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What Is The Houston Astros Sign Stealing Controversy?

The Houston Astros illegally used electronic equipment to steal signs from their opponents in 2017, which was the same year the team won the World Series.

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The Houston Astros baseball team might have won the World Series in 2017, but they have made headlines since then for a reason that has now tarnished the team's winning reputation. 

In January 2020, the organization was found to have illegally used electronic equipment to steal signs during that same winning 2017 season. Confirmation of the team’s actions sent shockwaves through the Major League Baseball (MLB) community.

What Is Sign Stealing?

Sign stealing is common in baseball, but using electronics to steal signs can result in hefty fines. Photo by Jose Morales on Unsplash

In baseball, teams use secret hand gestures in order to communicate specific plays and pitches without letting the opposing team know. Sign stealing occurs when the opposing team is able to capture and interpret these hand gestures for their own gain. 

Sign stealing is not illegal; in fact, it is a strategy that is common to baseball. However, using technology to obtain the signs from another team is what is frowned upon. In fact, in 1961, the National League prohibited the use of any “mechanical device” to nab signs. 

Still, MLB as a whole never truly made a move to ban electronic equipment completely. In 2001, MLB did a ban on electronic equipment, but only when used as a method of communication between teams during games. While this might have hinted at sign stealing, it still did not formally ban the use of technology for sign stealing purposes. 

In 2017, the Boston Red Sox were fined for trying to steal signs by way of a smartwatch. At this time, Rob Manfred, the commissioner of baseball, warned all ball clubs that stiffer penalties would be levied for any sign stealing using electronics in the future.

Caught in the Act

Many people suspected that the Houston Astros were stealing signs using electronics. Photo by Lesly Juarez on Unsplash

The Houston Astros have long been suspected of stealing signs. Allegations of the team’s use of technology to do so during the 2017 and 2018 seasons were discovered to be true.

In November 2019, sportswriters Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich reported for The Athletic about the Astros’ alleged sign stealing activities during the 2017 season. Their reporting included confirmation from former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers that the team used a center field camera during the 2017 regular season and postseason to capture signs from the opposing team’s catcher to the pitcher. These signs were then interpreted and shared with the Astros, so that every man in the batting order would know which pitch was coming to him and when.

Upon the report’s release, MLB started an investigation. In January 2020, it was confirmed that the Astros used the camera to steal signs in 2017, the same year the club won the World Series, and again during part of the 2018 season. Later reports indicated that the sign stealing occurred even earlier than previously reported. 

The Fallout

The punishments for the Houston Astros came swiftly. General manager Jeffl Luhnow and field manager A. J. Hinch were both suspended for the 2020 season for not doing anything to prevent the situation. The organization as a whole was fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed in the league. The team was also forced to give up their first, and second, round draft picks for both the 2020 and 2021 season. 

MLB granted immunity to Astros players who cooperated with the investigation. However, firings did happen for others, namely Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran. Cora was the bench coach for the Astros in 2017 and was found to be one of the central planners behind the sign stealing. Cora had since moved on to manage the Boston Red Sox, but he was relieved of his duties when the news hit. Beltran was the only Astros player during the 2017 season to be named in the report. He had recently been hired as manager of the New York Mets, but was fired before he started the job.

The Astros’ punishment is noted as the worst in MLB’s history against a ball club. Astros fans, as well as baseball fans in general, have been greatly disappointed by the scandal. When the Astros take the field again in 2020, it should make for a very interesting baseball season.

About the Author

Barbara Zito is a freelance writer and social media strategist based in New York City.

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