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Blogger at NBC Sport.com's HardballTalk. Recovering litigator. Rake. Scoundrel. Notorious Man-About-Town.
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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 – No. 25: Red Sox steal signs with Apple Watch

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

For as long as baseball teams have used signs to communicate, opposing baseball teams have been stealing signs. That’s just how it works. Human competition ranges from playground games to actual warfare, but wherever there is strategy there is subterfuge. Baseball is no different.

Most sign-stealing in baseball is a function of visual observation. A guy on second base will see what a catcher throws down and try to communicate it to the hitter. A guy sitting on the bench in the dugout will observe the opposing third base coach in an effort to identify patterns. Maybe he’ll flash his own signs back to his fielders. Maybe they’ll all just talk about it later. Either way, it’s usually a low-tech affair. Indeed, the high water mark of sign stealing technology still seemed to be what the New York Giants did back in 1951 with some binoculars and some flashing lights.

Back in September, however, the Boston Red Sox brought things into the 21st century when they used an Apple Watch as part of a somewhat complicated sign stealing scheme.

This came to light when Yankees GM Brian Cashman filed a complaint to the commissioner’s office using video of the Red Sox dugout which showed a trainer looking at his Apple Watch, then relaying a message to players. Presumably, this information allowed the hitters to know what pitch was coming. When confronted by the commissioner’s office, the Red Sox admitted that trainers had been receiving signals from video replay personnel, which was then relayed to the players.

It was not known how long the Red Sox had been using the scheme, but anonymous sources in the Commissioner’s office said that it had been in place “at least several weeks.” The Red Sox claimed that manager John Farrell, GM Dave Dombrowski, and other front office personnel were not aware of the operation and that it was all driven by coaches and players. Which, hey, if you want to believe that, be my guest, but it’s their story and they’re sticking to it. Major League Baseball certainly didn’t dig much deeper to test the assertion.

As I said, sign-stealing has always occurred. It’s also quite legal. Baseball will not punish a player or anyone else for simply figuring out the other team’s signs. The league makes a distinction, however, between that sort of thing and the use of tools or technology to do it. As a result, Rob Manfred fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount which Manfred then donated to hurricane relief efforts. All 30 Clubs were then notified that future violations of this type would be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.

Not that any other club was doing this, no siree. No one in baseball ever copies what other teams do. It’s an institution marked by its distaste for conformity and its embrace of originality and individualism.