Alex Cobb was like so many of the others, speculating quietly for years on baseball’s dirtiest little secret.
In clubhouses and dugouts throughout the majors, pitchers and catchers frequently wondered how Astros hitters so often seemed to know what pitches were coming, and which weren’t.
How when playing at home they hit some pitches harder than they should have. Why they didn’t miss others that they typically would have.
“We were aware they were doing something," said Rays catcher Mike Zunino, who through 2018 played three times a season in Houston with the Mariners. “We didn’t know the severity of it."
Now, Zunino does. And Cobb. And the rest of us.
Baseball’s biggest cheating scandal in modern history has been committed, investigated, adjudicated and kinda sorta apologized for.
By now, you’ve surely heard the details, first shared by former Astros/now A’s pitcher Mike Fiers to a reporter in November, confirmed by a Major League Baseball investigation that concluded in January, and finally addressed by the guilty parties last week.
The Astros, at least in 2017 and early 2018, were using a video camera aimed at the catcher to get the signs, a live feed to a monitor stationed near their dugout to relay the information and a crude signal, the sound of hitting a garbage can, to alert their hitters what to be ready for. The team was fined and stripped of draft picks, general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch suspended, then fired by owner Jim Crane.
With spring training opening last week, the Tampa Bay Times talked with players in 10 of the 15 Florida-based camps, and some former big-leaguers, to get a sense of the reaction, frustration and direction the issue, and the game, is headed.
Replies were understandably emotional and emphatic, with near universal condemnation of the Astros’ actions, with significant disagreement on the severity of the sanctions, specifically that the Astros players were given immunity for their testimony and not punished. Some held out to see how the Astros apologized, then found little satisfaction in their clumsy messaging.
Cobb, the former Rays starter, proved a good example.
He had been pitching well going into a July 31, 2017, game in Houston, looking to solidify his statistics as he headed toward free agency and a market price deal to set up his family financially for generations.
Instead, he got rocked, allowing eight runs on nine hits — including two homers and two doubles — over three innings in his shortest outing of the season.
His initial reaction was to blame himself.
“I went into that game feeling great and was just getting destroyed, lit up left and right,” Cobb said. “I just felt that I didn’t have it today.”
But now, entering his third season with the Orioles after signing a $57 million, four-year deal, he thinks differently about that day, and the Astros.
"They've affected a lot of careers, mine included," Cobb said Friday in Sarasota. "I pitched against them that year and gave up a lot of runs, and had that feeling coming off the mound that something wasn't right.
“I had heard whispers about things that they had done and things that they've done that you just laugh off because it just seems kind of absurd. There's no way somebody's doing that.
"And to see most of it come true... it's sickening. It's tough just because as a competitor, you go out there and you have no chance when those things are happening."
Seeing how the Astros were punished — with no players disciplined or even identified beyond since-retired Carlos Beltran — didn’t make Cobb feel any better.
“It’s as big of a deal as it gets,” he said. "I think that, I don’t want to say they’re taking it lightly, but I think the way they’re handling it has been very poor. ... I think that the commissioner came out with his discipline and I think it was very light for what was happening.
“It seems like the kids did something wrong and the parents had to take the fall for it and that's what they're acting like, a bunch of kids who got in trouble and parents came to the rescue to bail them out.
"Zero respect for them. I understand that probably a lot of them were in a difficult situation. When you are a young guy on a team and a coach or an older guy is implementing something like this, it’s tough to stand up and say something. But there are those guilty-by-association situations that happen. ... You had an opportunity to right the ship a touch.
“We are a forgiving society, and I haven't heard anything to persuade me to go that route."
Zunino, as did others, said “it’s hard not to” look differently at the Astros since they cheated their way to the championship. But he admitted to a certain sense of relief that the Astros’ methods were finally discovered and uncovered.
“The amount of games I played against them, there was something going on, you just couldn’t put your finger on it," he said. “The word across baseball is that everybody knew, it just took an ex-player to say something for us to have the validity of what actually they were doing."
Some players, including Rays pitcher Charlie Morton, a member of the 2017 Astros, have danced around what they thought of Fiers breaking a clubhouse code to become baseball’s whistleblower.
Cobb applauded Fiers’ actions. And suggested there could be similar sign-stealing schemes elsewhere that haven’t been discovered.
“There is a clubhouse culture in that there are a lot of things that happen that we keep in house, in this clubhouse, that pertain to each individual in here,” Cobb said. “But what happened there and what’s happened with other teams — and I hope other players speak out — is an attack on other players. We are a fraternity. ... When something like that is happening you are affecting your other brothers in uniform and around the league, that’s crossing the line, that’s over the boundaries of what a clubhouse culture needs to keep inside the clubhouse in my opinion. I have a lot of respect for Mike coming out and saying something. I wish he would have done it a little bit earlier.”
That has been a fair criticism, that Fiers didn’t say anything until well after he left the Astros, and perhaps with a grudge. And that he didn’t volunteer to give back his ring or his share of the championship bonus.
And there are ongoing complaints that the current and former Astros have not shown enough contrition.
“I think that the toughest part of listening to their apologies or whatever you want to call them is the fact that they’re not admitting that their World Series is tainted,” Cobb said. “There’s no question that what they did that year wasn’t the true outcome of what should have happened. And even if it was going to happen, it didn’t happen the way it should have, so you can’t claim it.”
Not only the credibility of the Astros has been questioned, but the foundation of the game, which was thrust into a new era of scandal.
“People do things they regret. Things they shouldn’t have done. That’s okay," said Blue Jays second-year shortstop Bo Bichette, a Lakewood High product. “But at the end of the day there has to be consequences for it.
“It’s interesting that none of them got in trouble for it. I don’t know if that’s people not realizing how much of an advantage that is. It’s incredible. It’s like a quarterback knowing every defense that’s coming. He might not make every throw, but he’s going to make the right decision every time. It’s a huge benefit. It’s worse than anything I’ve seen as far as cheating. It’s bigger than steroids."
Staff writers Mari Faiello, Rodney Page and John Romano contributed to this report.