« 99% Invisible

418- Sign Stealing

2020-10-20 | 🔗

In the early days of baseball, sign-stealing was almost like a game within the game. Teams and players would try all kinds of tricks to get a glimpse of what the catcher was signaling to the pitcher. Even with this long history, when the Houston Astros were recently caught stealing signs during their championship season it became a huge scandal.

Sign Stealing

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This episode is adapted from The Edge, a six-part series hosted by Ben Reiter.

This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
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this is no mean. I'm person, invisible, I'm roman Mars for lotta people being and professional baseball player sounds like eight or dream job. I mean you get paid millions of dollars to lay a game, but there are downsides like if you a bad men at work as a baseball player, it's usually in front of forty thousand screening fans. This where is about one of those nights in Houston, Texas, the tree a blue Jays releasing to the hometown asteroids when they called in pitcher MIKE pulsing, that's baseball, reporter Ben rider. He covered the game for fifteen years, as a writer at sports illustrated some major base. All players have job security and twenty million dollar salaries, their paid huge bonuses. As for getting drafted and their team I've spent years developing them Then there are guys, like pulsing, her son four thousand dollars,
billion dollar organisation. So a thousand dollars, I think, six hundred and sixty seven dollars after taxes, they don't have that invested in, you make jokes about. It's like a bucket of baseball for them Most new came in. He was facing a stacked Astro line it star players like its Brigman in Carlos Beltran. They were a total juggernaut, oh yeah, I mean error, unbelievable! from what you see the runs their puttin up. am I had outside. This is the best team baseball. Bosnia came into the game with a man on first into out. All he had to do was get one more out and the Indian was over. Just get one out, I mean There should be easy buttons. at both singer walked his first batter the second to the three run homer there. Castro's really started pouring it on
They're just kept in his laying off I'm trying to remember a time. I was wrong more than that, and I just dont remember a time. Michael singer was stressed. He was a journeyman. one bad outing could be the difference between hanging onto his job or being sent down to the minor leagues his may Billy Career, hung in the balance. Every single time we took the mound of the eighth batter he faced was Alex been with the bases loaded bowl singer was desperate not to give up another home run, so he turned to his best pitch is slow, looping curveball, but Brigman was ready for it and he headed deep At that point I was like well what else is new everyone else's hidden everything off me my eyes, what is go over the fence, the bulk of God,
and going going and action the Buddhas continent, both in your got his one out in the evening, was finally over. It had gone just about as badly as an end in camps, So we, my ball singer, gave up for runs on foreheads and three walks. He was soon by what happened. He felt good that day he was thrown good pitches, but the asker is just kept hitting them I remember in the interview after the game, I told therefore, as I manage like site, is open. ass their own light. They all over my stuff, there's nothing. I can do Michaels was demoted, the minor leagues that night like right over the game was over and he stayed in the minor leagues, twenty seventeen. He played a few seasons in Japan, but he would never appeared. In the big leagues again pulsing. I had a lot of time to replay that final ending in his head. He thought
Turn the ball well against the Andrews. His arm felt good, Alas, said he was normal, his curveball is biting it just hadn't matter. It turns out. There was a reason. The Houston ashram hitters seem like they knew exactly what pitches Baltimore was going to throw and that's because they did and they knew because the ash rose were engaged in an age old practice old signs dealing. They were cheating baseball is a game with a ton of non verbal communication between players and coaches, all of which happens out in the open coaches, will swipe their hands grass or chest and down their legs to tell a player to steal a base or lay off a pitch in fielders wave at each other to move over a couple of feet to laughter to the right. There are thousands of moments like this in every game and the most important nonverbal com,
Creation is between the pitcher and the catcher, the catches responsible for knowing the opposing hitters strengths and weaknesses, and for suggesting what pitches to throw heat so using a system of discreet hand signals if you ve seen it his ball game. You ve seen this happen. They catch her crouches down, he puts one hand between the shipyards and he starts pointing his fingers toward the dirt. One finger means throw fastball to as a curveball teams will mix up their signs, but when a runner is on second, who has a clear view of the catch her, but for the most part, this is just how it's done. If a better knows what pitches coming it's a lot. Easier to get on base, because that knowledge means they can figure out exactly when to swing or let a pitch go. Here's MIKE Bolsinger, I think the hardest thing to do in any sport as they hit a baseball, so a picture already has and it threat there, but I hit or not knowing what you so where you gonna, throw it, I mean it's almost like
hitting unless you're extremely good at it. It's it's a guessing game. This is where is sign stealing comes in. If you can decode an opposing pitcher signs, you have a big competitive advantage. Sign ceiling is a two step process. First, someone has to see the catcher signals and then they have to communicate that information to the batter and this whole process has to take place in a matter. Secondly, this may sound like a lot of effort, but as long as there have been nonverbal signs in baseball, crafty players have been stealing. Early days of baseball signs. Doing was almost like a game within the game. Teams and players would try all kinds of tricks to get a glimpse of what the catch her was signalling to the pitcher, If the axiom which I heard many times, you you're, not stealing, you not try. That's Paul Dicks the author of the hidden language of baseball, he says the first courted instance of science. Dealing goes all the way back to eighteen, seventy six, the very first.
Here of the National League. There was a shack that had been built hanging from a telegraph overlooking the stadium and hard for the shock was hidden away from fans almost like a hunting blind details are sketchy because this happened in eighteen. Seventy six, but apparently there was a man hiding in the shack, probably with a pair of binoculars, and they were still you find from there and giving of some down doubted the guys on the field and they were taking it from air in those early days. Signs dealing, against the rules, a baseball. There was no clear line that teams knew not across lots of people considered at cheating, but much like you know in air, but there is nothing the rule book that outlawed a dog from playing basketball. Nothing in the rule book stop players from building a shack on a telegraph all and speed.
on the other teams with binoculars. The sign stealing arms race may have had some big impacts on the game. Catches in baseball. Still lean over to receive pitches, but that made a too easy for other teams to steal their signs. So it's believe that that's why catchers began to squat there also Some were help and creative efforts, like in nineteen hundred there was incident during a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia fillies, the red shortstop Tommy Corcoran, noticed the Phillies third base. Coach was always putting his foot in a specific patch of dirt on the field just before a pitch was coming in in Corcoran thought something's wrong here, carry across the field and start kicking with its what digging up the dirt and dirty spling everywhere, and he comes with his little back in the box. Is a bunch Corcoran discovered that the Phillies coach had been stepping on the Buzzer box and the pleasure is taking a telegraph signal and buzz
But it's not loud enough to be heard, but if you could feel it at the bottom of his foot, it turned out the Phillies coach was receiving a modified Morse code. To tell him what pitch was coming, the message was coming from a fill. Player? Who is using binoculars to look through a people in the outfield fence to watch the other team signs the player you lay those signs to the code using the buzzer, and then the coach sent that message to the batter again? This might sound like way too much effort is still sides, but every team is low. for even the smallest edge to win ball games and indoor sign ceiling. Probably helped a team win the world Series in eighteen, forty, eight Bob Feller Hall of Fame picture for the Cleveland team used to tell go p brought back from war war too, to pick up sides, they won. The championship in Feller was pirnie unrepentant about later, he said elsewhere, and love and war, and when
you're trying to win a planet in the nineteen. Forty eight world series all over signs dealing occupied a grey zone in baseball ethics. On one hand, players were hiding it from their posts. It's an from fans on the other. Everybody knew what was happening. One player the Hall of Fame Learning, Rogers Hornsby didn't interview. True magazine that was published under the headline you got to cheat to win in baseball. Because of this ethical grey area for years and went like this, a team would be caught, signs dealing, other team would say, hey cut it out and then the come up with a new way of doing it For years, major League baseball did nothing but their view unsigned stealing changed after a technological breakthrough. In the nineteen fifties, NBC Just invested in a camera with an eighty in space master, telephoto lambs and unveiled for a game of the week
our rapporteur, and I are all the broadcasters release. They can now clearly see the catch her signs and told the audience was coming before each bitch. One of the people are watching the game at day was the commissioner was poured frigate? time any follows a horrible idea. He shouted. He immediately went NBC to agree not to use the camera again ever if the guiding the booth could pick it up in the dark. I could have the tv on in nineteen. Sixty two the commissioner took a baby step to discourage signs dealing, Rick said publicly that he would overturn any game if it was proven. The winning team had stolen signs using mechanical means like a camera or buzzer system or even binoculars. This was the line in the sand in terms of baseball ethics. Players were allowed to steal with their eyes, because conservatives skill, but you couldn't steel signs using technology, Frick never actually punished. Anybody for sign stealing
It took me truly baseball forty years to make an official rule about it two thousand, they finally ban sign stealing by electronic means they had to do it because technology was moving so quickly. At that point, the two thousand rule was meant to stop cell phones from being used to steal signs, but by the early twenty tent baseball club houses were filled with video screens. Some of them were installed by the league itself when they started allowing teams to use pity or replay to challenge on pyres cause the presence of all these new screams. Cheating. Incredibly, tempting major league baseball brought the snake in the guard. And then more surprised when the players take a bite of the up. After a century of back and forth by the two thousand tens, there was finally a clear line in the rules of baseball, so Stealing using technology was not okay, but with screens everywhere.
like a matter of time before someone cross that line and got caught doing it before they were winning games and sending imposing pictures backed the mire leagues. The Hughes now shows, where one of the worst in the history of baseball, starting in twenty eleven. They lost one hundred games three years in a row. Some of their games have local tb radiance of zero point zero, which meant that Nielsen couldn't confirm a single, hugh, stony and who watched the games. They earn nicknames like the last rose and the disastrous. which are pretty good to turn things around. The asters took a page from the money Ball Playbook and hired a fleet of math nerds. They worked unsophisticated algorithms. That would help the astronauts decide which players to draft and what strategies to execute on the field.
That's team was called the nerd cave and so Ben. You know this because you should cover the arrows first hand. He I did so in twenty fourteen. I spend a lot of time in the teams front office for a story for sports illustrated and when I got there I found I was really impressed with her I saw I came. We convinced that they were path to turning things around so before the story ran? My editor asked me to estimate the year. It's all going to come together and I gave him my best guess so. The end of twenty fourteen issue containing my piece hit mailboxes across the country, with a cover that reads your two thousand and seventeen. World Series Champs turns out, I was right: you, know tat, we're twenty. Seventy might Bosnia.
Was sitting in a bar watching the Houston Astros Play game, seven of the world series. This was only three months after his final major League game dashed rose were playing one of those in old teams. The allay daughters, the two others in our lab, every single one of them. It was the greatest organization. Play platform, so I wanted them the wind but be felt the asters deserved it. Oh what Armenia, one hundred percent. I thing to me: they had the better line up, it is, will live. Might bull singer had mixed emotions about the whole series. He respected the asked for their talent and baseball fans everywhere were rooting for them. The asters weren't just winners. They were likeable winners. They were playing in Houston. Second world series. Ever and they made The same year, Hurricane Harvey devastated their home city there star like wholesale to Van Alex pregnant we're fund to watch
It was a real cinderella. The sports illustrated cover in two thousand and fourteen. the article by Ben reader may nailed it. Hey. That's you yeah. Although they can pronouncing my name wrong. Anyhow, the ash rose were champions. Gave a liar by that. If you hit the boy that put numbers like There's no reason why you shouldn't, when you know, when you have your pigeon, but not Temple shrines a game. It feels like how can you lose MIKE Ball singer and almost everybody else assume the asterisk took the world series because of their mix of young talent and the shrewd decision making from the nerd cave Two years later we learned the truth. There was a lot more to the story, the innocent
ass rose. She did their way to a world Series championship in twenty seventeen, the publication, the athletic quoted in late twenty nineteen o whistleblower came forward. A pitcher who played with the ash rose for three seasons. Therefore, guy on the record It was on the team, might fires a pitcher whom laid out exactly what they do. Might fires allege that the truth had been signed ceiling during their championship season. Will the team heavies agency, modern algorithms and an entire cave full of data nerds their sign ceiling plan was a lot like those used fifty years earlier, it was a mix of high tech tools. low budget mischief. The asteroids had a camera aimed directly at the other teams, catcher, which broadcasts to a tv in the tunnel behind the dug up to communicate the pitch to the battery asters players would watch the tv and when they saw fastball coming, they did nothing any other pitch. They would hit a bat against a plastic garbage. Can it sound
like this. Here it is again we, to come up with an analogy for what it sounds like, but really it sends exactly like a bat hitting a plastic garbage. Can major League baseball opened a fully astrogation into the accusations that esters manager in general manager were suspended and then fired by the team. The team was fined five million hours, which is not a lot of money for a franchise worth nearly two billion. The investigator confirm the ashes had been signed ceiling during the twenty seventeen and twenty eighteen seasons and during the playoffs, and maybe even the world series. The asked you're still the twenty seventeen World Series champions. Even though many boffins insist they deserve a massive asterisk, some of them biggest stars. Think that too, like Erin,
Which of the Yankees have something that holds any value with? You know you cheated and you need internet. That's that's how I feel and MIKE Trout, the best player in baseball. It's sad for baseball. You know it's tough to know that they cheated and No, I just I don't agree with the punishment. The asked scandals created many. What, if they can never be answered, No one denies that the actors were really talented team but where they still be world series champions if they hadn't cheated. Data. Analysts have tried to answer that question and several prominent one
to found the advantage the asters got from sign stealing might have been surprisingly small. Of course, a small advantage can mean a lot in such a competitive sport. These questions aren't so abstract. For someone like MIKE boasting her an analysis by computer program are revealed that when the Ashraf face bolster they banged on their trash can lead fifty four times the most times the ash. Had used that system in all of twenty seventeen and a lot of those banks happen during bowl. Singer short appearance in the game. Someone hit the trash can immediately before twelve of his twenty nine pitches. It it just makes me mad thinks what would happen if I hadn't epistle again, and then you start to question things about your career now and then it truly was the most embarrassing moment of my career, one honey
We have never been more bears myself ever. Might more senior filed a legal complaint against the ash rooms on February ten twenty tunnel and the complaint he blame them for effectively cheating him out of his career. He said damages. Any wants the team to give up thirty one million dollars and bonuses that the players received for winning the World series which would be donated to charity. They may she matter once in a while, a truly because you put so much work and to get into this spot, career and then you can find out. This is taken away by people that cheated this isn't exactly the First time, somebody's broken the rules of baseball and two thousands. There was the steroids scandal in since beginning of baseball players of doktor the ball or put cork in their wooden bats.
Slid into their opponents. Links cleats, they say baseball is a game of inches became in Every small advantage matters and the asked Is embraced every age they could find as they are form themselves from a laughing stock into a champion, but when it came to base of age old tradition of sign. Stealing Castro's didn't just pushed to the edge, but over it this episode is adapted from the edge six part series. Hosted by Ben Writer, you can down it now or ever. You get your podcast mood bent out of this.
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the greens, the Senator Ben SAS started attacking the arrows. four, seemingly no reason so. Here's the copper I'd like to talk about the Houston. Strong sore miserable cheaters, sorry, corn and And crews that both both of the Texas Senators sit on this committee, but I think all baseball fans know that some Astro Street Day. They steal signs, they bang on cans, they ve done a whole bunch of miserable thing historically a name they deserve to be punished, probably more than they have been, and then TED crews Like defended the asked it feels really weird, as is happening during a Supreme court hearing. What did you make of all this? I made a Roman was that the asteroids are now that go to symbol for villainy, for everybody right, no matter who you are no matter what you think you can point out what the asters did as rivers.
and it he as representative of corruption and there little risk in doing it. That's what I took away from that right right oh you mentioned on the show that you ve covered the Austro at any wrote about him for sports illustrated nearly were whole book Astro ball. So when you heard about the signs dealing, what did you think what you like personally disappointed? I was really really surprised because I spent so much time with this team over the years, Edwin whole book about them. As you said, and I had no idea about this, but also interested in part of my own reaction, which is that why was surprised by the particulars? I was an entirely shocked to hear that The asters had been the one to do this, just because they did everything to an extreme right in their pursuit of the edge went. so far in every way, most of them perfectly legal- that a kind of made sense that, oh, maybe they just took site,
stealing which, as we know from the episode, is an age old tradition in baseball to a new text, as well, so that was gonna. Get sent me on my quest here and sent me into the making of my podcast to answer that and many other quest: about a subject. I thought I knew really well. So we talk about this long history of signs dealing in various ways in which young people did it in and it was really regions and and violated norms and in ways in which it was not so egregious and people kind of, but it was ok. Where did the Ashraf Variant all this, but, as we heard everybody cheats in baseball but highly everybody else is going seventy five and sixty five mile and ours and right, and they asters, went straight to a hundred what they did also fit into their kind of technocratic Emma.
which the baseball world had really started to turn against. This was an age old, fun admired tradition, nay, took all the fun and artistry out of that right in almost used to be like a caper, the telescopes here, the binoculars here. What the asters did raise is kind of like mechanized dominance in a a lot of people the runway. So one of the big questions that we ask in this episode is part of a series of would be asked rose, be world series champions without some Stealing they made the playoffs this year. They did not make it to the world Series of the right of. Secondly, the pitch swing, poplar shallow right charging, Margaux PS under it, and the tab I raised have just one the american advantage. For the second time it branch history rays are on their way for the world fairy. Does that country's settled the question than we would it? Would you think? No, I don't think it settles the question and that's when it
tragedies of this entire story is that will never be able to go back and replay that history fair, and why did a team that was already so talented, feel like they had to do this? They were so good anyway, right, we'll we met, might pulsing. And our episode just now. The guy throws ninety miles an hour whose areas near five and his career, which isn't so great a team. The piastres could not around. They could have ended his career anyway fairly, but it wasn't fair, so Who things I really want to know his wide at a team with all this talent? Take this extra step,
it didn't even necessarily need it reminds me of the Watergate Break in, like Nixon was so far ahead, but they still had to break into the Dnc to make himself feel better about Gina like to be more comfortable with winning that kid to cheat to win even know who's winning its roof of weird tragedy. To have people like that, I made this podcast with a prologue projects, including the guys who made the Watergate season of slow burn they're, not big sports people, but they certainly know that scandals like this, and I think it was that element that really connect with them and continues to so we're only covering one small aspect of the entire series that you're that you're doing called the So what can we will expect when they subscribe to this? What they're gonna rush out unsubscribe right now, so the edge like? What are they gonna here or there is a lot more to this. You know you'll learn a lot more about why they did it exactly who is doing it, the specific Dynamics within the organisation that lead to corruption like this taking root.
allow me to give you a little teaser. You also learn something else that there running a second sign, stealing system. Parallel to the first. At the same highs, You're gonna have to subscribe to the edge to find out about that. I'm not giving that away right now, a lower limit of fantastic so cool, it's called the edge Ben writer is our rapporteur and once the host of the whole series, I thank you so much for doing a story with us. It was a lot of fun, so much fun, roman thanks a lot. This week's episode was adapted from the edge which is produced by prolonged projects in partnership with cadence thirteen. The show is made by Ben Writer and sadly, the team at prologue projects includes Leon, nay FUCK and Andrew Parsons. Nineteen o presented visible was proves this week by Chris Group, music by Sharia,
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Transcript generated on 2020-10-21.