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The real problem with MLB’s sign-stealing scandal – and how to fix it

The latest reports indicate that the league’s latest cheating scandal is deeper than it first appeared.

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League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

For much of the MLB offseason, the bombshell report that the Houston Astros had used technology to steal signs during at least their World Series-winning 2017 season has been the focus of fans and players alike. Most of the vitriol centered around the Astros, labeling them as cheaters who gained an unfair advantage and cost other teams and players — who were playing fairly — chances to succeed. The teams with the biggest gripes? Those who were directly ousted by the Astros during this cheating, namely the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.

However, recently it has become clear that the Astros were far from the only team guilty of such cheating. A recent report from The Athletic (subscription required) included sources accusing the Boston Red Sox of illegally using their video replay room to steal signs during their 2018 World Series victory season, a season that also included an ALDS victory over the Yankees.

Yankees fans have extra reason to be upset with these reports of cheating because they have implicated the club’s two biggest rivals and directly affected the Yankees. We’ve all seen the video that seems to prove the Astros cheated, but does everybody remember when the Red Sox seemed to know which pitches Luis Severino was going to throw in 2018, which we all chalked up to Severino tipping pitches?

In light of the recent news, it doesn’t seem like so much of a coincidence anymore, does it? However, this isn’t going to just be a post written by a Yankees fan bashing the Red Sox and the Astros because they are team rivals. Before jumping the gun and calling those teams cheaters and saying that they robbed the Yankees and every other team, we need to look at the whole situation. And, as fate would have it, the whole situation is far larger and messier than it first appeared.

The Yankees were among other teams to be referenced as using technology illegally in the past five years. Now, the gripe against the Yankees is the equivalent of a traffic ticket – the only facts are that they illegally used dugout phones to check with their replay official on whether or not certain pitches were strikes or balls. Although the team was also accused of using a camera to steal signs, like the Astros and Red Sox, Major League Baseball did not find these claims credible.

There’s another key difference between the Yankees and the other teams. After MLB fined the Yankees in 2017 for the phone violation, the league sent a memo warning teams not to use technology to gain an illegal advantage. The Yankees — and most other teams — seem to have stopped whatever they were doing after the memo, while the Astros and Red Sox continued to cheat en route to championships. This, of course, makes things more serious for those organizations.

However, the report essentially made it clear that several other organizations had used technology in an effort to cheat, to the point where the league had to take action. Major League Baseball has a long history of players and teams bending the rules. From more minor infractions like the use of pine tar and corked bats to major issues like steroid use, baseball has seen its fair share of scandals over the years, and it has another one on its hands now.

As ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez and Jeff Passan mused on Twitter, there appear to be many similarities between this cheating scandal and the steroid era.

That last point by Passan – that ways to steal signs were likely passed around from team to team as players from cheating organizations made their way elsewhere – is the real key here. The acceptance of, and the pressure to gain an edge any way possible is what made steroids such a massive problem in baseball (and an issue that is still rampant). It is possible to deduce that the same thing was happening with sign stealing, to the point where almost every team probably had the capability to know which pitches were coming.

It is just speculation, and there are certainly other factors at play, but it might not be entirely a coincidence that MLB offensive production is higher now more than ever, as technology has improved and the accessibility to using it to cheat has increased.

Now that this is all out publicly, Major League Baseball is at a major crossroads. The league got it right by admitting it had a problem and issuing crippling suspensions to anybody implicated in a steroid scandal, and the league has to do the same thing here. Known cheaters, like the coaches and players on the 2017 Houston Astros and 2018 Boston Red Sox, need to be suspended for a significant amount of time, for starters. Rob Manfred said in 2017 that any offending club could also see the loss of draft picks, which combined with suspensions and fines, should be enough of a deterrent to this behavior in the future.

Just as we’ll never know how many players used (or still use) PEDs, we’ll never know how many teams illegally stole signs, and the problem will probably never be completely forced out of the game. However, serious punishment for known cheaters is the only way for the league to emphatically say that this is not OK.

Baseball becomes a part of our lives from an early age. Players are taught the morals of right and wrong in Little League – you respect your teammates, your opponents and the umpires, and you play for the love of the game.

What these teams have done threatens the framework of our game. Unless Major League Baseball steps in and takes a stand against them for their clear and blatant cheating, the culture of cheating in baseball will only grow.