The Astros have been dealt with. The Red Sox, and Alex Cora, who has been implicated in stealing signs with both teams, will be dealt with soon. Once that investigation is concluded, the great sign-stealing scandal is over with, right?
You know this intuitively, of course. You know that even if the Astros and the Red Sox are the ones that got caught that they’re not the only ones who have stolen signs via electronic means. Yesterday Tom Verducci — who is plugged in pretty well with MLB officials — wrote that the Astros investigation suggested that as many as seven or eight other teams were doing much the same as they were in 2017-18. I’d guess it’s more than that.
Which, yes, is something that angers Astros fans, many of whom are feeling like their team was singled out. And yeah, they were singled out in a sense. Not because anyone at the league office had it in for them, but because they got caught. Part of the reason it took an investigation from The Athletic to uncover it is that no one really talks about cheating out loud and the reason no one really talks about cheating out loud is because they know that if they point a finger at another team cheating that someone is going to point a finger back at them. When everyone is standing around with guns pointed at each other, sometimes one goes off. Fair? Maybe not, but it’s the business you chose when you chose to cheat. Not gonna cry for the Astros over this, singled out or otherwise. It’s done.
But where does baseball go from here with all of this?
Before we answer that, we have to answer a threshold question: is baseball more interested in stopping future illegal sign-stealing or is it more concerned with simply putting out P.R. fires like the Astros and Red Sox stories have become?
That’s not a rhetorical question born of cynicism. As you’ll recall, when the Houston allegations first hit, MLB — after an initial, apparently mistaken bit of honesty in which it said it did not plan to limit its investigation to the Astros — said that it would only be investigating Houston and had no reason to look beyond them. They’re not idiots. They know it was bigger than Houston. They just wanted to contain the fire that was currently burning. Once the allegations regarding the Red Sox came out, however, that position became untenable for Major League Baseball and they went wider. But only to Boston, it seems. They don’t seem to be following up on those seven or eight teams Verducci mentions. I am pretty confident that they’re going to blast Alex Cora with 100,000 megatons of Manfredian Justice and then declare the matter closed. At least until the next time.
Major League Baseball is, however, at least talking about the possibility of preventing a next time.
Verducci interviewed Manfred yesterday, and Manfred said that there will “absolutely” be more protocols will be in place by the start of this season to prevent the use of video feeds for illicit purposes. He suggests making the video room off-limits to players and team officials, with only the replay tech and an MLB security person having access. That makes a good degree of sense. There is no reason why players need to have real-time, in-game video available. That is what caused this problem in the first place, ushered in as it was with video replay. Baseball can revert back to something more akin to what was happening in that regard in 2014 or whatever without being accused of unreasonably trying to go backwards in time.
At the same time, there seems to be some who want to see more technology, not less. Again, Manfed, from the Verducci interview:
“Longer term, for example, the idea of having a technology solution that eliminates some guy putting fingers above his cup might be a better answer.”
He talks about lights or ear-pieces or other bits of tech that could change the way pitchers and catchers communicate beyond just traditional signs. Hannah Keyser of Yahoo wrote a column on some of these ideas a little over a week ago.
That makes little sense to me. Signs between the dugout, catcher and pitchers work and have long been part of the fabric of the game. As has, for that matter, the idea that the other team, on the field, using their eyes, can maybe swipe those signs. It’s a second level of competition that no one has ever seriously complained about. Indeed, it’s one of baseball’s interesting points. A layer of charm and intrigue that adds color to the proceedings for those who are aware of it, with a pretty reasonable bright line reining it in: technological assistance is prohibited.
If teams want to improve on that they’re welcome to do it — I’m no luddite — but the notion that it must be done to stop sign-stealing when we’re pretty aware of how signs have been stolen doesn’t track for me. Indeed, it just introduces potential new ways to steal signs in a manner not currently anticipated. Different cameras to use. Audio to hack. Any new technology is subject to exploitation in unexpected ways. A lot of old, field-tested technology — including fingers above the cup — is pretty resilient as long as you’re being at least moderately vigilant in guarding against well-known exploits and promise to smack people hard if they break a pretty clear bright line rule.
But this is baseball in the 21st century. If we’ve learned anything in the Rob Manfred Era we’ve learned that when there is a relatively simple and straightforward solution, baseball will take a more complicated one. Especially there’s a chance to make some money off of it. Which, I’m willing to bet, would somehow be baked into some new audio or light-based sign system. If Manfred were in charge of baseball in the 19th century there’d be branding on every blade of grass at Elysian Fields, so it would not shock me a bit if T-Mobile or someone like them got the signs concession.
Yesterday was a strong step by Rob Manfred that should create an effective deterrent against illegal sign-stealing. On top of that, his idea about closing off access to real time video for players would go a long way toward diminishing the risk of further transgressions. It’d be best if the league stopped there and policed the 30 clubs on it for a little while before jumping at new technology just because it’s shiny.