Keith Strudler: Stealing Signs

Sep 6, 2017

Here’s the least surprising thing you’ll hear today. A sports team from Boston was caught cheating. Here’s the second least surprising thing. The victim of their crime was a team from New York. Now perhaps one surprise is that the accused isn’t the Patriots. But otherwise, this is about as surprising a sunrise.

The crime is that the Boston Red Sox stole signs from their division rivals the New York Yankees. For those outside of baseball, stealing signs is where someone – say a base runner on second – can see the catcher’s signals to his pitcher indicating what he’s going to throw – like a fastball or curveball or whatever. The runner on second base somehow gets that info to his batter, whether directly or through a complex system via the dugout, and allegedly the batter has some great advantage, knowing what’s coming his way.

Stealing signs isn’t against the rules, per se, and it’s up for debate whether it defies the unwritten rules of game. Which, if you follow baseball, are three times as numerous and nearly impossible to understand. But it is a rule that you can’t use certain devices – like binoculars or video camera – to help in this process. So, if you’re going to cheat, you have to do it the old fashioned way. It’s let letting you shoplift as long as promise not to use a getaway car. Or something like that.

And that is the particular rub in the most current dispute between the self-declared most bitter rivals in sports, with all due respect to pretty much all of European soccer and anyone that plays college football in the South. This case of sign stealing wasn’t by a base runner or someone in the stands. It wasn’t even using a telescope or some kind of spyglasses you get in Cracker Jacks. It was through an iwatch. It seems video replay officials in Fenway sent messages over to trainers in the dugout wearing Apple watches, who then got the upcoming pitches to batters. This was the subject of an investigation by Major League Baseball acting on a complaint from the Yankees. MLB determined that yes, the Red Sox did use an iwatch to steal signals. And no, they’re not sure what to do about it.

For the time being, the Commissioner has asserted he does have the authority to punish Boston for the technological theft. But he conceded it would be difficult, since it’s pretty hard to know exactly how much any particular theft impacted any particular game. What Commissioner Manfred didn’t say was that this case could be the dictionary definition of slippery slope. In a world increasingly dictated by technology where we’ll all eventually bow to our Amazon overlords, specifically penalizing an action not because of its meaning but because of its electronic tool is like trying bottle the ocean. It’s just too complicated.

Which brings us to two key questions – one which is pretty simple, and one less so. First, are we still okay with stealing signs in baseball? The reason I think the sport allowed it for so long was because, quite honestly, it was pretty inefficient. Any catcher worth his mitt figured out how to conceal his intentions pretty well. And the efforts to get questionable intel probably wasn’t worth it. So stealing signs was like trying to sneak food into an NBA arena. Yeah, it happens, and if you try hard enough you can get away with it. But it’s just not that big a deal. But now that it might be easier, to say the least, are we still okay with it? It’s one thing to permit something in the hypothetical. Like my wife telling me I’m allowed to go on a date with Scarlett Johansson. Until I somehow get to know Scarlett Johansson, which for record, isn’t going to happen. It’s like they say. Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.  Maybe the iwatch in the dugout is like baseball getting punched in the face.

More complicated is how baseball, and really all sports, will evolve with technology. Stealing signs with high tech watches isn’t really a new thing, even if it is. But it’s not all that different than when replay technology made everyone realize just how many calls officials missed. Or when high tech swimsuits made human bodies more like seals. Every sport has to deal with the ongoing and ubiquitous impact of technology in our daily lives – which includes the time we spend on a baseball diamond. So saying you can’t use technology is like telling a five year old he can’t have cake at a party. It’s just part of the social contract.

Which means, at the core, baseball isn’t simply going to have to decide whether stealing signs is okay, which, for the record, I think is pretty weak. They have to decide whether their game will evolve with the technology around it. That means biometrics, electronic strike zones, and yes, watches to steal signals. That is the path forward for baseball – really, any sport in a nation increasingly consumed by competitive video gaming, where technology isn’t simply part of the sport – it is the sport.

Don’t be surprised if MLB lets iwatches into dugouts moving ahead, sign stealing or not. It would be perhaps the third least surprising thing today.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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