The Astros, sign-stealing, and baseball's cheating etiquette
Another chapter in the sport's long tradition of seeing what you can get away with
Baseball is a no-nonsense game. Three strikes and you're out. Don't get caught off base. Even a "home run" is unambiguous; it doesn't matter if you've ever seen a baseball game in your life, you still know what the phrase means.
Just because much of baseball is cut-and-dry, though, does not mean it is also black and white. Clubs and players have long exploited the sport's unwritten rules (and sometimes the written ones, too) for even the tiniest advantage. The evolving scandal over the Houston Astros' electronic sign stealing is just the most recent controversy to result in handwringing about the integrity of the game. What makes the Astros actions unsurprising, if no less reprehensible, is that cheating is as much a part of baseball's identity as getaway days and the seventh-inning stretch. From sign stealing to spitballs to PEDs and pine tar, baseball has long been a game rooted in the question of how much can you get away with.
While there has always been cheating in baseball, the electronic era has made it simpler and sneakier, from the Boston Red Sox using Apple Watches to facilitate sign stealing to the St. Louis Cardinals hacking the Astros' private player database. Then, earlier this week, The Athletic reported what many fans had already suspected: the 2017 World Series-winning Astros had stolen signs using a center field camera. The Oakland Athletics' Mike Fiers, who pitched for the 2017 Astros before being traded to the Detroit Tigers, went on record to confirm the conspiracy, which allegedly involved the outfield footage being piped to a special monitor in the Astros' clubhouse, where the anticipated pitches would then be conveyed to the team's batters by banging on a garbage can. "That's not playing the game the right way," Fiers told The Athletic.
But sign stealing in and of itself is playing the game the right way — technically. There is no rule, for example, against a runner on second base signaling to the batter what pitch to expect; policing such a policy in the first place would be nearly impossible. As a result, sign stealing is a sort of gray area; it's allowed, but done stealthily and rarely admitted to. "If you're an ethical fan, you want your team to play by the rules and play in a way that is sportsmanlike," is how sports ethicist Shawn Klein put it to The Washington Post. "But you also want them to toe the line as well and know the rules and use the rules to their advantage ... Sometimes that's going to cross the line."
As a result, MLB says that sign stealing, like analyzing pitch tipping, is okay, so long as it's restricted to the field. Still, since at least 1876 — which is when, The Athletic writes, the "Hartford Dark Blues placed a man in a small shack on a telegraph pole beyond the outfield wall to alert their batters to when that newfangled curveball was coming" — teams have been using off-field observers to tip off batters. Most famously, the 1951 New York Giants used a telescope to relay the pitches to their batters and, possibly, win the pennant with the shot heard round the world, as detailed in Joshua Prager's The Echoing Green. Due to the nature of the game, the slope was already slippery, and all some teams need was a push. As The Athletic goes on to note, it was Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg who once said, "baseball is a game where you try to get away with everything you can ... Everybody tries to cheat a little."
Nothing says "cheating a little" quite like the spitball. For awhile, anyway, the salivary pitch was actually a legitimate part of the game, with pitchers mussing the balls to give their pitches unpredictable movement. Even after the pitch was banned in 1920, pitchers still found ways to doctor the balls; Gaylord Perry, who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 with 314 career wins in his 22 years in the game, actually titled his autobiography Me and the Spitter, a kind of baseball version of If I Did It. Nevertheless, in an illustration of why baseball players might attempt to get away with whatever they can, Perry didn't actually get caught throwing a spitball until his 21st season, even though everyone knew he was doing it all along.
PED usage has similarly benefited from baseball's selective blind eye. While Congress banned anabolic steroids in 1990, MLB didn't bother enforcing the rule. After the 1994 strike in particular, "baseball needed a way to manufacture interest, and they needed it fast," recalled SB Nation. "Big, muscly dudes hitting taters would do the trick." When Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were in their famous home run chase, androstenedione, a steroid, was actually legal, despite being contemporaneously banned in the NFL, NCAA, and Olympics. It wasn't until 2001 that MLB finally began steroid testing in the minor leagues, the same year that Barry Bonds Hulk-smashed his way to 73 home runs. Even before steroids took over, amphetamines, or "greenies," could be easily found in clubhouses; they weren't actually banned until 2006. As many argued at the time, is it really "cheating" if everyone's doing it?
That question is most commonly asked today in relation to pine tar. Unlike spittle in the deadball era, pine tar is more often used by pitchers to help them grip the ball and increase spin rate, particularly in harsh weather conditions. While baseball disallows foreign substances on balls, there is a sort of unwritten rule among the clubs of I won't tattle on you if you won't tattle on me. "Every night in just about every game you will see a pitcher reach after every pitch across the skin of the forearm of his non-throwing arm, where is found a ready supply of sunblock or some homemade concoction to better grip the baseball," observed Sports Illustrated. But while steroids, spitballs, and sign stealing have all gone from marginally accepted to illegal, cracking down on pine tar at the level required would be basically impossible, leading some players to call for the substance to be made legal so at least the playing field would be equal.
Electronic sign stealing, however, can and should be policed. That process, though, is bigger than cracking down on a single club. "One Astros source was adamant," The Athletic wrote in its initial report. "The team should not become the poster child for sign stealing. Not when so much is going on with other clubs that MLB has not stopped."
Cheating in baseball isn't just about a competitive edge; it's a part of a century-old culture of getting away with whatever you can. The solution, then, is deceptively simple: Don't let any team get away with it. MLB's penchant for turning a blind eye is what created the wishy-washy environment it's now mired in. And if there's any hope in preventing this from becoming "the sign-stealing era," then MLB needs to look with clear eyes at what is right under its own nose.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.