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Sign (stealing) of the times

by Matt Smith

The Oakland A’s Mike Fiers doesn’t look like a trouble-maker, weird facial hair shenanigans aside.

However, his decision to not only talk to The Athletic about the Houston Astros’ use of cameras to steal signs, but to allow them to name him in the piece, was a bold move.

The Astros, and other teams, have been the subject of such rumours before. For an ex-team member to categorically state it happened is no longer a rumour but a credible allegation that requires detailed evidence to dispute it. Much as some Astros fans have piled on Fiers and tried to come up with reasons for him to lie, that only washes for people desperate to avoid the truth.

A current Major Leaguer, still plying his trade as a professional, has little to gain and a whole lot to lose by making up such claims. Quite simply, there really is no viable explanation for Fiers to put his name to those comments if he was telling lies. The social media attack on Fiers in the immediate aftermath has only encouraged amateur investigators to trawl the MLB.TV archives and to create a bounty of evidence that has the Astros caught, suitably enough, ‘bang to rights’.

That hardly brings the matter to a close, though. The suggestion is that the Astros are not the only team up to such tricks and even that their influence has spread directly. Houston were followed as World Series champions in 2018 by the Boston Red Sox, led by ex-Astros bench coach Alex Cora, whilst the New York Mets have just appointed 2017 Astros player Carlos Beltran as their manager. New York Yankee fans throwing stones at their 2019 ALCS conquerors would also do well to remember that Beltran was a special adviser with their team this year.

The question therefore is how will MLB investigate this matter and what will be suitable punishments if teams and individuals are found guilty?

The precedent we have comes from September 2017, clearly a vintage year for tech-based cheating, when both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees were fined for similar offences, suggesting any influence Cora or Beltran had on their post-Astros teams was likely preaching to the converted. You don’t need to look far beyond baseball for proof that piddling fines to billion dollar businesses do not change behaviour.

Given how prominent, and evidence-based, the claims are directly against the 2017 Astros it seems difficult to imagine that MLB won’t hit them with a significant fine, maybe even with a draft pick or two being taken away. The only problem MLB has is that the Astros are not going to take that lying down and, in some ways justifiably, will expect similar punishments for other teams too.

All of which suggests to this cynical baseball writer that a classic MLB ‘fudge’ is on its way.

It’s hard not to look back at the so-called steroid era and see comparisons. In contrast to the revisionist history that former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig likes to espouse, baseball collectively turned a blind eye to drug use for years and that both encouraged use to grow (‘if they’re getting away with it, we can too’) and forced use to grow (‘I don’t like it, but we can’t compete if we don’t join them’).

The same is happening with using technology to steal signs. If some teams are doing it and gaining an advantage with no penalty, others will feel that they can, or maybe even should, do it too. And just like with the mess of the steroid-era, once such flagrant cheating forces MLB to open their eyes and publicly do something, they know that those who they target for penalties will be able, and probably willing, to take everyone else down with them.

There’s no doubt that what the Astros and others were (are?) doing is against the rules, although it is fair to ask if the rule should be changed to allow it. Jason Foster of Sporting News thinks so and whilst his first attempt at explaining this rightly drew criticism, he has a valid point in accepting that technology will be used and moving with the times.

I can’t help but disagree with it. All of the technology and data available undoubtedly is there to be exploited as teams and players prepare to do battle, but the whole point of sport is that it ultimately comes down to individuals competing against each other in the moment. Allowing sign-stealing through cameras and relaying the details is little different to allowing a quiz show contestant to be fed the answers through an earpiece.

All of the drama, the suspense, the excitement, and much of the skill, is taken away and little is left to captivate, enthral and entertain anyone beyond a small minority who want to see their team (or contestant) win regardless of the methods used.

The counter-argument that allowing cameras simply means teams have to do better with their signs falls down pretty quickly. Whatever you feel personally about the effect, there’s no doubt that MLB games are taking longer and that this puts casual fans and newcomers off the sport. We’re already seeing the delays caused by teams having to cycle through combination signs due to the fear of opponents stealing them. Doing it when runners are on second is fair enough; do we really want every single pitch thrown in every single game to be delayed because the catcher can’t just put down two fingers for a curveball?

The solution of going down the NFL route and using radio communication is not a solution at all. The point of the signs is that the most important person, the batter, can’t see them. The catcher can’t simply cover his mouth and say “curveball” with the batter right beside him and using codes or combinations verbally only adds the same delay as combination signs does already.

The current system keeps the game flowing and adds a fair element of competition. If a runner on second base, with everything else he’s thinking through at that point, is able to get an idea of the signs and try to share them then that’s a fair duel. Allowing the home team to set up cameras and decode signs shifts the sporting balance too far and the protective measures that it forces is only causing more delays to the pace of play.

New technology will always arrive and lead to new ideas for teams to try, legally or not. For every sport, the response has to focus on what are the essential elements that make it a great challenge to play and a joy to watch and how these are impacted. Allowing home teams to use cameras may be “smart and savvy”, as Jason Foster puts it, but it doesn’t make the game better from a playing or spectating point of view. In fact it does quite the opposite.

MLB’s current stance on outlawing such sign-stealing is correct and that means they have to take strong action against teams found guilty of breaking the rules. It remains to be seen whether they will or not.

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