Baseball, Gamesmanship and Treason

Major League Baseball’s most egregious off-season kerfuffle has involved the alleged “stealing” of signs. I have news for those who think this actually is scandalous: it’s why they’re called signs–nobody is going to blurt out their intentions beforehand; and they’re not stolen, they’re deciphered. Interpreted. This cat-and-mouse game-within-a-game has been going on in many sports since, I’d guess, the advent of sport itself. It’s called gamesmanship.

Two teams–the Boston Red Sox and the Huston Astros–were accused of having mounted a hidden camera in the centerfield of their home stadium. Via this device, allegedly, opposing catchers’ signs were stolen, and, with some legerdemain of their own, then telegraphed to the batter–who would, in turn, be made aware of the pitch about to be thrown him.

This is cheating in the sense that it has been prohibited by Major League Baseball. Still, it seems to me that theft of this type has always been part of the game. From the time baseball began catchers have furtively been signaling to the pitcher, calling the toss, and only recently have some resorted to bright nail applique to make the reading of the signs easier in shadow.

But they’ve always thought to obscure their signs from any runner on second base who might “steal” them. And if that runner does, it’s part of the game. And if that runner does, he’s done his job. And if that runner does, your signs are lousy, it’s your own fault, and you’d better alter them.

I don’t know if television monitors are allowed in major league dugouts. Last year a Boston pitcher was observed smashing two of them in frustration in his own team’s dugout. In any conversation on the mound, players and managers are always shielding their mouths to prevent lip reading. So that tells me it’s possible.

Yet it would be ironic. Every pitch of every game I watch is broadcast from just off center of centerfield. I can clearly see the catcher’s signs and, more often than not, the commentator–usually some Hall of Fame former pitcher–will announce the forthcoming throw. Is he stealing them? Am I?

In 1979 I coached a middle school baseball team undefeated to the league championship. While that remains the most proud athletic accomplishment in my life, the victory had very little to do with me. I laid down only one rule: attend practice. I let those who did play whatever position they wanted to. For the most part. For instance, each kid thought he could be an ace pitcher, given the chance. I learned that if you gave a kid a chance and he failed, his ego would not be too bruised a) if you continued to believe in him, and b) if you positioned him where you believed he’d do better. So, yes, we endured a few rocky defensive innings. But those kids could bat. I seem to remember one of them hit over .700 for the season.

I know–we’re talking about signs. I laid down, to those on base, only one: run. Steal the next bag. Always. With every pitch.

“Fellas,” I told them, “don’t be offended by this. But no one’s throwing anyone out at this level.”

Collectively, they accepted this. “Okay, Coach,” they wanted to know, “But what’s the sign, then?”

“I’ll just keep my hands in my pockets,” I said. Worked perfectly.

Oddly enough, about that same summer I played on a baseball team which went winless. We were awful, truly–although I cherished the chance to play catcher. Have I mentioned that I’m left-handed? There are a few reasons why you never see a lefty catcher, and my play behind the plate was illustrative of all of them. I was only good at three things: 1) A snap throw to first if a runner was napping; 2) Fielding the throw and tagging out a home-bound runner, and; 3) Based on a batter’s stance and swing mechanics, calling pitches.

By giving the signs.

Which I doubt were ever stolen. Not that it would have mattered. Let me give you an idea of how bad a lefty catcher can be. Me in particular. Once, with a runner on second, I called for an inside fastball because I thought the runner would go. He did. Now, the reason I wanted a pitch inside was that a right-handed batter was at the plate, and I figured I could throw behind him to third. The pitch delivered me, lamentably, was low and away. In one fluid motion I scooped up the ball, rose, pivoted to the left and fired. Totally forgetting, as you would if you were in a hurry, the batter. Let’s just say the ball never reached third base.

So, the runner didn’t need to steal my sign. But if he had, the fault would have been my own. It turned out I faced more dire consequences than merely an E-2 on the scorecard. So stunned was Old Righty, so apoplectic at having been properly beaned by a catcher, that it required the passage of a moment or two before I felt safe from the swift revenge of his bat.

Anyhow. You want real thievery?

How about the stealing of a Senate impeachment “trial” where no witnesses or documents were allowed to be subpoenaed because cultish party loyalty cast its spell over Constitutional interest? Trump can claim acquittal, but he’ll never be able to claim exoneration. That’s a form of theft the Republicans call gamesmanship.

In the future, when their grandchildren ask those ballplayers about stealing signs, they’ll be able to answer by saying, “It was baseball.”

In the future, when their grandchildren ask the 51 Republican Senators who voted to preclude witness testimony and documents in the Trump impeachment trial, they’ll only be able to answer by saying, “It was treason.”


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