WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — I figured Davey Johnson would have something to say about this whole Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. After all, the former Washington Nationals manager was in the middle of another Astros cheating controversy when he was skipper of the New York Mets — the 1986 National League Championship Series, where the Mets faced the Astros and their NL Cy Young Award winner that season, Mike Scott.
That would be, according to players around the league, the cheating Mike Scott.
“It’s the consensus around the league that Mike Scott cheats,” Mets catcher Gary Carter told reporters, and Carter never said a bad word about anyone. But then — like now, with the sign-stealing scandal — some players were so angry they were willing to publicly speak out.
This was not the CIA-level video monitors and trash-can type of cheating that went on with the Astros on their way to stealing the hunk of tin that was the 2017 World Series championship trophy. This was old school quaint kind of cheating — allegedly scuffing baseballs.
Scott, who has denied any wrongdoing, went from a journeyman pitcher (and former Met) to the best in the National League in 1986, an 18-10 record with a 2.22 ERA and 306 strikeouts. The Astros said it was the split-fingered fastball he learned from pitching guru Roger Craig.
The rest of baseball said it was the scuffs and the cuts Scott put in the ball.
The Mets faced the Astros in the 1986 NLCS and were helpless in their two starts against Scott in losses in games 1 (1-0 loss) and 4 (3-1 loss). With a 3-2 lead in the series, New York, desperate to avoid facing Scott again in a Game 7, won a historic 16-inning Game 6 by a 7-6 score.
Johnson turned the series into high theater with his campaign against Scott to the umpires. He made a very public collection of all the balls thrown out and sent them to commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who did nothing with them.
“I hate the way the commissioner has handled this and the way everyone has handled this,” said Johnson, who lives just a few hours north of the Nationals/Astros spring training complex in West Palm Beach. “It is human nature in baseball to try to get an edge, whether you are pitching or hitting. They’ve been trying to steal signs forever, different ballparks. This is nothing new. This is what you expect.”
I should have known. Johnson has always been an “edge” guy — the kind of competitor who exploits advantages and expects his opponents to do the same.
“Every professional is looking for a little edge in the sport to be better,” Johnson said. “That has gone on for years. Everybody has cameras everywhere in this high-tech world. The tendency to use that to your own advantage is normal. I would expect nothing less.
“I thought the commissioner overreacted,” Johnson said, referring to commissioner Rob Manfred’s investigation and subsequent yearlong suspensions of Houston manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow. “Everyone has been trying to get an edge since I can remember in every aspect of the game.”
But what about the anger of those like Cody Bellinger and the Dodgers, who felt they were robbed by the “edge” gained by Houston? What if there had been a Game 7 in 1986 against Scott, and the Mets had lost? How angry would Johnson have been, with nothing to show for it except a bag full of scuffed balls?
Then he dropped this revelation about what happened after that Houston series, in the Mets‘ dramatic seven-game World Series win over the Boston Red Sox.
“In 1986 in Boston we knew the scorekeeper had binoculars behind the wall (Green Monster),” he said. “We knew he could look in on the catchers, and they had ways to send into the hitters what they were. But all you had to do was change signs.”
If the Red Sox were cheating at Fenway Park, it didn’t help them much. After winning the first two in New York, Boston lost two of three at home.
And if the Astros were still stealing signs with the “dark arts” in their 2019 World Series, they didn’t get much of an advantage either: Houston lost all four games at home.
But Johnson understands, like few others do, the drive that pushes competitors to find that elusive edge — even if it doesn’t always work out.
“You fight all the time,” he said. “It is just part of the game.”
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