The Shocking Part of the Sign-Stealing Scandal? Someone Was Punished

Gaylord Perry was 35 and had pitched 12 seasons in the big leagues when he decided to make a stunning confession in an autobiography, writing: “On May 31, 1964, I became an outlaw in the strictest sense of the word — a man who lives outside the law, in this case, the law of baseball.” 

Perry admitted to doctoring baseballs. Could baseball tolerate a pitcher who repeatedly broke the rules and now openly planned to continue doing so?

Only for nine more seasons.

Perry, who won his second Cy Young Award five years after his 1974 memoir “Me and the Spitter” appeared, retired after the 1983 season with 314 victories.

Justice did catch up with him after he retired. He didn’t make it into the Hall of Fame until his third year of eligibility. 

Perry is part of a long tradition in baseball. The game has sayings like “If ya ain’t cheating, ya ain’t trying,” or “It ain’t cheating if you don’t get caught.”

But we have what appears to be a sea change in Major League Baseball’s attitude about cheating.

The big surprise in this whole sign-stealing scandal with the Houston Astros that has rocked baseball? Somebody was actually punished, several somebodies in fact.

New Standards

I figured there would be a hefty fine for the Astros. Maybe general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch would draw short suspensions. They might have to give a mea culpa press conference.

When the news came out that Luhnow and Hinch were fired, I thought the Astros did something so drastic because there have been previous questions about the organization’s integrity.

I never thought for a minute that former Astros bench coach Alex Cora would be fired as manager of the Boston Red Sox. Or that another former member of the Astros coaching staff, Carlos Beltran, would be out of his job with the New York Mets before he managed a single game.

That’s four guys, two of whom managed a team to a World Series title, gone. These guys must be wondering what the heck just happened?

Previously, if you cheated the public by intentionally losing and were caught, that meant a lifetime ban. Even associating with people who might want you to engage in such conduct meant punishment.

But going outside the rules while trying to win?

Basically you were punished only if you were caught during a game. Or, more recently, if you failed a urine test. 

Those Trash Cans are High Tech

We are being told that MLB must draw a clear line in this case because it’s high tech. 

Is it really?

The shot of home plate from center field has been the default camera angle during an at-bat in televised MLB games since the mid-1970s.

The Astros used their own camera and replay system, so they were a little more organized about it.

But we know that they transmitted the information by banging on a trash can for a while. Not exactly cutting-edge technology, is it? 

There’s talk that the Astros used a buzzer system last fall to alert batters what type of pitch was coming. Well, using buzzers as part of a sign-stealing scheme was first detected in a National League game in 1900. 

So MLB’s outlook on this practice seems to have changed more than the cheaters’ methodology.

Player Side

It seems improbable that the Astros are the first to use the center-field view to decode opponents’ signs. This likely isn’t over for the Astros or MLB.

Only front-office personnel and managers have been burned. Shouldn’t the players who benefitted by using this ill-gotten information be held accountable?

Commissioner Rob Manfred doesn’t want to deal with the players — or, more accurately, the MLB Players Association.

Technically, the MLB Players Association also represents the managers and coaches. But leadership has never shown much interest in standing up for the other uniformed personnel in its membership. It looks like Manfred is taking the path of the least resistance.

If the punishments are about upholding the integrity of the game, and Manfred finds the fortitude to punish everyone who played a significant role in breaking the rules, then good for him and good for baseball.

Manfred was previously MLB’s head of public relations. Call me cynical, but my gut says he’s taking as much action as he feels is needed to make all this go away. If so, a tradition lives on.

This week the BBWAA will announce the results of its Hall of Fame voting. And the yearly war of words will break out over the status of players suspected of using steroids in the 1990s and 2000s.

This annual rite might never have come about with a little timely vigilance and courage from the powers that be. 

Sign-stealing Time Line

1876Hartford Dark Blues of the National Association hide a man in shack outside the fence to signal when a curve is coming.
1900Cincinnati Reds SS Tommy Corcoran finds a wire the Philadelphia Phillies have been using as part of sign-stealing scheme.
1962Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby claims every team with a center-field scoreboard has at times used a spy to steal signs.
2001Members of the 1951 New York Giants reveal elaborate system with a spy and a telescope in the team clubhouse in center field.
2017 Boston Red Sox are caught using an Apple Watch to relay stolen signs.
2019 Former Houston Astros pitcher Mike Fiers tells The Athletic of the sign-stealing system the team used in 2017.

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