NEC mentor Doyle says stealing signs is accepted, but using technology to do it is where the Astros went too far.
New England College baseball coach Terry Doyle will tell you that sign-stealing has long been an accepted part of baseball, but stealing signs with the use of an electronic device? That’s cheating.
Doyle, a Salem native who pitched for six MLB organizations during a lengthy minor league career, said every professional team he played for attempted to decode the opposing team’s signs and then relay them, but not with the help of technology as the Houston Astros did during their 2017 championship season.
The Astros were recently fined and forced to forfeit draft picks for the cheating scandal, which involved the use of video feeds from a camera set up in center field that focused on the opposing catcher’s signs. In addition, Houston manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were both suspended. Shortly after MLB announced the suspensions, Hinch and Luhnow were fired.
Former Red Sox manager Alex Cora was a coach with the Astros during the 2017 season and was implicated in the scandal. He is expected to be punished by MLB, and the Red Sox announced on Tuesday that they had parted ways with Cora as their manager.
“Sign-stealing in games is pretty normal,” Doyle said. “It’s the use of technology that made it an issue. When there’s that kind of competitive advantage, the integrity of the game comes into question.
“In the minor leagues you’re trying to move up so you’re looking for any competitive advantage you can have, but I never heard of anything like that (what the Astros did) when I was playing. When they installed TVs for replay, I think they opened a can of worms that wasn’t necessarily expected.”
Signs are constantly given during a typical baseball game: The catcher gives signs to the pitcher, a coach in the dugout gives signs to the catcher, a base coach gives signs to a batter or runner, and infielders exchange signs for defensive purposes.
Doyle said he and his catcher would always have a backup sequence of signs to use to determine what pitch would be thrown if they thought the opponent had figured out the original sequence.
“It’s an incredible, incredible advantage for a hitter to know what pitch is coming — especially with two strikes,” said Franklin Pierce coach Mike Chambers, who was drafted by the Red Sox and played two years of minor league baseball. “Back when I played, the technology wasn’t there yet, so it was mostly about a pitcher possibly tipping his pitches. Even with the technology today, getting the signs and relaying them in time has to be exhausting if they were doing it every pitch. They went to quite an effort to cheat.”
Chambers said he isn’t worried about opponents using technology to steal signs at the college level — at least not in Division II — but added that Franklin Pierce takes every precaution to prevent opponents from stealing their signs the accepted way. He said it’s not uncommon for his team to change signs from inning to inning, or even out to out.
“I worry about it,” he said. “If you’re stealing signs with your eyes and instincts, that stuff is fair game. Obviously at our level, the guys are taught to try and pick up the catcher’s signs when they get to second base. The first base coach will try to get the catcher’s signs.
“If we think a team has (honed in) on us we’ll make an adjustment. We use a number system from the dugout. Our catcher has a wristband and we can change the wristband if necessary.”
While using technology to steal signs is something new to baseball, acquiring opponent’s signs in an unsportsmanlike manner is not. According to Sports Illustrated, Hall of Famer Ty Cobb wrote the following in 1926:
“If a player is smart enough to solve the opposing system of signals he is given due credit. ... There is another form of sign stealing which is reprehensible and should be so regarded. That is where mechanical devices worked from outside sources, such as the use of field glasses, mirrors and so on, are used. … Signal-tipping on the fields is not against the rules, while the use of outside devices is against all the laws of baseball and the playing rules. It is obviously unfair.”
Doyle: “We kind of understood sign-stealing was going to happen. It’s widely accepted until you start crossing the line.”