Do you remember 2017?
It wasn’t all that long ago. Back then, if you talked to a knowledgeable baseball fan, they’d tell you that sign-stealing was fairly common, and that most teams probably had some shady scheme involving the video feed.
In fact, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci wrote a whole article about how sign-stealing using technology is good for baseball back when the Apple Watch scandal started to break in 2017. In 2020, it’s kind of hard to believe that SI would put its weight behind such a trivialization, after a number of scandals, primarily the Astros being caught on videotape thumping a trashcan to signal pitches. But here it is.
This infuriates me, because although I feel the Astros deserved to be castigated for their actions, MLB sold the fanbase on the idea that it was an evil Astros thing, not widespread. And it was obviously widespread. Which means it wasn’t an Astros problem. It was an MLB problem that MLB failed to address.
Here are some quotes from Verducci (emphases are mine):
The dark art of stealing signs is a baseball tradition that goes back to when the Phillies’ third base coach stood on an underground box that would buzz depending on what pitch was coming—in 1899! But the craft of sign stealing became widespread—we’re talking every team, every park—when baseball adopted instant replay in 2009.
To speed replay along, MLB allowed live feeds of games in each team’s video replay monitor. Many of those monitors are located directly behind the dugout, which means the catcher’s signs seen in real time can be relayed to the bench and/or the hitter extremely quickly.
“They really should have the monitor on delay,” said one veteran player. “But baseball doesn’t want to do that. Why? Pace of play. They want replay decided as quickly as possible. That means they don’t want even the extra three or four seconds it would take if you had it on delay.”
How common is stealing signs off the live television feed?
“Goes on all the time,” the player said. “Our (monitor) is so close (to the dugout) you could just run up and whistle” to the hitter to communicate what pitch is coming.
“It’s the reason you see all the meetings on the mound—to change signs. You’ve got guys signaling from second base. You see it all the time because everybody is doing it.”
Here’s another good bit:
“It’s kind of like pine tar,” the player said, referring to pitchers using the substance for a better grip, though it technically is against the rules. “Guys use it all the time and it’s understood to be okay, just as long as you don’t go crazy with it, like [Yankees pitcher] Michael Pineda did, with the stuff slathered all over his neck.”
In the short term, this is good for baseball. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is officially back on. From CC Sabathia moaning about bunting to each team pointing an accusatory finger at the other for dirty pool, we at last have genuine ill will between the rivals. The rivalry was one of the biggest engines that helped drive the greatest economic growth in the game’s history during the last 20 years. Now, with both teams filled with young stars, enabling a steady cast in the next few years, it can become a similar engine.
So that was the attitude. “Boys will be boys” and “everybody’s doing it so it’s a level playing field.” And it doesn’t take much to see a protective baseball royalty attitude here. I don’t want to throw Verducci to the wolves here, but just like many other antiquated attitudes in MLB, this was the prevailing climate in 2017. Cheating is good for the sport when it enhances the draw of the big powerhouses like New York and Boston. In fact, it’s kind of endearing! It’s giving baseball a nice healthy shot of drama!
But Astrogate proved that it wouldn’t take much to bring to the surface all the self-righteous screamers and ill-informed fans in the baseball hoi polloi. People love having a villain, and MLB was happy to hang that tag on the Astros rather than face the problem in a balanced and healthy way.