Stealing Signs: The Moral Question Surrounding Well-Done Thievery And The Punishment That Should Follow

We love a good bandit story: Bonnie and Clyde, the Newton Boys, Smokey and the…

But those rapscallions are either long-since dead and we’ve glossed over how truly terrible people the were, or immortalized in an aw shucks kind of way for eternity on film.

There’s a little part of everyone of us that gets a thrill by maybe doing the wrong thing, just a little. We are still good people, of course. But just a little won’t hurt anybody, really, will it? It’s more like, helping us just a little. Right?

Not exactly. Unlike The Bandit who wasn’t trying to steal anything from anyone but was trying to win a bet, the Houston Astros are more like the Newton Boys: good-natured robbers who were nonetheless stealing other people’s money. That’s what’s in banks and on Wall Street by the way —people’s money, retirement funds, college funds. And you wouldn’t want somebody banging a trash can on the trading floor to let a trader know something is going to happen to a commodity that no one is supposed to know about. Especially if that information causes your college fund to tank and your kid’s college aspirations to go from Stanford to Snookered Community College. That’s insider trading… and it’s illegal as hell.

The Astros system of relaying signs from the video replay booths to the dugout to field is exactly the same thing. If you’re gaining an advantage that another team doesn’t have because they’re following the rules and you’re not, then that’s cheating. And getting caught should have consequences.

There is legal thievery of course. In baseball stealing bases is allowed and is actively encouraged if you can make it 90 feet before the catcher or pitcher can throw you out.

Likewise, stealing signs has been a part of the game since the first signs were flashed. The first catcher to do so must have realized that running out to the mound before every pitch was a reason why games were talking 11 hours to play. That’s why am unofficial limit of 37 mound visits was agreed upon which stood until just recently. After that first aha moment, I’m guessing the same catcher determined that yelling to his pitcher to, “Throw the spinny thingy!” wasn’t the best way to communicate either.

And once those first signs were flashed, the first base runners began trying to interpret them, usually from the field or the dugout. Though in some cases players, coaches and staff have tried from the bullpen, through the scoreboard or in the cheap seats using telescopes, binoculars, and now, livestream video feeds into the replay booth.

For whatever reason —typically embarrassment— catchers, pitchers and teams have long accused other teams of stealing signs without the help of long-range technology which still violates baseball’s unwritten rule book, a copy of which can be found nowhere and that changes by the day. Funny that the “victims” in these cases of larceny would happily slap their teammates on the back were they to do the same to the opposing team.

But these latest incidents involving the Red Sox and the Astros are different. The infield sign-stealing and conveying takes place between players who can then duke it out over violations of unwritten, testosterone-based man codes.

But the computer geek in the replay room is hidden from view as he deciphers one finger fastball, two finger curve. And the system of relaying signs though a player or coach for the Astros banging away on a trash underscores what we know and that more importantly they knew. They were part of a conspiracy to cheat, along with the manager and general manager who knew and should have known about it.

Credit to baseball for the punishment it melted out and credit to the Astros for going further with terminations. The problem is the results don’t change. Would the Dodgers have won against the Red Sox or the Astros in either of those World Series? Who knows. There’s not a great argument to give the titles to the Dodgers. But there is an argument to be made for ripping the titles away from the Astros, if not also the Red Sox. Isn’t that a punishment that matches systemic larceny?

Astros owner Jim Crane and the players aren’t sorry the team cheated. They’re sorry they got caught and Crane had to fire people to save face.

Need proof? It took Crane weeks to actually apologize for the cheating itself and Alex Bregman looks like every eight-year-old kid who just got caught with his hand in the proverbial cookie jar. His face says “If I tell the truth then I’m really in trouble” every time he’s asked about it. And he keeps mumbling something about the commissioner’s report.

Instead of allowing the Astros to get away with the continued partial coverup, it should suspend the players who knew about it and especially those who allowed it and benefited from it —bargaining agreement or not.

Cheating is still cheating, whether it’s in a lab or a replay booth. If you don’t get caught, you benefit. But if you get caught, you should pay… and it should hurt. The Astros still have a ways to go to pay in full.

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