Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scandal: How One Fan Transformed the Story

The world of Major League Baseball exploded on November 12th, when Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic broke the news that the Houston Astros illegally stole signs during their 2017 championship season. Their article reported that the Astros set up cameras in the outfield of Minute Maid Park to steal the opposing catchers’ signs in real time.

News of this sign-stealing scandal caught fire across media platforms and ignited a widespread conversation. Fans debated whether the Astros truly broke the rules, how they should be punished, and whether other teams did the same thing.

While The Athletic was the first news outlet to report the scandal, the subsequent work of Jomboy Media shaped the online conversation. Jomboy Media is a company created by lifelong Yankees fan Jimmy O’Brien (known as “Jomboy”) to cover sports via social media, articles, podcasts, YouTube videos and more. Jomboy provided video evidence of the Astros’ cheating that verified allegations made in The Athletic’s article. From there, Jomboy brought even more evidence to light to advance the story.

With his influential videos that amassed millions of views, Jomboy had a greater impact on the public than the traditional media. This episode raises major questions. How was Jomboy able to hijack the story? Is it dangerous for a fan to shape an online conversation? And to what extent does this development undermine the role of journalists? To begin, we must examine how Jomboy gained this influence.

Jomboy’s contributions to the story

In their article, Rosenthal and Drellich explained that the camera footage was transmitted to a monitor located near the Astros’ dugout. When the footage showed signs of an off-speed pitch, a team employee would bang a trash can to alert the hitter of the impending breaking ball. The article cited an example: Danny Farquhar, relief pitcher for the White Sox at the time, heard a banging sound every time he threw a change-up to Astros’ catcher Evan Gattis. He eventually changed his signs, and the banging stopped.

Before publishing this piece, The Athletic should have attempted to find video evidence of Farquhar’s relief outing to verify his allegations. They never did. Instead, Jomboy jumped in and found the footage of Gattis’s at-bat. He edited the video, added his own voice-over commentary, and posted it on YouTube and Twitter.

In the video, the bangs are clearly audible every time the catcher puts down a change-up sign. The YouTube clip, which now has over 2 million views, corroborated Farquhar’s story. Jomboy followed up on Rosenthal and Drellich’s investigative reporting with investigative work of his own.

Jomboy not only validated The Athletic’s reporting, but he also advanced the story with new video evidence. With help from fans and his podcast listeners, he proceeded to upload many other examples of suspicious bangings at Minute Maid Park via Twitter.

These videos, which implicated more Astros’ hitters, made evidence of the Astros’ sign-stealing indisputable. But that was not all. Jomboy also found footage from the Astros’ World Series DVD that seemingly shows the garbage can that the Astros used.

However, Jomboy did not just do the work of investigative journalists. As several writers have pointed out, Jomboy essentially did part of the MLB’s investigation for them. Even though rumors of the trash-can technique spread long before The Athletic broke their story, the MLB apparently never looked at footage from the 2017 season. Jomboy found evidence in a matter of minutes.

In addition, Jomboy’s clips show the effectiveness of using visual media as evidence. His videos are popular because they enable viewers to engage interactively with the story. In addition, visual evidence is uniquely persuasive: people do not always believe what they read, but they believe what they see and hear. For this reason, Jomboy’s work had a much bigger impact on the online conversation than the work done by news outlets. While Rosenthal and Drellich relied heavily on anonymous sources as evidence, Jomboy used actual game footage. In using this technique, an online personality took control of the story, and shaped its narrative.

The rise of “fan journalism”?

These circumstances indicate that the lines between the media and fandom have blurred. Although Jomboy calls his company Jomboy Media, the people who cover sports for the company are fans, not members of the news media. As a result, Jomboy Media does not hold itself to the same standards as professional journalists. Jomboy himself has no experience in journalism or media credentials of any kind. Today, fans can create popular companies to cover sports without having any true expertise.

In addition, fans in this era have just as much access to the online public as reporters. Social media and the Internet give fans like Jomboy a platform to popularize their ideas and findings. As a result, the work of fans can be just as impactful as traditional journalism.

As a fan, Jomboy did his own investigative reporting simply by going through old-footage and recovering examples of the Astros’ sign-stealing tactics. With 180,000 Twitter followers and 450,000 YouTube subscribers, Jomboy’s work was far more popular and influential than the traditional media’s reporting of the story. Undeniably, the mainstream media missed the opportunity to obtain this evidence on their own. As a result, they lost control of the most significant story in baseball since the steroid era.

Although Jomboy undermined the role of journalists, the media responded favorably to his work.

Jomboy’s impact on the media and the online conversation

Many important people in the baseball world have given Jomboy shout-outs for his contributions. Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay mentioned Jomboy’s videos on his radio show. On the ESPN Daily podcast, MLB insider Jeff Passan cited Jomboy as an influential “amateur sleuth.” Jomboy also received praise from Ken Rosenthal, who initially broke the story. On The Athletic’s “The Lead” podcast, Rosenthal thanked Jomboy for providing video evidence to back up the article. “Watching that video, I probably should have enlisted Jomboy to work for us,” Rosenthal said jokingly.

Jomboy also received widespread praise from baseball writers like Keith Law, players like closer Sean Doolittle, and fans.

The media went beyond lauding Jomboy’s work; many articles used him as a source. Take this excerpt from an article in The New York Post, for example:

“According to a clip posted by Jomboy Media on Twitter, the Astros had a monitor, table, chair and trash can in a hallway just outside the dugout. The clip shows the possible work station set up right next to the garbage can.”

It is ironic that the media recognized and legitimized Jomboy. With his videos and tweets, he overshadowed the work done by the mainstream media. This irony is evident in an article published by New York Magazine. The article reports that Jomboy’s work “appears to definitely damn the Astros.” This reference makes Jomboy sound like a legitimate investigative reporter.

The media must take initiative to prevent fan journalism from surpassing them. Lines must be drawn between fandom and journalism in sports. To preserve their influence, journalists cannot let fans do their work for them. For example, how was Jomboy the first person to obtain this video evidence? Why didn’t reporters for The Athletic do video analysis to back up their own reporting? These shortcomings give fans like Jomboy an opportunity to get the scoop first.

This example of fan journalism raises an important question: to what extent are fans like Jomboy credible sources of news?

Biases and Limitations

Jomboy is not a professional journalist. At heart, he is a fan, and a biased one. He has enjoyed slamming the Astros’ organization for their actions and Astros’ fans for their illogical justifications. Jomboy’s biases are evident in his voice-commentary during his videos. The Farquhar video, for example, ends with Jomboy calling Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch a “pompous “d**k.”

Jomboy’s biases are also evident in his interactions with Astros’ fans on Twitter. Jomboy has been attacked on social media by hundreds of Astros’ fans, many of whom deny the legitimacy of Jomboy and his videos. Jomboy channels his inner fandom to fire back.

Although his videos were poorly received by Astros’ fans, Jomboy’s work brought the online conversation surrounding the scandal to new levels. Thousands of fans began to make fun of the Astros and their cheating system on social media. The trash can “bangs” are at the center of many of these jokes. These banging sounds were popularized by Jomboy’s videos.

Evaluating Jomboy

On the one hand, Jomboy provided new, legitimate video evidence, and spread that evidence widely via social media. There is no doubt that what Jomboy found was critical to the story. He did what journalists and MLB investigators should have done.

However, Jomboy does not hold himself to the same standards as reporters. He encourages a lack of civility through his interactions with Astros’ fans and profanity in his videos. His goal is not just to inform, but also to entertain and to increase the popularity of his company. Therefore, everything he tweets must be taken with a grain of salt. Some of his tweets, like the one below, are merely speculative. In this example, Jomboy implies that Astros’ hitters had sign-stealing devices on their batting gloves.

There is inherent danger in this type of fan journalism. If fans look to other fans for their news, they may be misled by bias or speculation. And, although Jomboy’s video evidence is objective, his commentary on the scandal shows that he is a Yankees fan who is still upset about their loss to the Astros in the 2017 ALCS. Because of fan bias, the traditional media must preserve their role as primary sources of information for sports news. They should not cite Jomboy as a legitimate news source, but rather should obtain their own unbiased evidence. Ultimately, the media’s job is to shape online conversations through accurate and impartial reporting.

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