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OC Register: Hoornstra: MLB punishing alleged sign stealers is more difficult than banging a trash can

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In his book, “A Game of Inches: The Stories Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball,” author Peter Morris writes that the cat-and-mouse game “between sign-givers and sign-stealers” in baseball began in the ’80s.

The 1880s, that is.

The Brooklyn Bridegrooms, ancestors of today’s Dodgers, finished in first place in their league in 1889 and 1890. Morris writes that Brooklyn shortstop George Smith credited the Bridegrooms’ success to stealing their opponents’ signs – a practice as legal then as it is now.

In 1900, the Philadelphia Phillies devised an illegal sign-stealing system involving a man with a spyglass in center field, and an electronic buzzer that extended to the third-base coach’s box. During the first game of a Sept. 17 doubleheader in Philadelphia, Cincinnati Reds shortstop Tommy Corcoran decided to do something. When Corcoran noticed third-base coach Pearce Chiles’ leg twitching, Corcoran dug at the dirt under Chiles’ feet with his shoe spikes. He uncovered a wooden box containing electronic wires, a crude but effective means for relaying signs to the Phillies’ hitters. The punishment for the crime was mere shame; the umpire allowed the game to continue. As Joe Dittmar wrote in the SABR Baseball Research Journal, the Reds settled for the greater moral victory.

Baseball will continue in Boston and Houston, no matter the extent of illegal sign-stealing by the 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox as described in The Athletic. The Dodgers lost the World Series to both alleged cheaters. Now, in Southern California and beyond, the stench of moral failure is strong.

But what constitutes just punishment? Electronic sign stealing is nothing new, but it’s difficult to reconcile with our concept of cheating for some unusually subversive reasons. Whether spiking coffee with amphetamines or rubbing foreign substances on bats and balls, baseball players have blurred the lines between cheating and trying many times before.

“If it’s not explicitly banned in the rules, it’s permitted,” said John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. “You can stretch the rules as far as they will expand.”

In September 2017, Major League Baseball fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount after an investigation concluded they had sent electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout for the purpose of stealing opponents’ signs.

In announcing the Red Sox’s punishment, commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement saying “all 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.” Electronically assisted sign stealing is not merely an explicit crime, then. For two years, it’s been accompanied by an explicit punishment.

Subsequent video evidence corroborated the initial suspicions that the Astros stole signs from Dodgers catchers in the 2017 World Series, a month after Manfred issued his warning. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers confirmed on the record to The Athletic that a sign-stealing system was in place that season.

The Red Sox named Astros bench coach Alex Cora their new manager after the World Series concluded, and The Athletic reported Cora “played a key role in devising the sign-stealing system the Astros used in 2017.”

In the long view of history – baseball history included – it should come as no surprise that Manfred’s warning did little to deter cheaters.

“The prohibition of basic human tendencies – lying, cheating, stealing – has proven over the millenia to be futile,” Thorn said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have rules and try to enforce them. Baseball probably can do better given the digital technology. But if you’re trying to regulate or ban basic human tendencies … it’s not going to work.”

Seeking ethically dubious advantages wherever they exist in competition is a basic human tendency. Thorn notes King Kelly, a famous baseball player of the 19th century, was notorious for cutting from first base to third when the umpire’s back was turned.

A more recent example, if less relatable, is the prolific use of undetected performance-enhancing drugs. After scarcely policing PEDs for most of its history, MLB now punishes violators with half-season and full-season suspensions. Pitcher Jennry Mejia received the first and only lifetime ban for PED use, in February 2016. He was conditionally reinstated in 2019 and signed a minor-league contract with the Red Sox.

It is tempting to compare the punishments given to PED users to those awaiting the sign stealers. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and perhaps others have been denied election to the Baseball Hall of Fame because of PED associations. But the comparison will always remain imperfect. Bonds is still a hero in San Francisco. McGwire has no plaque in Cooperstown, but a statue of him sits in storage in St. Louis.

“We always have a sneaking admiration for miscreants,” Thorn explained. “As fans we think, ‘If only we could disregard the rules of the workplace like him.’ We like the rogues.”

When it comes to stealing signs, no one player or coach stands to serve as a lightning rod for our emotions.

“We can’t decipher individuals in the same way,” Thorn said. “It seems not romantic, but merely grubby.”

Thorn compared it to corporate espionage. There too, baseball provides an example in Chris Correa. The former Cardinals scouting director was able to hack into the Astros’ proprietary database by correctly guessing the password of his former boss, Sig Mejdal, after Mejdal left the Cardinals to work for the Astros. Correa was sentenced to federal prison for unauthorized access to a protected computer.

The crime was at once unambiguous and reminiscent of a relatable temptation to log in to your ex’s Instagram account. Is that what the Astros and Red Sox did? If so, how many draft picks are required as penance?

To punish sign stealing is unimaginably more challenging than watching a television monitor and banging a trash can. Manfred has at least 120 years of precedent, but it’s surprisingly useless. You don’t have to shock the third-base coach’s leg to transmit an opponent’s signs electronically, and it’s only going to get easier in the years to come.

The politics of the Red Sox and Astros situations allow Manfred to err on the side of severity – and simultaneously guard against future acts of espionage. Lifetime bans aren’t out of the question, as Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen suggested in November. The only question should be who gets them.

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5 minutes ago, Stradling said:

How many of you read this thread title and think of our boy Hofstra Bill?  

not me 












On 12/29/2019 at 10:57 PM, Lou said:

I wonder if Hoornstra went to Hofstra . . . 


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