Baseball has a sign-stealing problem, and it's not just about the Yankees, the Red Sox and Apple watches. It's about—what else these days—pace of play.
The dark art of stealing signs is a baseball tradition that goes back to when the Phillies' third base coach stood on an underground box that would buzz depending on what pitch was coming—in 1899! But the craft of sign stealing became widespread—we're talking every team, every park—when baseball adopted instant replay in 2009.
To speed replay along, MLB allowed live feeds of games in each team's video replay monitor. Many of those monitors are located directly behind the dugout, which means the catcher's signs seen in real time can be relayed to the bench and/or the hitter extremely quickly.
"They really should have the monitor on delay," said one veteran player. "But baseball doesn't want to do that. Why? Pace of play. They want replay decided as quickly as possible. That means they don't want even the extra three or four seconds it would take if you had it on delay."
How common is stealing signs off the live television feed?
"Goes on all the time," the player said. "Our (monitor) is so close (to the dugout) you could just run up and whistle" to the hitter to communicate what pitch is coming.
"It's the reason you see all the meetings on the mound—to change signs. You've got guys signaling from second base. You see it all the time because everybody is doing it."
The case of sign-stealing by the Red Sox, as reported by The New York Times, is a violation of both the rules and the ethics of the game. Electronic communication devices are not permitted. (Tablets with preloaded data, video and scouting reports are allowed.) Boston also exceeded the ethical boundaries (yes, they actually do exist in baseball at some point) by involving electronics.
"It's kind of like pine tar," the player said, referring to pitchers using the substance for a better grip, though it technically is against the rules. "Guys use it all the time and it's understood to be okay, just as long as you don't go crazy with it, like [Yankees pitcher] Michael Pineda did, with the stuff slathered all over his neck."
In the short term, this is good for baseball. The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is officially back on. From CC Sabathia moaning about bunting to each team pointing an accusatory finger at the other for dirty pool, we at last have genuine ill will between the rivals. The rivalry was one of the biggest engines that helped drive the greatest economic growth in the game's history during the last 20 years. Now, with both teams filled with young stars, enabling a steady cast in the next few years, it can become a similar engine.
With animosity returning, the rivalry is electric again. It's also relevant—New York starts the day leading the AL wild card race and just 2 1/2 games behind Boston in the AL East. Only one element is missing to bring this rivalry to a boil: a postseason showdown.