Yankees Letter Leak Prompts Questions of ‘Reputational Harm’

A confidential letter sent by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman on Sept. 14, 2017, has been leaked after the Yankees repeatedly failed in federal court to keep it sealed. The letter is less explosive than some anticipated, though still indicates that the Yankees engaged in improper activities for several seasons. The Yankees’ efforts to keep the letter sealed—efforts that generated a media storm—are questionable given the letter’s lack of oomph.

Andy Martino of SNY obtained a redacted version of the letter, which is still sealed as this writing, and wrote a story about it on Tuesday.

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The letter states that “the Yankees’ use of the dugout phone to relay information about an opposing Club’s signs during the 2015 season, and part of the 2016 season, constitutes a material violation of the Replay Review Regulations.”

Manfred explained why this conduct was problematic.

“By using the phone in the video review room to instantaneously transmit information regarding signs to the dugout in violation of the Regulations,” Manfred wrote, “the Yankees were able to provide real-time information to their players regarding an opposing Club’s sign sequence— the same objective of the Red Sox’s scheme that was the subject of the Yankees’ complaint.”

The reference to the Red Sox highlights misconduct by the Yankees’ arch nemesis. In 2017, Manfred fined the Red Sox for using an Apple Watch to relay signals stolen from Yankees catchers to Sox players at the same time he fined the Yankees for improper use of a dugout phone. Three years later, Manfred stripped the Red Sox of a second-round pick for engaging in improper use of a replay operator in 2018.

Neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox attracted the historic rebuke cast on the Houston Astros, who were stripped of first and second-round picks by MLB in 2020. The league also suspended club personnel for a plot that included coded bangs on trashcans and a hidden camera. The three franchises weren’t alone in electronic sign stealing. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated reported in 2020 that as many as eight teams broke MLB rules for various cheating plots involving technology.

The Yankees’ quest to keep Manfred’s letter sealed now seems curious, particularly since the team was permitted by federal courts to release the letter in redacted form—meaning without names. The letter is evidence in Olson v. MLB, a case brought by daily fantasy sports players who allege MLB breached a duty by failing to stop coordinated cheating campaigns. Judge Jed Rakoff dismissed the case in 2020, and in March, a three-judge panel on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal.

Had the Yankees leaked the redacted letter at a convenient time (such as the offseason), or simply filed it without seal, the document might not have attracted much attention. Instead, by litigating the letter’s disclosure, the team resorted to legal terminology that arguably generald the Yankees’ public reputation.

For instance, in court filings, the Yankees warned the letter’s release would trigger “significant and irreparable reputational harm,” while MLB urged the judges to consider “potential embarrassment” to persons mentioned in the letter.

Those phrases made sense in the context of advocacy in court but not in the context of public relations. The legal fight fueled public interest in the letter, including among Astros fans who believe their team has been excessively punished and ridiculed for shenanigans similar to those utilized by other teams.

In carrying through with the fight, the Yankees seem to have fallen victim to the “Streisand Effect,” which refers to “the act of trying to suppress information but simply making it more widespread as a result.”

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