• Villanova Sports Law Blog

What's Next: Potential Legal Repercussions of the MLB Sign Stealing Schemes

By: Lili Flores

As the MLB sign stealing schemes came to light, many questions have loomed in the aftermath. Has the use of electronic sign stealing schemes violated the integrity of the MLB and baseball itself?

Many believe the answer is yes, including MLB Commissioner Robert Manfred, who stated that the scheme has caused “significant harm to the game,” causing many to question the integrity of the game.[1] Although sign stealing in real time has been a part of baseball for years, new difficulties have surfaced as technology progresses. The Houston Astros utilized this new technology in 2017 and it eventually helped them win the 2017 World Series.[2] The Astros used replay review and live game feed to decode the opposing team’s sign sequences. Then, once decoded, the information was passed from the dugout to the players on the field.[3] After investigation, it was determined that this was one of the largest cheating schemes that the MLB has ever experienced. Following the Houston Astros, the Boston Red Sox were the next team to face allegations of sign stealing. The MLB alleges the Red Sox used their replay room to steal signs during the 2018 regular season.[4]

Interestingly, there has been a different approach to parting ways with the involved coaches between the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox. The Astros quickly split ways with general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, firing them immediately after the MLB announced their suspensions. Alex Cora, the bench coach for the Astros during the 2017 season and the Manager of the Boston Red Sox in the 2018 season, has been involved in both scandals. Following the news of the Houston Astros fate following the investigation, the Red Sox “mutually agreed to part ways” with Alex Cora.[5]

However, the Red Sox terminating Alex Cora may have been an attempt to avoid future legal problems. By choosing to “mutually part ways,” the Red Sox and Cora probably avoided a potential legal battle. Instead of firing Cora “for cause” which may have financially incentivized Cora to sue, Cora and the Red Sox parted ways on their own accord, which likely benefitted both parties.[6]

The MLB’s structure allows the commissioner, Robert Manfred, to have total authority over MLB executives and managers, and gives him ultimate say over consequences. His control over the league is powerful and unappealable.[7] Manfred has the power to investigate “any act, transaction or practice charged, alleged or suspected to be not in the best interests of the national game of baseball.” Following an investigation, he can then take “what preventive, remedial or punitive action is appropriate in the premises, and to take such action either against Major League Clubs or individuals, as the case may be.”[8]

Luhnow and Hinch cannot sue based on their suspensions because according to the MLB constitution, clubs and executives “agree to be finally and unappealably bound by actions of the Commissioner and all other actions, decisions or interpretations taken or reached pursuant to the provisions of this constitution and severally waive such right of recourse to the courts as would otherwise have existed in their favor.”[9] However, Luhnow, Hinch, and Cora may have other modes of legal recourse outside of the coverage of the constitution.

Luhnow, Hinch, and Cora may each have a potential defamation claim if they can show that false, reputation damaging statements were made by Manfred or any witnesses that were relied upon in the investigation.[10] However, since they are public figures, this kind of suit would be difficult to prove as it would require a showing of “actual malice” as well. While Luhnow, Hinch, and Cora may be able to sue MLB for defamation, these are unlikely to be brought for various reasons. If they sued, even more information may be exposed and there may be more problems. Additionally, the witnesses in this investigation had no repercussions for lying or mischaracterizing the truth because of the design of the MLB constitution and since it was a private investigation. [11]

It also important to consider the consequences of these managers and executives suing the MLB or their respective teams. If they were to sue the MLB or the teams, it would likely dissuade other potential teams to hire them due to concerns about their integrity and their likelihood to sue their employers. Therefore, while there may be potential for litigation surrounding the sign stealing scandal, we are unlikely to see any litigation actually materialize.

Overall, it will be interesting to see what unfolds after the MLB investigation into the Boston Red Sox sign stealing scandal and whether any of those implicated in the scandal will choose to take legal action. No matter what new developments arise throughout the investigations, it is likely we will see even more new technology protocols before the upcoming 2020 season.[12]

References:

[1] Wells, A. (2020, January 14). AJ Hinch, Jeff Luhnow Suspended 1 Season; More Penalties for Astros' Cheating. Retrieved from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2870808-report-astros-aj-hinch-jeff-luhnow-suspended-more-penalties-for-cheating

[2] Wagner, J. (2020, January 13). Astros Manager and G.M. Fired Over Cheating Scandal. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/13/sports/baseball/astros-cheating.html

[3] Wells, A. (2020, January 14). AJ Hinch, Jeff Luhnow Suspended 1 Season; More Penalties for Astros' Cheating. Retrieved from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2870808-report-astros-aj-hinch-jeff-luhnow-suspended-more-penalties-for-cheating

[4] Hartwell, D., Leger, J., & Camenker, J. (2020, January 17). MLB Rumors: Here's where investigation into 2018 Red Sox stands. Retrieved from https://www.nbcsports.com/boston/red-sox/mlb-rumors-heres-where-investigation-2018-red-sox-stands

[5] McCann, M. (2020, January 15). What's Behind Red Sox' Mutual Split With Alex Cora? Retrieved from https://www.si.com/mlb/2020/01/15/red-sox-fire-alex-cora-cheating

[6] Id.

[7] McCann, M. (2020, January 14). Could Jeff Luhnow, AJ Hinch Sue MLB or Astros? Retrieved from https://www.si.com/mlb/2020/01/14/astros-cheating-scandal-lawsuits

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Daniels, T. (2019, November 19). Rob Manfred: MLB Conducting 'Really, Really Thorough Investigation' of Astros. Retrieved from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2863440-rob-manfred-mlb-conducting-really-really-thorough-investigation-of-astros

[12] West, J. (2020, January 13). MLB to Have New Protocols in 2020 to Stop Cheating. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/mlb/2020/01/13/rob-manfred-technology-baseball-sign-stealing