Most sports have rules or guidelines of varying complexity which are written down and interpreted by teams, umpires, players and fans (according to their respective affiliations).  Inevitably there is always a sense of ambiguity to the interpretation of these rules (for example, see the differences in how northern and southern hemisphere rugby referees, and/ or the New Zealand rugby team as a whole, view the ruck area).  However, baseball goes further, having an entirely unwritten, and occasionally somewhat arbitrary and opaque-seeming series of rules known as “the Code“.

There are many offences under the Code, all of which are viewed as ‘disrespecting the game’ (full disclosure – I’m partial to a spot of baseball myself, despite my inability to understand the Code).  These include, amongst other things:

  • batters shouting at a fielder as they try to take a catch (take a bow Alex Rodriguez);
  • a pitcher deliberately aiming to hit a batter with a pitch in the wrong situation;
  • a pitcher failing to deliberately hit a batter with a pitch in the right situation (sometimes indistinguishable from the previous example);
  • trying too hard when your team is substantially in the lead;
  • not trying hard enough;
  • waiting too long after hitting a home run to start running round the bases;
  • running round the bases too slowly after hitting a home run;
  • Looking like you’re having too much fun after hitting a home run;
  • Etc, etc.

One of the biggest unwritten rules is that a team should not steal the other team’s “signs” – the signals a catcher uses to tell a pitcher what pitch to throw and where.  Now, sign stealing is not new, is not prohibited by the MLB’s rules of play and some might say it is in fact fairly prevalent.  In fact, an article in Sports Illustrated notes that one of the first recorded examples of sign stealing took place in 1899.

So why the recent furore over an allegation that the Boston Red Sox have been stealing signs? (i) it’s the Yankees/ Red Sox (for non-US readers, think England/ Germany,  United/ Liverpool or Barca/ Real Madrid at Football); (ii) it’s a breach of ‘the Code’; (iii) they got caught…and it’s the Yankees/ Red Sox.

So, what did they do wrong in this case and why is MLB interested?  You can chalk this one up to the law of unintended consequences as, in 2009, Major League Baseball approved instant replay as a way to challenge umpires on field decisions. The decisions that could be challenged were further extended in 2014.  To help teams do so, Major League Baseball allowed teams to place video replay monitors directly behind their dug-out, which broadcast the game live, with no delay (to allow for swift replay challenges).  However, this also means that the catcher’s signs are shown at the same time as the catcher makes them on the field, allowing for a swift communication of those signs to the batter if a team is so minded.

This is precisely what the Boston Red Sox have been accused of doing by the New York Yankees, with the allegation being that one of the Red Sox trainers was messaged the pitch sign from someone watching the live feed, on his Apple watch, which he then passed to players in the dug out who then called in the sign to the batter.

Now, whilst MLB Rules do not prohibit stealing signs, they do prohibit using electronics to do so as electronic devices are prohibited in the dug-outs (apart from pre-loaded devices, such as iPads showing data on hitter/ pitcher tendencies).  Meaning the Red Sox will likely be slapped with a fine and/ or a potential suspension on the part of the individuals involved, as much to discourage other teams from following suit (although the consensus would seem to be that most if not all MLB teams already use the live feed monitors in similar ways).

The moral of the story (if there is one) is that in sport, teams will always look for something to gain an edge – just look at “Bloodgate” in rugby, “Spygate” in the NFL, or the lengths to which Formula 1 teams will go to bend the rules in search of the best aerodynamic solution for their particular car.  The additional truth is that the first team to get caught ‘cheating’ will often be used as an example to others in terms of the punishment they receive.  We now wait to see how MLB will treat the Red Sox.