• Villanova Sports Law Blog

Stealing Signs to the Championship

By: Ryan Murphy

The greater the team, the greater the following. Fanbases grow alongside wins and bandwagons never stop welcoming new riders. Opposing fans start tuning in just to see the downfall of their rivals. This latter half of the deal holds especially true when it seems that the team “bought” their success or did something wrong in order to become great.

Consider the Golden State Warriors. Fans around the country loved them when they first came onto the scene. They were not only an elite team, but they drafted all of their best players themselves. The minute they signed Kevin Durant, though, they were the villains. The best team in the world didn’t deserve to add arguably the best player in the world, right? We liked the original Warriors better. They didn’t have to pay for their success.

That Houston Astros were baseball’s pre-Durant Warriors. They drafted all of their best young players – Altuve, Springer, Correa, Alvarez – and grew them in their system.[1] They made seemingly insignificant minor league trades that landed key players like Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock.[2] And yes, they did also land the big fish like Gerrit Cole, Zach Grienke, and Justin Verlander by trading away top prospects.[3] That is the textbook way to build an elite baseball team, and the Astros did it the right way; winning the World Series in 2017 and losing it in seven games in 2019.

But as we see far too often in sports, some things are too good to be true. Numerous cheating allegations against the Astros have accompanied their rise to prominence, the latest accusing them of electronically stealing signs in 2017.[4] The allegations – coming from former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers and at least three other former members of the organization – claim that the team used a high-power lens located in center field during home games to spy on catchers’ signs to pitchers.[5] The evidence, thus far, is quite convincing. Multiple videos show distant bangs corresponding with ensuing pitches during 2017 at-bats. These apparently came from someone in the organization banging a trash can while watching the live-feed of the center-field camera just beyond the dugout.[6]

Although sign stealing is as old as baseball itself, using cameras to steal the signs is frowned upon.[7] The MLB has started cracking down on illegal sign-stealing under Commissioner Rob Manfred, but they did not officially outlaw the use of cameras to steal signs until February of 2019.[8] So were the Astros even cheating in 2017 then? In a 2017 statement, Manfred said that Major League Baseball Regulations prevented technology from being used in the dugout and further prohibited the use of electronic equipment during games at all.[9] However, none of these provisions are listed in the official MLB rulebook.[10] In fact, these highly publicized 2019 changes are not in the official rulebook either.[11] Perhaps their absence is all the encouragement teams need to continue bending the rules to find an advantage.

Let’s take these mysteriously unwritten rules for what they’re worth, though. The Red Sox were fined in 2017 for using Apple watches in the dugout to steal signs from the Yankees,[12] and Manfred promised that the penalties would get steeper for future violators.[13] So, where does that leave the Astros? Is their 2017 title now in jeopardy? Realistically, that is not likely to happen. Wins have never been vacated in the past due to sign-stealing, not even for the 1951 World Series runner-up New York Giants, who were caught in an elaborate sign-stealing scheme.[14] This leaves baseball in a serious pickle. If they allow cheating to lead to a championship without any repercussions, what’s to stop any team from circumventing gray area laws as much as they can in the future?

The Astros have now been accused of sign-stealing in each of the past three seasons and their reputation is souring around the league.[15] As one MLB GM put it, “People respect what they've accomplished…They don't respect the culture they've created or some of the methods they choose to utilize to become what they've become." Fans will undoubtedly start tuning in and rooting for the Astros’ demise – especially those from Los Angeles who saw the Dodgers fall to the Astros in seven games in the 2017 World Series. Without a serious deterrent to cheating, though, teams will continue to look for an advantage. While the MLB investigates, it will have to assess its punishments and whether taking away draft picks and international spending money would send a substantial enough message to curtail cheating league wide.[16]

Would it be okay for opposing NFL teams to have a microphone in the opposing teams’ huddles before every play? Would it be okay for an NBA team to use a camera to spy on a coach’s board during timeouts? Sign-stealing is the MLB’s equivalent of those two things, and if the laws of the game allow it to continue, baseball will continue to be marred by a lack of integrity.

References:

[1]: Young, M. (Oct. 22, 2019). How the 2019 Houston Astros powerhouse was built. Retrieved from https://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/astros/article/How-2019-Houston-Astros-powerhouse-roster-built-14553486.php#photo-18471413.

[2]: Id.

[3]: Id.

[4]: Davis, S. (Nov. 12, 2019). Former Astros pitcher says the team stole signs using an outfield camera and went 'above and beyond' to gain advantages in a new report. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/houston-astros-stole-signs-mike-fiers-report-2019-11.

[5]: Id.

[6]: Astros using cameras to steal signs, a breakdown. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2XNW1qHN9w.

[7]: Baccellieri, E. (Nov. 13, 2019). Sign Stealing in MLB Isn't Going Anywhere. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/mlb/2019/11/13/sign-stealing-baseball-history.

[8]: Verducci, T. (Feb. 19, 2019). Exclusive: MLB to pass rules limiting sign stealing. Retrieved from https://www.si.com/mlb/2019/02/19/major-league-baseball-sign-stealing-rule-change.

[9]: Ring, S. (Nov. 15, 2019). Why the Astros' sign-stealing matters. Retrieved from https://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2019/11/15/20963813/why-the-houston-astros-sign-stealing-matters.

[10]: Major League Baseball. (n.d.). Official Baseball Rules. Official Baseball Rules (2019 Edition).

[11]: Id.

[12]: Schmidt, M. S. (Sep. 5, 2017). Boston Red Sox Used Apple Watches to Steal Signs Against Yankees. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/05/sports/baseball/boston-red-sox-stealing-signs-yankees.html.

[13]: Davis, supra.

[14]: Kasabian, P. (Feb. 20, 2019). MLB Reportedly Adding Rules for Cameras, Video to Restrict Sign-Stealing. Retrieved from https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2821237-mlb-reportedly-adding-rules-for-cameras-video-to-restrict-sign-stealing.

[15]: Passan, J. (Nov. 17, 2019). Astros exec suggested using cameras to spy in '17, sources say. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/28098216/astros-exec-suggested-using-cameras-spy-17-sources-say.

[16]: Verducci, supra.