Column: Sign stealing in baseball a kerfuffle

'Beyond the Lines'

The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is alive and well, on and off the field. The AL East rivals have conducted a season long battle for the division crown. With three weeks remaining in the season, it’s still uncertain which team will finish first. But the more interesting news may be taking place off the field.

Last month Yankees’ General Manager Brain Cashman filed a complaint with MLB accusing the Red Sox of violating regulations banning the use of certain electronic devices – specifically, walkie-talkies and mobile phones - in the dugouts. The ban was designed to prevent players from viewing game broadcasts and using that information to steal an opponent’s signs.

Sign-stealing in baseball is as old as the game itself and there is no rule that explicitly prohibits it. None other than MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has said as much. But beyond that generality, there’s sign-stealing that’s permitted within the rules of the game and sign-stealing that may be prohibited.

The matter is under investigation by the commissioner’s office but when confronted with the charges, the Red Sox didn’t refute them. While members of their training staff were sitting in the dugout they received signals on their Apple Watches from video replay personnel who were watching a live feed of the game. The information was then relayed to the players who signaled pitches to the hitter. In what may be a childish display of tit-for-tat, the Red Sox responded by filing a complaint against the Yankees, claiming they use an exclusive camera from their YES television network to steal signs during games. Speculation on the punishment, if any, the Commissioner may impose on either or both teams ranged from nothing, to fines and possible loss of draft picks.

With so much technology available inside and outside of ballparks, it was inevitable that teams would use it to steal signs. It’s the natural progression of a practice that has existed as long as the game itself.

There have been a number of well-documented – or at least, oft-repeated – incidents of sign- stealing in baseball. For the most part teams rely on the acute ability of certain team members to decipher an opponent’s signs. But creativity has also been demonstrated.

In 1948, the Cleveland Indians engaged in what for the times was an elaborate scheme to steal opponents’ signs. A team employee sitting in the center-field scoreboard used a telescope to spy on the opposing catcher’s fingers. He would then decipher the code used to call pitches and signal the next pitch to the batter by putting up a white or dark card in an opening in the scoreboard.

Team owner Bill Veeck was unapologetic about this scheme, saying that “sign-stealing, even when it is done from the scoreboard, is part of the real byplay of baseball, part of the battle of wits.” Coincidental or not, that was the last time the Indians won the World Series. Not all teams that have engaged in the practice of sign-stealing have been as successful.

The motivation behind sign-stealing is to obtain an edge. If the batter knows what pitch is coming, the assumption is he will be more successful. Still, the batter has to execute, a task easier said than done. Case in point: If the Red Sox were stealing the Yankees’ signs, their success rate didn’t reflect it.

Cheating in baseball is endemic to the sport. Every team does it. One example is the use of foreign substances by pitchers. As long as it isn’t too obvious, no one dares to complain about an extra dab of suntan lotion strategically located on the forehand behind the pitchers glove.

The Red Sox-Yankees spat may be good for the sport, refueling a rivalry that has been dormant for some time. Whether you are amused or outraged by the charges and counter-charges probably depends on your degree of allegiance to the teams. But there is one certainty: Regardless of the outcome of these cases, sign-stealing in baseball will continue.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.