I am told that I was in Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1947 when Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers stole home plate from third base. [I was born a few months later.] I have stayed with the game all my life. In junior college seminary, I was listed on the depth chart as a catcher, though in truth I was the “break glass in case of emergency” replacement on the squad. So, I was intrigued at the breaking news story this week regarding cheating by the Houston Astros and possibly several other teams, specifically the issue of electronic stealing of the secret signals that all teams develop to assist their players in communicating with one another. For those of you who do not follow baseball or its rules closely, the Washington Post has a fine layman’s summary of the scandal in its sport section.
My reaction to the Houston story was surprise. I thought all teams were stealing signs with technology. In the 1950’s I watched the “Baseball Game of the Week” in black and white on Saturday afternoons, and Dizzy Dean and Buddy Blattner, the announcers, routinely instructed the center field TV cameras to hone in on the catcher’s finger symbols to his pitcher. [Old Diz’ won 30 games as a pitcher himself two decades before, when baseball was broadcast only on the radio.] My bigger reaction was the possibility of using this Houston scandal and others like it for catechetical purposes. What an interesting way to teach the Seventh Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Steal.’ I am assuming for our discussions here that we are dealing with competitive sports, where the object is to win by outperforming and outwitting one’s opponent for monetary or other tangible compensation.
Cheating/stealing which brings actual harm to players in competition: Fifth and Seventh Commandment. There have been some scandals in sports where the drive to obtain a competitive edge crossed into moral compromise that few would condone. I think the most egregious offense to athletic enterprise in my lifetime was the “bounty scandal” or “Bounty Gate” plot engineered by 27 New Orleans Saints football players and some coaches. Coaches and players created a pool of money to be awarded for injuring an opposing star player and forcing him out of the game. Bounty Gate was in full swing in 2009 when the Saints won a Superbowl. Saints’ head coach Sean Payton was suspended for one year.
As for baseball, another set of questionable circumstances a century earlier—corporate as much as personal--led directly to the death of a baseball player during a Major League Baseball game. In 1920 a New York Yankee pitcher, Carl Mays, struck Cleveland Indians player Ray Chapman in the head with a pitch that led to Chapman’s death twelve hours later. Historians note that at the time of Chapman’s death major leagues used a minimum amount of baseballs during a game, and pitchers routinely ground the singular baseball into the dirt or rubbed it with tobacco or licorice. As games wore on, the pitched baseball was nearly impossible to see. In addition, Mays threw an “underhand” pitch [or a submarine pitch in today’s lingo] as well as a “spitter,” both of which were legal at the time. That said, baseball authorities rushed through several reforms after Chapman’s death, including increasing the number of clean baseballs and outlawing the spitter [a pitch loaded up with saliva, tobacco, or Vaseline], whose projection is nearly impossible for a batter to pick up in time to protect himself. Mays was not punished and won 200 games over his long career. Protection devices such as batting helmets would come into common use only many years later, though not soon enough to protect the Boston Red Sox's Tony Conigliaro, struck in the eye in 1967 by a pitch from journeyman Jack Hamilton which partially blinded him.
Though not directly related to on the field competition, it is worth noting that many baseball team owners have taken prompt steps to protect fans in the stands with extensions of screenings to avoid contact with foul balls after several recent serious injuries in the stands.
Strategy: It depends how far you go: All discussions of stretching the boundaries of legal or customary strategy must begin with Wee Willie Keeler. Baseball has changed its rules countless times to maintain a competitive balance, on the grounds that competition for money ought to provide both sides with a level playing field, physically as well as strategically. Players and their owners, on the other hand, have been looking for the competitive edge since the game became organized and have worked to create new environments to circumvent these rule changes. In 1899 Wee Willie Keeler, then playing for the Brooklyn Superbas [Dodgers], struck out just twice all year! His secret was an otherworldly expertise at bunting, which he could apparently execute at will. He was so good at it, in fact, that baseball instituted the “third-strike foul bunt rule” to reign him in. But Willie worked his way around this new rule by developing a swing which resulted in an inordinately high bounce in the infield, the “Baltimore Chop,” which provided ample opportunity for a batter to race to first base for a single before an infielder could field the ball. The chop is still legal, though I guess no one could pull it off like Wee Willie.
But at 5’4” the diminutive Keeler needed true architectural assistance in 1903. Playing for the first time on his home field with the New York Highlanders [Yankees] he discovered that the dip in right field was so severe that he could not see home plate. Consequently, the Highlanders built him a wooden platform in right field to allow him a better jump on the batted ball. Tinkering with ballparks for specific team needs continues to this day. The most common adjustment is moving fences in [for more home runs] or out [to assist poor pitching]. Major League Baseball apparently does not dictate the size of an outfield so long as it is within reason. “Reason” can be a loose term. When the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to the Los Angeles Coliseum [1958-1961], the right field fence stood 440’ from home plate, the left field fence at 271’.
Every change brings advantage to some and disadvantage to others. Over the years pitching mounds have been raised [to help the pitcher] and lowered [to help the batter.] The strike zone interpretation is dependent upon league regulations and the discretion of the umpires. In 1973 the American League enacted a rule whereby the weakest batter in the starting lineup could be replaced by a stronger hitter from the bench throughout the game, the “designated hitter” rule.” Professional sports are businesses which need to draw fans to the park and [especially] TV and wireless streaming. A winning team, with a few exceptions, is a winning product for baseball owners and, lest we forget, for individual baseball players whose good statistics put them
In positions to demand higher salaries or navigate to other teams for more lucrative contracts. Which leads us to our next moral dilemma…
PEDS or Performing Enhancement Drugs. While pharmaceutical enhancements have always played a role in baseball and probably all sports, the practice grew wildly out of control after 1994. Baseball players went on strike and no World Series was played. Fan reaction toward baseball was highly negative, and Major League Baseball was desperate for some “good news.” Sure enough, the quest for Babe Ruth’s all-time home run records by Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and others captured the front pages of the sports sections of the newspapers. As new PED’s became available some of baseballs best pitchers and home run hitters began to employ their use to build muscle, increase strength, and recover more quickly from injuries. The drugs themselves, notably anabolic steroids, had been banned from baseball from some time, but many PEDS are difficult to test for, and at the turn of the 21st century, as home run records were eclipsed in almost comic proportions, and players like Bonds visibly beefed up to Herculean size, investigators were dependent upon players’ testimony and a federal investigation of a pharmaceutical supply house, Balco. Those who went to jail and/or were suspended from baseball did so on charges of perjury or obstruction of justice.
As with several other scandals listed above, there is individual and corporate guilt. The players who used enhancers obviously cheated against players who played it straight, both on their own teams and the opposition. They shortcutted the laborious gym work that all successful professionals engage religiously. They “stole”—and there is no other way to put it—the credit of true accomplished record holders, notably Hank Aaron’s career record of 753 home runs. And, as any baseball fan will admit, there is a taint of scandal and fraud hanging over the entire steroid era, such that the accomplishments of truly fine winning teams and statistically exceptional players will always be regarded with a mental asterisk.
And then there was Houston. This is a baseball scandal where the technology ran ahead of the game. Looked at one way, the Astros were attempting to steal signs in the great tradition of baseball. Sign stealing is legal so long as no electronics are used. After World War II, when baseball games began to be televised with center field cameras, owners resisted on the grounds that the catcher’s pitch calls could be recorded and analyzed. However, the commercial TV cameras remained in place as they do to this day. In the 1960’s and 1970’s Lou Brock, probably the best base stealer in history, used an 8mm camera to film pitchers’ deliveries from the dugout in order to time his jumps toward second base. No one objected.
The holy grail of stealing catchers’ signs is a system that makes the stolen code immediately accessible to the batter. The time a catcher gives his pitch sign to the pitcher and the pitcher hurls the ball across the plate is a matter of seconds, around 5 or 10. The Astros installed a camera in their home park in center field, which beamed an instant signal to a TV monitor in the dugout. Baseball allowed the installation of video screens in dugouts a few years ago when the practice of instant replay review by umpires became available as it is in professional football. An unintended consequence of the dugout monitors was the almost instantaneous visibility of the catcher’s signals to the Houston players.
Since the computer age, baseball players and teams amass huge amounts of statistical and visual data on every opponent’s roster. Batters already know pitchers’ tendencies, what their best pitches are, and when they are likely to throw them. One of the true arts of pitching is delivering the unexpected to the plate, and this is the final frontier of baseball espionage, gaining knowledge of what the pitcher is going to throw. The Astros crossed the sound barrier with a surprisingly low-tech solution: having knowledge of what the next pitch will be, players signaled the batter by rapping on the dugout garbage can with a bat. One swat on the can for a fast ball, two swats for a slower breaking pitch like a curve ball. Numerous videos have emerged this past week confirming the [literal] trash talk to the batter. A pitcher on the Astros 2017 championship team, Mike Fiers, was traded to the Oakland A’s and he briefed his new teammates on what to watch out for, later providing a long interview to the baseball news service, The Athletic.
Was the system effective? Probably less so today, now that the system has been publicly confirmed, and very recent accusations involved several major league teams besides the Astros. Many baseball insiders had suspicions of sign stealing before the Astros system was in full throttle during the 2017 World Series with the Dodgers, won by Houston. Was it costly? It is worth noting the psychological anguish caused by the Astros system to just one man, a Dodgers’ pitcher, Yu Darvish. Darvish started two games in the World Series for Los Angeles and was pounded by Astros’ hitting. He did not last past three innings in either start [a World Series record which still stands.] After the Series, to add insult to injury, Astros players told Darvish that he [Darvish] was tipping his pitches. This caused the pitcher to question his pitching mechanics and his general effectiveness. The Dodgers traded him before the 2018 season.
Houston’s 2017 World Series victory will be carried through generations with “the mental asterisk” of baseball fans and historians. While there have been countless instances of moral and technical breakdowns in every institution, including the Catholic Church, a moral crisis is wasted if it does not lead to fruitful discussion, evaluation, and reform. Issues involving the Seventh Commandment demand as much attention as we have traditionally rendered the Sixth. To paraphrase the Gospel, “What does it profit an organization to gain the whole world—or at least a World Series Championship—but suffer the loss of its soul?”