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How Baseball Could Stop Sign-Stealing

Stephen L. Carter

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Major League Baseball’s sign-stealing scandal would be wildly entertaining were it not so ineffably sad. It’s got everything: a vast and unwieldy conspiracy, secret video monitors, sabotage of secret video monitors, surreptitious text messages, veiled threats against snitches, dominoes that refuse to stop falling, and, inevitably, claims that the punishment is not harsh enough.

It also has obvious solutions that could have been implemented long ago were the sport not so notoriously mired in its traditions.

A quick primer for the non-fan: Suppose the game is not baseball but poker. Professional poker players constantly study their opponents’ faces, looking for “tells”: the little changes in expression that disclose whether this one just got a pair of aces or that one is bluffing. Now suppose that one of the players turns out to have hidden in his pocket a device that’s connected to a camera on his glasses and reads tells automatically.(1) Even though he’s arguably doing the same thing as everybody else, the fact that technology is helping him would lead us to conclude that he’s cheating.

That’s what Houston’s accused of. Stealing signs is as old as baseball: The catcher uses hand gestures to signal the pitcher which pitch to throw next. If the opponent can figure out what the signs mean, the batter has an advantage. Sign stealing isn’t explicitly illegal, and in most cases it’s tolerated — even expected, when there are runners on base with a clear view of the signs being given. What makes this case different is that the Astros stole the signs via forbidden technological means. In the words of Major League Baseball’s official report, the team used “the live game feed from the center field camera to attempt to decode and transmit opposing teams’ sign sequences.” Both players and coaches were deeply involved.

The scandal became public knowledge last November following an investigation by The Athletic, a sports website. Fans have clamored for action ever since. No doubt baseball commissioner Rob Manfred thought he had put the matter firmly to rest by handing down one of the harshest punishments meted out in the history of the sport. Having concluded that the Houston Astros did indeed break the rules by using technology to steal their opponents’ signs during their 2017 championship season, he fined the team $5 million, took away draft picks, and suspended the team’s field manager and general manager, both of whom the team subsequently fired.(2) The Boston Red Sox followed by firing their own manager, who as an Astros coach had been deeply involved in the scheme.

But instead of moving forward, baseball is now battling against the ghosts of the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal, the still-disputed charges that just over a century ago, members of the Chicago White Sox took money from gamblers to throw the World Series. Because that’s where we are now:  sportswriters and players alike are wondering why Houston shouldn’t be forced to forfeit its 2017 world championship. “The cheaters still won,” thundered The Ringer.

The anger is easy to understand. After all, aren’t those who refuse to follow the rules supposed to lose? College teams caught cheating are stripped of their national championships.(3) Beauty pageant winners who break the rules have been forced to give back their crowns. Students who cheat flunk the course. So why do the Astros get to keep the 2017 World Series trophy? For that matter, why haven’t the players who basically ran the scheme been punished?

Those reasonable questions aren’t going to fade away anytime soon, no matter how the commissioner’s office hunkers down and pretends that the scandal is over. But I’ll leave it to others to fight those battles. Let’s consider instead how to prevent this kind of cheating going forward.

Let’s begin with a simple proposition: Stealing signs, if successfully done, yields so large an advantage that many teams will try if they think they can get away with it. The Boston Red Sox, fined for stealing signs in 2017 in the “Apple watch” scandal, are currently under investigation for allegedly doing more of the same in 2018. And we now know that on the day in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run in baseball history, the so-called “shot heard round the world,” his New York Giants were stealing signs from the opposing Brooklyn Dodgers.

If left unchecked, there’s no doubt the practice will become more technologically subtle. (Houston’s approach, which at times included signaling the batter by banging on a convenient trash can, was as subtle as a car wreck.)

I’ve always loved baseball and its corny traditions, but at some point the sport must run up the white flag rather than policing that which, in the end, cannot be policed. Either permit sign-stealing or adopt measures to prevent it — not by rule, but by technology.  One idea that’s been tested in exhibition games is to have pitcher and catcher wear smart watches that allow digital communication between them, invisible to the other team. Another that’s been floated is to and allow catchers and pitchers to communicate via headsets in their caps.(4) What these and other suggestions have in common is that baseball should quit relying on the old-fashioned finger signals that make sign stealing easy and tempting.

Yes, we can all rail against cheaters; and, yes, when they’re caught, the penalties should be harsh. But the easiest way to stop cheating is to make it harder. So far, baseball has hardly tried.

(1) Let’s ignore for the sake of the example that (1) facial recognition software does a poor job detecting liars, and (2) the science underlying the notion that facial expression gives liars away with is in any case extremely shaky.

(2) The on-field manager for the Astros apparently knew what was going on, and, hilariously, tried to stop the practice by smashing a key monitor. He was suspended (and fired) for never blowing the whistle.

(3) Although they sometimes don’t return the trophies or lower the banners.

(4) This idea has been credited to Joe Girardi, former manager of the New York Yankees and current manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

To contact the author of this story: Stephen L. Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Sarah Green Carmichael at sgreencarmic@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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