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Coolican: Everyone needs to calm down about the Astros

| Friday, November 22, 2019

Every year, between the end of the World Series and the start of free agency, the baseball media has to find something to talk about. This year, it is the Houston Astros and their alleged sign stealing during their 2017 World Series run. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers went on the record with The Athletic last week to disclose that they used a complicated method of stealing signs involving multiple cameras in the outfield and players in the dugout banging on trash cans.

This news has sent baseball fans and players into a frenzy. Many people are even suggesting that the Astros be forced to abdicate their title. However, did they do anything wrong?

Sign stealing is as old as the game itself. It is not forbidden in the rules, and teams accept it as part of the game. As anyone who has played competitive baseball knows, signs can get very complicated and the average person would not be able to decipher them. There is usually one or multiple “indicator” signs, which signal to the team when to start watching the signs. There are “brush off” signs, which negate anything given before them. There are usually multiple different gestures that signal the same thing, auditory signs, and sometimes signs will even completely change halfway through a game or when a runner is on second base.

All of this makes stealing signs nearly impossible. The runner on second may look to the catcher to try and figure out the pattern, but in such a short time that is nearly impossible. Other traditional ways to steal signs have become obsolete. Now, it is all about technology.

The first known use of technology came in 1951, when the New York Giants were accused of using a high-powered telescope in the outfield stands in order to tip pitches. In 1961, the MLB issued a ruling saying no technology could be used for the purpose of stealing signs, but this was never really enforced. In 2001, they firmed up that ruling, saying that no cell phones or other electronic equipment could be used for communication during games, specifically for stealing signs (hence why you see wall-mounted phones to call to the bullpen).

However, there have been a number of other examples of using technology to steal signs since then. The Toronto Blue Jays had their infamous “man in white” in center field, the Philadelphia Phillies were reprimanded for using binoculars to steal signs from the bullpen, the New York Yankees have been told to stop using their television network to tape opposing team’s dugouts, and the New York Mets were caught stealing signs using cameras. The one incident that really caused trouble was when the Boston Red Sox were accused of using an Apple Watch in the dugout to communicate with the team’s replay official, which violated the no communication ruling.

Before the 2019 season, commissioner Rob Manfred decided to crack down on this practice, banning the use of any cameras in the outfield except for broadcast purposes. They also said the team staffers who watch instant replay to determine if plays should be challenged would be monitored by a security officer, and all other television feeds would be on an eight-second delay.

However, this was after the Astros’ alleged sign stealing, and their system, which was essentially having players and coaches watch a television right outside the dugout, try to decipher the signs and bang on a trash can if an off-speed pitch was coming. Is this illegal? Definitely, as per the 1961 ruling. However, can the Astros really be punished without punishing the Blue Jays, Yankees, Phillies, and Mets, among all the other teams who likely did it before the new 2019 ruling, with more restrictions and harsher punishments?

The league showed it didn’t punish teams severely for stealing signs using technology before this year. Even the Red Sox, by far the worst of the bunch, were only hit with a slap-on-the-wrist fine. Joe Girardi, the manager of the Phillies said while he was the manager of the Yankees in 2017 that the Yankees “assumed everybody was doing it.” 

Can the Astros really be blamed for doing something that the league clearly didn’t care much about until this season, while many of their opponents were doing the same? I don’t think they should be, and the league should recognize that. 

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