A Baseball Expert’s Guide to the Nutty MLB Cheating Scandal
Where’s the buzzer?? Photo: Elsa/Getty Images
The sign-stealing scandal that has enveloped Major League Baseball seems to morph, alter, and expand by the second. It can be difficult to keep up, even if you’re not a seasoned fan. So allow me, an Officially Licensed and Certified Baseball Expert, to walk you through how it all started and where it might go next.
What exactly is sign stealing?
When a pitcher throws a pitch, his catcher needs to know exactly what’s coming, so the catcher will signal to the pitcher, using his fingers and a preestablished code, what he should deliver. Many different catchers use many different signals, but the basic template is: one finger for a fastball, two for a curveball. It’s so important that pitchers and catchers are able to communicate that many catchers paint their fingernails to make them conspicuous enough to spot.
Sign stealing happens when the opposing team attempts to discover which pitch is coming, then communicate that information to the batter. The most common technique involves a runner on second base, who can see the catcher’s signs, tipping the batter off himself; this is why when you go to a game and there’s a runner on second base, you will often see the pitcher step off the rubber or call for his catcher to come to the mound. They’re changing their signs so the runner at second can’t read them.
Did people just start doing this?
Oh no. Sign stealing has been a part of baseball as long as there has been baseball. Seriously: In 1876, the Hartford Dark Blues of the National Association “placed a man in a small shack on a telegraph pole beyond the outfield wall to alert their batters to when that newfangled curveball was coming.” Bobby Thompson, the New York Giants player who hit the famous “Shot Heard ’Round the World” homer to win the National League pennant in 1951 (inspiring the legendary “The Giants Win the Pennant!” radio call), is widely believed to have been tipped off to which pitch was coming. There hasn’t been a game in baseball history where a player hasn’t tried to steal a sign at least once.
So why are people making such a big deal out of the Houston Astros’ sign stealing?
1. Everyone hates the Houston Astros. This hatred is not necessarily undeserved. Since hiring general manager Jeff Luhnow in 2011, the Astros have become notorious for being the McKinsey of baseball, prioritizing ruthless efficiency over all else. (Luhnow himself worked for McKinsey for five years.) They’re also known for having a bro-ish Wall Street vibe, perhaps best displayed by former executive Brandon Taubman, who, after the Astros beat the Yankees to clinch a trip to the World Series this year, mocked three female reporters in the locker room by screaming “Thank God we got Osuna!” at them. (The Astros acquired closer Roberto Osuna after he was arrested for domestic violence.) Taubman was fired a week later, but not until the Astros public relations team sent a taunting statement claiming the reporter who wrote the story about the incident had made the whole thing up. They’re not the best people.
2. The tech has gotten insanely good. MLB’s report released earlier this week, in which Luhnow and Astros manager A.J. Hinch were suspended for a year (and fired later in the day), detailed how the Astros “arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout.” This allowed the team to immediately decipher the catcher’s signs, which they related to the hitter by … banging a trash can with a bat. (Okay, so maybe that part wasn’t so high tech.)
Twitter? What does that have to do with anything?
Thursday afternoon, the day after MLB released the report that it hoped would settle everything down (and one that suspiciously left the players who did the actual cheating out), Carlos Beltran resigned as manager of the Mets before he ever made out a single lineup card. That set the tone for what would be a wild, wild day. What kicked it off? Probably a tweet from someone claiming to be Beltran’s niece — Beltran’s family says that’s not true, for what it’s worth — claiming that Astros Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, the team’s best two players, “wore devices that buzzed on inside right shoulder” and that’s why Altuve “didn’t want shirt torn off” after a postgame home-run celebration. (Oh, baseball players tear jerseys off each other to celebrate. It’s a thing.)
This tweet, not unlike the initial story about the banging trash cans, put the private detectives of Twitter on high alert. They found video of Altuve stopping his teammates from tearing the jersey off him; they tried to claim that a piece of confetti on Josh Reddick was a wire (it was confetti); they somehow dragged poor Mike Trout and HGH into this. By the end of the day, actual MLB players were venturing into the fray, with pitcher Trevor Bauer claiming he’d heard rumors of the buzzers himself and outfielder Tommy Pham claiming he could see a wire under Altuve’s jersey.
What did MLB say about all this?
“MLB explored wearable devices during the investigation but found no evidence to substantiate it.”
Did anyone believe them?
Of course not! If you look hard enough, you can see wearable devices anywhere. Here is one Twitter user accusing Yankee phenom Gleyber Torres of the unpardonable crime of wearing socks:
So what does this mean?
It is incredibly unlikely that the Twitter storm yesterday is going to result in anything. As much as I might enjoy the guy, Twitter user Jomboy — who has become patient zero in baseball-video scandals — is not in fact judge, jury, and executioner of the league. Altuve has denied ever wearing any devices, MLB says they didn’t find any, and Rob Manfred is already eager to move on from the whole thing. It is possible that the Astros have all been wearing buzzers for years and one brave player will blow the whistle on them, but considering what happened to Mike Fiers, the pitcher who initially alerted reporters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, don’t expect much.
What happened to Fiers?
Fiers hasn’t been treated like a hero by his peers; he has been treated like a rat. Former manager Phil Garner flat-out called him just that. ESPN broadcaster (and Mets consultant, strangely) Jessica Mendoza said Fiers going public “didn’t sit well” with her. Former World Series MVP David Freese tweeted that Fiers talking may have been as bad as the cheating itself. You can be sure players are saying much worse in private. Fiers will pitch for the A’s in 2020. If he ends up ever setting foot at the plate, know that someone’s going to hit him with a pitch.
Does this mean baseball is corrupt and terrible and that the grand national pastime has lost its way?
Far be it from me to stop someone from lamenting the loss of baseball’s innocence: People braying that the sport has lost its soul is as much a part of MLB as the double play (or sign stealing). But the idea that this somehow means that all of baseball is a lie, or that the Astros should give up their World Series title, is absurd. Sign stealing is a form of cheating, and it’s something that MLB is going to try to eradicate. But it will fail, because players will always try to gain an advantage, because baseball is a really hard sport that pays you millions of dollars if you do it well. If you are appalled that athletes would dare try to get a leg up on their opponents, or if you think that the Astros are the only team in baseball that would do so or will try to do so again, either you have been kidding yourself your entire life or, more likely, you’re being performatively outraged for the sake of whoever may be looking in your general direction.
Yes, of course! You didn’t have fun following all this stuff on Thursday? Obviously you did! That’s why we’re having this conversation, after all. Baseball needs to be more like this. Fan theories, wild conspiracies, Mean Girls memes … this is good for the sport. Would you rather have a bunch of old white men with goatees complaining about defensive shifts? This scandal is silly, entirely in line with what baseball has always been — generally harmless and absolutely irresistible. It can keep going forever as far as I’m concerned. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pore over hundreds of Getty Images of Aaron Judge, looking for the slightest sign of a buzzer under his jersey. The scandal! The horror! I am shocked to find gambling in this establishment!