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The Yankees might be in sign-stealing trouble

One of the putative class action lawsuits arising from the sign-stealing scandal has taken an unexpected turn

MLS: FC Dallas at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Back in February, I wrote that a pair of pending consumer putative class actions against Major League Baseball and the Astros arising from the sign-stealing scandals of the past few years could be problematic for the league. In those suits, plaintiffs alleged that the sign-stealing corrupted their fantasy baseball games, and they lost money as a result.

In an intriguing twist, the first major loss in one of those suits went to the New York Yankees, a team which wasn’t originally considered to be stealing signs with impunity in the same way as the Astros and Red Sox.

Instead, as Pete Caldera reports, the Yankees are suddenly at the center of a legal drama surrounding a disciplinary letter sent by the league to the Bronx Bombers in 2017.

A current legal drama is brewing, as reported by The Athletic, related to the 2017 incident where the Boston Red Sox were fined by MLB for use of an Apple Watch to relay Yankees signs.

At the time, the Yankees were cited only for misuse of a dugout phone during a prior series (the Red Sox had countered that the Yanks had a YES Network camera aimed at their dugout). With this ruling, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred found the Yankees committed a technical violation, not a direct violation. The commissioner also said Boston’s claim about the YES Network camera was lacking sufficient evidence.

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff ruled that a letter sent by Manfred to the Yankees concerning findings of that 2017 incident, should be unsealed. The plaintiffs reportedly argue the letter will reveal more serious infractions by the Yankees than previously stated. MLB had designated the letter as highly confidential under a court’s protective order.

The Yankees have already appealed the ruling, citing potential reputational damage to the team and several employees — a rationale which has understandably raised eyebrows across the legal world. After all, if the infractions cited by Manfred were as minor as originally claimed, why are the Yankees so reticent to turn the letter over?

On one hand, the New York Post seems to think the contents of the letter aren’t much of a big deal, as former Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira already disclosed what kind of sign stealing the letter discussed.

Teixeira said the Yankees used modern technology for “old-school” benefits. The former first baseman, who played in pinstripes from 2009-2016, said a few Yankees players and coaches used replay monitors to decipher a sequence or indicator and would share it with teammates, though not in real time. When a runner would get to second base, he was told to check if the catcher was keeping the same signs, and if he was, the runner could then alert the hitter.

“This is what every team has done over the past few years with video rooms being close to the dugout and [it is] not against the rules,” Teixiera said.

On the other hand, whilst that’s certainly not as severe as what the Astros did in 2017-18, it’s also not at all innocent.

The Astros’ use of video rooms was considered to be an unacceptable rules violation, and the Yankees were doing something similar. The big difference here is the contemporaneous use of a trash can to signal pitches to hitters, and whilst that’s a significant difference, both teams were using video monitors in order to learn and decode opposing signs. Assuming Teixeira is being entirely honest, this doesn’t launch the Yankees into an upper echelon of cheaters, but it also doesn’t absolve them from any wrongdoing.

So why do the Plaintiffs want the letter unsealed? Part of their case is on appeal, and they want to be able to show an appellate court that Rob Manfred and MLB knew about rampant sign-stealing and hid it from the general public. In other words, they want it to be part of the record — that is, the documents shown to the appellate court in support of their appeal. The letter was turned over in discovery, but considered to be confidential under the protective order that the parties signed. This is not unusual; lots of documents in discovery are designated as confidential under protective orders, and including them in appellate records does require at least some degree of unsealing.

The Yankees’ protestations that the letter would cause “reputational injury” are curious if Teixeira’s version of events is entirely true, because the letter would cite facts that are already public. So either the letter concerns sign stealing well beyond what we already know, or the Yankees are being overly cautious.

The Yankees have appealed the ruling, arguing that the case has already been dismissed and therefore the unsealed document isn’t necessary. But I’m not optimistic about their chances; after all, Judge Jed Rakoff, the judge who dismissed the plaintiffs’ case, considers the letter significant enough to unseal and therefore an important part of the appellate record. What the Yankees have done, instead, is slow down the appeal process, because whether or not the letter is to be unsealed and included as part of the record must be determined before the plaintiffs’ appeal can be heard. So the Yankees are so adamant that this letter not be disclosed to the public that they’re willing to have the lawsuit hanging over baseball’s collective heads for potentially years longer.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.