Ten days ago, I ran into Cal Ripken Jr. in a store in Annapolis. We chatted so long, catching up, that the store stayed open late so we could keep yakking. Or maybe so our wives could keep shopping. Cal was full of thoughts — but especially about baseball cheating, the subject that will make 2020 infamous in the game’s history, even if there isn’t a season.

To my surprise, Ripken, a baseball purist and hard-nosed but ethical sportsman, took a more lenient — or at least understanding — view of the Houston Astros than I would have expected. That also applies to the Boston Red Sox, under investigation by Major League Baseball for Astros-style cheating in 2018 when they won the World Series. MLB’s decision on the Red Sox could come at any time.

“This has been going on for a long time, certainly back when I played,” Ripken said.

Oh, really?

This spring, many big leaguers implied that the proximity of TV monitors to dugouts and other recent technological changes created a temptation too powerful to resist. The Nationals’ Max Scherzer said, “It’s happened before.”


“The 1951 Giants, right?” he said.

And that is how many, including me, have framed the issue. The only other cheaters who have been revealed were those “Miracle” Giants, although it took 50 years to find out about their telescope in center field.

For MLB, including current players, it has been convenient to imply that from 1951 until sometime in the 2010s, not too many people thought about spies beyond the outfield.

Ripken thinks — no, is pretty sure — that’s not true.

First, we need context. In Ripken’s era (1981-2001), he was the only player I have ever heard say that, when he was on second base, he refused to relay a stolen sign to a teammate at the plate even if he had decoded the catcher’s signs, which he often could. Also, when he hit, he told Orioles runners never to tip pitches or pitch location for him.

“It’s not in the spirit of the game,” he said. “The sport is the pitcher vs. the hitter. There shouldn’t be any third parties involved.”

Maybe other players believed this, too; I just never met one. But then I also never met anyone who played 2,632 straight games because he believed, “If you can play, then you do play.”

Ripken’s only addendum to this personal code was that it was okay for hitters to study pitchers to see whether they tipped their own pitches with quirks in their ritual, demeanor or delivery. In fact, Ripken considered it professional diligence to look for such “tells.” If a teammate or coach spotted them, please pass the info along. Then he would decide how, when or whether to use it.

In the 1997 American League Division Series against Randy Johnson, the legendary 6-foot-10 “Big Unit,” sign-tipping got Ripken out of a deep slump at the perfect time. Orioles legend Frank Robinson noticed that Johnson, now enshrined in Cooperstown, N.Y., gripped the ball more tightly in his glove before he threw his slider. That made the back of his glove bulge a little. In the Orioles’ two wins over Johnson, Ripken went 4 for 7 off the left-hander, all on sliders that he hit to the opposite field.

“That’s just doing your job,” Ripken said. “It’s you and him.”

After all, pitchers study hitters’ stances for “tells” about what pitch they may be anticipating.

There are moralists and pragmatists. Then there is a rarer breed: the moral pragmatist, such as Ripken. In his profession, he has his own compass. Sometimes that makes him set the bar higher for himself than he expects of others. He may still judge but not as harshly.

That’s how Ripken sounds when he talks about the Astros — as if they are an unfortunate part of a long, bad tradition but not a unique band of villains worthy of public (opinion) execution.

Ripken reminded me of the teams that the Orioles thought were cheating with spy scopes and tip-off signs from center field. They could never prove it, but the same three AL ballparks always came up. As Cal named them, I remembered them all from my days covering Baltimore.

“I thought that was mostly gossip,” I said.

“Some of our pitchers got real paranoid about it,” Ripken said.

One Orioles pitcher 25 years ago was so conscious of sign thieves that he took his own code to each new team he played on.

“A-B-E,” Ripken said. “He had three sets of signs. One for when he was ahead in the count: A. Another for behind: B. E for even. He’d use it on every pitch in a lot of games. That’s how worried he was.

“It was hard for teams to break that system because ABE was his own idea. But it was a little tough to play behind him. If the scoreboard got the count wrong, it was a mess.”

As a product of the old Oriole Way, with its addiction to every nuance of inside baseball, Ripken is fascinated with what the Astros did, when they did it and how.

“What do you hear about them using buzzers in their shirts?” he asked.

“Some suspicion, no proof,” I said.

“I can’t find anybody who says they had them,” Ripken said, meaning he tried to find out.

Then he added, “Teams seem to have forgotten how to solve the cheating problem.”

Oh, really, Part 2. Do tell.

Between innings, Ripken said, pitcher and catcher agree that on a certain pitch, the signal will be for a curveball low and away. But pitcher and catcher both know that the pitch will really be a fastball up and in. If nobody’s cheating, nobody gets hurt.

“But if you’re striding out to get to a curveball away,” Ripken said, “and you realize at the last instant that it’s a high fastball that’s following you in and your face is diving right into its path, your life passes before your eyes.

“Not too many guys want to ‘get pitches’ after that.”

Weeks ago, spring training scuttlebutt had MLB delivering its findings and punishments on the Red Sox within days. But they haven’t come yet. If MLB releases those conclusions during this pandemic hiatus, that’s not “burying the news” or evading the fallout. It’s just better than the alternative: more cheating scandal just as the sport may resume.

Thanks to Ripken’s perspective, whenever that ugly news arrives, I probably will adjust my tone, tamp it down just a knock. An entire organization involved in systematic cheating is still a disgrace, as well as a reminder of MLB’s integrity shortcomings over the past 40-plus years. I still will think the Astros’ 2017 title should be voided. You can’t give it to anybody else, but they can’t keep it. They deserve the constant reminder of a shameful blank space in the record book, not just an invisible mental asterisk in our minds.

Beyond that, however, I’m inclined to let my outrage burn itself out over time rather than inflame it. Some fans will bring trash cans to Houston games to beat at the Astros, along with countless signs and boos. That’s fine. I confess: I will enjoy it.

However, I’m not going to see permanent horns poking through the caps of every player on that 2017 team.

I will balance my view with more Cal context: This really has been going on for a long time.

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