MLB’s Current Sign-Stealing Saga Carries Echos of the Game’s PED Problems

A new avenue to pursue a competitive advantage, a gray area as to whether it’s considered cheating, a paper ban that goes unenforced, bad behavior spreading around the league through player movement, executives shocked — shocked! — that such behavior is happening on their teams, a commissioner sounding out of touch as he publicly downplays the severity of the problem, once-celebrated achievements now tainted… if the outlines of baseball’s current sign-stealing scandal sound familiar, it’s because they’ve followed a pattern similar to that of the performance-enhancing drug problem that enveloped the game in the 1990s and early 2000s. Of course, there are key differences between the two, but both found Major League Baseball well behind the curve and struggling both to catch up and regain credibility on the issue.

That thought came to mind on Tuesday, as the sign-stealing saga took a new turn when The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich reported that in 2018, the Red Sox used their video replay room in an attempt to decipher opponents’ sign sequences, a practice that proliferated after instant replay reviews were introduced in 2014, one that was broadly prohibited but generally unenforced until 2018. Three members of the 2018 Red Sox told The Athletic that multiple teammates used the team’s video room, which was just a few steps from the home dugout, to break down opponents’ signs. Unlike the bang-on-a-trash-can system Rosenthal and Drellich reported the Astros having used in 2017, the Red Sox did not directly communicate to batters what pitch was coming, instead relaying that information through the dugout to the baserunner and then to the hitter.

While the efficacy of either system is still murky, both the Astros and Red Sox flouted the rules, and both went on to win the World Series in the year they did so, coincidentally beating the Dodgers. While rumors have circulated regarding other teams’ usage of replay rooms and other means to steal signs electronically, thus far the substantiated allegations have been limited to those two clubs, who share a common denominator: Alex Cora, who as bench coach of the Astros in 2017 is said to have played a key role in their sign-stealing system, and who left following that season to manage the Red Sox, a job he still holds.

Neither sign-stealing nor PED usage sprung up overnight, and in fact both practices date back to the 19th century. In The Hidden Language of Baseball, Paul Dickson traced the origins of sign-stealing as far back as 1876, the inaugural season of the National League, when the Hartford Dark Blues built a shack atop a telegraph pole overlooking the stadium, and from there were able to tip off their players to signs. In 1900, the Phillies employed an electric buzzer system that would shock their third base coach to convey signs relayed from backup catcher Morgan Murphy, who served as a spotter beyond the center field walls. As for PEDs, Pud Galvin, the first pitcher to win 300 games, openly used “Brown-Séquard Elixir” via subcutaneous injection. The concoction, which was created by Dr. Charles Edouard Brown-Séquard and supposed to impede aging and boost strength and virility, contained an extract from monkey testicles. Galvin’s use of the substance was celebrated in the Washington Post in 1889 (“If there still be doubting Thomases who concede no virtue of the elixir, they are respectfully referred to Galvin’s record in yesterday’s Boston-Pittsburgh game”)!

Beyond the ancient and slightly more modern history of both practices — Babe Ruth injecting extract from sheep testicles in 1925, the year of his infamous bellyache; the 1951 Giants aiding their come-from-behind pennant effort by relaying stolen signs using their own buzzer system — it’s worth remembering baseball’s sluggish efforts to recognize and address the proliferation of PEDs within the game, and its commonalities with the sign-stealing problem.

As first detailed by pitcher Jim Brosnan in The Long Season, then later amplified by Jim Bouton in Ball Four, amphetamines became widely available in clubhouses starting in the late 1950s in the form of “greenies” used to fight fatigue and gain physical and mental edges. Numerous Hall of Famers have been connected to them, even after they began being regulated by Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Anabolic steroid usage seeped into baseball in the 1960s and ’70s. In 2005, former Braves reliever Tom House estimated that in those days, six or seven players per team were experimenting with steroids and human growth hormone and said, “We were doing steroids they wouldn’t give to horse… We didn’t get beat, we got out-milligrammed. And when you found out what they were taking, you started taking them.”

The sale of steroids for non-medical purposes was outlawed under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, and two years later, anabolic steroids were added to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (less serious than amphetamines, due to a lower risk of physical or psychological dependence). A year later, commissioner Fay Vincent sent a memo to teams and the players union explicitly prohibiting “the possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players or personnel… This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs … including steroids or prescription drugs for which the individual in possession of the drug does not have a prescription.” While it outlined treatment and penalties, the prohibition did not include random testing, which had to be bargained with the Major League Baseball Players Association.

In 1995, multiple executives and players such as Tony Gwynn and Frank Thomas told the Los Angeles Times‘ Bob Nightengale that steroid usage was becoming more prevalent. Acting commissioner Bud Selig, who had replaced the ousted Vincent in 1992, told Nightengale, “If baseball has a problem, I must say candidly that we were not aware of it. It certainly hasn’t been talked about much. But should we concern ourselves as an industry? I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to bring it up again.”

Selig reissued Vincent’s memo in 1997, but the problem wasn’t truly addressed, even after a bottle of the testosterone precursor androstenedione was found in the locker of Mark McGwire the following summer as he raced Sammy Sosa in pursuit of the single-season home run record. In the wake of Ken Caminiti‘s 2002 confession of having used PEDs during his MVP-wining 1996 season, in which he told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci that “at least half the guys are using steroids,” Selig called the drugs’ proliferation “a problem we can and must deal with now,” but it wasn’t until 2004 — after the BALCO scandal implicated Barry Bonds and several other players — that random testing and suspensions were introduced, triggered by a league-wide survey test. When exactly zero players were disciplined that year, Selig was among those called to testify before Congress on March 17, 2005. So was Jose Canseco, whose just-published book Juiced detailed his own PED usage as well as his claims to have introduced and injected A’s teammate McGwire and Rangers teammates Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, and Ivan Rodriguez.

All of this amounted to a huge black eye for the sport, but before Congress, Selig expressed satisfaction that a new program of year-round testing was in place. “All this business about you should have known or you could have known, I take very seriously, but the programs have kicked in, and we’re going to have to do whatever we have to do to eradicate steroids from our sport,” Selig said. The penalties for failing a test were strengthened later that year in cooperation with the players’ association, with the minimum suspension for a first offense increased from 10 days to 50 games.

The December 2007 Mitchell Report implicated 89 then-current and former players as having used PEDs, a number that almost certainly represented just the tip of the iceberg, as it was compiled with the cooperation of a few individuals such as personal trainer Brian McNamee and clubhouse employee Kirk Radomski, who detailed their networks within the game. The report also detailed the claims of general managers Sandy Alderson (A’s), Brian Sabean (Giants), and Kevin Towers (Padres) that they were not aware of the PED usage on their respective teams or by their stars, though Mitchell also included accounts of other executives voicing suspicions about their own players and potential acquisitions.

The outlines of this oft-told story echo in the emergence of electronic sign-stealing and commissioner Rob Manfred’s reaction to the story’s unfolding. As detailed by The Athletic, while televisions have been permitted inside of baseball clubhouses and locker rooms for decades, allowing the occasional effort to decode a signal, the 2014 introduction of video replay rooms, where teams could quickly review plays and decide whether to challenge umpires’ rulings on the field, gave teams access to multiple tools and camera angles in closer proximity to dugouts. Inevitably, at a time when teams were using various technologies in search of the most minute advantages elsewhere, the video systems were deployed for such means. Multiple sources told The Athletic that the Yankees began using the video replay room for sign-stealing purposes during games in 2015, and the Red Sox did likewise a year later.

At that point, the league had a broad rule prohibiting the usage of electronic equipment in sign stealing (“No equipment may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage”). But despite the prohibition, there was no mechanism for enforcement, and at least some players didn’t feel as though using such means was a violation. “I’m just telling you from a broad perspective, living it, it didn’t feel that wrong,” one ex-Yankee told The Athletic. “If I could figure out the signs from the telecast, I was not going to hold on to that information. I was going to share that with whomever.”

The practice seemed to fall into that same gray area as pitchers using sticky substances to improve their grip on the ball — acceptable when done tacitly — and it spread from team to team. As one AL executive told The Athletic, “Oftentimes it takes a player to show up and be like ‘You f—— morons, you’re not doing this?”

In September 2017, the Yankees and Red Sox engaged in a tussle centered around electronic sign stealing that prompted Manfred to act. The Yankees gave the commissioner’s office footage of a Red Sox athletic trainer looking at an Apple Watch in the dugout and relaying messages to players, a violation of the aforementioned rule. The Red Sox, then managed by John Farrell, admitted to wrongdoing but claimed that team management was not aware of what was happening. In a counter-complaint, the team claimed that the Yankees used a YES Network camera improperly.

While MLB did not find evidence to substantiate that claim, the league did find that the Yankees had used their dugout phone improperly in a past season. Manfred fined both teams and said in a statement, “All 30 clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

In March 2018, MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre reiterated the league’s more stringent stance in a memo to all club presidents, GMs, and assistant GM, stating in bold text, “To be clear, the use of any equipment in the clubhouse or in a Club’s replay or video rooms to decode an opposing Club’s signs during the game violates this Regulation.” However, the league did not begin to monitor team replay rooms with on-site personnel until the 2018 postseason, instead relying upon the honor system to curb such prohibited behavior. As The Athletic’s report details, those monitoring efforts, which continued through the 2019 season, varied in effectiveness throughout the league due to the inconsistent quality of personnel, and were not immune to being subverted. “We had (the monitors) in our back pocket,” one Red Sox source told The Athletic. “If we wanted to whisper something or they walked out, then we could do something if we needed to.”

The Red Sox did not comment on Tuesday’s report but issued a statement saying, “We were recently made aware of allegations suggesting the inappropriate use of our video replay room. We take these allegations seriously and will fully cooperate with MLB as they investigate the matter.” It’s a rather boilerplate statement implying that Sox officials were unaware of what was going on in their clubhouse and dugout. That’s worth questioning, to say the least, given the team’s involvement in the Apple Watch matter and their own 2018 complaint about a man named Kyle McLaughlin. While wearing a credential issued by the Astros, McLaughlin was caught taking photographs near the Red Sox dugout during the ALCS, and he had previously been spotted doing the same for the Indians’ dugout during the Division Series. Those in glass houses, etc.

As for the Astros, they were using a more advanced setup during the 2017 season, one in which a monitor placed in the tunnel between the home dugout and clubhouse in Minute Maid Park showed a feed from a television camera in center field. Team employees and players would watch a feed focused on opposing catchers’ signs and signal the expected pitch to batters by banging on a metal trash can. Soon afterwards, video of a specific example described in The Athletic’s article surfaced, showing White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar recognizing the sound, stepping off the mound, conferring with his catcher and changing the signs. Rosenthal and Drellich later reported that Cora and Astros DH Carlos Beltrán played key roles in devising the system. Beltrán, who was in his final major league season, claimed that the Astros did nothing wrong, while Cora declined comment. Now, it’s not hard to connect the dots: Beltrán played for the Yankees from 2014-16 before being traded to the Rangers late in the latter year, and as noted, Cora now manages the Red Sox.

At the owners’ meetings a week after The Athletic’s initial report, Manfred told reporters, “I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.” Those words sounded naïve then, and they’re almost laughable now. “It’s an issue that permeates through the whole league,” one major league manager told Rosenthal and Drellich. “The league has done a very poor job of policing or discouraging it.”

Both PED usage and electronic sign-stealing have served as easy means for individuals trying to seize competitive advantages. Their actions weren’t entirely covert, but they flew below the radar at the time, particularly with regards to specifics and on-the-record reporting. The league introduced rules to combat the problems, albeit with minimal or flawed means of enforcement, and the abuses proliferated, particularly when individuals moved from team to team. Commissioners publicly downplayed the problem before reports surfaced to show that it was much bigger than previously believed, spurring them to take action.

Of course, key differences between the two issues exist. The PED saga unfolded across decades, in an age before the heightened scrutiny produced by round-the-clock news and social media, whereas the electronic sign-stealing matter has taken place amid a much more compressed timeline — and even with so many eyeballs watching, the specifics escaped notice until recently, save for the occasional isolated incident such as the aforementioned ones involving the Red Sox, Yankees, and Astros.

In using and distributing PEDs, players violated actual laws and may have physically harmed themselves, while in stealing signs via electronic means, players and teams were simply breaking rules, though both could well be viewed as unethical by many players, including those who called for drug testing and those, like the A’s Mike Fiers, who blew the whistle on sign-stealing. Team officials may have looked the other way at individual PED users within their own clubhouses, but they didn’t actively encourage such use or coordinate it; by the reports we’ve seen thus far, team personnel were very involved and perhaps even integral to sign-stealing efforts, in part because they believed that their opponents were trying to steal signs, too. Combatting PED usage and disciplining players required cooperation with the players’ union, as drug testing is a matter subject to collective bargaining, and carries with it a guarantee of confidentiality. While the rules that created the instant replay system are part of the CBA as well, Manfred has a freer hand when it comes to discipline than Selig did.

On that note, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported on Tuesday that MLB’s investigation into the Astros’ sign-stealing is in its final stages. “The targets for discipline will be employees of the team, including the front office and on-field coaching personnel, but will not include the players involved in the scheme,” wrote Passan, citing discussions with three players interviewed by the league. The thinking behind this, as the New York Post’s Ken Davidoff and Dan Martin explained, is that players weren’t expected to have read Manfred’s September 2017 memo. Thus it’s general manager Jeff Luhnow, manager AJ Hinch, and other employees who are likely to be in the line of fire, but presumably not Beltrán, who was named manager of the Mets in November. Cora could be in line for a punishment as well, though given the latest revelation, Manfred may wish to defer that decision pending another investigation; via Verducci, the commissioner pledged “to investigate the Red Sox allegations with the same thoroughness and vigor that we did Houston.” None of those parties, not even Beltrán, have the protection of the Players Association, because they’re not union members. Both Passan and the Post report that the league plans to issue a transparent statement upon announcing such punishment, “outlining how the team cheated, how the league went about gathering information and how Manfred arrived at the penalties,” as Passan wrote.

The expectation is that Manfred will hand down penalties severe enough to deter other teams from similar schemes, with the possible loss of multiple high draft picks also part of the punishment. For as strong as the punishment may be, the account of the Red Sox’s efforts makes clear that MLB needs to beef up its monitoring efforts with more and better-trained personnel or else completely rethink the way the replay system operates. Shutting down the video rooms and using a fifth umpire to each crew to determine review-worthy calls would be one option.

The lesson that Manfred can learn from the hard road Selig traveled when it came to PEDs — and should have learned already, particularly as he was a key Selig lieutenant — is that the commissioner’s office needs to be more proactive. It isn’t enough to hand down penalties to bad actors. Understanding that players and teams are always looking for advantages, whether the rules permit them or not, and figuring out where to draw the lines and how to enforce such lines is the key to preventing history from repeating itself.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Thank you Jay, cheating is not very cool!