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Astros begin to respond to sign-stealing lawsuits

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Daniel Kaplan of The Athletic got a hold of the Astros’ first legal response in one of the several lawsuits filed against them arising out of the sign-stealing scandal. You’ll recall that the Astros, Red Sox and Major League Baseball have been sued by daily fantasy players and the Astros have been sued by Houston season ticket holders and former MLB pitcher Mike Bolsinger.

The first answer up is in the case that seems the least meritorious to me: the one brought by the daily fantasy players who are claiming, basically, that they were gambling on contests that were, unbeknownst to them, rigged.

Kaplan notes that the answer is basically two-pronged:

  1. Cheating is a part of sports and no fan or gambler has a legal claim against teams or players who break the rules; and
  2. Even if they did, the Astros’ road offensive performance — better their home offensive performance in 2017 — negates any claim that the cheating substantially impacted anything.

I’m very much on board with the first argument. There is considerable case law which holds that sports fans and gamblers have extraordinarily limited legal interests with respect to sporting events. If you buy a ticket you are entitled to a game. Not a good game. Not even a complete game in the event of rain and stuff. You certainly don’t have a cognizable legal right to a game played without rules violations. In light of that I am pretty sure that the fans and the gamblers are going to be out of luck, legally speaking, by the time this is said and done.

I find the second argument much more interesting, though it may never quite get to the interesting part.

It may be a long shot for these lawsuits — or the lawsuit filed by Mike Bolsinger to which, presumably, the first defense won’t apply since he was a participant in the games — to get past a motion to dismiss. But if it does, and if it gets into discovery, that second defense certainly invites litigants to examine the Astros’ cheating practices in depth and inquire about cheating on the road as well as at Minute Maid Park.

It’s interesting because the non-legal defense we’ve heard a lot of, mostly from fans, is “hey, the sign-stealing obviously didn’t help that much given the home/road splits.” That may be a convincing answer on a superficial level, but it doesn’t really track intuitively that the Astros would employ an allegedly ineffective scheme for the entire 2017 season and, depending on who you believe, beyond even that. If they didn’t think it worked, they would’ve quit doing it in June.

It also doesn’t jibe with the suggestions out there that, actually, the Astros used some form of electronic sign-stealing on the road too. That’s not been officially established, but it’s been mentioned as an aside by unnamed sources in stories in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. There is, at the very least, some chatter about it and if a suit with that defense manages to advance, people will be put under oath about it, which could be loads of fun.

Ultimately I don’t see any of these suits being successful and they may not even get past early motions to dismiss.  But they could at least be interesting on their way to dismissal.

Astros owner Jim Crane says MLB ‘explicitly exonerated’ him

Jim Crane
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Even during a pandemic, the Astros can’t seem to avoid putting their foot in their mouth. Per The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan, Astros owner Jim Crane claimed in a legal filing on Monday that Major League Baseball “explicitly exonerated” him in the club’s 2017 sign-stealing scandal that resulted in a now-tainted championship.

Crane is named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by former pitcher Mike Bolsinger, whose last appearance in the majors was on August 4, 2017 against the Astros. He faced eight batters, allowing four runs on four hits and three walks in one-third of an inning. Bolsinger accused the Astros of unfair business practices, negligence, and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations arising out of the sign-stealing scandal. Bolsinger is seeking damages for himself as well as for the Astros to forfeit the nearly $31 million in bonuses earned from winning the championship in 2017, asking for the money to be reallocated to children’s charities and retired players in need of financial assistance.

Commissioner Rob Manfred did not use the word “exonerated” in his report on the league’s investigation into the Astros’ cheating scheme. Manfred did, however, write, “At the outset, I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.”

Saying that the league found “no evidence” that Crane was involved and patting Crane on the back for not obstructing the investigation is not the same was “explicitly exonerating” him. The Athletic asked MLB if it agreed with Crane’s characterization of the report. Rather than agreeing with Crane, the league simply said, “All of our comments about the investigation are included in the report.”

This isn’t the first legal filing in which the Astros made a questionable claim. Recently, Astros lawyers claimed the organization expressed “sincere apologies and remorse for the events described in the report by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.”

In Monday’s filing, Astros lawyers swung at Bolsinger, citing his poor pitching performance overall in 2017. They wrote, “Plaintiff wants to have a California judge and jury literally call ball and strikes, and award him money damages based on rank conjecture about what might have happened to him in Houston on August 4, 2017 due to alleged rules violations he speculates may have occurred that day.”

Astros lawyers also questioned the frequency of the club’s cheating and its impact, writing, “Major League Baseball (‘MLB’) investigated alleged rule violations by the Astros related to sign-stealing, resulting in a January 13, 2020 report in which the Commissioner of Baseball expressly found that ‘it is impossible to determine whether the (Astros’) conduct actually impacted the results on the field. The MLB did not conclude that sign-stealing violations occurred in every game or even most at-bats in the 2017 season.”

Astros fan Tony Adams, who analyzed every home game during the 2017 regular season and posted the results on SignStealingScandal.com, found that there were 54 “bangs” on August 4 when Bolsinger pitched against the Astros. That was the highest total among all Astros home games that season. Bolsinger entered in the middle of the fourth inning, first facing Yuli Gurriel. Adams found three bangs — all on curve balls — in a plate appearance that ended in a walk. Adams found four more bangs — all on breaking balls — in a Brian McCann at-bat later that inning that also ended in a walk. Bolsinger then gave up a single to Tyler White, with trash can banging on a cut fastball and a curve. The next batter, Jake Marisnick, singled as well, hearing bangs on a cutter and a curve. Bolsinger finally got out of the inning when Bregman swung at a first-pitch curve (yes, there was a trash can bang for that) and flied out.

Importantly, Bolsinger’s lawyer notes that Crane’s motion makes MLB eligible for discovery. It is already eligible for discovery in New York federal court where the league is a defendant in a lawsuit brought by daily fantasy sports contestants. Bolsinger’s lawsuit is brought out of California state court. The Astros want Bolsinger’s lawsuit dismissed or at least moved to Texas.

Because the Astros can’t seem to stop making headlines for all the wrong reasons, this whole situation figures to get even more wild as time goes on. Due to discovery, we may end up learning even more about the Astros’ cheating ways than the league may have let on in their report on their investigation.