MLB: The cheaters don’t always prosper

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 1: Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. presents the Commissioner's Trophy to the Houston Astros owner Jim Crane after the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 1: Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. presents the Commissioner's Trophy to the Houston Astros owner Jim Crane after the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday, November 1, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images) /
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MLB: The Cheaters Don’t Always Prosper

Early in the unfurling mushroom cloud of Astrogate, we learned that two teams had either direct knowledge or founded-enough suspicion to outsmart the electro-cheaters. Then-White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar, in a widely-circulated video clip, caught onto the bangs on the can as his catcher put down signs for a changeup and finally switched the signs up while pitching to the Houston Astros slugger Evan Gattis. And the 2019 World Series-winning Washington Nationals—winning every game on the road, but knowing the Astros’ pre-Astrogate reputation for sign intelligence—handed their entire Series pitching staff as many as five sets of signs to switch around just in case the AIA was operating at full strength.

Back in 1951, the Dodgers smelled a Polo Grounds rat down that fateful stretch, too. Coach Cookie Lavagetto (he told it to Peter Golenbock for Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers) had an idea: he brought a pair of binoculars to the part hoping to catch the Giants in the act. The problem was, one of the umpires spotted the specs and had them confiscated. As Thomas Boswell eventually snorted, “Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”

When Worthington took a hike rather than acceded to the 1960 White Sox’s high-tech-for-the-time sign stealing, the White Sox tried to trade him but discovered Worthington now had a reputation inside the game as something of a nutbag. That image would be aided and abetted in due course by no less than Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, who provoked a small uproar in spring training 1962 that Dickson reviews in his book in its own full chapter.

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Hornsby published an article in True entering spring training (the embryonic New York Mets engaged him as a spring batting instructor) under the too-telling title, “You’ve Got to Cheat to Win.” Hornsby had something to say about Worthington, who’d later be one of the American League’s most distinguished relief pitchers as a Twin, including their 1965 World Series team: “[M]ost of the newspapers said [Worthington’s] was a salary argument,” Hornsby wrote about Worthington walking off the White Sox. “In my book, it wasn’t. In my book he was a baseball misfit—Worthington didn’t like cheating.”

Let’s see. Hank Greenberg couldn’t quite enunciate the distinction between corner-cutting on the bases, ball trapping in the outfield, and spying, buzzing, and binocularity, and Rogers Hornsby decided a guy who didn’t like to cheat was a misfit. And Worthington needed psychiatric attention?

Almost a full century ago, another Hall of Famer, whose identity might surprise you depending upon whether you continue buying into much of the negative mythology around him, had something to say about the distinction between on-the-field gamesmanship and from-off-the-field low-to-high-tech subterfuge:

"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."

That was Ty Cobb, whose reputation as the dirtiest, most rules-be-damned MLB player of his era came mostly from one writer whose Cobb-ographies have been debunked completely.

If beyond-the-playing-field technological theft was bad enough for Cobb, it should have been bad enough for the Houston Astros. And, the Red Sox. And, whoever they thought they knew were doing it thus provoking them to see and raise. And, every honest MLB player who knows the distinction between a little on-the-field cunning and a lot of off-the-field, against the rules  espionage.

And, every fan who expects to see an honest contest won straight and lost graciously, whether their team is a late-2010s dominator like the Houston Astros, the unlikely fourth-time 21st Century World Series-winning Red Sox (quick: name a longtime Red Sox fan who entered the century expecting their star-crossed heroes would go from 20th Century Greek tragedy to the 21st Century’s most frequent World Series winners), or the once proud but reduced to rubble Baltimore Orioles.

Seeing Astro fans having to face the pre-Astrogate revelations that the team’s administrative culture was as toxic as the play on the field was inspiring was painful enough. It’s been worse seeing those fans done by the Houston Astros the way the 1919 White Sox did their fans. You could only imagine what it was for still-living 1951 Giants fans to face the reality that their heroes cheated their way to one of the most fabled pennant playoffs in MLB history.

And it’s going to be worse seeing Red Sox Nation, already reeling over Alex Cora’s purge, coming to terms when Manfred’s final report on the Red Sox Replay Reconnaissance Ring shows the extent to which Cora’s Red Sox graduated from gamesmanship to Spy vs. Spy.