Snitches get stitches. Or, I guess in baseball, they get seams — as in a four-seamer right between the numbers the next time they step to the plate.
Some view Oakland A’s starter Mike Fiers as a snitch for his choice to tell Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic (subscription required), among others, about the Houston Astros’ illegal sign-stealing system from 2017. In the weeks since, a handful of players including current and former Astros have expressed their disdain for Fiers’ decision, either publicly or anonymously.
But that’s ridiculous. Fiers isn’t a snitch. He’s a whistleblower. And there’s an important difference.
To me, the word ‘snitch’ has a negative connotation. It’s synonymous with tattletale. It implies the individual had nothing but their own self-interest in mind when choosing to speak out and spill the beans. If Timmy is the teacher’s pet and he tells on Suzy for stealing a whiteboard marker from the classroom just so the teacher will like him more (or so there are more markers for him to steal) he’s probably a snitch.
A whistleblower, on the other hand, ranges somewhere from neutral to positive. They’re trying to right a wrong and bring justice to an unjust system. Maybe Timmy sees Suzy repeatedly stealing soccer balls from the playground, to the point where there aren’t enough for the other students. When he tells on her, he’s trying to create a fair environment where everyone has equal opportunities. That’s whistleblowing.
It’s easy to see why some (especially those with the Astros) would see Fiers as a snitch. The Astros left him off their playoff roster in 2017 and non-tendered him that offseason. He’s now with the A’s, a team that has finished right behind the Astros in the AL West two seasons in a row. The timing is also suspicious, with his comments coming more than two years after the reported infraction, and directly after another long postseason run for Houston.
But a closer look at the reporting and quotes — especially those from Fiers and some of his critics — paint a clearer picture of Fiers as an honest whistleblower trying to do good and right a wrong.
First, let’s look at Fiers. He was one of two players to go on record to Rosenthal and Drellich in that original report, the other being recently retired reliever Danny Farquhar. But Fiers wasn’t the only former Astro to talk:
Four people who were with the Astros in 2017, including pitcher Mike Fiers, said that during that season, the Astros stole signs during home games in real time with the aid of a camera positioned in the outfield.
That’s three other people in baseball corroborating Fiers’ claims. And sure, there’s a chance all three anonymous sources are also now with AL West rivals and have ulterior motives, but that’s unlikely at best. In addition, Fiers’ quotes make him appear as a man simply interested in leveling the playing field:
“That’s not playing the game the right way,” said Fiers ... “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”
He also went on to explain further that it was especially unfair to younger pitchers. If you’re Mike Fiers, an established veteran, a bad start against the Astros at Minute Maid Park wouldn’t hurt too badly — you’d shake it off and make your next start five days later. But for a young player that hasn’t yet established himself in the major leagues, that bad outing could be a one-way ticket back to the minors. And for at least nine pitchers, exactly that happened, with some having yet to return to the big leagues since, as Molly Knight of The Athletic found.
And Fiers didn’t just sit on this secret for two years. Upon joining each team, he warned the Detroit Tigers and the A’s of the Astros’ sign-stealing tactics in an attempt to prepare his teammates before a road trip to Houston.
But that raises the question: if he told his teammates, why not tell the league?
Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports spoke to Adam Waytz, a psychologist, author, and expert on the subject of whistleblowers. Waytz explained that baseball’s “sacredness to the team culture” likely kept Fiers quiet for those two years, but his decision to go public rather than report to the league was likely due to a lack of faith in how MLB would handle the issue.
“The question is, do you view MLB as legitimate and a system that really cares about this stuff?” Waytz says. “I don’t think there’s really a right answer for what the whistleblower should do. They go to the source that provides the justice they’re looking for.”
And, to be honest, that’s probably a fair judgement. This isn’t the Astros’ first misstep, nor is it the first time they’ve been accused of cheating in one way or another. Back in 2018, the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and even the A’s reportedly expressed concerns that the Astros were illegally stealing signs in one way or another. But the league never took action; at least, not publicly.
Beyond that, there’s the team’s 2018 acquisition of reliever Roberto Osuna despite his ongoing domestic violence suspension, and the following incident with executive Brandon Taubman last October. Many have spoken out about the toxic culture of Houston’s front office, with some even citing the negative environment as their reason for leaving for another team.
So, let’s just say the Astros haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt.
Without any insider knowledge, here’s my theory on how it all played out (pure speculation): either his teammates/teams didn’t want to tell the league for whatever reason, or the league was told and took no action. Fiers was content with simply warning his own team, but frustration built as he continued to see the Astros succeed. Last October’s Taubman incident put a spotlight on the organization’s questionable ethics, and maybe a source or two reached out to Rosenthal and Drellich to explain another infraction by the team, their illegal sign-stealing in 2017. The reporters reached out to Fiers, and finally, he was willing to go on the record and blow the whistle, to help level the playing field and ensure he would end up on the right side of history.
This story has damaged the Astros’ image, perhaps permanently. Once lauded for using analytics and smart trades to bring their team from the cellar to the top of the league, their reputation is now tarnished, with one rival general manager telling Rosenthal and Drellich, “(People) don’t respect the culture they’ve created or some of the methods they choose to utilize to become what they’ve become.”
Not surprisingly, Houston isn’t happy. So, when asked about Fiers, current and former Astros had strong opinions. Via Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports:
“Freakin’ punk-ass bitch,” said a former Astro.
“Mike Fiers?” said a current Astro. “Then give back your ring and your World Series share.”
Now, to me, that’s just funny. Of course the Astros are going to hate Fiers. They got caught, and he’s part of the reason why. But to me, Fiers is just as entitled to that 2017 World Series ring as any other player on the team that cheated to get it.
Others within the game are probably upset as well. But unless they’re also cheating (or were planning on it), they have no reason to be. Sure, speaking out might break some of baseball’s unwritten rules, but assuming the league takes appropriate action, the playing field will be leveled. All teams will once again be competing fairly, and Houston’s punishment will hopefully deter others from cheating in the future. That’s a very good thing.
We probably won’t have an answer soon. According to a new report from Rosenthal and Drellich, the league is still sifting through 76,000 emails and an unspecified number of Slack messages. To me, this shows that the league is taking this seriously and conducting a thorough investigation.
The Astros and their fans are always going to hate Mike Fiers; that’s to be expected. After all, a whistleblower is a rule-breaker’s worst enemy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see tempers flare upon the A’s first trip to Houston in April of 2020, although I hope the Astros don’t have any immature retribution planned. Fiers will likely be heavily booed upon his next start at Minute Maid, and possibly for the rest of his career appearances there.
But he wasn’t alone; there were other corroborating sources in that original report. Fiers was just the only one with enough courage to put a name behind his words. The rest of the baseball world should thank him for that, and I believe that once this is all said and done, the game will be better because of it.