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Baseball teams have always stolen signs. Here’s what makes the Red Sox accusations different

September 6, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
The Boston Red Sox are accused of using technology to record and decode the signals between New York Yankees’ pitchers and catchers in order to use that information to their advantage in the middle of the game. William Brangham is joined by journalist Joshua Prager to discuss the history of sign-stealing in baseball and whether this strategy clashes with the rules of the game.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Baseball has a history of teams trying to gain advantage against a pitcher by occasionally stealing signs from the team it’s playing. The idea is to relay information to the hitter about what kind of pitch he will face.

There are ways to do it that are acceptable. But the Boston Red Sox are accused of going too far with it last month against their rivals, the New York Yankees, and using technology to do so.

William Brangham has the story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Specifically, the skullduggery being alleged against the Red Sox involves the use of a video camera and an Apple watch.

The commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, confirmed that Boston used this technology in a very elaborate process to record and decode the signs that the Yankee pitchers and catchers used, and then relayed that information to their batters in the middle of the game.

For more on today’s unfolding scandal, and the decades-long history of outwitting the rules in baseball, we turn to Joshua Prager. He’s a journalist and author. His 2008 book, “The Echoing Green,” chronicled the sign-stealing secret that helped the New York Giants win the 1951 pennant.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

JOSHUA PRAGER, Journalist/Author: Thanks for having me.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, help me break down what the allegation is against these dastardly Red Sox. What are they accused of having done?

JOSHUA PRAGER: So, they are accused of using mechanical means to alert a batter to what kind of pitch is coming.

And there are about 20 or so seconds that pass between every pitch of every game, 280 pitches or so, 20 or so seconds between every pitch. And that might seem like not a lot of time, but it’s actually plenty of time to do all sorts of stuff to alert a batter what kind of a pitch is coming.

And, ostensibly, most batters will tell you if helps them to know whether a pitch will be a fast pitch or an off-speed pitch. And the Red Sox are accused of using a phone and all sorts of quick signals to alert the batter to what was coming.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, I guess the concern is, the idea is that they somehow used a video camera to record what the Yankee pitchers and catchers were signaling to each other, figure out what that means, so that the next time another batter is coming up, that batter can be somehow tipped off what those signals are and what they mean?

JOSHUA PRAGER: Well, when you watch a baseball game at home, you see the catcher wiggling their fingers between every pitch.

And when they’re doing that, they’re telling the pitcher what kind of a pitch to throw. So, someone on the Red Sox, allegedly, according to Michael Schmidt, The New York Times, was looking at this, I guess on a television screen, and then relaying that information to a member of the training staff in the Red Sox dugout, who saw that information by looking down at his wrist.

And then he simply signaled to one of the players in the dugout. Michael mentioned two of them by name, Brock Holt and Dustin Pedroia, who then relayed the sign, it seems, to a Red Sox player, who was probably already on second base.

So, in other words, they didn’t use this between every pitch of every game, it seems, but, rather, they waited for someone to be on second base. And they did that, because it’s very easy when you’re on second to then relay the signal to the batter.

So, that sounds like a lot going on. You go from the watch to the player, to the man on the field, to the batter. But, as I mentioned earlier, you have 20 or so seconds, and you have actually — that’s plenty of time to let the batter know what kind of a pitch is coming.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, my understanding is — and you have certainly written a whole book about this — stealing signs is not considered a taboo thing to do. You’re sort of allowed to do it.

So, what have the Red Sox done here that’s the problem?

JOSHUA PRAGER: Not only is it allowed. It’s encouraged.

If you’re a batter on — if you’re a runner on second base, and you can peer in with the naked eye and see what finger signals the catcher is using, and if you can figure out what that signal means — and the catcher knows that you’re there, so they often change what the signal means when there’s a man on second — but if you can figure that out and relay that to the batter, that’s encouraged. That’s kosher. Everyone’s happy with that.

But what is not OK is to use mechanical means to do that. The commissioner is empowered to come down on the Red Sox and say, you cannot do this. And no doubt he’s now figuring out what will be a proper punishment.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, that’s where the Apple watch comes into this, that that is the mechanical piece of equipment that is verboten in baseball’s rules.

JOSHUA PRAGER: Correct.

And baseball teams have been cheating for as long as there has been baseball. I wrote a book about the 1951 Giants, who they famously won the pennant with Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World.

And starting in the summer, on July 20, they installed a man in center field in the polo grounds with a telescope. And when he would spy the sign, he would then press a button that would, via buzzer wire, make a buzz go off in the right field bullpen. And the players there in the bullpen would then signal to the batter what pitch was coming.

So, they used a telescope and buzzer wire. And there are literally dozens of other examples going back to the 19th century.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Is there any sense that you have that all of this creative hijinks that goes on actually makes a difference in the results of a game?

JOSHUA PRAGER: Absolutely.

If it didn’t help teams to know what pitch was coming, they wouldn’t go to these great lengths to steal the signs. When I interviewed all of the members of the — all the surviving members of the 1951 Giants, Bobby Thomson, for example, who hit the Shot Heard Round the World, was very honest with me.

He said: It helps me enormously. It helped me enormously to know what kind of a pitch is coming. If a pitch is traveling 90 miles an hour, a batter has just 0.13 seconds to react to it. So, if you can say, hey, I can wait, this pitch is going to be an off-speed pitch, that will help.

Some batters don’t want to know. Tony Gwynn, famously, wanted to just react to the ball, see the ball, hit the ball. But most batters, it would seem, very much do want to know.

And that’s why, no matter how many times they’re told they’re not allowed to do it, they will continue to try to do it.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Joshua Prager, thank you so much.

JOSHUA PRAGER: Thanks for having me.

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