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What is sign stealing? Making sense of Major League Baseball’s latest scandal.

The Astros spring training facility at the Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle via AP)

The fallout from Major League Baseball’s sign-stealing scandal is still unfolding as players report to spring training. And though MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred already issued his report and disciplined club officials over the illicit scheme, the intrigue is far from over.

The Houston Astros, who were caught cheating, share a spring training facility with the Washington Nationals, the team that defeated them in the World Series. Players and coaches from the 2017 and 2018 Astros’ teams are scattered throughout other MLB clubs. There have been calls to vacate Houston’s 2017 World Series title, and there was a broad sense that Houston’s various apologies, issued in the first week of spring training, were insufficient.

Astros owner Jim Crane took a defensive stance. “Our opinion,” Crane said, “is that this didn’t impact the game. We had a good team. We won the World Series, and we’ll leave it at that.” Some Houston players have apologized, but couldn’t say specifically what for, or whether they felt remorse as the scheme was occurring.

Here’s everything you need to know about the unfolding scandal.

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What is sign-stealing?

Sign-stealing is a long-standing baseball practice in which one team tries to decode the signs of its opponent. Those signs could be relayed from the catcher to the pitcher, or from the dugout to the catcher, or from one infielder to another, or from a base coach to a batter or runner. There is a constant exchange of signs by both the hitting team and fielding team during a baseball game. Figuring out what even one of them means — in the Astros’ case, the signs from catcher to pitcher, the most frequent target for sign-stealing — can give a team a major advantage, allowing batters to know, for example, if the next pitch will be a fastball or a breaking ball.

Is it illegal to steal signs in MLB?

Nope. It’s accepted tradition. Players and coaches try to steal their opponents’ signs, but they’ve traditionally done so mostly by watching the other team and trying to recognize patterns or sequences. Sign-stealing is as old as baseball itself. But stealing signs using camera, binoculars or other objects foreign to the game is illegal. Major League Baseball took steps to curtail sign-stealing in the digital age during the most recent offseason, according to multiple media reports. That followed a series of allegations of teams stealing signs using electronic means. In 2017, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred had warned teams about electronic sign-stealing, while fining the Boston Red Sox for “sending electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout.”

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How did the Astros steal signs?

The Astros used a camera positioned in center field at Minute Maid Park to decode the signs from the catcher to the pitcher and inform the batter what kind of pitch was on the way. That camera was used by the team’s replay room, whose operators were supposed to help Hinch decide whether to challenge an umpire’s call. But in addition to those duties, former bench coach Cora instructed the replay room to relay the decoded information to a player, who would share it with teammates. That information was variously shared using the dugout phone, the cellphone of a staff member on the bench or another cellphone stored nearby.

Eventually, the Astros installed a video monitor displaying the same footage just outside the dugout so players could look at the video themselves. Players would bang on a trash can with a bat to signal to the hitter at the plate what pitch was coming. “Generally, one or two bangs corresponded to certain off-speed pitches,” according to Manfred’s investigative report, “while no bang corresponded to a fastball.”

Houston also deployed a computer software program called “Codebreaker” the was used to unmask the opposing battery’s signals. Using that center field camera, according to the Wall Street Journal, a staffer would log the stolen signs into a spreadsheet, then run an algorithm to determine an opponent’s sequencing and what all the signs meant. Houston’s front office joked that the program came from the franchise’s “dark arts” department.

When did the Astros start stealing signs?

The Astros started stealing signs using the replay room at the beginning of the 2017 season, according to the MLB report, the same season they defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, four games to three, to win their first World Series. The team began using the monitor outside the dugout two months into the season.

The replay room scheme was revived during the 2018 season, but stopped sometime before the playoffs began. MLB’s investigation did not find any evidence that the sign-stealing racket continued into the 2019 season, when the Astros lost the World Series to the Washington Nationals, four games to three.

Boswell: Cheating ruins everything about sports. The Astros got what they deserved.

But according to the Wall Street Journal report, the Astros developed “Codebreaker” near the end of the 2016 season, and showed it to Luhnow in a meeting in late September, when Houston still had 10 games to play.

How did the Astros get caught?

A number of teams had suspicions about the Astros, but the sign-stealing only became public in November, when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers told Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic about the scheme.

“That’s not playing the game the right way,” Fiers said. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”

But unnamed sources who spoke with The Athletic said Houston was far from the only club breaking MLB’s rules by using technology to steal signs.

“It’s an issue that permeates through the whole league,” one major league manager said. “The league has done a very poor job of policing or discouraging it.”

Who got fired from the Astros?

Let’s start with who got punished. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Hinch and Luhnow for the 2020 season. Manfred also banned Brandon Taubman, the team’s former assistant general manager, from working for MLB or any of its clubs for the 2020 season, after which he can apply for reinstatement, over a separate matter. Manfred also stripped the Astros of their first- and second-round selections in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, and fined the franchise $5 million.

Shortly after Hinch and Luhnow’s suspensions were announced, they were both fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.

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What did Alex Cora do?

Cora was the manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2018 and 2019 before he and the Red Sox “mutually agreed to part ways” last month. But before that, he was the Astros’ bench coach in 2017 and the architect of the sign-stealing scheme, according to the commissioner’s report.

“Early in the [2017] season, Alex Cora, the Astros’ bench coach, began to call the replay review room on the replay phone to obtain the sign information,” the report says.

“Cora arranged for a video room technician to install a monitor displaying the center field camera feed immediately outside of the Astros’ dugout,” it says later.

Those are both clear violations of MLB’s rules on sign-stealing and in-game technology use. Cora, the report states, was the highest level Astros official with direct involvement in illegal sign-stealing, and, according to media reports, he brought a similar regime to Boston when he began serving as the team’s manager in 2018.

“Given the findings and the commissioner’s ruling, we collectively decided that it would not be possible for Alex to effectively lead the club going forward,” the Red Sox said in a statement.

But Manfred chose not to discipline Cora yet, because MLB is conducting a separate investigation into alleged illegal sign-stealing by the Red Sox in 2018, the year the team defeated the Dodgers in the World Series. Manfred said he was withholding punishment on Cora until that inquiry concludes.

Who else in baseball might have been involved?

New York Mets Manager Carlos Beltran played for the Astros in 2017 and retired after the team won the World Series. He was hired as the Mets new manager in November.

Beltran stepped down as manager of the Mets on Jan. 16, without ever having managed a game for New York. He lasted only two months on the job.

Beltran is the only named player in the commissioner’s report. It alleges that in the 2017 season, he and a group of unnamed Astros players “discussed that the team could improve on decoding opposing teams’ signs and communicating the signs to the batter.” That discussion was the impetus for the trash can-banging scheme.

Mets executives said in a statement that they met with Beltran and “agreed to mutually part ways.”

“Considering the circumstances, it became clear to all parties that it was not in anyone’s best interest for Carlos to move forward as manager of the New York Mets,” the team said.

In a separate statement, Beltran said, “I couldn’t let myself be a distraction for the team."

Have the Astros apologized?

They did, but it didn’t go well. At a news conference on the first day of spring training, franchise owner Jim Crane insisted the sign-stealing scandal did not impact the result of games, then backtracked and said, “it could possibly do that, it could possibly not.”

“We are apologizing because we broke the rules,” Crane ultimately said.

Third baseman Alex Bregman read a prepared apology at the news conference, then deflected questions from reporters later in the day.

“Today is about us apologizing. We as a team are trying to show remorse,” he said.

“The reality is we are remorseful,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We feel sorry. I don’t even want to think about what happened back then, because it was straight-up wrong.”

“Was it worth breaking the rules? I don’t think so,” outfielder Josh Reddick said. “I think it’s a matter of, number one, we were a good team. It’s hard to say whether it was worth it or not, because you did break the rules and here we are talking about it. So it’s definitely something that we’re probably going to regret for the rest of our careers.”

Staff writers Dave Sheinin and Sam Fortier contributed to this report.

What to know about the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal

The Houston Astros engaged in an extensive sign-stealing scheme throughout the 2017 season, including during their World Series victory, and in the 2018 season, using cameras and video monitors. Former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed the scheme to The Athletic in November.

What is sign stealing? It’s a long-standing baseball practice in which one team tries to decode the signs of its opponent. It’s not illegal, but the way the Astros went about stealing signs is.

What’s happened since? The Astros fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow in January after MLB suspended both for their roles in the scheme. Dusty Baker and James Click were hired to replace them. Owner Jim Crane and several Houston players, including stars José Altuve and Alex Bregman, apologized at the start of spring training; Crane said players shouldn’t be punished.

• Read more: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred defends his decision not to punish Astros players

How does the rest of baseball feel? Many around the league weren’t satisfied with the Astros’ apology, and some opponents have been outwardly angry, saying they’re ready to dole out justice of their own. Here’s what baseball’s stars are saying about the Astros.

Go deeper …

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