Tech In, Garbage Out

We called him Pickles, although I never knew why. It might have been his last name. He was a kind old gentleman, positioned behind home plate shielded by one of those balloon chest protectors. He worked alone, calling not only balls and strikes but also the bases for Little and Pony League games of my youth.

One evening there was a close play at second base that challenged the eyesight of Pickles, who never strayed much from his post behind the plate. Before making a decision, he meticulously strolled toward the center of the diamond to summon the baserunner and the second baseman.

The infielder claimed he put the tag on the kid before he reached the base. Turning to the runner, Pickles inquired about the veracity of this initial testimony. In that age of innocence, and because Pickles was an adult whom kids respected, the youngster reported that he was, indeed, out. He jogged toward the bench with a clean conscience without even a whisper of protest from coaches or parents in the stands.

Upon learning of the penalties levied against the Houston Astros for stealing signs en route to their World Series championship in 2017, the image of that honesty and truthfulness so many years ago bubbled up to the surface. Of course, our big league heroes of the times even then were engaged in various acts of trickery and treachery like stealing signs the old fashioned way. However, we kids were far removed from that, being focused on the rudiments of the game.

This latest scandal, a modern day version of what major league ballplayers have been doing for more than a century, is predictable and exactly what MLB deserves.

Things might have been more palpable if, say, the Royals or Marlins - losers of more than 100 games last season - had been caught red-handed. Who would have cared? But the world champions, who most probably would have defeated the Dodgers anyway, is an entirely different matter.

So here we are in a world of publicized and celebrated high tech, when every time the first baseman so much as scratches his crotch, it's embedded in the towers of data collected by organizations intent on getting a competitive edge. MLB worships this glut of information. Every telecast is increasingly chock full of sabermetrics, launch angles, spin rates, spray charts and thousands of other tidbits documented by Amazon Web Services (AWS), FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and numerous other information centers.

Should we be surprised that the fellas in the dugout, with plenty of time to plot and scheme, engaged the computers and cameras to devise communication about the upcoming pitch to their hitters? The logical question is, "What took them so long?"

What's interesting about the investigation of the Astros is that the "what did they know and when did they know it?" mystery was easily solved.

Pitcher Mike Fiers, who started 28 games and was 8-10 with a 5.22 ERA for the '17 Astros, disclosed in November in an article in The Athletic that the team was unlawfully stealing signs. Apparently Carlos Beltran, among the personnel that MLB questioned, had zero notion of a cover-up. Without much encouragement, he described the plot to the interrogators. Beltran was the team's primary designated hitter in 2017 and was named manager of the Mets right after last season. Surprisingly, Beltran, being a player at the time, seems exempt from any punishment. Apparently the Commissioner puts the onus on the manager and front office for stopping and/or reporting cheating.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who was a coach with the Astros and knew about and aided the scheme, is also out, as is Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who, along with general manager Jeff Luhnow, was suspended for this season and then quickly fired by Astros owner Jim Crane.

So in less than two months, the Commissioner's office completed interviews and fact-finding and issued punishments this week. You have to wonder what's taking so long for Kris Bryant's grievance about service time. He has a very credible case, about as clear as the sign stealing debacle. I guess that's what happens when agents and lawyers are involved.

The suffocating irony of this latest scandal is that the information was relayed to the hitter via garbage cans, which have been around for years. Pounding on one with a bat meant an off-speed pitch was coming. No pounding indicated a heater was in the works.

MLB.TV showed a clip from September, 2017 of a game in Houston when White Sox reliever Danny Farquhar was facing the Astros' Evan Gattis to lead off the eighth inning. After Gattis fouled off a few pitches, Farquhar stopped his windup and summoned catcher Kevan Smith to the mound. Farquhar might not have been the greatest relief pitcher we've ever seen, but he may have been one of the smartest. He quickly realized that the garbage can pounding (or lack thereof) was telegraphing his deliveries. He and Smith made adjustments; Gattis struck out; and Farquhar retired the next two hitters for a perfect inning. The Sox won the game 3-1 against the eventual champions.

Catchers and pitchers always use a different set of signs with a runner on second base so that the hitter isn't getting prompts from his teammate. There's nothing illegal about the runner trying to help the hitter, and we all know that there have been coaches like Joe Nossek whose specialty was solving the opponents' signs. Nossek always had a job, serving five different clubs including two stints (1984-86, 1991-2003) with the White Sox.

There are other acts of trickery which are part of the game. The hidden ball trick rarely is successful, but when it works, everyone except the victim gets a real kick out of it. Pitchers who have mastered the art of balking without getting caught create a big advantage for holding on runners and limiting stolen bases. A first baseman who fakes a throw back to the pitcher on a routine pick off occasionally gets the runner stepping off the base. Gaylord Perry made a Hall of Fame career by throwing an illegal pitch. Other pitchers were not above adding "foreign" substances to baseballs.

Conversely, consider golf, a game where players have been known to call penalties on themselves. It happens fairly frequently on the PGA tour. For weekend hackers, guys who cheat usually have a difficult time getting a foursome.

Of course, baseball is very different. Even the jargon includes hints of treachery. When the middle infielders in a potential double play situation take a few steps closer to second base, it's known as "cheating." Or a centerfielder "cheats" toward left or right depending on what pitch is being thrown.

What's a bit puzzling with the Astros' situation is that the players, manager and coaches knew that using the garbage-can technology was prohibited. I'm not naïve enough to think they wouldn't consider breaking the rules, but players come and go, Fiers among them. Once he got to Detroit, he didn't hesitate to spill the beans to help his Tiger teammates. In addition, all the players belong to the same union. Maybe the Astros were helping themselves, but you could argue that they were jeopardizing their union comrades on the opposing teams.

This will not be a popular argument, but now that there are ingenious (or not) methods for things like stealing signs, what if everything was legal? It would make each team adjust in new and modern ways by devising undetectable communication systems between pitchers and catchers like Danny Farquhar did a few years ago. This will not be the last time ballclubs bend or break the rules. Teams need to be savvy and defensive. If not, it's their own fault.

Or baseball could employ the Pickles method. A guy strokes a 450-foot home run, and as he crosses the plate, the ump asks him if he knew what pitch was coming. Good luck with that one.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.


1. From Alan C. Heineman:

Great column! One of the main points I'd make in all this is that there's a bright line between what is expressly forbidden by the rules of MLB and what may be "okay" edge-getting. Thus, Gaylord Perry, who made a HOF career out of self-admittedly violating an explicit rule, should be deleted from the HOF - at least until Bonds, Clemens and others who (probably) took steroids are admitted. Whereas Rose, who not only violated what is arguably the First Commandment - thou shalt not consort with gamblers on baseball - but may well have shaved runs to win bets for himself and/or his associates should never, ever, ever be cleared. Sign-stealing by human means is not forbidden; everyone in baseball is aware that this can happen without penalty. Was there an explicit rule that tech can't be used for that purpose? Case closed.

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