Along with “How can we get young people to put down their phones long enough to watch our product?” and “What are we gonna do about the Rays’ location?” a third conundrum has more recently enveloped Major League Baseball:
“How can we prevent illegal sign-stealing?”
This might very well rank as the top concern now, in light of Rob Manfred’s report condemning and convicting the champion 2017 Astros for committing this baseball crime in the postseason; another Manfred report, on the champion 2018 Red Sox, should be coming any moment now.
Manfred said on Thursday, at the conclusion of baseball’s owners’ meetings, that additional rules would be instituted for the 2020 season regarding the real-time usage of video. And the penalties — already to Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, arriving imminently for Alex Cora — should act as deterrents to misbehave and as incentives for authority figures to police their own clubhouses for wrongdoing. It wouldn’t surprise me to see players — so many of them angry at those Astros — take the initiative with their union in negotiating harsher penalties, just as players led the way for harsher penalties on those who use illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
Just like with illegal PEDs, however, baseball must keep thinking proactively in order to stay ahead of potential cheaters. Maybe even radically. Manfred discussed one radical idea on Thursday, and I floated another radical one that was not dismissed by folks in the loop. Here you go:
1. Earpieces/headphones: Phillies manager Joe Girardi, as protective of information as anyone you’ll ever meet, has advocated for something like this for a long time. It makes sense, right? What better way to eliminate sign-stealing than to eliminate signs? The NFL utilizes them with their quarterbacks.
Alas, as Manfred said on Thursday, “The headset approach is difficult in our sport. The NFL has the advantage of a helmet that’s pretty big already that they can build things into. It’s much harder to design an earpiece that would be comfortable for players to wear in lieu of signs.
The commissioner added: “When you think about these sorts of changes to address a particular concern, the unintended consequences can be significant. While we are experimenting with a variety of approaches, we don’t want to make a change that lengthens or puts more delay in the game and we’re putting a lot of attention into that. It’s hard to be as fast as hand signals, right?”
2. Blurred signals on TV: Props to my childhood friend Jon Epstein who floated this to me recently: Why not blur — or pixelate, if we want to get fancy — the catchers’ signals to all TV viewers? After all, the only person who truly needs to see those signals is the pitcher. The 2017 Astros never could’ve hatched their scheme had they not had real-time TV access to their opponents’ signals.
Believe it or not, baseball officials have discussed this, an industry source said. To be clear, this is not a front-burner item; we’re talking years down the road, if ever. To be further clear, the last thing baseball wants to do is make its product less accessible to its fans and its broadcasters. So the idea would be to pixelate the signals only in-house so that, say, the Astros couldn’t have pulled off what they did, and the alleged 2018 Red Sox scheme of watching the live action in the replay-review room, then conveying that information instantly to runners on second base, would have been dead on arrival.
This wouldn’t stop old-school pilfering and decoding by runners on second, yet that isn’t illegal. It might very well wind up in the “Interesting to ponder, too difficult to execute” pile. Definitely, though, it’s one worth considering some more.
— Let’s catch up on Pop Quiz Questions:
1. From Steven Santucci of Middletown, NJ: The 1961 film “One, Two Three” opens with a preface by star James Cagney that mentions a prominent slugger of the time. Name the slugger.
2. From Alan Tobin of Little Neck: Name the two major-league teams that face off in the 1977 TV movie “Murder at the World Series.”
— Allow me to present a nerdy sequel to one of my nerdier stories, going back nearly two years, about how trades among professional sports teams might be subject to taxation. You haven’t heard about it since. That’s because MLB, at least, solved the problem by convincing the IRS to allow trades to proceed unimpeded as long as both teams assigned zero taxable value to their players. Nightmare averted. If the Mookie Betts trade doesn’t go through, you won’t be able to blame President Trump or his tax code.
— Your Pop Quiz Answers:
1. Roger Maris
2. The Astros and the A’s
If you have a tidbit that connects baseball with popular culture, please send it to me at email@example.com.
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