How the internet helped crack the Astros' sign-stealing case

NEW YORK -- When allegations that theHouston Astroshad stolen signs electronically during their 2017 World Series championship season surfaced in November, Jimmy O'Brien was sitting in his new apartment in Harlem, waiting for some Verizon workers to finish setting up his cable internet.

Known better as Jomboy, O'Brien had broken into baseball internet prominence over the course of the 2019 season with a series of hot-mic videos that included turningNew York Yankeesmanager Aaron Boone's "savages in the box" rant into a viral sensation.

When O'Brien read in The Athletic's report that a banging sound could be heard from the Astros' dugout whenever a changeup signal was given by an opposing team's catcher, he quickly began scouring the MLB.TV archives, using his cellphone as a hot spot. He was far from the only one to track downChicago White Soxreliever Danny Farquhar's now-infamous 2017 appearance in Houston, but within two hours, O'Brien had pulled the video demonstrating the banging, added his voice-over commentary, and tweeted it out.

With his phone buzzing from an influx of Twitter notifications, O'Brien called his girlfriend.

"I think I opened a can of worms," he said.

THE CAN OF worms exploded Monday, when Major League Baseball announced one-year suspensions for Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch, in addition to fining the team $5 million and stripping Houston of first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. Within hours of commissioner Rob Manfred's report, Astros owner Jim Crane fired both Luhnow and Hinch. A day later, theBoston Red Soxparted ways withtheir manager, Alex Cora, who had been Houston's bench coach in 2017. And on Thursday, former Astros player Carlos Beltran became the third manager to lose his job, in his case before he got the chance to skipper a single game for theNew York Mets.

During MLB's three-month investigation, the public scrutiny was unprecedented, a baseball scandal -- itself about technology -- unfolding in real time, with more incriminating evidence seemingly uncovered on Twitter by the hour. Not just fans and journalists but players -- and league officials -- noticed.

The internet's social media sleuthing skills played a crucial role in shaping the investigation, dramatically reducing the time the league needed to comb through video for evidence, league sources tell ESPN. While the activity online shot a jolt of adrenaline into the baseball fan community, it was also helping to shape MLB's first uniquely 21st-century scandal.

On Nov. 13, the day after the initial report, O'Brien explained on his baseball podcast how easy it was for him to find the cuts in his viral compilation, which has garnered more than 4 million views. It helped start an avalanche. Video clips poured into his inbox from followers, and he began editing and tweeting more instances of banging, up and down the Astros' lineup. As of Thursday, his thread has more than 33,000 retweets and 100,000 likes andstands as a record of what was then a rapidly accumulating list of evidence -- tangible, easy-to-digest evidence -- against the Astros.

"I just took all the information I had from all over the place, made the video and told the story to my audience," O'Brien says. "But I didn't break this news. I helped accelerate it, and helped people really see. It just kept going.

"People think I'm watching hours of Astros, but nah, I crowdsource this s---."

A Twitter timeline of O'Brien's posts that day reveals these key moments:

1:39 a.m.: O'Brien follows his initial video with a second clip of a 2017 Evan Gattis at-bat with no bang on a first-pitch fastball, two bangs on an off-speed second pitch and no bang on a third-pitch fastball.

2:02 a.m. and 2:28 a.m.: O'Brien posts similar clips featuring Josh Reddick, Jose Altuveand Carlos Correa.

12:20 p.m.:The next clip from O'Brien, a homer from George Springer, adds a new flair: a big BANG graphic, indicating when the sound is audible.

3:19 p.m.:A second follow-up clip, of an Alex Bregman home run, employs the same BANG graphic.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, more videos popped onto Twitter. Writer Ian Hunter -- @BlueJayHunter on Twitter -- put together a banging noises compilation from different Astros at-bats in Houston with then-Toronto Blue JayspitcherMarcus Stromanon the mound, a clip Stroman himself quote-tweeted with the caption, "This is crazy." The clip was retweeted thousands of times, and its veracity was later confirmed by MLB's investigation, which noted in Monday's report, "Generally, one or two bangs corresponded to certain off-speed pitches, while no bang corresponded to a fastball."

The virality of user-generated baseball content has jumped in recent years due to the popularity of accounts such as Jomboy's and Rob Friedman's PitchingNinja -- but this was a whole new ballgame.

"Guys like Jomboy and PitchingNinja, their entire existence is digging into video like this, not necessarily to find stuff, but for entertainment purposes," says Los Angeles-based social media consultant Lana Berry, who runs a Twitter account popular with baseball fans. "For them, it's really easy to pull and show this video and showing where the banging is happening, and it's almost like an Easter egg hunt because it's something you can find. You can hear it. It's something tangible, whereas some of the other things coming out might be really hard to find. People are so interested because they can find information on their own. It doesn't have to be fed to them through reporters."

The reporting that began withThe Athletic's story, and later the findings on social media, led to an influx of players from opposing teams tweeting their anger about the situation, with years of rumors and gossip finally bubbling to the surface.

With more and more players sharing their thoughts online about the allegations made by former Astros pitcherMike Fiers, fans were emboldened to keep digging and other players shared what they knew, too.

"I think that it really took someone who was on the Astros to say something," Berry says. "Some [players] had tweeted about it, but they seemed paranoid and salty and crazy if you're just tweeting about the bullpen coach having an earpiece and signaling to these guys. It's really easy to dismiss that and whatever, but when you have all these people from the teams who say these things are happening, it feels a lot safer to share those things that you know, because it's more of a pile-on rather than [one lone voice] being like, 'Hey, this is happening.'"

HARRISON MILLER, 17,attends Colts Neck High Schoolin Monmouth County, New Jersey, and runs @YankeeReport_, where he aggregates news, rumors and daily lineups for the Bronx Bombers.

On Nov. 17, Miller received a screenshot from an Instagram follower, taken from a 2017 World Series documentary. It showed a setup near the Astros' dugout that featured a monitor on a table with two chairs -- and a trash can that matched the description from the original report.

After posting it on Instagram and Twitter, Miller noticed Jomboy had retweeted his image.

"Really, somebody just messaged me the image and I didn't really think anything of it at the time," Miller says. "I decided to just throw it on Twitter and then all of a sudden, Jomboy retweeted it and I hadn't expected anything of it, and I kind of assumed it was something people already had seen. People started retweeting it, and it got really big."

Sure enough, in its report Monday, MLB confirmed the setup. "Cora arranged for a video room technician," Manfred wrote, "to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros' dugout."

Says Miller: "There's so many things hiding pretty much in plain sight, that the average person watching the game wouldn't even consider, necessarily."

The image kept the conversation going on Twitter. Eireann Dolan, an active member of baseball Twitter andWashington NationalsrelieverSean Doolittle's wife, corrected another user, who speculated that the monitor was for instant replay. "It is absolutely positively not a replay monitor," Dolan tweeted. "Replay Monitors are in the video room in the clubhouses. There are video rooms in every clubhouse. The MLB replay monitors are in NY, but the team video staff watches game feeds in those video rooms. They call the dugout if they think something merits a challenge. There is no independent tunnel MLB replay monitor."

The debate ensued, drawing in players, and Doolittle himself chimed in, tweeting: "Idk I've never played on a team that's had video set up in the tunnel like that - guys had to go back upstairs. But if that's what it's for, why the towels? Why break it down after a game? Obviously don't know the whole story but I think it's more than fair to be skeptical here."

IT'S ALSO FAIR to be skeptical of what you read on Twitter -- not every fan-fueled theory necessarily leads to the truth.

According to areport in the New York Post, scouts and executives had whispered about the Astros wearing electronic bandages to receive buzzes in real time, indicating what pitch was coming. Within a few hours, Jomboy tweeted a photo of a Band-Aid falling off the finger of an Astros player,Robinson Chirinos, following it up with, "this could literally be anything, but I've been told the buzzers are very real."

While many theories -- on the Astros' methods or the culpability of other teams -- remain the source of speculation as MLB continues to investigate sign stealing, the buzzing-bandages rumors got the commissioner's office on the record. Manfred told Sports Illustrated they were untrue, with the bandage in question simply a pad to protect a bone bruise.

"I will tell you this: We found no Band-Aid buzzer issues," Manfred said. "There's a lot of paranoia out there."

Manfred's assertion hasn't put the buzzer issue to rest. Social media is still questioning the degree of rule-breaking by the Astros, even with an official report released. As late as this Thursday, the discussion continued in the wake of Beltran's parting from the Mets, leading to awild day on Twitter, plus a denial from Altuve and a statement from MLBthat it "explored wearing devices during the investigation but found no evidence to substantiate it."

When debate over the Astros' approach went beyond trash-can banging over the past few months, other theories were advanced. To counter one, Astros fan Tony Adams posted a videopurporting to log every "charge" whistle from Game 5 of the 2017 World Series and show there was no correlation between the whistling and sign stealing.

"You're going to get A LOT of mad yankee fans in here. Prepared [sic] for a bad like/dislike ratio lol," responded one YouTube commenter, ostensibly referring, at least in part, to chatter during the 2019 ALCS that Houston used whistling to transmit illegally stolen signs against New York.

But when Manfred released his report Monday, it underscored how the line between fact and fan fiction -- if it is indeed fiction -- can blur when a major story breaks online. "Witnesses explained that they initially experimented with communicating sign information by clapping, whistling, or yelling," he wrote, "but that they eventually determined that banging a trash can was the preferred method of communication."

He also noted "the investigation revealed no violations of the [revised sign-stealing] policy by the Astros in the 2019 season or 2019 Postseason."

As the release of MLB's report loomed, the conversation online progressed, for better and worse, and social media continued to have a profound effect. If nothing else, memes helped keep the pressure on MLB officials and the Astros, even as the platform served as a welcome reminder that you can't believe everything you read on the internet.

THE ASTROS' SIGN-STEALINGsaga has captured the attention of hardcore and casual fans alike, the biggest baseball scandal since steroids infiltrated the daily discourse of the sport at the turn of the century.

But as this controversy made its way from front offices to subreddits, it sparked fans to become further invested in the sport, as they analyzed video clips and devoured Twitter threads, all while major league players publicly discussed the integrity and the future of the game with them.

"It's so interesting from my perspective because it used to feel like old-school message boards and stuff that interested us as a baseball fan to now, everyone knows the writers or are friends with the writers or are friends with the players because so many more of them are active on Twitter," Berry says. "Now that we have players tweeting, and players probably helping other guys who are giving information, it all feels more centralized where you feel like you can influence the game because you are actually involved versus when it was just fans getting into the game."

Baseball's latest scandal is the result of a slow response to quickly evolving technology amid the sport's implementation of instant replay review, but it has put the collective power of the internet on display in a manner that would not have been possible just 10 years ago.

"People are bored at work. You're just watching videos and hearing for bangs. They're actually talking about it on the news cycle," O'Brien says. "It's a whole new world."

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