While there is virtually no chance the Red Sox will have to vacate any wins — not only is there is no precedent for that but sign-stealing, at least by non-technological means, is an accepted part of the game — the players involved, including Dustin Pedroia and Brock Holt, could face suspensions. The Red Sox could also face a fine and/or the loss of future draft picks for the organization’s role.
But Commissioner Rob Manfred and the game’s other stewards should also use this as an opportunity to decide what they want baseball’s relationship with technology to be, because right now that relationship is a jumble of complexities and contradictions that are bound to produce scandals like the one unfolding at the top of the American League East division.
What good does it do, for example, to ban cellphones and other Internet-connected devices from the dugout when they can be used legally in the tunnel to the clubhouse, mere steps away from the dugout itself? There is a mixed message sent by a league that, on the one hand, has embraced video replay and that now allows managers to use non-connected tablets in the dugout to pull up data on opposing hitters and pitchers, but on the other hand still relies on catcher’s hand signals to call pitches — which any runner on second base can see and attempt to decipher.
The game can go high-tech or low-tech, but the middle ground it currently occupies is unstable.
Under Bud Selig, Manfred’s predecessor as commissioner, MLB had an uneasy relationship with technology — perhaps because Selig, as he was known to brag, had never sent an email in his life. Baseball, for example, was the last of the four major North American sports to adopt a replay-review system in 2008, and even then it was initially limited to boundary calls.
Under Manfred, the embrace of technology has accelerated, but only to a point. Technological advances have now made it possible to consider the use of cameras and robots to call balls and strikes, but Manfred has yet to commit to a change that would bring about a giant fight and plentiful consternation over the loss of the “human element” from the game.
“It would be a pretty fundamental change in the game,” Manfred told reporters following baseball’s quarterly owners meetings last month. “The fact of the matter is, [umpires] get [ball- and strike-calls] right well over 90 percent of the time. There is a human aspect to that, a work aspect to it, that’s always been an important part of our game. I don’t think you can just jump to the conclusion that if you have the technology to do it, that’s the right thing for your product.”
Similarly, in downplaying the significance of the Red Sox’s transgression — pointing out that sign-stealing has a long history in the game, and suggesting the Yankees and Red Sox could have solved the problem on their own, as teams have done for decades — Manfred danced around the issue of what role technology should have in the time-honored practice.
But perhaps it’s time to consider Joe Girardi’s idea of putting headsets — NFL-style — on pitchers, catchers, coaches, managers and middle infielders, and relaying pitch-calls via the airwaves. The Yankees manager — and former catcher — has proposed the idea in the past, and did so again Tuesday at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore after the news broke about the accusations regarding the Red Sox.
“It’s something in baseball we need to hop on,” Girardi said. “There has to be something a pitcher and catcher and middle infielders can do to combat all this. Football went to the headsets. People say, ‘I don’t know how feasible that is in baseball’ — but we have to try something … If we can use technology for other things, there ought to be a way to use it in a game where just a few people know [the pitch-calls].
In football, Girardi pointed out, “the quarterback gets the play called in. Now, unless someone is really good [at spycraft] and on their wavelength, there’s no way [for the opponent] to know the play.”
The idea makes plenty of sense for baseball. Not only would it eliminate the elaborate schemes to steal the opposing catcher’s signs by visual measures — which, as Girardi acknowledged, pretty much every team in baseball undertakes, with or without the use of technology — but it could also have the secondary effect of improving the sport’s worsening pace-of-play and time-of-game issues, one of Manfred’s most passionate crusades.
If pitchers and catchers no longer have to devise increasingly elaborate signals, and change them with greater frequency, to protect themselves from prying eyes (and, apparently, Apple Watches), it could reduce both the time between pitches and the number of time-sucking trips to the mound to get the signals straight.
While there would still have to be a way for the catcher to relay the pitch-call without the batter hearing it — whether via a whisper, a series of code words or a device that allows him to do it through nonverbal measures — the main argument against Girardi’s idea seems to be was one of aesthetics and tradition.
“They don’t know how confident people would be with the earpiece,” he said of the feedback he has gotten from league officials. “And then you have to have somebody speaking it.”
For decades, even as it has embraced technology in other aspects of the game, baseball has attempted to keep it from being used for sign-stealing purposes. But those attempts have been a massive failure.
Every few years, there is another accusation made publicly by one team about another that it believes is using some means — a camera, a phone, a binoculars-wielding man in center field — to steal signs. And those are only the claims we hear about; many more are made privately. Even Bobby Thomson’s famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to win the 1951 NL pennant was aided by a stolen sign and an elaborate buzzer system that Thomson’s Giants used to relay those signals to the hitter.
In some ways, losing all that tradition — the time-honored art of sign-stealing — could diminish the game, which, after all, is tied to its own history more than any other sport.
But baseball tradition is on a long losing streak these days. And if you’re going to embrace technology, you might as well go all the way.
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