Move over, steroid era, Major League Baseball has stumbled upon a new type of scandal that threatens to taint the league for years to come. Two of the league’s most recent World Series winners are embroiled in sign-stealing scandals that could have drastic repercussions on the future of the game.
Commissioner Rob Manfred came down hard on the Houston Astros on Monday for stealing signs throughout their title-winning 2017 season and postseason, issuing a report confirming they used a live video feed routed to a monitor in the tunnel behind the dugout, then relayed real-time messages to hitters at the plate by banging on trash cans.
Given the severity of the findings and unconfirmed allegations against the Red Sox, and the possibility that other franchises are also engaging in this behavior, it’s worth taking a closer look at the situations roiling baseball.
Here are five things you need to know about the sign-stealing scandals rocking MLB right now.
How are teams being punished?
GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended for a year, then subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane. MLB also stripped the Astros of draft picks and fined the franchise $5 million. Assistant GM Brandon Taubman, previously fired for an outburst toward female reporters, was placed on baseball’s ineligible list.
Manfred declined to punish players involved in the scheme.
The investigation into the 2018 champion Red Sox is ongoing, but manager Alex Cora — who was the bench coach for the 2017 Astros — was directly implicated in the scheme. A decision on Cora’s punishment is being withheld until the conclusion of that probe, but it is possible he will receive a longer or possibly permanent ban.
The last time MLB banned someone from baseball was 2017, when former Atlanta Braves GM John Coppolella received a lifetime restriction for his part in the Braves’ international signing scandal. The Braves also lost players and draft picks as part of their punishment.
While the Astros and Red Sox are the only two teams to be exposed thus far, it’s possible many other clubs have engaged in similar tactics in an attempt to skirt around the rules.
Astros cheating scandal came first, Red Sox followed
The Astros were the first team to be caught up in an elaborate, high-tech cheating scandal. It began in November with a bombshell report from The Athletic that detailed the team’s scheme. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers went on the record to explain how the Astros used the well-placed cameras and trash cans to steal opponents’ signs.
Two months later, the Red Sox were accused of violating the same rule. While no player went on the record with The Athletic this time around, three people associated with the Red Sox in 2018 confirmed members of the team used the video replay room to relay signs to their teammates.
Astros, Red Sox have been accused of improper surveillance before
Both the Astros and Red Sox have been linked to questionable practices prior to the 2019-20 offseason. The Astros came under scrutiny in October 2018, when a man with an Astros ID badge was caught taking pictures of the Boston Red Sox’s dugout during the American League Championship Series. That same man reportedly also took pictures of the Cleveland Indians’ dugout in the Division Series. The Astros were also reportedly investigated by MLB in 2017, when players on the Oakland Athletics noticed the Astros clapping in the dugout in an attempt to relay signs. The Astros were reportedly not punished for either offense.
The Red Sox were involved in a similar situation in September 2017. A team trainer was accused of using his Apple Watch to steal signs and relay that information to Red Sox players in the dugout. MLB investigated the Red Sox and fined the team an undisclosed amount after determining the Red Sox used electronic equipment to steal signs.
That last point is crucial. While sign stealing has always been an accepted part of baseball, the use of electronic equipment to steal signs is frowned upon by both the league and — usually — its players. There’s a belief around the game that if signs are going to be stolen, players must steal them the old fashioned way.
How the Astros and Red Sox cheated
Both the Astros and Red Sox have been accused of cheating, but they went about it in different ways. The Astros stole signs in real time, and on many more pitches, using an outfield camera that was hooked up to a monitor located in a tunnel just steps from their home dugout in Minute Maid Park. That monitor is how players and employees deciphered opponents’ signs, and they would smash a trash can lid in the tunnel — which could be heard on the field — to tell the batter what pitch to expect. One bang for fastball, two for offspeed pitches, and so on.
The Red Sox went about their alleged sign stealing in a subtler way. According to The Athletic, they used Red Sox staffers in the video room to decode the signs of opposing teams, before MLB began sending monitors to watch every room. Once the signs were deciphered, a player would bring the information to the dugout on foot. It would then be communicated to the baserunner, who would use body movements (such as putting two feet on the bag or looking in a certain direction) to tell the batter what to expect.
How can MLB solve its technology-assisted cheating problem?
Baseball teams have been stealing signs ever since there were signs to steal. Old fashioned sign stealing — using only the eyes — is an accepted part of the game. What is not allowed is stealing signs using technology. Since technology is the problem, there are only two avenues to fix it: getting rid of technology, or making it better. To get rid of it, MLB would have to either remove the current challenge system and close all video rooms during games, or they’d have to significantly overhaul the current system to make video rooms obsolete.
MLB seems to be choosing the other path: making the technology better, or at least making it work for them. Yahoo Sports’ Hannah Keyser reported that MLB is developing a wearable random-number generator that would essentially act as two-factor authentication for signs between the pitcher and catcher. The number would tell the pitcher which one of the catcher’s signs is relevant for that pitch. Keyser also reported that MLB is also looking into putting in-ground lights on the mound. The catcher would control the lights and could communicate the sign using a particular sequence, and only the pitcher would be able to see them.
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