the current Jays teams and earlier Jays teams and their performances at Rogers Centre. (It might have been cool to see how this bunch compares to the 1992 or 1993 teams, which were also accused of stealing signs, by the way.)
But I think it's a good story that deserved to be told.
I guess what I'd ask you, Tao, is this: Do you believe the man in white existed? Do you believe that part of the story?
I guess I'll revert to my usual position as the perpetual fence-sitter, and say that I'm 50/50 as to whether I believe such a man existed, and about the same as to whether it bothers me or not. I've tried not to read Jonah Keri's piece on Grantland about this, but a glance at it gave me the impression that he would actually applaud such skullduggery. (Which might be an indication that we need to go grab Jonah and bring him back to Canada so that he can return to being typically over-polite and apologetic. But I digress.)
As to your point on the merits of the piece, I've re-read the piece a number of times now, and I can see where there is something there. It's still pretty sketchy, and it reads more like a proposal than a finished investigation, but there's the start of something on which follow-up could be done. My problem was that it wasn't. Though I did note that line to which you refer, and I understand that getting sources to go on the record would be tough—still, investigative journalism by its very nature is tough and exhausting. It has to be.
Were calls made to former Jays players or coaches (Nick Leyva or Brad Arnsberg come to mind), even if to get a stick-to-the-code denial? Or moreover, did someone sit down and watch the video of the games in question? If the piece were to say: "We watched the games in question, but could not ascertain that there was someone in those seats motioning toward the hitter," then it throws a big bucket of cold water on this whole thing.
Which brings me to my second point: The reason why I take this article seriously is because it impugns the reputation of a team, its players, and most specifically, its most visible player, Jose Bautista. We may have (arguably) left behind the "steroid era," but accusations of cheating resonate loudly, and quickly become fact in the echo chamber of sports talk. It's pretty stunning how quickly the entirety of a player's career can get wiped out with an accusation of cheating. Did anyone PROVE that Mike Scott ever did anything untoward with the ball in the 1986 season? And yet, if you and I were hauling back on a couple of pints at the Elmdale Tavern, and his name came up, how soon before we launched into smart remarks at his expense over his cutting and doctoring the ball?
The point here is that to call out a player or a team as a "cheater" with everything that we've gone through over the past decade, and to diminish their achievements requires a greater effort on the part of the reporters, and more verifiable information making it to the page.
I appreciate that as a Jays fan, my personal standard of proof might be incredibly high. I'd have liked the reporters to have gotten closer to it before they told me there might not be a Santa Claus.
While Jonah's definitely been corrupted by his border crossing, I would say he does have a point, which this story also makes: Sign stealing isn't technically illegal.
But I totally, totally understand what you're saying about leveling the cheater accusation. It's a big deal, and that's why I think Amy and Peter went to the lengths that they did. I hear you when you say that you don't think they went far enough. I can't really say for sure whether they did or not, because I don't know exactly what sort of reporting they did.
The video evidence, by the way, I'm not that fussed about. The chances of seeing that guy in the right-field stands during at-bats are pretty slim, I would think.
And interviews with former Jays might not have proved all that revealing, given that baseball is a small fraternity of guys who would like to keep working in the game, and that this might be a relatively recent phenomenon.
Here's my thinking:
1) The man-in-white story is a pretty specific story. For a reporter, that story is a good get—lots of detail and corroboration, including Bautista's confirmation that the altercation happened. I'm bothered somewhat by the idea that Bautista would have been a relative non-entity in the spring of 2010, when this apparently occurred. I don't quite get that.
2) Whether the Jays are stealing signs or not, they certainly have developed a reputation for stealing signs. That might be wildfire gossip spreading, but generally speaking, if enough people are saying the same thing, it's worth investigating.
3) The statistics in this story aren't definitive, but they're pretty interesting. Is this Toronto team really one of the all-time home-run teams of the last sixty years? And is Rogers Centre really that great of a home park?
4) The go-to defense that the Jays have a pretty mediocre home record doesn't wash with me. Sign stealing would do nothing to help their crappy bullpen.
5) And last—and most important—in some strange way, I think this story is GREAT for the Jays. If you have opposing teams coming into Rogers Centre doing who knows what with their signs and looking for UFOs in the outfield, that can only distract them from the rhythm of the game at hand. If I were the Jays, I think I'd want every team to think I had their signs.
There's a great story about the German soccer keeper Jens Lehmann. During a 2006 penalty shootout against Argentina, he pulled a cheat sheet out of his sock before each kick. On the sheet, he'd written the penalty tendencies of most of the Argentine players. Shot after shot, he kept picking the right direction. Then up came Esteban Cambiasso. Lehmann looked at his sheet for a long time before he tucked it back in his sock. He saved a pretty poor penalty from a rattled Cambiasso: What does he know?
Cambiasso wasn't even on the sheet. Lehmann was just a master of the head game.
This sign stealing stuff is fantastic head gaming.
Indeed, if I heard that there was an MLB team that were not stealing signs, I'd be shocked and banish them to some scrub league... like the NL Central. But this "reputation" that the Jays have is hardly new, as I specifically remember Orlando Hudson wearing the T-Bird uniform, bouncing around on second, and having a pitcher walk off the mound shouting at him. But that was under a different manager, different GM, totally different coaching staff... So is it the city that brings this out in them? Of course not. But reputations linger in sports because our memories are tied to the laundry, as it were.
Where I think Toronto has started to develop a bit of a reputation is that they play in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, and with the ever-growing coterie of beat writers and national drop-ins, there's plenty of opportunity for those teams—who are under the greatest pressure and the biggest spotlight—to gripe about how they get beat on any given night. And, of course, they have.
Which brings me to a point that I think is important: Are the Red Sox and Yankees leveling the same accusations as the Mystery Team We Presume To Be the White Sox? I get that it is a specific story... But is it corroborated by the Yankees and Red Sox? I didn't see that on the page, but it's a vital point in taking this from "four teammates collectively rooted out one individual on one night" to "several anonymous sources on several teams say they saw this tactic in use." If you're trying to convince me, that goes a long way.
As for the stats: I just think that they were dealt with in too much isolation, and that inherently creates things that pop off the page. Players with good home splits were held up, but John Buck hit worse at home, and Edwin Encarnacion hit twice as many homers on the road as at home. Was he not seeing the signs? Were they not useful to him?
If you were to root around in the numbers of the all-time record home run season of the 1997 Mariners, I'm sure that you'd start to find all sorts of aberrational rates between them and their opponents. If you look at home run rates in a season of historical home run output, you'll find historical anomalies. But what of the fact that the Jays ranked in the bottom third of Major League Baseball in total hits? Is a stolen sign only redeemable for a round-tripper? Should the number of singles and doubles not have gone up as well if the Jays knew what was coming?
I know that there have been a lot of threads pulled from the data set, but if you are making a very specific accusation based on hearsay and a look at the numbers, you had better be prepared to have those numbers pulled every which way. The accusation was serious, and I think that the statistical analysis was cavalier in what they thought they could prove.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this whole saga for me was the reaction on the part of Peter when one of the interviewers on The Score used the term "cherry-pick" when discussing the stats: He got very terse and very angry and defensive, and defended his professional reputation vigorously. Wouldn't he expect the Blue Jays and their passionate fanbase—when being told that their professional reputation was being called into question—to respond with equal vigor?
I will definitely agree with you that there is something to this being a plus for the Jays, not only in terms of playing head games with their opponents, but in rallying their fans through the creation of a staunch "us versus the world" mentality. (I'd also note that we shouldn't discard the notion that the Red Sox and Yankees' accusations were based in their own attempts to get into the heads of their emerging rivals.)
One final thought on this from the point of view of a kid who grew up wanting to be a journalist (for Esquire no less... I see a body-switch comedy in our future!), got the degree and then lapsed into any number of other pursuits: I HATE that last paragraph of the piece, and you know what? I bet Amy isn't overly fond of having this piece close on that paragraph. It's a cop-out. It says: "We did the investigation, and we couldn't come up with enough to nail this down, but there's something there, and ain't that kinda interesting?" It's like something I would have done when I was a terrible, lazy 24-year-old J-school student. Which is why I'm... you know... an anonymous blogger.
I acknowledge your point that sometimes you have to proceed with circumstantial evidence. But I'll repeat myself here because I think it bears repeating: If your investigative piece ends with: "The evidence is circumstantial," then you haven't finished your investigation.
Tao, a wise man once told me that publishing is writing interrupted. What will be interesting for me, now, is to see where this story goes from here. It might just disappear into the ether of a long season. But I suspect that we’ll hear a lot more about the Jays, the art of sign stealing, and where they go from here.
Speaking of which, how about Brett Lawrie?
Brett Lawrie is just awesome. He merits his two nicknames—Gordie Dougie, for his quintessential Canadianosity, and Full Tilt, for how he seems to approach everything from running out ground balls to celebrating grand slams. Watching that moment unfold the other night, I couldn't help but smile like a big goofy kid. It reminded me of something important: Baseball is pretty fun.