Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch shown banging on a trash can to depict the Astros’ sign stealing scandal. (Merry Schlarman)
Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch shown banging on a trash can to depict the Astros’ sign stealing scandal.

Merry Schlarman

Astronomical fraud

December 16, 2019

Leading the Houston Astros 3-1 in the bottom of the 8th, Chicago White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar stared down his catcher, Kevan Smith, anticipating the sign that would dictate his next pitch. Astros catcher Evan Gattis stepped into the batter’s box, readying his stance as he tried to spark a rally. No base runners. No outs. Smith quickly gave the signal for a changeup, the first pitch of Gattis’s at bat.

Bang.

The White Sox were not contenders in the final days of the 2017 season. They were just trying to end their rough season on a high note, en route to a final record of 60-90. On the other hand, the Astros had just won their first division title since 2001 and were fighting for home field advantage in the American League postseason. They wanted to keep their momentum going, despite this game not being a crucial win. With a 2-2 count, Smith once again called for a changeup, the 7th pitch of the at-bat.

Bang.

Farquhar stepped off, calling a mound visit with Smith. Speaking under his glove, he explained that he knew the Astros had stolen his signs. From that point on, Smith used different signs to communicate which pitches Farquhar would be throwing.

No more banging.

The World Series champion Houston Astros cheated throughout the 2017 season. There is no question. This scandal, which was first reported by The Athletic, involved multiple sources inside the organization, including former Astro and MLB pitcher Mike Fiers, who went on the record. The sources described how the Astros positioned a camera in center field during home games, which relayed a live video feed back to the hallway between the dugout and the clubhouse. There, an Astros staff member would attempt to decode the opposing team’s signs, banging on a trash can in said hallway to communicate with the batter.

Since the release of the initial report, supporting photographic and video evidence has surfaced on social media, further intensifying the accusations made against the Astros. In many cases, the banging can be distinctly heard on live broadcast. Even in the World Series documentary, video footage shows Astros players Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman running by a table in the hallway leading to the clubhouse. So what, right? Alternative photographs show a TV monitor on that same table during the game, suggesting that it was moved postgame to hide the evidence of cheating. And sitting right next to the table, a hefty black trash can.

Sign stealing is not illegal in baseball. Often, baserunners on 2nd base will try to decode an opposing team’s signs and relay them back to the dugout because they have an angle to see the catcher’s movements. But stealing signs using a device is explicitly forbidden by MLB. 

Some have defended the Astros, including free agent MLB infielder Trevor Plouffe, saying that electronic sign stealing is merely a symptom of the growing influence of technology, and that it is fair game. Plouffe said that teams are going to try and gain competitive advantages, and it is the responsibility of the pitcher to prevent this by not tipping pitches.

But pitchers should have to focus on batters; not cameras in center field. What the Astros did in 2017, and what other teams have also likely done, is more than just trying to gain a competitive advantage. It violates the integrity of the game. It’s about the livelihood of players. If a minor league pitcher gets called up to pitch in September, gets rocked by a team stealing signs electronically, and is sent back down to the minors, how is that fair? For players trying to further their careers, baseball is not just a game: it is their job. For every Bryce Harper making hundreds of millions of dollars, there are hundreds of Minor League Baseball (MiLB) players following their dream for less than minimum wage.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred must drop the hammer on the Astros team that lost the trust of the baseball community. Though they should not be stripped of their World Series title, they should be heavily fined by MLB, with an additional loss of draft picks. What the Astros did means more than cheating to win a game; they cheated others out of success.

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