On a brisk San Francisco evening in October of 2014, the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants were tied 3–3 in the bottom of the ninth inning of game five of the National League Championship Series. The Giants led the series, three games to one, and were one win away from a trip to the World Series. Giants runners were on first and second. There was one out. Up to the plate stepped Travis Ishikawa, a journeyman ball player who had been originally signed out of high school by the Giants, later cut by the Brewers, Orioles, Yankees, White Sox and Pirates between 2012 and 2014 before rejoining the Giants’ minor league team in Fresno, where he floundered. It was not until late-July of that summer when he was called up to the major league team in a move he remembered being ‘shocked’ by, given his mediocre minor league performance and having nearly quit baseball. Yet here he was, in the NLCS, batting against right-hander Michael Wacha, one of the Cardinals’ better pitchers. Left-handed batting Ishikawa worked the count to 2 balls and 0 strikes. On the next pitch, a four-seam fastball, low and in, Ishikawa launched it into the seats above the right field wall, sending the Giants to their third World Series in five years. Bedlam ensued. It was only the second walk-off, win-it-all homerun at home in the history of Giants post season play, the first being Bobby Thompson’s ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ blast to beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the Polo Grounds in New York on October 3, 1951, during the first-ever nationally-televised sporting event. Ishikawa’s was the first homerun to end an NLCS. It is an at-bat that will forever live large in San Francisco Giants’ lore.
It was this magical at-bat that came immediately to mind as the story of the Houston Astros’ systematic, carefully-planned, technology-aided scheme to steal pitching signs unfolded. Informal efforts to predict the next pitch have always been part of baseball, but this is far different. This was a concerted, organized, orchestrated plan to change the game itself. And as we are learning, the Astros were not the only team to have done so. Add the Boston Red Sox to the list and, possibly, the Chicago White Sox. Others likely attempted to do it, too, but have yet to be implicated or caught.
A quick primer on ‘sign-stealing’: Before each pitch, the catcher, using his fingers placed between his legs, signals to the pitcher the type of pitch and the desired location he thinks will work best against the batter. As an example, the catcher may show one finger and tap it against his left thigh. This is likely a fastball to be pitched on the left side of the plate. Two fingers might be a curveball, three a slider, four a changeup. The signs are meant for the pitcher only, because the batter would have a distinct advantage if he knows what kind of pitch is coming. For this reason, baseball expressly forbids the use of binoculars (by, possibly, a team employee sitting in the outfield seats) and electronic devices (like a camera with a telephoto lens) to attempt to see the catcher’s signs and communicate them quickly to the batter. The Astros and the Red Sox broke this rule repeatedly throughout the season and postseason. It may have helped both teams win a World Series championship.
Cheating has always been part of baseball. Gaylord Perry, among others, used Vaseline to give his pitches more movement, players put cork inside their bats to make them lighter, runners on second base who could see the catcher’s signs had simple ways to communicate to the batter what pitch might be coming next, players took amphetamines and, later, steroids. Just about anything to gain an advantage in a game defined by failure. But the Astros and Red Sox crossed the line into foul territory.
What is different about their crime is that it was organized, endorsed and decidedly illegal. The scheme needed everyone’s participation, from the person who placed the camera, to the coach who reviewed the electronic images, to the teammate who communicated the information to the batter (in the Astros’ case, by banging something in the dugout; in the Red Sox case, via an Apple watch), to the batter himself. Every member of the team, from the coaches to the players, were in on it. Baseball historians consider this as serious, if not more serious, than the ‘Black Sox Scandal’ of 1919, when some members of the Chicago White Sox, Shoeless Joe Jackson among them, purposefully lost the World Series in exchange for money from gamblers.
The reaction to the scandal is predictable. Some scoff that baseball is filled with cheaters who, over the years, have stained the image of the game. Some claim that attempting to gain an advantage in sports, even if by illegal means, is human. Some opine that part of the charm of baseball is found in the bending of its rules. That cheating isn’t cheating unless there is a victim. That sign-stealing is part of the game. That foul is fair.
These are all rationalizations. Cheating undermines the very essence of the game. It cheats the opposition. It cheats every other team in the league. It cheats the fans, who expect a fair game, one adhering to the rules. Why bother watching, why bother buying a ticket, if one team creates an unfair advantage? Cheating on a grand scale must be stopped. What’s needed is a ton of bricks to ensure that it is.
The general manager and manager of the Astros have been suspended without pay by baseball for a year and have been fired by the owner. The team has been fined $5 million — a laughable amount in a multi-billion-dollar industry — and have lost a number of future draft picks. The managers of the Red Sox and Mets, the latter of whom was involved as a player in the Astros’ scheme, have also been fired. But, thus far, no other players have been disciplined and both teams’ championships remain in their possession. If overt, technology-driven cheating in baseball is to end, everyone involved must be sanctioned and the championships must be revoked. Anything less sends a clear signal to baseball and its fans: Players can cheat; teams can cheat. That message is dangerous and has the potential to destroy the integrity of the game. Brand-building takes years; the destruction of a brand, nearly any brand, can happen in minutes. Unless baseball acts decisively and soon — and uses that ton of bricks — the integrity of the game will suffer. As a fan, I urge baseball leadership to step up and do what’s needed. Too much is at stake.
Since the revelation of the Astros cheating scandal, I’ve watched the replay of Travis Ishikawa’s home run a dozen times.¹ I’ve played it loudly, attempting to hear if there was any banging before that 2 and 0 pitch, if there was anything suspicious that might suggest that he knew what pitch was coming. Thankfully, I could hear none, see none. Cheating may be part of baseball, but during that at-bat, on that cool October San Francisco night with 43,217 fans on their feet, it was a pitcher throwing to a catcher and a guy with a bat standing between them. And without any illegal advantage, my guy clobbered it. That’s baseball.