MLB sign-stealing: Are you “entitled” to cheating free baseball?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - JULY 02: Alex Cora manager of the Boston Red Sox watches batting practice before their MLB game against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre on July 2, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ONTARIO - JULY 02: Alex Cora manager of the Boston Red Sox watches batting practice before their MLB game against the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre on July 2, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images) /

An MLB attorney implies during a lawsuit hearing that fans aren’t necessarily entitled to watch a game free of cheating.

Just when you wondered when at last the MLB commissioner’s office would release its findings about the Boston Red Sox’s replay room reconnaissance ring, a Red Sox attorney let it spill. The Red Sox, if not Red Sox Nation and all baseball fans, think they know what Rob Manfred is going to say after all, and he might, maybe, be “off base” in his findings.

So Manfred is going to rule the Red Sox were electronic cheaters, too, even if they weren’t quite the operators the Houston Astros were, even if the final official ruling is on hold thanks to baseball’s shutdown over the coronavirus.

Then what would you say if you knew an attorney representing Major League Baseball itself seems to think nobody promised you a cheating free game when you bought your ticket, turned on your television or radio, or signed up for a fantasy league?

Oral arguments in lawsuits filed by daily fantasy sports (DFS) contestants against the Red Sox, the Houston Astros, and MLB itself were heard by federal district judge Jed Rakoff the morning of March 20. The Athletic‘s Daniel Kaplan caught hold of the arguments, which were done by conference call.

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Rakoff asked Red Sox attorney Lauren Moskowitz of Cravath, Swaine & Moore whether they admit to violating directives against using video devices for sign stealing. Moskowitz said the Red Sox admit nothing of the sort. Sort of. Then Rakoff asked whether the Red Sox believe Manfred “was just off base.” Replied Moskowitz:

"Your Honor, I think that there are distinctions between what the Red Sox believe occurred and what the commissioner found. And I think that certainly they’re entitled to disagree that that activity happened at the club level. Certainly, we did find on certain occasions in 2017, that this electronic device was used to communicate sign information."

All three defendants in the lawsuits insist they didn’t and don’t owe DFS players (and, presumably, anyone else) a MLB game devoid of cheating. “[The] idea that all baseball teams or all sports teams are making an implicit representation about compliance with . . . the quote-unquote rules, that is a difficult standard to hold all sports to,” Moskowitz argued.

Kaplan described Rakoff as a self-admitted baseball fan who “struggled with that” and asked if, by that logic, bettors in 1919 were entitled to a cleanly-played World Series. Then, it got worse.

“When you get involved with sports, you know some things go wrong,” argued MLB attorney John Hardiman. “You can’t predict things. And one of those things is, unfortunately, rules violations. If there had been some representation made to you, by baseball, or by somebody, listen, ‘this game isn’t bribed today’, maybe there’s some sort of claim.”

You wonder if Rakoff might be aware that a one-time president of the National League, ruling in the appeal of a pitcher’s cheating suspension, wrote that there’s a presumption going in that a ballgame will be played straight, no chaser. I’ve cited it before, writing about Astrogate, but it looks as though it’s time to look once again.

In 1987, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Kevin Gross was suspended ten games after he was caught with sandpaper in his glove. He appealed the suspension and A. Bartlett Giamatti rejected his appeal. Giamatti distinguished between impulse (like a beanball or a bench-clearing brawl) and premeditation, with cheating clearly the latter.

Cheating, he wrote, was “the result not of impulse, borne of frustration or anger or zeal as violence is, but are rather acts of a cool, deliberate, premeditated kind.”

"Unlike acts of impulse of violence, intended at the moment to vent frustration or abuse another, acts of cheating are intended to alter the very conditions of play to favour one person. They are secretive, covert acts that strike at and seek to undermine the basic foundation of any contest declaring the winner—that all participants play under identical rules and conditions. Acts of cheating destroy that necessary foundation and thus strike at the essence of a contest. They destroy faith in the games’ integrity and fairness; if participants and spectators alike cannot assume integrity and fairness, and proceed from there, the contest cannot in its essence exist."

Essentially, Giamatti said, an argument such as Hardiman’s is way off base. Nobody has to announce beforehand that the game you’re about to see is cheating-free.

Oh, there might be a little on-field gamesmanship going on, like runners picking off signs or hitters catching onto little “tells” from pitchers about to throw certain pitches. That’s not the same thing as replay room couriers flashing stolen signs to baserunners to send forward, or illegal cameras broadcasting signs on a closed-circuit mini-network to clubhouse monitors for decoding and transmission.

Plenty of players distinguish between types of on-field gamesmanship, too. They might actually refuse to send a sign they swiped while running from second base, but they’re not shy about looking for little tells on certain pitches from pitchers who are looking likewise for little tells from hitters about what pitch they might expect.

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Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. was such a player. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote Friday that Ripken was just about the only player he’d ever known who refused to send on signs he deciphered from second base and asked teammates not to send him stolen signs when they were on second with him at the plate.

That’s the man who played 2,632 consecutive major league games. “It’s not in the spirit of the game,” Boswell quotes Ripken as saying. “The sport is the pitcher vs. the hitter. There shouldn’t be any third parties involved.” With one exception, involving a pitcher’s tell.

During the 1997 division series between Ripken’s Baltimore Orioles and the Seattle Mariners, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, then an Orioles coach, caught onto Hall of Fame lefthander Randy Johnson‘s glove bulging because he squeezed the ball a little harder when about to throw his vaunted slider. Robinson put two and two together and told Ripken to watch for it.

Ripken went 5-for-9 against the Big Unit during the Orioles’ sweep. Three singles in Game One, a pair of singles (one of which drove a run in) in Game Four. All sliders. “That’s just doing your job,” Ripken told Boswell of the Johnson tells. “It’s you and him.”

Knowledgeable fans go in expecting that kind of gamesmanship even if they’re not as quick as the players to catch little tells by pitchers, hitters, or fielders. Catch onto a pitcher’s glove bulging because he grips a particular pitch a certain way, you didn’t steal a thing. Notice a hitter changing his step, stance, or even bat grip a certain way when you throw a certain pitch, you didn’t steal a thing.

Even the most knowledgeable fans don’t go in thinking one team or the other has a clandestine electronic intelligence operation on the air. Or, you didn’t, until the Astro Intelligence Agency and the Red Sox replay room reconnaissance ring became known to you.

Remember: the DFS players aren’t the only ones taking baseball’s electro-cheating to court. Former pitcher Mike Bolsinger has filed a lawsuit in a California court. And some Texas season ticket holders have filed similar suits in that state’s courts.

According to Kaplan, Judge Rakoff also questioned the DFS players, whose attorney insisted that they relied on baseball’s implied representation that the game is played by the rules.

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Rakoff is expected to make a decision on April 15. If the judge becomes aware of Giamatti’s official denunciation of cheating, and what it means for fans’ and teams’ expectations alike that games are played straight, no chaser, two teams and baseball’s government just might want to keep the checkbooks close.