Boston Red Sox, MLB

What can Major League Baseball do about electronic sign stealing?

The Boston Red Sox are the latest club to be drawn into a sign stealing cheating scandal. So what can the league finally do to stop it?

In 2017, the Boston Red Sox got caught cheating. Major League Baseball was able to determine that the Red Sox were relaying opposing teams signals from the replay room to the dugout via the use of Apple Watches. The club was handed an undisclosed fine, no one was punished, and the scandal quickly vanished from the public consciousness.

Until Tuesday morning, when a report by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich quotes three sources from the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox that they were up to their nefarious ways again. The operation worked like this: during the 2018 regular season, a player would visit the replay room—located close to the Red Sox dugout in Fenway Park—and get the signs before taking that information back to the dugout, where it would be relayed to a baserunner on first or second. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred released a statement that the league would investigate these allegations.

This new scandal, coming soon after another World Series champion, the 2017 Houston Astros, were reported to have been cheating with the use of center-field cameras, brings the issue of what the league can do to put an end to sign stealing to the forefront of the national conversation.

Sign stealing in general is nothing new.

Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” is one of the most famous plays in baseball history, helping the 1951 Giants win the NL pennant; but Thomson knew what pitch was coming from Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca because the Giants had successfully interpreted the Dodgers signs.

In 2011, the Blue Jays had the infamous “Man in White,” whom opposing pitchers alleged was relaying their signs to hitters from center field. The league was never able to link the club to the scandal, and nothing ever came of it.

Runners standing on second base are able to see the signs a catcher puts down and send signals to the hitter at the plate. That’s been going on as long as the game has been played. But it was a result of players’ own ingenuity and watchfulness, rather than any use of outside electronic interference.

That’s the difference between those old scandals and the new allegations against the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees. The league instituted a rule in the middle of the past decade stating that the use of electronics to steal signs was strictly forbidden. By 2018, with the enforcement of this rule less stringent than it should have been, the league made it clear that any use of the replay room to help steal signs was strictly forbidden.

But it didn’t work. The league didn’t monitor the replay room until the 2018 postseason, allowing the Red Sox to go the entire regular season with little oversight of their operations. Even in 2019, when monitors started attending all games, The Athletic quotes some players saying that the level of watchfulness varied from ballpark to ballpark.

So what can be done to prevent another scandal like the Astros and Red Sox, and another World Series champion with doubt surrounding their title?

The first step would be to more closely watch the replay rooms; The Athletic writes that the league has 100 monitors and is training more. But that won’t prevent someone from leaving the room and sending a message to a player in the clubhouse. That won’t be stopped unless the clubhouse is blocked off during games, forcing players to remain in the dugout where their every action is open for all to see.

The league can also begin experimenting with different ways of directing signs from the catcher to the pitcher.

Instead of having the catcher use hand signals, both pitcher and catcher can be equipped with headsets that allow them to communicate with the coaches in the dugout, similar to how quarterbacks get plays in football. But even that would have its drawbacks: catchers are experts in calling games and are best situated to see how a certain hitter is seeing and reacting to pitches. Catchers work closely with their pitchers, a relationship that will have to change with the introduction of more technology.

The biggest thing the league can do to put an end to sign-stealing, however, is to finally start enforcing their own rules. That means strict punishment for perpetrators.

Alex Cora is the main link between the Astros and Red Sox scandals; serving as bench coach for the Astros in 2017, Cora moved on to become manager of the Red Sox the following year. If the league’s investigations find evidence of wrong-doing by both clubs, Cora must be suspended. And not a light suspension, either: if a player can be suspended 80 games for taking PEDs, why can’t a manager be given a similar suspension for attempting to gain an unfair advantage?

The league can also start punishing teams that commit sign-stealing offenses. Instead of undisclosed fines that barely affect the club’s bottom line, start taking away draft picks and luxury tax space; the Red Sox are already struggling to stay under the luxury tax threshold and considering trading former MVP Mookie Betts because of it. Or they can prevent a club from signing free agents for one offseason like they do in European soccer.

Strict punishments will serve as a deterrent, but teams would still be tempted to contravene the rules in order to win. What will make the biggest difference is if the players themselves take a stand, like Astros whistle-blower Mike Fiers, and say enough is enough, they won’t be a part of blatant cheating.

The technology available to Major League ball clubs has long surpassed the league’s ability to control it, creating a situation where two of the last three champions may have won their titles with more than the abilities of their pitchers and hitters. Now it’s time for the league to fight back. The game’s integrity depends on it.

Next: How well have MLB’s mega-contracts worked out?

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