Baseball is an idiotically difficult game. It's built on the collision of two round objects — a wooden bat and a leather ball. Which means a lot of the result depends on luck. The best hitters fail 70 percent of the time, as the saying goes, although this truism is less true when you factor in walks as a positive outcome. In which case, it's more like ... 60 percent of the time.
In searching for a leg up given the unfairness intrinsic to the game, baseball players have indulged in cheating from time to time. Spitballing, for instance. Undoctored baseballs curve when air interacts with the protruding threads that hold the ball together, and at some point in history, someone figured out that balls would move in even weirder, more unpredictable patterns if the air was flowing against some moisture that was applied to the ball. Totally against the rules, of course, but that didn't stop Gaylord Perry from doing it constantly, writing a book on the subject and still making the Hall of Fame in 1991.
Cheating in baseball is as integral to the game as sunflower seeds and older men in children’s uniforms screaming at umpires.
A bat with less weight in its tip is (supposedly) easier to swing quickly, so it's common to gut the tip, replace some of the wood with cork and cover it up by gluing the wood back on. Break the bat and get ejected, but otherwise who's gonna figure it out? Even some of the things that are totally normal in the course of play are technically against the rules. Sliding into a fielder's legs at second to break up a double play? NOT LEGAL, but fairly common. A catcher gutsily blocking home plate in a desperate ploy to save his team from the indignity of a run? NOT LEGAL, but also fairly common.
This is all to say that baseball has a kind of ... loose relationship with its own rules. Here's another one: sign stealing. Pitchers and catchers need to plan what the pitcher is going to throw, so they give each other little hand signals to determine each pitch. Let's say you were an opposing team's manager and you were trying to help your players hit the baseball — a very hard task. Wouldn't it behoove you to maybe try and figure out what those signals were and then act on that knowledge? Of course it would, and managers have done so throughout the game's history.
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But in the last few months, a sentiment has spread widely across baseball that certain competitors have taken their sign stealing programs a little too far. The Houston Astros, the best team in baseball over the last half-decade, winners of the 2017 World Series and champions of the American League West for the last three years, were the first to pay the price of this judgment, when Major League Baseball suspended their manager and their general manager for a year for using video to track and relay signs. And it pointed to Alex Cora, then the team's bench coach, as a key conspirator, enough to get him booted from his current post as the manager of the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday.
What was the Astros' crime? Basically using TV feeds to watch the opposing teams' signs and then placing a staffer next to a trash can in the dugout so that whenever the catcher was signaling curve, he would whack the trash can with a big stick to let the Astros batter know a curve was coming.
In 2017, when they began executing this scheme, the Astros improved their team hitting for average by .035 points — and then, with that minutely improved offense (and the talents of star pitcher Justin Verlander), they managed to win the World Series. It's also worth noting that they were a young team getting more seasoned during that time, and that's also a reason their hitting might have improved, because that is how athletes develop. Some Astros players told MLB investigators that they found the loud trash can smacks more distracting than helpful.
Even factoring in baseball's long, storied, glorious history of cheating scandals, MLB is very mad about this one, for some reason. So in addition to suspending Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Lunhow, the league took draft picks away from the team and fined the ownership — very harsh sanctions by any baseball metric. The Red Sox are under investigation for similar offenses, though the team "parted ways" with Cora before his MLB punishment was handed down. (The Astros also axed Hinch and Lunhow following their suspensions.)
This is an extreme overreaction. Baseball, more than any of the other major professional sports, has cheating baked into the core of its existence. Cheating is as integral to baseball as sunflower seeds and older men in children's uniforms screaming at umpires. Baseball losing its mind to this degree is just asinine. Sign stealing, like basically all the cheating in the game, is only marginally helpful, at-bat for at-bat. It seems the league has overlearned the lessons of the steroid era and is desperate to seem like it takes policing cheating seriously lest those dark days are revived.
But this is not a repeat of the steroid era, a time when bending the rules spiraled WAY out of control and turned baseball players' bodies into playgrounds for experimentation at the edges of pharmaceutical science while subject to the whims of black market.
This chapter in turn generated some concern for the health and well-being of players and the young athletes who model their behavior after them, as well as an existential worry that the major league record books were somehow tainted by the presence of steroids in baseball and a sense that the legitimacy of the game itself was on the line. Certainly, hot-take artists like Bill Plaschke, self-styled defenders of the Integrity of the Game, have been keen to accuse the 2017 Astros of being frauds.
Sign stealing, however, does no one bodily harm. It is, in fact, an art so long employed in the game that the process of conveying signs through complicated aerobic movements on the part of otherwise aging coaches to conceal the information from the other side is a well-chronicled feature of baseball choreography.
In fact, beyond reviving the trauma of the bungled response to the doping scandal, part of why MLB might be so rankled by the trickery of the Astros and the Red Sox (and probably by every other team in the majors) is that they used technology. And baseball, again more than any other sport, prides itself on tradition — markets itself on it, really — and therefore has very ambivalent feelings about using newfangled devices. (Baseball famously dragged its feet on introducing any type of replay reviews.)
Baseball now exists in a world where the sensitivity to public perception is more visceral and immediate for all of big business thanks to developments like social media.
Stealing signs the old-fashioned way is one thing, but taking cheating out of the park and using complex systems of phones and smartwatches to relay messages feels ... more unsporting, and so baseball seems like it wants to nip this particular form of on-field maleficence in the bud.
One other thing that's different about the steroid era and today: Baseball now exists in a world where the sensitivity to public perception is more visceral and immediate for all of big business, thanks to developments like social media, and the game's overlords are therefore more dedicated to rooting out anything that might suggest a lack of integrity. Even if the sport's foundations are built on that sort of benign maleficence.