clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Yankees fans shouldn’t overreact about the Red Sox sign stealing scandal

New, comments

Despite the media furor, this is a common occurrence. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be punished.

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If you think about the myriad ways baseball has twisted and contorted itself with the times, there are good arguments to be made that anything before the Deadball Era, or World War II, or even steroids represents a fundamentally different game. Even in the past decade, the introduction of replay, Statcast, pace-of-play regulations, and bullpen specialization has made this era of baseball even more unique. There’s one thing that’s as old as the sport itself, though, and that’s sign stealing.

In fact, one of the most iconic moments in the history of baseball, well before the introduction of modern technology, was clouded by a 2001 report in the Wall Street Journal. It read:

“In interviews with all 21 surviving players and the one living coach, many are at last willing to confirm that [the 1951 Giants]... executed an elaborate scheme relying on an electrician and a spyglass... Mr. [Abraham] Chadwick installed a bell-and-buzzer system in the [Polo Grounds] clubhouse and connected it to the phones in the bullpen and the dugout. With the press of a button in the clubhouse --once for a fastball, twice for an off-speed pitch -- the phones would buzz the sign.”

This helped the Giants overcome a 13-and-a-half-game deficit, and ultimately won the pennant, depending on how much you feel this strategy helped them. The Journal, to their credit, pointed out various sign stealing incidents similar throughout baseball history: telegraph wires under the field in 1898, players with binoculars, and in the 1980s, “flickering 25-watt refrigerator bulb[s]” in the scoreboard.

That brings us to yesterday. The New York Times reported that Major League Baseball investigators uncovered a similar sign stealing scandal, this time with the use of Apple Watches:

“Investigators for Major League Baseball have determined that the Boston Red Sox... executed a scheme to illicitly steal hand signals from opponents’ catchers in games against the second-place Yankees and other teams... The Yankees... contended the video showed a member of the Red Sox training staff looking at his Apple Watch in the dugout and then relaying a message to players, who may have then been able to use the information to know the type of pitch that was going to be thrown, according to the people familiar with the case.”

The Red Sox did not deny that this occurred, and manager John Farrell tried to distance himself from the scandal:

General manager Dave Doimbrowski offered a similarly puzzling response as well, saying that he was “bemused” and was not aware, but the organization was still cognizant enough to file a counter-claim that the Yankees were stealing signs from YES Network broadcasts.

Whatever my thesis is, and whatever the punishment should or should not be, this is a huge story from a media standpoint. Michael Schmidt, who does write about baseball from time to time, and has written extensively on The Mitchell Report in years past, would not stop writing about Donald Trump and Robert Mueller unless this warranted serious attention. The biggest rivalry in sports is now wrapped in a cheating scandal, and that still matters from a narrative perspective.

There are reasonable arguments to be made on all possible punishments. Jon Heyman said that “...if fines are the precedent, that may understandably be the case again here... But Boston is fortunate it’s not my call, because I’d have them forfeit all their games to the Yankees.”

Do I think the Red Sox should forfeit their games to the Yankees? Probably not. Considering its prevalence and the unknown impact of said offense, it’s impossible to determine the extent of the standings impact, considering it went on for several weeks and likely had varying effects per player and team. If you were to make the argument that the game in question should be forfeited, there’s definitely one there.

In all likelihood, the punishment is not going to be severe. Even in the Padres medical scandal where AJ Preller falsified medical records, one trade was reversed, and Preller received a 30-day suspension. That’s probably the best Rob Manfred-era precedent for cheating (other than the Cardinals hacking scandal, which was criminal in nature), and it was a light punishment. I’d expect the same.

What do I think they deserve? At most, they deserve a hefty fine, a league-wide policy of no electronics in the dugout for all staff, and a suspension for John Farrell for admitting that he was aware of the sign stealing at the time. I find that pretty fair, and it’s also coupled with a policy change that would affect how the staff interacts with live video in-game.

Baseball is going to change, and this story will be yet another wrinkle that affects the future trajectory of the sport, but it isn’t earth shattering. The Red Sox were dumb because they did something everyone else does and got caught for it. There are teams stealing signs today, and there will be teams stealing signs forever. The only difference is that yesterday they used refrigerator bulbs and telegraphs, and today they use Apple Watches. Let’s just hope we’re not alive to see electronic telepathy.