The Malague Minute: Cheating and Gamesmanship in Sports
Issue   |   Tue, 09/12/2017 - 22:15
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The Red Sox/Yankees rivalry, always filled with tension, has been taken to another level with the recent allegations about sign stealing.

The New York Times revealed last Tuesday that the Boston Red Sox, in a move wholly uncharacteristic of a New England-area sports team that has enjoyed enormous success since the early 2000s and plays in a neighborhood whose name begins with the letter “F,” had been using an Apple Watch to steal opposing teams’ signs. Apparently, someone watching the game broadcast would decode the opposing catcher’s sign sequence and text the code to a trainer. He would receive the text on his nifty Apple Watch and relay the information to a player in the dugout, who would pass it on to the runner on second. The runner would then peer in, pick the sign, and give the batter a heads up. Not exactly Bletchley circle sophistication, but fairly clever.

This revived a perennial discussion surrounding the fine distinction between cheating and gamesmanship. It is clear that this argument, in baseball at least, is not resolved by Major League Baseball’s rulebook. That the Red Sox violated MLB rules, which prohibit the use of electronic devices or binoculars in an effort to steal signs, is plainly clear. Whether anybody should care about that is a more complicated question.

Consider another moment in the AL East rivalry, the Michael Pineda pine tar incident. For those who do not remember, during a game in early April 2014, Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda sported an easily visible supply of pine tar on his hand. The Red Sox let this go until Pineda’s next start against the Sox. When he went out for the second inning, Pineda put a little pine tar on his neck.

Red Sox manager John Farrell decided he had enough of Pineda’s obvious use of a foreign substance and asked home plate umpire Gerry Davis to check Pineda. Davis, who for some reason decided to examine Pineda’s hat, glove, and back before touching the obvious blotch on his neck, ejected the New York starter, leaving the Yankees to pitch by committee for the rest of the game.

This evoked knee-jerk pearl-clutching in the immediate aftermath. Pineda looked like a spitballer, a modern day Joe Niekro, who once tried nonchalantly to throw an emery board out of his back pocket while being checked by an umpire (a hilarious attempt worth a Google search). Yet, nobody involved with the game seemed to be ethically bothered by Pineda’s use of a foreign substance. In fact, it turns out that batters actually prefer pitchers to use grip-enhancing substances during cold weather games. Apparently they feel a little better if the pitcher has some idea where his 95-mph fastball is going to end up. If you asked the average batter in mid-April whether the pitcher was using some kind of illegal grip, he would probably assume that he was. Nobody — player, coach or executive — labelled Pineda’s actions “cheating,” at least not a pernicious form of it. Many former pitchers unabashedly admitted to using pine tar as well. Pineda’s only crime was being obvious about his rule breaking, which violated one of baseball’s myriad unwritten rules.

Compare Pineda to Rosie Ruiz, who might well be the quintessential cheater. Ruiz appeared to win the 1980 Boston Marathon, accomplishing an incredible feat that, as it turns out, is made much easier by jumping out of the crowd half a mile from the finish line. This was after she took a subway (that’s right, a subway) to shorten the course of the New York City Marathon some months earlier.

Somewhere between Pineda and Ruiz is the point at which generally tolerated rule breaking crosses into the dishonorable realm of cheating. Deflated footballs, PED use, corked bats and the like all fall between those two points. Following the Red Sox revelation, the baseball world has struggled to place technologically-aided sign-stealing on the continuum of forbidden activity. Sign-stealing itself is of course an accepted part of the game, tolerated by everyone save perhaps for Hansel Robles, who threw an impressive temper tantrum last August when he thought (incorrectly) that Mark Teixiera had stolen his signs.

The Apple Watch news is embarrassing for the Sox, especially given that they’re sponsored by Microsoft. But they have argued repeatedly that their scheme is just one of many like it in baseball, and accused the Yankees of using television cameras to purloin signals coming from the Sox bench coach. The Yankees and the television network that covers them have denied the allegations of “you started it,” but they don’t seem too bothered by the Apple Watch strategy. C.C. Sabathia told the New York Times, “It’s baseball. It’s been going on forever. It’s up to us to protect our signs.” Others around baseball have had stronger reactions, but each opinion rendered on the subject has been based on a belief about how common, and how accepted, this method of rule breaking is. What the rulebook has to say about it is a minor concern.

Regardless, baseball fans should be furious about the Red Sox’s shenanigans. Not because they were especially effective — the team hardly performed better with a runner on second than without — but because we all had to watch Yankees catchers Gary Sanchez and Austin Romine trot out to the mound every other pitch to add an extra layer of subterfuge to their communication. Red Sox/Yankees games took an eternity this year, and, according to these catchers, this little cipher-cracking operation is a big reason why. If baseball is going to attempt to reverse its path toward unwatchable territory, the incessant mound conferences and glove whispering need to stop, and soon. Now that catchers, Sanchez especially, are predisposed to ponder endlessly over pitch selection and scouting reports, baseball should create no further need for them to make that 60-foot jog five times per at bat.

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