There is a popular adage in the sporting world that says, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” The wit of this quip is overshadowed by the truth it underscores. From the Deflategate scandal that rocked the NFL and led to a four-game suspension for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to the litany of doping allegations that tarnished the reputation of international sporting events, like Tour de France and the Olympic Games, cheating seems inevitable–if not natural–in the competitive environment of professional sports.

One sport that has been particularly susceptible to cheating is baseball, which makes sense given the strategic nature of the game. Corked bats, pitches known as spitters, and sign stealing are just some of the traditional ways that baseball players have attempted to gain an advantage over their opponents. As the game and its tactics evolved, MLB officials faced calls from participants and fans to modify the rules to protect the integrity of the game. Eventually, corked bats and pitches using adulterated balls were prohibited. However, sign stealing remained legal on certain understood terms. In 1926, Hall of Famer Ty Cobb summarized the distinction between legal and illegal sign stealing in his syndicated newspaper column:

“In the minds of the public, there seems to be an impression that sign stealing is illegal—at any rate, unsportsmanlike. It is not so regarded by ball players. If a player is smart enough to solve the opposing system of signals he is given due credit. . . . There is another form of sign stealing which is reprehensible and should be so regarded. That is where mechanical devices worked from outside sources, such as the use of field glasses, mirrors and so on, are used. . . . Signal-tipping on the fields is not against the rules, while the use of outside devices is against all the laws of baseball and the playing rules. It is obviously unfair.”

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and the importance of this bright line distinction between legal sign stealing and illegal variations employing outside technology persists. In fact, it is magnified given the profoundly enhanced capabilities of modern technology. In 2017, the New York Yankees filed a complaint alleging that their rivals, the Boston Red Sox, stole their signs and relayed them via Apple Watch. MLB ultimately fined the Red Sox for this clear violation of the rule against sign stealing with the aid of outside technology. Ironically, the Yankees were also assessed a smaller fine when the investigation of their complaint discovered that they too had improperly used a dugout phone in a prior season.

In late 2019, baseball fans and the broader public were shocked by the breaking news that the Houston Astros engaged in a scheme that employed a centerfield camera to steal the signals of opposing catchers, which were then communicated to batters by banging a patterned rhythm on a trash can lid. Apparently Houston’s scheme dated back to at least 2017, the year in which the team won the World Series. The Astros were ultimately fined $5 million and were forced to forfeit their first and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. Former Houston players and coaches associated with the scandal have also faced termination of their employment stemming from their involvement in the scandal. Moreover, the Astros organization has recently been named in several lawsuits due to the sign-stealing operation. One lawsuit filed by a season-ticket holder seeks class-action status and alleges negligence, breach of contract, and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Another suit was filed by former MLB pitcher Mike Bolsinger, whose final MLB appearance occurred after a dismal 2017 outing against the Astros.

Many players and celebrities have criticized the MLB for its weak response to what they view as a flagrant and inexcusable violation of the basic principles of sportsmanship. Now some of the injured parties are turning to the legal system to seek redress for the real-world harms caused by Houston’s decision to cheat the game.

Kevin Seguin

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