Between 1985 and 2012, Bobby Valentine managed three different major-league teams, plus one team in Japan. The players on his rosters came and went, as major leaguers do—a trade here, a waiver-wire pickup there. “Every time I got a player from another team,” he told me recently, “after I asked him his wife’s name, his kids’ names, and if he had a place to stay yet, I would say, ‘Hey, while they’re fresh on your mind, can you give me the signs you were using with your last team?’ ”
Signs, the coded hand gestures that a catcher relays to a pitcher from a spot near his crotch to call for specific pitches—fastball, curveball, changeup—are one of baseball’s quaint and enduring charms. They are also at the center of the game’s most dramatic scandal in years: at least two teams, including, potentially, two of the past three World Series champions, cheated in recent seasons by decoding their opponents’ signals with sophisticated contraptions. The Houston Astros used a special camera trained on the opposing catcher, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, fed the signs it captured into a computer algorithm; once the computer had cracked the code, players in the dugout began relaying incoming pitches to their teammates by banging on an overturned trash can. (One or two bangs meant an off-speed pitch was coming; no bangs indicated a fastball.) After a league investigation, baseball’s commissioner fined the Astros five million dollars and docked them several draft picks. The team’s general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and manager, A. J. Hinch, were suspended for a season by the league and then fired by the Astros. (The players were not disciplined, though some have apologized for their role.) The Boston Red Sox were previously caught “transmitting sign information from their replay review room” using smart watches; an investigative report on their activities during the 2018 season is expected to be released soon. Last week, the Hall of Famer Hank Aaron said, of those involved in the scandal, “They should be out of baseball for the rest of their lives.”
I had a hunch that Valentine’s take would be different. In 1999, he was ejected from a game for arguing with an umpire, and, soon afterward, a cameraman noticed a bespectacled, mustachioed figure who had mysteriously appeared in the dugout: Valentine, in cheap disguise. “Yeah, and that was just the time I got caught!” Valentine told me. When I asked what he thought about the sign-stealing scandal, he said, “It’s the same thought that I have when I’m on a highway, and I’m in the lane where everyone’s going eighty-two miles an hour, and then the guy in front of me gets pulled over. I think, Jeez, is he just unlucky? Everyone else was going eighty-two.” Had he been managing the Astros, he said, he wouldn’t have stopped the espionage.
Stealing signs does offer a tremendous advantage, he noted. “Every at-bat is a life-or-death situation,” he told me. “The bad guy has the ball, and he’s throwing it in your direction at a hundred miles per hour. If it hits you in the wrong spot, you could die. So the first thing all humanoids do is determine whether they have to duck.” This is why a good curveball, which appears as if it’s headed at your head, before plummeting through the strike zone, is so effective. Joe Torre, the longtime Yankees manager, once remarked that “the deep dark secret in baseball” is that hitters are afraid of the ball. But a hitter who knows what pitch is coming can ignore the instinct to duck—he’s fearless. Alex Wood, a pitcher for the Dodgers who lost to the Astros in the World Series, in 2017, tweeted last month, “I would rather face a player that was taking steroids than face a player that knew every pitch that was coming.” I’ve yet to hear a major-leaguer disagree.
Major League Baseball says that stealing signs is legal so long as it’s done the old-fashioned way, without telescopes, cameras, or other technology. (Valentine’s debriefing of new players was within bounds.) And legal attempts at sign-stealing happen more or less constantly, without controversy. Is stealing signs with a camera and a computer fundamentally different from doing so with your eyes? John Russell, a former editor of The Journal of the Philosophy of Sport (and a onetime co-manager of an all-philosopher-and-lawyer softball team—“We didn’t lose many arguments, but we lost a lot of games”) told me that spying with technology crossed an important line. “What sort of a challenge do we want to have for our games?” he said. “What we want is for the participants on the field to make decisions and to use their wits to try to compete as best they can. We want to see what people can do on their own, in the moment.” More nefarious plots, however, have long been a feature of the game. The Philadelphia Phillies once ran telegraph wire across the field to transmit their stolen intelligence; their cover was blown when an opposing player got his spikes tangled in what he initially thought were tree roots. This was in 1900.
A hundred years later, Valentine stumbled onto his own camera system. He noticed that the film that his players used to study their mechanics incidentally captured footage of the opposing manager and third-base coach. “So I used that to try to decipher signs from the third-base coach to the hitter, the manager to the hitter,” he told me. “It was so laborious it was impossible to do. But it was a fun attempt.” He said he knew of other teams that had “surveillance cameras and rooms that are used for surveillance,” and he estimated that, during his nearly thirty years as a manager, he witnessed at least twenty attempts by an opponent to illicitly intercept signs. “And that means there had to be about fifty more that didn’t get busted,” he said.
One point Valentine believes has been lost in the scandal is that countersurveillance is generally simple and effective, if somewhat tedious. A team can change its signs throughout a game, which will usually scramble an opponent’s code-breaking efforts. Valentine managed in Japan just a few years after the country had its own sign-stealing scandal. Teams responded by mixing up their signals every inning. “And that ended that idea,” Valentine said. Many teams had caught on to what the Astros were up to—Brian Cashman, the general manager of the Yankees, said that his club had long harbored suspicions and took protective measures, and, last year, the Washington Nationals defeated the Astros, and won the World Series, by using five different sets of signs per pitcher. In August, 2017, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, an Astros staffer wrote in an internal e-mail that the team’s “dark arts, sign-stealing department has been less productive in the second half as the league has become aware of our reputation and now most clubs change their signs a dozen times per game.”
If nothing else, the scandal has given baseball its buzziest off-season in ages. Much of the reporting on it has been fan-driven: early on, one citizen reporter found video evidence of the Astros’ trash-can banging, and an Astros fan later created a website detailing a lengthy investigation into more than eleven hundred bangs and the outcome of each respective pitch. Some fans posted footage showing the Astros star José Altuve, who hit a walk-off home run to defeat the Yankees in last fall’s American League Championship Series, acting suspiciously protective of his shirt. They speculated that he was concealing a buzzer, connected to his chest, that communicated the upcoming pitch. (Major League Baseball said it found no evidence of this.) At one point, as theories flew across the Web, and talking heads debated the finer points of sign-stealing on television, a general manager told ESPN’s Jeff Passan, “I want to take this day and freeze it in time so I can keep living it.”