It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose but How You Steal the Game

The Houston Astros’ reputation is benched for the foreseeable future. The interesting thing is that it is not for stealing; it’s for how they stole. Baseball is a game that embraces stealing. You can steal bases and – as many are learning now – you can steal signs. But there are rules to stealing – rules that if broken create an unlevel playing field and jeopardize credibility for players, clubs and the game itself.

The real story...is how severe the wrongdoing became compared to how acceptable it was when it started.

Let’s recap what happened. As this article recounts, the Houston Astros devised a system to steal signs throughout its 2017 World Series championship season. Between the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner reminded all ball clubs of the rules regarding sign stealing. The Astros’ scheme continued.

The real story, however, for ethics and compliance professionals is how severe the wrongdoing became compared to how acceptable it was when it started. MLB rules permit attempts to decode signs used by an opposing catcher. That’s not a violation. What is prohibited is the use of electronic equipment during games. According to the Statement of the Commissioner, issued on November 12, 2019, no such equipment “may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage.”  

The commissioner’s statement goes on to say the scandal started to evolve in the Astros’ video replay review room. They would use the center field camera’s live feed, relaying information to the dugout. A person there would signal the runner on second base, who would then signal the batter. The process was refined with smartwatches and cell phones.  

Two months into the 2017 season, a group of players and a bench coach devised improvements to sign stealing. A monitor receiving the live center field camera feed was installed just outside the dugout. One or more members of the team would watch the monitor, decode the sign, and bang on a trash can to communicate the upcoming pitch type to the batter. One or two bangs indicated off-speed pitches, while no bang meant a fastball. All players and coaches in the dugout could hear or see the banging. 

Here we see the difference between a runner on second base relying on eyesight and guile versus a system of cameras and off-field devices being used to decipher a catcher’s signs.

As a result of the scheme, the playing field was no longer level. Players, clubs and fans are now questioning their allegiance to the people and systems that run the game. For compliance professionals – really all ethical professionals – who want to stop corruption, bribery and other cheating, it’s a stark reminder of the slippery slope between the pressures to win and the tactics that are acceptable.  And once a reputation is tarnished in a very public way, everyone on the “team” pays the price.

Our objective is clear: keep the playing field level. Not-so-level only benefits a cheating few, and never for the long run.


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