John Feinstein knows a hell of a lot about college basketball and golf, but his take on the finances of major league team sports is a bit shaky. How could it be anything but based on the argument he makes today: baseball should have a salary cap so it can be successful and competitive like football, basketball and hockey.
I’ll leave hockey to others because I just don’t know enough about it, but it never ceases to amaze me that the NFL and NBA are trotted out as superior models to baseball’s. The same NFL that is about to embark on an ugly as all hell labor battle. The same NBA that just bore witness to the 127th (estimated) Celtics-Lakers Finals and just watched a team get its heart ripped out by a departing free agent in more callous a manner than any baseball player’s departure has ever hurt a team. If the point of a salary cap is a league’s financial health, competitiveness and some sense of fan friendliness, football and basketball are doing it wrong.
But I think the kicker to this is that what sets off Feinstein’s rant today is that the Yankees picked up Austin Kearns. Really, he ends his column by suggesting that baseball’s salary cap be called “The Kearns Rule” because apparently New York’s acquisition of a journeyman outfielder making $750,000 is a bridge too far. No one likes the Yankees’ largess, but it sure as hell wasn’t on display at the trade deadline.
But as I always do when someone writes one of these “baseball needs a salary cap” things, I’ll note that every team in Major League Baseball has made the playoffs at least once. Twenty-three of 30 have made it in the past ten years, and 28 of 30 have made it since 1992. I’ll also note that, as I type this, there are two very sophisticated groups of businessmen literally bidding against one another in an auction for the right to buy a Major League Baseball team. And a bankrupt one to boot.
If that’s evidence of a problem, it’s a problem unlike that which I have ever seen.
We’ve had a couple of notable incidents of sign stealing in Major League Baseball over the past couple of years. Most famously, the Red Sox were found to be using Apple Watches of all things to relay signs spied via video feed. Sports Illustrated reported yesterday that there have been other less-publicized and unpublicized incidents as well, mostly with in-house TV cameras — as opposed to network TV cameras — stationed in the outfield and trained on catchers, for the specific purpose of stealing signs.
As such, SI reports, Major League Baseball is cracking down beginning this year. Within the next couple weeks an already-drafted and circulated rule will take effect which will (a) ban in-house outfield cameras from foul pole to foul pole; (b) will limit live broadcasts available to teams to the team’s replay official only, and the replay official will be watched by a league official to keep them from relaying signs to the team; and (c) other TV monitors that are available to the clubs will be on an eight-second delay to prevent real-time sign stealing. There will likewise be limits on TV monitors showing the game feed in certain places like tunnels and clubhouses.
Penalties for violation of the rules will include the forfeiting of draft picks and/or international spending money. General managers will have to sign a document in which they swear they know of know sign-stealing schemes.
As was the case when the Apple Watch incident came up, there will not be any new rules regarding old fashioned sign stealing by runners on second base or what have you, as that is viewed as part of the game. Only the technology-aided sign stealing that has become more prominent in recent years — but which has, of course, existed in other forms for a very, very long time — is subject to the crackdown.
While gamesmanship of one form or another has always been part of baseball, the current wave of sign-stealing is seen as a pace-of-play issue just as much as a fairness issue. Because of the actual sign-stealing — and because of paranoia that any opponent could be stealing signs — clubs have gone to far more elaborate and constantly changing sign protocols. This requires mound meetings and pitchers coming off the rubber in order to re-start the increasingly complex series of signs from dugout to catcher and from catcher to pitcher.
Now, presumably, with these new rules coming online, teams will figure out a new way to cheat. It’s baseball, after all. It’s in their DNA.