Commentary: Spring training's here! Pitchers, catchers, sign-stealers, play ball!
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Commentary: Spring training's here! Pitchers, catchers, sign-stealers, play ball!

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"Cheating is baseball's oldest profession. No other game is so rich in skulduggery, so suited to it or so proud of it," longtime Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell once wrote. A new baseball season begins this week with spring training, and the top story will undoubtedly be the recent cheating scandal that has roiled the sport.

This winter it was revealed that the Houston Astros, who won the 2017 World Series and nearly won the 2019 World Series, employed high-resolution cameras and monitors to capture signs. The Astros frequently used players banging on a garbage can in the dugout to notify batters (no bang - fastball, bang - off-speed pitch), and there is a suggestion that some Astro hitters wore buzzers to receive in-game pitch communications. The Boston Red Sox, winners of the 2018 World Series, were also implicated along with several other teams.

An early, low-tech version of the same sign stealing technique may have accounted for what is arguably the most dramatic home run in baseball history. In the 1951 playoffs, New York Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson launched a come-from-behind, ninth-inning line drive homer to win the National League pennant off a fastball thrown by Brooklyn Dodgers relief pitcher Ralph Branca. The episode was memorably captured by Giants radio announcer Russ Hodges with his legendary call, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"

Four decades later, it was revealed that the Giants had been stealing opposing catchers' signs during the 1951 season. The signs were captured by a spy with a telescope in center field, who then relayed them via a buzzer system to the team's dugout. Late in life, Thomson denied receiving a sign on the home run pitch he hit that fateful October afternoon; Branca insisted that Thomson knew a fastball was coming. Before they both died, the two men became fast friends, but their disagreement over the home run was never resolved. No one was ever disciplined.

Stealing a pitcher's signs, when done by players or coaches on the field, is not only legitimate, it is expected and even occasionally admired. What's changed is the emergence of electronic communication with high-tech devices, most of which are being banned from the dugout. But extremely high-resolution cameras can't be banned from the stands and remain available for cheating. And as Boswell observed, cheating is part of baseball.

And cheating works, if only for getting into the head of the opposition. Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Stephen Vogt told the New York Times, "As a catcher, when you see your pitcher execute a perfect slider down in the zone with two strikes and someone doesn't even flinch at it, you start to get alarm bells going off in your head. I spent a lot of time wondering if I was doing something in my setup that would be tipping pitches to the other team."

In the current scandal, punishments were meted out - but not for players. The general manager and field manager of the Astros were suspended for a season by Major League Baseball and then fired by the team. The field manager of the Red Sox - a bench coach for the 2017 Astros who helped mastermind their scheme - was let go by Boston.

Is there a solution? Major League Baseball can rewrite the rules and tighten surveillance, but the cat-and-mouse games with resourceful teams will continue. The best chance of preventing electronic cheating is to hand out severe punishment for teams and players who are caught: a minimum five-year ban from baseball for any players, coaches or front office personnel engaged in electronic cheating. Long enough to ruin a career.

To realize how important stiff penalties are to prevent cheating, consider gambling in baseball. The deterrence of lifetime suspensions for the eight players involved in the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal was quite effective. After that, baseball had no major gambling issues for more than 60 years until Pete Rose started betting on games.

At the next collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association, after the 2021 season, the requisite levels of evidence, appeals and due process for electronic cheating should be part of the negotiations so that guilty players can be disciplined. Like the prohibition on gambling posted in every clubhouse, the rules outlining what is not permitted in terms of sign stealing should be as well.

The ethos of baseball was once explained by former Milwaukee Brewers manager George Bamberger, who told the Washington Post, "We do not play baseball. We play professional baseball. Amateurs play games. We are paid to win games. There are rules, and there are consequences if you break them. If you are a pro, then you often don't decide whether to cheat based on if it's 'right or wrong.' You base it on whether or not you can get away with it, and what the penalty might be."

In baseball, that risk-reward has generally been on the side of breaking the rules; to change that equation, the consequences must be stiff, career-threatening penalties. Undoing past damage may be impossible, but going forward there is a way to deter cheaters. Hit them where they live.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Cory Franklin is a Wilmette, Ill., physician and author of the book "The Doctor Will See You Now."

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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