Report: 2017 Letter to Yankees from MLB to be Released, May Contain Evidence of Sign-Stealing Scheme

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Late last night, Evan Drellich at The Athletic (subs req’d) published a new story about the Yankees and sign-stealing. There is a 2017 letter that allegedly contains evidence of a “sign-stealing scheme” that is “more serious” than has been so far disclosed to the public. It is potentially serious!

However, this story is not as straightforward as it seems. There are a lot of moving parts involved. It could be a bombshell story when the dust settles. It could also be a whole lot of nothing. We won’t know until we see the letter on June 19 (or likely later, given the inevitable appeal). Anyway, let’s establish the basic context, place the new information into that context, and evaluate what we know.

The Basics

I think it’s important to go back and establish what we already know before we get into it. The sign-stealing scandal, particularly as it relates to the Yankees, is a complicated puzzle. Today’s report is just another piece of it.

Let’s start with the basics:

  • In August 2017, the Yankees filed a complaint with MLB about an alleged sign-stealing scheme by the Red Sox involving Apple Watches.
  • The Red Sox immediately filed a counter-complaint against the Yankees, saying that New York improperly used YES Network video to steal signs from Boston.
  • A few weeks later, the league fined both teams. Manfred also issued a memo to teams in which he drew a hard line against electronic devices and sign-stealing. He’d built on that in 2018, but this was the start of it.
  • The investigation found that the Red Sox did use Apple Watches to steal signs but it absolved the Yankees. However, the league did find that the Yankees “violated a rule governing the use of a dugout phone.” prior to 2017. That’s why MLB fined them, too.
  • In January 2020, SNY‘s Andy Martino reported more details on that infraction. According to his sources, a member of the team (believed to be former pitching coach Larry Rothschild) “used the dugout phone to call replay coordinator Brett Weber to ask if a particular pitch was a ball or strike.” That was against the rules.

There is also a bit of additional context beyond this incident. Earlier this year, Drellich and The Athletic (subs req’d) reported that the Yankees used their video replay room to “decode” signs in 2015-17, at least prior to the MLB memo. To date, there is no evidence this was a real-time operation. Remember, that’s what got Houston and, to a lesser degree, Boston, in trouble. Additionally, the Astros’ Brandon Taubman also confronted the Yankees about the use of a camera in center-field at Yankee Stadium during 2018. (MLB had given the team permission to use that camera and was thus a non-issue.) So that’s what we know so far.

New Information

Today’s report complicates this story. What we don’t know yet is how much it complicates that story. Here is what we do know from Drellich today.

  • First, Judge Jed Rakoff presides over this case. He previously ruled against the plaintiffs and in favor of MLB in April (subs req’d). The plaintiffs then filed a motion to reconsider (subsequently denied by Rakoff).
  • In that motion, the plaintiffs brought forward a new complaint. They said that MLB misrepresented the findings of its 2017 investigation against the Yankees in their press release announcing its results and the teams’ punishment.
  • Rob Manfred sent GM Brian Cashman a letter in 2017 with the results of the investigation. Allegedly, that letter shows that “the Yankees engaged in a more serious, sign-stealing scheme” than MLB said publicly. For what it’s worth, Rakoff says that “much of the letter’s contents” has already been made public in the press release.
  • Now, the entire letter – with small redactions – must be unsealed.
  • The Yankees and MLB submitted the letter to the Court under seal because of privacy concerns that Rakoff called “modest at best.”
  • Next, the Yankees must submit a “lightly redacted” version of the letter to the court by Monday at 12 pm EDT. On June 19, that version of the letter will be made public. Before that happens, though, MLB will appeal the ruling.

This is obviously an interesting story, but it’s light on real information. What we know is that there is a letter about the investigation we already knew about. A party trying to win a lawsuit against MLB alleges that letter shows damning info against MLB. (The Yankees are not party to the lawsuit.) That’s it. It could be a lot or it could be a little. The story is one that’s very much in progress.

What Does it Mean, and What’s Next?

Intrigue and speculation! Fans of other teams have been itching for this scandal to involve the Yankees since the damn thing started. It makes sense! I am big enough to admit that, if I was a fan of literally any other team, I’d want the Yankees to be involved too. Nobody else likes the Yankees, nor should they. In fact, even as a huge fan, I keep expecting it to happen myself. I’ve been expecting the other shoe to drop this entire time. I’d be very surprised if the Yankees were doing something as elaborate as Houston, but who knows? These scandals are always bigger than they initially seem. Baseball is a small world.

This new piece of collateral, which the Yankees and MLB are seemingly desperate to keep confidential, only adds fuel to that fire. It raises obvious questions like “what are they hiding”, “why don’t they want us to see this”, and on and on. For their part, an anonymous Yankees source says that it is not because the team wants to “cover up some smoking gun.” The Yankees’ “This Is Not Covering Up A Smoking Gun” shirt is raising a lot of questions already answered by its shirt, in other words.

Anyway, these are natural questions. I also have them. I’m sure you do too. But it’s also important to note that we don’t really know much of anything. We know there has been a ton of noise about the 2017 incident but nothing serious so far. The league has even been vocal about this. This letter raises the possibility that there’s more out there but until we see it, there is no use in speculating unless you want to confirm your priors. Maybe the letter has something really damning in it. Maybe it doesn’t. We just don’t know yet.

I will say that I hope we do get to see it. As always with these things, not knowing always leads to a bigger story. It’s a basic law of public relations and this is a case study for that. I mean, look at the victory lap the Astros are already taking. I get the impulse – the Yankees very publicly roasted the Astros all spring – but it is still pathetic. Even if the letter improbably says the Yankees did the exact same thing as Houston, all it means is that some Yankees are hypocrites. It in no way vindicates Houston nor does it vindicate their players. It also will not make people like Houston more. Sorry. Truth hurts.

(Separately, it’s hilarious that many Astros fans love The Athletic’s reporting all of the sudden. I thought that publication was leading an anti-Astros witch hunt? Funny how that changes.)

Point is, until we see the letter, this is now officially A Thing. The release of the actual letter is the only thing that will stop it. Its contents will either validate or invalidate the claims and we can evaluate it from there. Until then, this is just an interesting development. Nothing more.

UPDATE (1:44 pm): One thing I wanted to include in here but forgot to mention is that if this letter ends up being in any way revealing – or if it shows that the league did obfuscate the scandal – it will somehow look even worse for MLB than it does for NYY. I mean, imagine handling all of this sign-stealing stuff any worse! But again, we’ll have to wait and see. We’ll keep you posted on all this as it develops.

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7 Comments

  1. Steve W.

    Couple of questions:
    1) Why is it illegal for Rothschild to use the dugout phone to call and ask whether a pitch was a strike or not? I don’t understand what advantage the team would gain from this. What am I missing?
    2) Why would the plaintiff (which seems to be a fantasy league) have standing to sue in this case? Why would they have any right to demand to see a letter between two private parties? It doesn’t seem like it would be any of their business. Again, what am I missing?

    • Bobby

      I’m not sure about #1 (I am sure there are restrictions re: the use of video replay rooms for on-field action) but as for #2, the lawsuit alleged that the league knew about and covered up the sign-stealing scandal. Because DFS is paid and therefore betting, I think the argument is that the league was withholding info about an advantage one team had over the other. It was an integrity of the game issue, I think. The judge ruled against the plaintiffs anyway.

      • Steve W.

        Thanks! Keep up the great work on the site.

  2. Dani

    From what I’ve read so far this looks like a non-story. According to Martino the letter says the Yankees didn’t engage in sign stealing and no evidence was found. What more do I need to know? Just release it to shup up the haters.

  3. Let’s all speculate ourselves to death.

  4. Coronaveddardus

    I’ve already renounced by Yankee fandom as soon as I hear this, Bobby. They’re all just a bunch of hypocrites! For months they were bashing the Sox and Astros for cheating but they knew all along they were doing the same damn thing. And then they try to bury the evidence. I’m sure we’ll hear a lot of “well all teams do it.” That sounds like when people say “all lives matter” to water down the wrong doing. I just can’t take it any more. Cashman, Boone and the entire management and coaching staffs should be fired just like Hinch and Cora. They’re all dirty rotten cheats. And I wouldn’t mind if they just folded MLB all together. They won’t be playing this year. 50 games is a joke. We’ll have our basketball and our football and that’s all we need.

    • Jojo

      Take a breath, buddy. First of all, this seems to be old information that is mostly already in the public. Second, the letter is from 2017 – before the rules against using video were put in place. Third, every team in MLB was doing something before it was stopped by the commissioner. Fourth, Boone wasn’t even managing the team in 2017, when the alleged actions occurred.

      No reason to go off the deep end yet – unless they letter says a lot more than what we’ve been told in the past. In which case, Girardi and Cashman should be punished just like the other managers/GMs.

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