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Thursday, January 16, 2020

Some Thoughts on Stealing Signs in Baseball

"Win any way you can as long as you can get away with it" -- Leo Durocher, Hall of Fame Manager

"The great American game of baseball is a fraud, a treachery and un-American. It offers a regrettable example to the nation's youth, is populated by cheats, thrives on sneaky tricks, and teaches Fagin values to thousands of Little Leaguers" -- Shirley Povich, Washington Post, 1972

So, let's be clear: Stealing signs is considered to be okay in baseball. In fact, a certain amount of cheating is tolerated and expected. In fact, one of baseball's greatest cheaters, Gaylord Perry, whose spitballs were allegedly covered with so much vaseline (or reasonable facsimile) that it would hit batters in the eye when the ball crossed the plate, is in the Hall of Fame. The story may be apocryphal, but the fact that Perry regularly threw spitters is not. And it wasn't as if those who voted for him didn't know about it when they cast their ballots. Perry's autobiography, "Me and the Spitter," was published in 1974; he wasn't elected to the Hall until 1991.

Moreover, this isn't the first time that teams have used "technology" to steal signs. Apparently, the 1951 NY Giants used a telescope in the their clubhouse behind center field to steal the signals of opposing catchers, which were relayed via a buzzer connected from the clubhouse to telephones in the Giants dugout and bullpen. "Every hitter knew what was coming," said pitcher Al Gettel. "Made a big difference" ("Shot Heard 'Round the World"). The Giants won 37 of their last 44 games, caught and tied the Dodgers for the National League Pennant, and then won the playoff when Bobby Thomson's launched his "Shot Heard 'Round the World" into the left field bleachers at the Polo Grounds (see picture above).

So, what is it about the Astros' (and apparently, the Red Sox) sign stealing scandal that has everybody's knickers in a twist? Primarily, the Astros' very sophisticated use of technology to steal signs, which most observers seem to believe crossed the line. That said, while some want major league baseball (MLB) to take away the Astros' World Series championship, I think it's unlikely since many within the league suspect that the Astros probably weren't the only team doing it ("Tim Flannery on Sign Stealing in Baseball", "Jack McDowell says Tony La Russa had sign-stealing system with White Sox in '80s", "Former MLB players, coaches have mixed feeling toward Mike Fiers, the whistleblower on the Astros cheating scandal"). There's a reason why Buster Posey uses complicated sign sequences even when there isn't a runner on second. He's worried that the other team is watching on TV. Any team can have the game on in their clubhouse and have someone trying to decode the signs during the game. The Astros just happened to be the team that got caught doing it.

Unfortunately, the line between what is and isn't acceptable isn't always clear. To be sure, the MLB outlawed sign stealing using optical or other mechanical aids back in 1961 (evidently several teams were doing it), but it also outlawed spitballs (in 1920) and then looked the other way when Gaylord Perry started throwing them. Then, of course, there's the use of PEDs. Some (e.g., alcohol, amphetamines) have been tolerated for years, while others were eventually deemed unacceptable (e.g., steroids, which were banned by the MLB in 2005, four years after Barry Bonds broke the single season home run record).

(Tyler Skaggs's death from an opioid overdose this past summer makes me wonder whether opioids are replacing alcohol as the drug of choice for handling the stress associated with playing baseball (or any professional sport). I hope not.)

Practically, what this means is that players and teams will always push the boundaries between what is and isn't acceptable. To paraphrase Hall of Fame manager, Leo Durocher, they will try to "win any way they can as long as they can get away with it." And those who do won't know exactly where that unacceptable line is. They won't know it, that is, until they're caught (if they ever are).

Updated: February 2, 2020

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