Stealing Signs

Major League Baseball came down hard on the Astros’ GM and manager because of a perception problem and that’s whom they could punish. Jeffrey Luhnow and A.J. Hinch apparently didn’t instigate or even encourage their coaches or players to use the video-replay monitor to steal the opposing catcher’s signs, but it occurred on their watch, so they have to go. My guess is that any attempt to penalize the players who actually did this would have run up against the players’ union, which would have been messy and taken much longer. Also, as I kept reading around World Series time last year, a lot of people in baseball don’t like the Astros’ management, which probably made this a little easier.

Is stealing signs really so bad? This is not the Chicago Black Sox scandal: no one was throwing games or giving less than their full commitment to winning. In fact, stealing signs has a long tradition in baseball; certain old-timers were famous for their prowess in this regard. There is no rule against the runner on second relaying information to the batter if he can somehow figure out the catcher’s signs. At the same time, I am often told, many batters don’t want to receive this information. It’s one more thing – perhaps one thing too many – to think about when you’re at the plate and you have to be able to adjust to a pitch’s location and speed, not just its type. And there’s always the chance the information provided will be wrong – which will really mess you up if you’re relying on it. The Astros’ alleged means of transmission – banging on a trash can – hardly seems foolproof. “Just let me hit,” seems a more sensible attitude.

No, it is only the use of electronic equipment to steal signs that is prohibited. You can see why MLB, with the ever-increasing sophistication of electronic equipment, wants to quash this practice in its infancy. It also, justifiably, wants to present a squeaky-clean image after seeing the public-relations messes the NFL has been in recently over video-taping other teams’ practices and such trivialities as taking an ounce of air pressure out of a football. Opposing fans will see to it that any plausible controversy will not die. And of course I should mention Baseball’s own bad handling of the steroid era, the taint of which still hangs around every time the Hall of Fame has a vote.

I doubt the stigma will prevent Hinch from managing again, perhaps after a coaching stint, given the high turnover rate among Major League managers, not to mention the willingness of owners to hire retreads (e.g., Gardenhire, Ron).  And managers will henceforth be vigilant in supervising how the game’s video feed is monitored and used. But in all, baseball is just a game played by boys, some older than others, and boys will be boys. If you can get away with something, somebody will try it. Spitballs, corked bats, phantom tags, pretending the pitch hit you – where you draw the line is a question of personal morality and often depends on whether it’s your team or the other guys who are doing it.

2 replies
  1. Matthew Justus
    Matthew Justus says:

    After reading the Manfred Report the most surprising aspect of the story to me is that Hinch didn’t simply stop the practice. He is apparently a very detail oriented and focused person and the idea that he would “damage the monitor…out of frustration” (on more than one occasion!) but not simply firmly disallow the practice strikes me as odd. One can only guess as to why, perhaps Beltran and some other players pleaded with him to keep it, or perhaps the GM did quietly endorse the practice. In any case, what a story. The Mets may dismiss Beltran as their manager, and with Alex Cora already fired by the Red Sox that is quite an outcome for the MLB.

  2. LGHarriss
    LGHarriss says:


    Imagine this—I disagree. Using a video feed and decryption algorithms is not an oldtimer on second. Banging a tub might not have been effective every time—anyone can guess, or posit, that—but so what? Knowing one of the three variables is better than none for a batter. Never heard a batter saying “no, too much info” but many saying “I’d love it.” Steroids is a head fake diversion, not a license to ignore or tolerate subsequent action. You assume after winning WS they stopped. Why? No one ever explained why they stopped, if in fact they did. Contrary to normal illegal actors who score big (get it?) with no whiff of adverse consequences. I think you just enjoy being contrarian, not unlike refusing to learn the actual running to first base rule.



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