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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #25: Curt Schilling fired from ESPN

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Last year our 25th biggest story was about Curt Schilling’s adventures on social media, so it’s only appropriate we see through to the end of that saga by giving him number 25 in this year’s countdown as well.

After being suspended from his Sunday Night Baseball gig late in the 2015 season and then losing the job outright to Jessica Mendoza for 2016, it was only a matter of time before Schilling, who was in the walk year of his deal with ESPN, would be canned. The man can’t help himself, and in April he helped himself right out of a job.

The final straw came on April 19 when Schilling shared an anti-transgender meme on Facebook and followed it up with supportive comments which took a distinct, inflammatory side in the ongoing debate about access to public facilities for transgender people. He later doubled down in a combative blog post on the matter. While Schilling weighing in in the manner he did was, to many, insensitive to transgender persons. More importantly for his employment prospects, it flew in the face of ESPN’s mandate to its on-air talent to not wade into highly-charged political topics in an inflammatory manner. Schilling broke this mandate many times, of course.

Schilling and his defenders constantly defended his behavior as him simply exercising his First Amendment Rights consistent with his personal beliefs. But ESPN is not the government and does not have to observe the First Amendment with respect to its employees. Like anyone else with a job, when his personal beliefs came into direct contradiction of his employer’s values and in violation of its warnings to him to cease making controversial public comments, his firing was a fait accompli.

Schilling’s firing did not take him out of the headlines, of course. In keeping with his habits, he spent the rest of the year drawing attention to himself. In August he said he would possibly run for office — maybe president one day — though later he ratcheted that back to the U.S. Senate. He’s still undecided on a 2018 run, but he’s laying the groundwork with a series of Schilling-like public policy statements. He’s clearly positioning himself as Massachusetts’ own Donald Trump, complete with a platform on Trump’s very own Pravda, Breitbart. The idea of Schilling winning an election seemed silly until November 8, but now nothing would shock us.

As far as baseball goes, his story may be ending, however. In November he approvingly shared a meme on social media with the words “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required” printed on it, which seemed to advocate for the lynching of reporters. He quickly deleted that when a firestorm ensued, claiming, as he often has in the past, that it was a joke. Reporters did not think it was funny, however, and Schilling is now seeing his support for the Baseball Hall of Fame erode.

If we had to bet right now we’d say this is the last time we’ll have Schilling in our Top 25 Baseball stories countdown. Given his political ambitions, however, and given how, it seems anyway, that this country is moving closer to Schilling rather than he away from it, he may make non-baseball top story countdowns at some point in the near future.

An Astros executive asked scouts to use cameras, binoculars to steal signs in 2017

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The Athletic reports that an Astros executive asked scouts to spy on opponents’ dugouts in August of 2017, suggesting in an email that they use cameras or binoculars to do so.

The email, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports, came from Kevin Goldstein, who is currently a special assistant for player personnel but who at the time was the director of pro scouting. In it he wrote:

“One thing in specific we are looking for is picking up signs coming out of the dugout. What we are looking for is how much we can see, how we would log things, if we need cameras/binoculars, etc. So go to game, see what you can (or can’t) do and report back your findings.”

The email came during the same month that the Red Sox were found to have illegally used an Apple Watch to steal signs from the Yankees. The Red Sox were fined as a result, and it led to a clarification from Major League Baseball that sign stealing via electronic or technological means was prohibited. Early in 2019 Major League Baseball further emphasized this rule and stated that teams would receive heavy penalties, including loss of draft picks and/or bonus pool money if they were found to be in violation.

It’s an interesting question whether Goldstein’s request to scouts would fall under the same category as the Apple Watch stuff or other technology-based sign-stealing schemes. On the one hand, the email certainly asked scouts to use cameras and binoculars to get a look at opposing signs. On the other hand, it does not appear that it was part of a sign-relaying scheme or that it was to be used in real time. Rather, it seems aimed at information gathering for later use. The Athletic suggests that using eyes or binoculars would be considered acceptable in 2017 but that cameras would not be. The Athletic spoke to scouts and other front office people who all think that asking scouts to use a camera would “be over the line” or would constitute “cheating.”

Of course, given how vague, until very recently Major League Baseball’s rules have been about this — it’s long been governed by the so-called “unwritten rules” and convention, only recently becoming a matter of official sanction — it’s not at all clear how the league might consider it. It’s certainly part and parcel of an overarching sign-stealing culture in baseball which we are learning has moved far, far past players simply looking on from second base to try to steal signs, which has always been considered a simple matter of gamesmanship. Now, it appears, it is organizationally-driven, with baseball operations, scouting and audio-visual people being involved. The view on all of this has changed given how sophisticated and wide-ranging an operation modern sign-stealing appears to be. Major League Baseball was particularly concerned, at the time the Red Sox were punished for the Apple Watch stuff, that it involved management and front office personnel.

Regardless of how that all fits together, Goldstein’s email generated considerable angst among Astros scouts, many of whom, The Athletic and ESPN report, commented in real time via email and the Astros scout’s Slack channel, that they considered it to be an unreasonable request that would risk their reputations as scouts. Some voiced concern to management. Today that email has new life, emerging as it does in the wake of last week’s revelations about the Astros’ sign-stealing schemes.

This is quickly becoming the biggest story of the offseason.