- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Voyage of the Damned If They Didn’t

“I just can’t wait to rewrite our story.”
—Carlos Beltran, November 4, 2019 [1]

Baseball is stories as much as it’s statistics; it’s equal parts narrative and numbers; it’s four cups of emotion for every quart of analytics. Baseball is also rules, exceptions and the narrowest of hallways between those two opposing walls.

The rules, written and otherwise, have a real problem with stealing signs. The exceptions are to be kept as quiet as Kevin McReynolds, never expressed with any gesture less subtle than an imperceptible nod. If a center field camera can pick up the slightest movement of a head raising and lowering in a vertical motion, then you’re just asking for trouble. And what are you doing looking at the feed from the center field camera anyway?

After living a week and change with the fallout from the commissioner’s report on a very specific sort of wrongdoing in baseball by a very specific, very successful baseball team [2], I have come to the conclusion that it all boils down to you can’t steal signs; and if you steal signs, you can’t be elaborate about it — and you simply can’t get caught. It’s not about conceptual good of the game or philosophical issues of integrity. It’s the sign-stealing itself. You don’t do that. You surely don’t do that with anything greater than your eyes or your wits. Eyes and wits are the exception. We’ll romanticize your low-tech cleverness after you’re properly dusted for your sins.

The first time I remember a specific mention of stealing signs was sometime after August of 1984, the month the Mets went into Wrigley Field and were swept four games, basically settling the National League East for the year. Sometime later I read an assertion by a Met that the Cubs had stolen the Mets’ signs, something that fell in the darkest gray area of baseball’s do’s and don’ts. Letting your signs be stolen implies a breach of security on your part, but the stealing of your signs is a breach of etiquette on your opponents’ part, and that, somehow, is worse. However it is viewed, the Cubs, those bastards, had purloined what didn’t belong to them and there was to be no honor bestowed on thieves.

Unless you’re on our side stealing signs, and then you’re a pretty cagey SOB. Steal (or borrow) a glance here, pick up a pattern there, all’s fair in love and gamesmanship if you didn’t get caught. And if you got caught, you’d catch one in your ribs and get the message. Now and then, somebody would allude to somebody blinking a light or poking a head at a furtive degree, but mostly baseball was the great American game, played by the rules, spiced by the exceptions.

Crashing the harmless folklore at the speed of light came the Houston Astros. They did that a lot in the 2010s, losing by grand design, crunching numbers as if on an all-analytics diet and angling for edges nobody else had the nerve to nab. When they added a dash of humanity in the form of past-their-prime veteran leadership, it made them a much warmer story. They’d calculated into their formula for winning the previously incalculable and recently out-of-fashion — that there was something tangible to the intangibles of clubhouse chemistry.

There was something to signing Carlos Beltran, even though Carlos was passing 40 in 2017. He wised up the talented youngsters. He calmed the intensity surrounding daily battle. He consented to a burial service [3] for his own glove. Whatever residual thunder remained in the designated hitter’s bat was a bonus at that point. Beltran was turning a talented team into a legitimate winner [4]. What narrative strand could fill the heart more?

We now know that Carlos’s wisdom included making use of every possible avenue into knowing what pitch was coming next, and with his former Met teammate and now bench coach Alex Cora, they got something cooking with cameras, monitors and a garbage can that was just minding its own business. When it simmered mostly unnoticed in the background, the stew it produced was to be celebrated. The Astros won a world championship. Beltran had his ring at last and could retire on top. Cora, acknowledged far and wide as a certified smart baseball man who aided A.J. Hinch all the way through Game Seven, had the credentials to earn a manager’s spot of his own, in Boston. And within a year of Alex’s arrival at Fenway, the Red Sox were world champions, too. He posted pictures from every win [5] in his office. He rallied his team for breakfast after an eighteen-inning loss [6]. He cared about his battered homeland [7].

Those were great stories. I got caught up in them. When the Mets aren’t in the postseason, I am prone to whirlwind romances with whoever makes October most intriguing. In ’17, it was the Astros. In ’18, it was the Red Sox. Beltran was a significant part of it for Houston. Cora was the center of it for Boston. Carlos was an old friend, Alex a familiar face. You gotta love stuff like that.

I did. Now I feel a little used, and I’m neither an Astros nor Red Sox fan. I just liked how it all felt for a week or two across a couple of autumns. It was the sort of sensation I’d voluntarily summon for the rest of my Metsless Octobers, that time that team elevated baseball at its highest level to even greater heights. Stuff like that is why I take the World Series seriously.

So that’s more than a little ruined now, and that’s too bad. The reputations of several pillars of the baseball community are in ashes. Hinch was a Leader of Men we could all admire [8] in the wake of those Astros victories that served as a balm for a storm-tossed city, and Houston GM Jeff Luhnow could at the very least be described as rabidly innovative and highly successful. Hinch and Luhnow were suspended by MLB, then fired literally an hour later. Cora was fired by Boston before MLB could get around to fully investigating what he did for the Red Sox. Beltran’s name came up in the commissioner’s report. No other Astro’s did, but it’s understood that didn’t shed a halo of innocent bystanding over the unnamed. In the quickly emerged popular mindset, the 2017 world champs and 2019 league champs formed a suspect lot, especially when you got a load of the squinty evidence of vibrating buzzers underneath jerseys [9] that clearly…or not so clearly…but there was something there…there had to be, because look — he’s not letting them tear his shirt off in a wild celebration because surely he had something to hide.

Allegedly.

In the aftershock atmosphere of disbelief and mistrust, Carlos Beltran, 22nd manager of the New York Mets, never stood a chance. When the commissioner’s report broke on Monday, January 13, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the 2020 Mets. By Thursday the 16th, it swallowed whole the cerebral cortex of their prospective brain trust — Beltran and what everybody had referred to approvingly as his high baseball IQ.

There’s a scenario in which the Mets stood firm behind the manager they chose when there was little more than whispering regarding the Astros and signs. The Mets were home for the winter in the fall of 2017, figuratively a million miles from that World Series. Beltran may have been named once the garbage can-banging came to light, but he wasn’t suspended. He was just a player then. A decorated player, a sagelike player, a Hall of Fame-bound player, but not a coach, manager or general manager. He was free to go about his business, the business of managing the New York Mets two-plus years removed from whatever he was doing cracking other teams’ codes in Houston.

But is that how you want the Mets to go about their business, with the guy acknowledged as one of the masterminds of a scheme to steal signs that involved cameras and monitors? Maybe it is, and, well, OK, fine. Scandals don’t necessarily take down the scandalizers like they used to do in this society, and the scandalized grow numb to the idea that anything is ever particularly wrong. Plus forgiveness and big pictures. In the big picture, Carlos Beltran’s career and character still came off as a net positive. You could forgive a transgression birthed in murky territory and branched out of control. We forgive, we forget, we compartmentalize [10].

Last week, though, was no season for equivocation. Mutual parting of the ways was the de rigueur catchphrase of the inelegantly exiting. Alex Cora and the Red Sox mutually agreed to part ways on Tuesday, one day after the Astros, Luhnow and Hinch didn’t overly antagonize amid their respective relationships’ dissolution. As the spotlight shifted to Queens, defiantly powering through prospective criticism as if we were in for a one-, two- or four-day story receded as an option. Mutually assured distraction was the least of it. The Mets would have become the poster children for shady postseason behavior without the benefit of postseason participation.

There was no definitively wrong or definitively right way [11] for them to proceed (except definitively less Metsishly [12]). In some quarters, they’re damned for having done away with Carlos Beltran. In others, they’d be damned had they not. Usually this is all just fiber for a tiresome straw man argument, the part of the plot in which those who don’t care for a point of view say that criticism is inevitable, so why are you even bothering me with an alternative perspective? You know: “if they did sign free agents, they’d be attacked for spending too much”; or “if he’d brought in his closer in the eighth, then he’d just have to answer questions about not having his closer available for the ninth,” as if averting arguments is a higher priority than winning ballgames.

Here it was something to think about, because it was about sign-stealing — about tacitly coming out in favor of sign-stealing by reconfirming that your first-year manager will be the guy fresh off a featured role in a bona fide baseball scandal. There was going to be a ton lip service paid to putting that behind us, especially the scene when Beltran was all “what camera? [13]” when asked about it by Joel Sherman in November. Not everything can be damage-controlled as quickly as its principals would prefer, and damage control is no way to commence a whole new phase of one’s heretofore brilliant professional life.

Given time, I would assume Carlos Beltran will be back in baseball if he so chooses. He’s got decades in the sport, he was one of the best and best-respected players of his time, and I doubt anybody thinks his understanding of the game stops at dissecting ill-gotten video. It’s not permanent condemnation to suggest this isn’t the appropriate moment to have Beltran manage the Mets, yet what he did with the Astros doesn’t and shouldn’t define him for the long-term. I have a magnet with his face on my fridge, a cup with his swing in my office and a t-shirt with his name and number in my closet. I’m not getting rid of any of it.

Meanwhile, here in the short-term, as we verge on the fourth week of January, the Mets sail on sans skipper. Preparation fetishization notwithstanding, it doesn’t matter much that we don’t have a manager when no baseball games are scheduled to be managed. Probably soon they will have someone at their helm. Come Saturday morning, the Mets will open the gates of Citi Field for their their first full-blown FanFest [14], which seems pretty late for a first FanFest when a franchise is entering its 59th season — later than late January seems late for not having a manager. It would be nice if the fans who are showing up to fest were to be greeted by a freshly selected manager who will spout inspiring platitudes before gathering his charts and graphs and hopping the next flight to West Palm. Then again, we treasure the Mets’ knack for putting on late charges to capture playoff berths and better. Perhaps not having a manager in place three weeks shy of Pitchers & Catchers is a fortuitous omen.

Sooner rather than later, somebody will be appointed, camp will percolate, Opening Day will approach, and it will be like Carlos Beltran’s tenure as the 22nd manager of the New York Mets never happened.