Sign-Stealing Scandal Casts Cloud over MLB Season

Normally a time of excitement and optimism, the start of the 2020 Major League Baseball season instead has been clouded by an off-the-field controversy that has dominated headlines nationwide.

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During their 2017 run to a World Series championship, the Houston Astros rigged a system involving the center-field camera and banging on trash cans in the dugout to decipher the opposing pitcher’s signs. The scandal led to the firing of the team’s manager, A.J. Hinch, and general manager, Jeff Luhnow.

The bench coach that season — Alex Cora — was relieved of his duties as Boston Red Sox manager given his involvement, and Carlos Beltran, who was a player on that Astros team, was fired as manager of the New York Mets before he even managed a single game.

To say it was a crazy offseason would be a huge understatement. Stealing signs has been part of the game of baseball since its inception. If as a player or a coach, you are able to pick up the other team’s code, the more power to you. What’s different in this situation, however, is that the players relied on technology to steal signs

If you are a runner on second base and are able to see the catcher’s signs and relay them through some sort of verbal system to the batter, it’s all good. In that case, there is just as good a chance that you have made a mistake thinking you’ve cracked the code.

When a camera — or even an alleged buzzer system underneath players’ jerseys — is rigged to steal signs involving people who are not either playing or coaching, that is cheating, because it disrupts the integrity of the game.

The fallout from this sign-stealing scandal has only just begun. The Astros were fined the maximum
allowable $5 million and surrendered their first- and second-round draft picks the next two years — the most severe penalty ever issued by the league.

Rumors have swirled as to whether the Astros will have to forfeit their World Series title from that tainted season. Some players have received death threats, and now we’re even seeing Little Leagues across the country removing the team name “Astros” completely.

With all the talk about this scandal, I spoke to my friend Ross Sheil, a devout Astros fan from The Woodlands, Texas, who now lives in Little Italy in Manhattan. I was eager to hear his opinion on the scandal, especially because he’s no fair-weather fan.

“The nature of signs is to gain an advantage, so the idea of trying to steal those signs is logical,” said Sheil, a graduate of St. Thomas H.S. in Houston. “That’s obviously different than blatantly breaking rules that have been communicated to the teams using technology.

“I wanted to think that the Astros wouldn’t be alone in this. Baseball is a copycat sport, so I wanted to assume that they were doing something that other teams were also trying to be successful with doing.” Once the initial reports were confirmed, Sheil altered his view, saying that MLB’s penalty was appropriate for the “indefensible” actions of his team.

Asked whether the Astros should have to vacate their title, he said: “I don’t think they should. I don’t think that’s a realistic conclusion to this. The Astros’ World Series title is absolutely tarnished.
The damage is done, whether they formally vacate the title or not.”

I agree with Sheil on that point. I’m sure the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost the 2017 Series, would not
want to be awarded a championship in that way. Instead, MLB could place an asterisk next to that year in the record books and include a section explaining the sign-stealing scandal for generations to come.

Either way, it’s just not a great look right now for professional baseball. In sports, there’s a right way and a wrong way to try to gain an edge over your opponent. Unfortunately for the Astros, the organization chose the wrong way and got caught.

“I think for the Astros, this is going to be an ongoing issue,” Sheil said. “It’s going to be talked about every time they go to a new town. They’ll be booed like crazy. We’ll be playing in a pretty hostile environment for the foreseeable future for sure.”

Still, I hope that if you’re excited for the start of another baseball season, you can look past the cheating to focus on your own team’s new beginning.

For my friend Ross, though, a new season means new, unanswered questions about why the talented Astros team felt the need to cheat and,  more importantly, why they thought they could get away with it.

Contact Jim Mancari via email at