Snoop Dogs

High-tech spying is wrong, but baseball still has no rule against it
December 11, 2006

LAST MONTHbaseball's general managers met in Florida to mull changes to the game. Theproposals included instant replay and the use at every park of ball-storagehumidors like those in Colorado. As usual, fear of controversy will kill mostof the new ideas. And as usual, the G.M.'s didn't discuss a rule souncontroversial that most people assume it's already on the books: banning thetheft of catchers' signs by mechanical means.

Signals haveflashed between plate and mound since the advent of the strike zone 148 yearsago. For almost as long, teams have tried to steal them. Doing so by the nakedeye has generally been applauded. But when a spyglass and buzzer were exposedat a Phillies game in 1900, the game cried foul. When another telescope poppedup in New York nine years later, the American League Board of Directors passeda resolution: Anyone "found guilty of operating a sign tipping bureaushould be barred from baseball for all time."

No official rulewas passed, and the process has repeated itself ever since. In 1962, afterrumors surfaced that the '51 Giants used a telescope to steal signs in theirplayoff win over the Dodgers, commissioner Ford Frick suggested that a new rulerender "the practice illegal in strong language." In 2001 MLB vicepresident Sandy Alderson reminded teams, "No club shall use electronicequipment ... to communicate to or with any on field personnel."

But sign swipingremains a problem. Last June the Cardinals, after being pummeled 33--11 by theWhite Sox over two days, accused Chicago of posting a spy in the centerfieldscoreboard. The claim was ironic: Eight months earlier the White Sox wereconvinced that the Rangers had used a flashing light to let hitters know whatpitch was coming.

Commissioner BudSelig told me in 2005 that a rule was unnecessary: A team using a telescope orcamera "would be dealt with." His threat recalled that of Frick, whosaid that if the charge against the '51 Giants was substantiated, "I wouldforfeit the game, but I would have to have evidence." I uncovered thatevidence long after the commissioner died. (It's detailed in my book, TheEchoing Green.) It is a surety that the stealing of signs by mechanical meanswill again affect play. It is time for baseball to ban what has time and againbeen defined as cheating. As Christy Mathewson wrote in 1912, "All is fairin love, war, and baseball, except stealing signals dishonestly."

PHOTOPHOTODISC GREEN/GETTY ROYALTY-FREE (TELESCOPE) PHOTOAP (THOMSON)SIGNALMOMENT
Did Bobby Thomson know what was coming before the Shot?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)