As far back as the fourth grade, Andy Martino had dreamed about writing short stories and novels and starting his own newspaper. Around that same time, the precocious Fairport lad with the fertile imagination became smitten with baseball. That flame for the game was sparked while accompanying his dad to Silver Stadium. A lifetime later, those trips to the old ballpark at 500 Norton Street remain as vivid as yesterday, especially the treks taken during the summer of 1991 when a light-hitting, big-hearted Rochester Red Wings catcher named Mike Eberle took an interest in a 10-year-old and made him a fan forever.
After Martino graduated from SUNY Purchase with a degree in creative writing in 2003, he taught English at a Brooklyn high school for a few years, and, although that was rewarding, he felt he still hadn’t found what he was looking for — his true calling. After some serious soul searching, he was ready to take a chance. He decided to act on childhood dreams and pursue a career that would wed two lifelong loves.
“It was at that point that I began feeling this overwhelming pull to write non-fiction, and baseball specifically,” Martino recalled recently in a Zoom call from his Brooklyn residence. “I had come to the realization that I was not a fiction writer. I’m not very good at making things up, inventing plots and characters. But I felt I had an ability to take something that happened, and give it structure and context. So, I went back to school to study journalism with the intention of becoming a non-fiction writer, and becoming a baseball writer if the opportunity presented itself.”
While working toward his master’s degree at Columbia University, Martino scored his first scoop in a newspaper career that’s featured many. His interview with Victor Conte resulted in a story for a small New York City daily in which the infamous steroid dealer said Major League Baseball’s drug testing policy was a joke and that the majority of players were still using performance-enhancing drugs. Conte’s comments were picked up by media outlets nationwide. The $50 assignment gave Martino a rush that couldn’t be measured in dollars and cents. He was hooked, and a journalism career was about to take off.
Since graduating from Columbia in 2008, Martino has covered baseball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Daily News and SNY television network. His reportage has garnered numerous awards, and recently enabled him to fulfill the lifelong dream of writing a book. Not just any book, mind you, but a critically acclaimed blockbuster that reads like an espionage novel.
In “Cheated,” Martino tells the fascinating, behind-the-scenes story of how the Houston Astros used a high-tech camera to steal signs, giving them an unfair competitive advantage that helped them win the 2017 World Series. We also learn how cheating has long been a part of the game, with sign-stealing dating back to at least 1900 when a former Philadelphia Phillies utility man and “lifelong reprobate” named Pearce Chiles hatched a plan whereby a player in the centerfield stands used opera glasses to pick up the opposing catcher’s signs and relayed them to the Phillies batters before pitches were delivered.
“The high-speed camera used by the Astros obviously was far more sophisticated, but the intent was the same as the opera glasses used by Chiles,” Martino said. “In both cases, the teams were seeking an edge.”
It was humorous to learn how the Astros often employed the primitive tactic of banging on trash cans to tip off their batters about upcoming pitches.
When Houston’s cheating scandal became public two Januarys ago, it rocked the sports world in ways similar to the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal and the more recent performance-enhancing drug transgressions. MLB wound up suspending three major perpetrators, including two managers — A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora — and future Hall-of-Fame player Carlos Beltran. Those punishments, within a four-day span, were indeed historic, and set in motion Martino’s desire to “get it all down on paper” and capture it in a book that dove deeply into how smart, highly respected baseball men such as Hinch, Cora and Beltran wound up crossing ethical and moral lines.
New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge and Los Angeles Dodgers pitching ace Clayton Kershaw were among the many players incensed over the revelations, intimating they and their teammates had been cheated out of World Series championships. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was criticized for not delivering much harsher penalties. Many believed players such as Astros superstar Jose Altuve should have been suspended for at least a season. Some even suggested Manfred rescind Houston’s World Series title.
“I can empathize with players like Aaron Judge, but the union represents the Astros players, too, so if Manfred had not granted immunity in exchange for the players cooperation with the investigation and had suspended them, it would have led baseball down an endless road of arbitration hearings and negotiations,” Martino said. “It would have been a mess. And if you vacate the Astros’ 2017 title, do you then go back and rescind other titles? Take the 2009 Yankees championship season as an example. A few years later, we found out A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez) had used PEDs (performance-enhancing drugs) that season. Definitely a slippery slope. It seems like once you rescind one, you’ve got to revisit a bunch of others. How far back do you want to go?”
Although sign-stealing now appears to be under control, MLB has been dealing with a new scandal involving the use of illegal sticky substances which allow pitchers to increase spin rates in order to thwart hitters. It just underscores Martino’s point — a point driven home cogently on the pages of “Cheated” — that players, coaches, managers and owners will keep seeking edges, even if it means breaking the rules. These latest win-at-all-cost crimes make Martino’s book even more relevant and timely. And they serve as reminders to the journalist who once aspired to write novels that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.
Publishing the book was a career-affirming experience for Martino. In its aftermath, he’s had a chance to reminisce and appreciate more deeply how his father always found time to take him to Silver, even on those weeknights when Ray Martino was dog-tired from a long day’s work at his public relations firm. And Martino also appreciates the way Eberle befriended him 30 years ago while participating in Fred Costello’s annual Wings summer baseball camp. He wound up becoming Eberle’s biggest fan and witnessed the backup catcher’s last hit as a professional baseball player. After that game, Eberle handed him the cap he had worn and the bat he had used to smack that indelible double.
“I’m looking at those items as we speak,” Martino said. “Even as a writer, it’s hard for me to put that connection Mike made with me into words. All I can say is that it struck a chord that helped me fall in love with the game.”
All these years later, that love affair with baseball — and storytelling — is still going strong. A perfect double-play combination.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.