MLB Sign-Stealing Scandal — Playing Fair Strikes Out

With the impeachment trial in full swing, wouldn’t it be more pleasant to think about another type of swing? How about the swing of a bat in America’s pastime? Or not. Just as accusations are being tossed about in our nation’s capital, so are accusations being hurled in major league baseball, particularly in Houston and Boston. A sign-stealing scandal has erupted on the sports scene leading fans to believe playing fair has struck out.

A familiar verse in Ecclesiastes notes that there’s nothing new under the sun. Cheating and baseball go way back. Approximately 100 years ago, the 1919 “Black Sox Scandal” took place. Eight White Sox players were alleged to have intentionally thrown the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds for a payoff. An investigation determined the accusations were true and banned the players from baseball. It also eventually led to the 1988 film, “Eight Men Out.”

Fast forward to 2020. Much time has elapsed, but Americans are still faced with allegations of cheating during baseball games. No, the players aren’t supposedly throwing games now, they are throwing a monkey wrench into the game’s integrity by the use of high tech devices–and apparently low threshold morals. Specifically, claims have been made that baseball players and coaches are illicitly using electronics to steal signs from the opposing team’s catcher.

But isn’t stealing a part of the game? Well, stealing a base is, and it is entirely permissible. Attempting to steal signs from the other team’s catcher is a long-standing baseball practice. The practice is allowed as long as a sign is stolen by using one’s wits, i.e., watching the other team and detecting patterns or sequences. Using extraneous equipment like binoculars, cameras, etc. to do so is not permitted though. Bottom line? The old-fashioned way of using your head is OK; using electronics is not.

Non-baseball fans may be scratching their heads wondering why a catcher’s sign is such a big deal. The catcher signs to the pitcher what to throw. If the batter knows what’s coming, he has a major advantage in being prepared to hit it. And by what’s coming, I’m not talking about a baseball. How the ball is getting to the plate is the key information. What type of pitch will be thrown? A fastball? Breaking ball?

Some MLB teams apparently do not adhere to the saying, “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.” They want to win. And with winning comes big bucks. The temptation to engage in high tech sign-stealing is too great for them. In 2017 MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred fined the Boston Red Sox an undisclosed amount for “sending electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout.” He also warned all MLB teams against utilizing electronic sign-stealing. But did they listen?

Well, the Houston Astros sure didn’t listen–or at least they heard but didn’t heed the commissioner’s warning. In November Mike Fiers, a former Astros pitcher who had been with the team from 2015 -2017, sang like a bird about the Astros’ sign-stealing. An in-depth investigation by MLB into allegations that the Astros had illicitly used electronics to steal signs during their 2017 World Series Championship season and in the 2018 season ensued. This investigation upheld the accusations. It wasn’t baseballs rolling as a result but heads.

The MLB Commissioner suspended the Houston manager, AJ Hinch, and the Astro’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, for a year. To add an exclamation point to the “No, no,” Houston team owner Jim Crane then fired both Hinch and Luhnow. The adverse report not only cost the Astros personnel, but it also hit them in the pocketbook; the team was fined $5 million, the maximum amount allowed by the MLB Constitution. But wait! There’s more! The Astros will also forfeit their first and second round amateur draft picks for the next two years. That stings worse than being hit by a pitch.

The repercussions were not limited to the Houston Astros though. The fallout from the MLB investigation led to two other teams losing their managers. Former Astros player Carlos Beltran lost his job as manager of the New York Mets, a position he’d held a mere 2 months and for whom he’d never even managed a single game. Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora left his manager’s position after the MLB report identified him as the ringleader of the scheme in Houston. Cora had served as the Astros’ bench coach in 2017.

Apparently it wasn’t American Express that Cora didn’t leave home without. He is accused of bringing his sign-stealing system with him to Boston. A separate investigation by MLB focuses on whether Cora installed a system similar to what he used in Houston in Beantown. The alleged sign-stealing under investigation occurred in 2018 when the Red Sox (coincidentally?) won the World Series.

So what was this ingenious but illicit sign-stealing scheme the Astros used? It was part high tech and part low tech. The high tech part was misusing video from a camera positioned in center field which was fixed on the catcher. That camera was supposed to be used to help the manager decide whether to challenge an umpire’s call. Cora told the replay room to provide information to a player who would share it with other team members. The info was relayed using the dugout phone or a cell phone. Eventually the Astros put a monitor displaying the video just outside the dugout in the tunnel leading to the clubhouse so players could watch it themselves. The low tech part of the scheme was using a nearby garbage can to signal to the player at bat what pitch was coming. No bang meant a fastball was to be served up; one or two bangs conveyed that an off-speed pitch was imminent.

Social media in part helped lead to the downfall of the sign-stealers. A shot of the garbage can nearby the Astros’ dugout was posted as well as numerous video clips of instances of garbage can banging by the Astros.  In fact, the Internet’s social media skills greatly reduced the time the league had to go through videos to find evidence. Social media users found it for them.

So now that the rule-breaking by the Astros and Red Sox has been uncovered and condemned, has baseball been cleansed from sign-stealing? Nope. The generally accepted belief is that the problem is pervasive in major league baseball. Everyone seems to be doing it, but that doesn’t make it right. Supposedly cheaters never prosper, so hopefully those tarnishing the iconic American game won’t prosper in the end. The only good thing to come out of this scandal? A possible movie idea. My suggested working title? “Bang The Garbage Can Slowly.”

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you enjoy watching baseball? Is your enjoyment lessened by knowing cheating is prevalent in the sport? Were the penalties meted out by the MLB Commissioner (suspensions, maximum fine, loss of two years’ #1 and #2 draft picks) too severe? Not harsh enough?












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