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Cheating has Evolved, so why can’t Major League Baseball?

The Astros will be punished for stealing signs in 2017, but the problem will persist without changes

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As a quick recap, in 2017 the Astros were seemingly involved in an elaborate scheme to steal signs and electronically relay them to an employee who would then bang on a garbage can to signal what type of pitch was coming for the batter. Since the accusations were made public, there have been a number of people who have come up with damning evidence from various games of the 2017 regular season. There has also been rampant speculation that sign stealing continued into the 2017 offseason and beyond, but there has been no solid proof of that beyond internet detectives with still images who like to say “HMMM” very loudly.

While I want to be clear that the investigation is ongoing and nothing has been proven, my personal opinion is that the Astros will be found guilty of some form of electronic sign stealing. At that point, the commissioner will most likely move to protect the integrity of the game by punishing the Astros severely and sending a message to other teams about what will happen to them if they do the same. Because, well, that’s what happens when you get caught cheating.

I know a lot of keyboard warriors on social media think that the hammer will fall and the whole city of Houston will simply slide into the Gulf along with a portion of East Texas, but I don’t believe it will be that bad. It will be made to hurt though, and Astros fans need to prepare themselves for that, but what I would like to know is what comes next for baseball?

I don’t expect the league to spend years investigating every other team to uncover every little bit of dirt like some other fans are hoping for. MLB simply doesn’t have the political will to do that even if it really wanted to, which it doesn’t. Indeed, Manfred has already come out and said he has no reason to believe it happened elsewhere, mostly because he and MLB don’t want to believe it happened elsewhere.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow for Astros fans who were hoping that maybe some of the punishment or at least the online razzing might diminish with the implication of other teams. But swallow it we must, because it appears as though MLB will go with the tried and (mostly but not really) true method of punishing the lone proven offender while everyone else cheers with one hand and hides their dirt with the other. That was what they did with the PED scandal 20 years ago, and it’s what they’re going to do now.

Honestly though, I don’t care about punishing other teams. I legitimately don’t want to be talking about this for the rest of the offseason as we play whack-a-mole with every single MLB club. Having said that, I do believe that other front offices are engaged in some sort of nefarious activity. I also believe that they get away with it because people’s unwillingness to talk allows MLB to turn a blind eye to it. Unfortunately for us, Mike Fiers’ willingness to go on record will allow MLB to cordon off the Astros and act like they’re dealing with this problem, even though they’re really not.

Manfred can and almost definitely will attempt to scare the rest of the league with an extremely severe punishment, but I don’t think it’s going to be a deterrent against cheating. Cheating of all different sorts has been punished for years with penalties ranging from severe fines to slaps on the wrist, and yet it has persisted. Not only has it persisted, it’s evolved, and it has become more sophisticated as technology advances. However, the game has struggled to advance along with it. Even small, relatively benign pace-of-play changes have required years-long discussions and generated consternation among traditionalists.

The problem is that baseball wants to emulate a pastime from a bygone era, but a chunk of its traditions and rules were developed back when most of the technology we see today wasn’t even conceived. There was always eventually going to come a way to exploit at least some of those traditions with modern tech, and now here we are.

It’s very easy these days to point a camera directly at the catcher or dugout or wherever and steal signs. Not only that, but those cameras are becoming increasingly smaller, more powerful, and easier to conceal, which lowers the risk of getting caught . Every team is investing in this technology for training purposes at the very least, so the means are almost assuredly there for all 30 clubs. Punishing the Astros won’t change that, it will really only force everyone to try and be smarter about doing it. If the option to cheat is there then someone is going to take it regardless of the punishment.

So why not change the system? Why not eliminate at least one avenue for cheating? One of my issues with baseball is this, at times, almost fanatical need to cling to traditionalism. Any sort of revolution in how the game is played, even sometimes how it’s discussed, seems to be met with suspicion. The idea that you have to play the game “the right way,” a vague and ill-defined term usually defined by what does or does not piss off the pitcher, is usually code for resisting change. For America’s pastime, it’s not prevalent upon the game but rather the players and the fans to accommodate a sport that was invented over 165 years ago.

That stodgy clinging to the past has contributed to the current scandal because, as it inevitably would, technology caught up. Once it became clear that teams could hide a camera somewhere in the stadium to view the catcher’s signs and relay them in real time, it was only a matter of time before someone did. Maybe the Astros were at the forefront of that, but it would be the height of naivety to assume that they were the only ones.

But why use a visual system to relay signs between the pitcher and catcher at all when there are devices readily available that will allow wireless communication? Why not make it that there are simply no signs to steal? I’ll tell you why, question I just wrote: Because baseball doesn’t like change.

And that’s the rub. The system of flashing signs to the pitcher is “the way it’s always been.” It’s synonymous with the game and is the starting point of literally every baseball play, but it’s also vulnerable. It’s the place where it’s easiest to find out what the other team’s game plan is and counteract it. It’s a weak link in the whole system, it’s easily exploitable, and it’s replaceable. Whether you want to use a mic and earpiece or some sort of vibrating device, there are ways to eliminate flashing signs altogether.

Of course that doesn’t mean there won’t be a whole new arms race to try and figure out what other teams are up to. That’s been a longtime tradition of the game even if it’s one we don’t talk about too much. Wireless signals can be intercepted and almost every code has a discernible pattern so I won’t say it’s as simple as giving the catcher a microphone or buzzer, but it’s clear that the system we have now simply doesn’t work to deter cheating.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing we’ve seen from MLB it’s a willingness to grasp on to the quick fix, clap its hands together, and say “that’s that.” The real problem with that philosophy is that it means that nothing will actually change without some sort of existential threat a la the Mitchell Report. It lets MLB pretend that the problem will sort itself out solely because other teams and players are scared of being punished even though that has almost never worked in the past.

The fact is, people know this is happening across all of baseball. Even if we don’t have specific proof of other instances, it’s happening. The Astros got caught because they angered someone who, for one reason or another, was willing to name names. Because of that, MLB has to deal with it but they don’t have to deal with all of it. So they will make a big show of slapping the Astros hard and declaring victory. Maybe they’ll put in some new rules that codify stuff even further, but I don’t expect much beyond that.

Meanwhile, other teams will continue to benefit from it. Honestly, the Astros might even continue to benefit from it if they feel like they can still get away with it, because the system itself is flawed. Taking away draft picks from Houston and suspending Hinch and Luhnow won’t change that.

Obviously, as an Astros fan I would absolutely love for another team to get pinched for this. Right now, it’s hard to see just the word “Astros” next to the word “cheaters” whenever I go online and would like for that to be at least 50% less terrible. But that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon and, even if it did, it won’t change the fact that the Astros probably cheated in 2017. They’re going to be punished, it’s going to hurt and, as much as it pains me to say this, they deserve it.

But what I really hope is that this won’t be another instance of punishing the lone proven offender while MLB pats itself on the back. We all saw what happened last time they went down that road and it was not pretty in the end. Punishment is a deterrent, sure, but it won’t stop the problem of cheating within the league. MLB has the power to end at least one aspect of the problem or, at the very least, search for an attainable solution. To not do so would be nothing short of complicity.