Stealing Signs – A Baseball Fan’s Lament

This year marks 100 years since eight members of the Chicago White Sox were banned from Major League Baseball for life. They allegedly accepted money from gamblers in exchange for intentionally losing the 1919 World Series. At least one of them, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, had been a sure Hall of Famer, until then.

In the fallout of the scandal, MLB’s first Commissioner, Judge Kennesaw M. Landis was appointed, and swiftly moved to clean up the various methods of chicanery that had existed in baseball, under the radar and out in the open, for decades.

Now we are engaged in a another great scandal, one that threatens to defile our national game. See, to some of us, baseball is still our national game. It, in fact, belongs to the world, but the point is, to some of us, in the words of Terrence Mann in “Field of Dreams”, “it reminds us of all that once was good and could be again.”

But I don’t want to sound naïve about the sanctity of the game. Baseball was tainted by cheating before 1919, it has been since, and will probably continue to be in one way or another.

When the Houston Astros cheating story first broke I was of the mind that:

1. The rule book does not say anything about using electronic devices to steal signs (my 2017 version doesn’t anyway).
2. Every team could do the same thing the Astros did if they felt like it. 3. On the subject of “unwritten rules” I argued to a friend that “the rule book doesn’t ban the use of flamethrowers to retire a baserunner but I’m pretty sure you can’t do it.”

When I really let it sink in what was going on with the Astros, I realized I did not want the game to be allowed to become “the Digital Pastime.” I already can’t stand the idea of robot umpires, and I don’t want every batter of every game knowing what pitch is coming. There are already too many home runs, and many baseball lovers have not fully moved past the steroids scandal of the 1990s and early 2000s.

We found out not too long ago that one of the most sacred moments in baseball history – Bobby Thomson’s home run that won the 1951 National League pennant, known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World” – was a result of the use of an electronic device similar to the one the Astros are suspected of using. So again, there has been shady activity down the ages in baseball. But the Houston Astros, though unprecedentedly orchestrated in their efforts to cheat, also chose to do it at a time when social media made it impossible for some evidence to go unnoticed by the watchful eyes of fans taking it upon themselves to sound the alarm. A video blogger/podcaster called Jomboy, for one, was pointing out suspicious incidents months ago. Different teams had apparently been trying to bring certain incidents to the attention of Commissioner Rob Manfred for a while already before the story blew up last week.

In a video by another such watchdog an idea was proposed which blew my mind:

What if ONLY the pitcher and the catcher are allowed to use buzzers? The catcher would send his sign to the pitcher by pressing a button on a device he has, and the pitcher would receive one or two or three buzzes depending on the pitch the catcher wants served up.

Could work, but it is troublesome for two reasons:

1. A catcher’s pitch-calling can be complex when you consider not only is he calling what pitch but he is calling for slow or fast pitches, as well as high, low, inside and outside pitches.

2. It would totally eliminate a part of the game which is not only totally legal, but one of the most cerebral part of the game. Base runners stealing signs from second base without the use of electronics or cameras, but with the player’s own eyes.

When a baserunner reaches second base, it is perfectly legal for him to watch the catcher’s signs and match them up with what pitch is then thrown. He can then signal to his teammate at bat about what pitch is coming. He can go back to his dugout after the inning and tell the whole team what signs the opponents are using.

Of course nothing can be done with that information unless you have a runner on second to relay the signs. But there are a ton of other ways to tell what pitch is coming which are also perfectly legal. All that is required is a team of ballplayers using their brains. If you’re a batter and there are no baserunners, the opposing infielders know their catcher’s signs. They know what pitch is coming. They know they need to move either to the left or right depending on whether the pitch is going to be inside or outside. They know to move back or in depending on whether the pitch is going to be low or high. That generally will predict to which side the batter will hit, and whether he’ll hit a ground ball or a fly ball.

It is not a perfect science but it is fairly predictable and it is legal. Nobody has to risk million dollar contracts to do it. Nobody has to put the integrity of the game at risk to do it.

All of this is very sad to me, as a fan. I could go on and on about my feelings about it. I’ve been counting down to Opening Day since well before Christmas. I look forward to warm day in the sun at the ballpark with my wife. You go through the turnstile and head inside, up the ramp, among the crowds of fans wearing the same hat as you. You get to your section and as you turn to take your seat, you suddenly see that wide expanse of green grass in the outfield, contrasting with the brown dirt. You see the towering levels of grandstands in the outfield. You settle in and all your cares seem to go away as you wait for the National Anthem, and the umpire yelling “Play ball!”

I still look forward to a day at the ballpark. I still love our game.

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