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Snoop Dogs
Joshua Prager
December 11, 2006
High-tech spying is wrong, but baseball still has no rule against it
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December 11, 2006

Snoop Dogs

High-tech spying is wrong, but baseball still has no rule against it

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LAST MONTH baseball's general managers met in Florida to mull changes to the game. The proposals included instant replay and the use at every park of ball-storage humidors like those in Colorado. As usual, fear of controversy will kill most of the new ideas. And as usual, the G.M.'s didn't discuss a rule so uncontroversial that most people assume it's already on the books: banning the theft of catchers' signs by mechanical means.

Signals have flashed between plate and mound since the advent of the strike zone 148 years ago. For almost as long, teams have tried to steal them. Doing so by the naked eye has generally been applauded. But when a spyglass and buzzer were exposed at a Phillies game in 1900, the game cried foul. When another telescope popped up in New York nine years later, the American League Board of Directors passed a resolution: Anyone "found guilty of operating a sign tipping bureau should be barred from baseball for all time."

No official rule was passed, and the process has repeated itself ever since. In 1962, after rumors surfaced that the '51 Giants used a telescope to steal signs in their playoff win over the Dodgers, commissioner Ford Frick suggested that a new rule render "the practice illegal in strong language." In 2001 MLB vice president Sandy Alderson reminded teams, "No club shall use electronic equipment ... to communicate to or with any on field personnel."

But sign swiping remains a problem. Last June the Cardinals, after being pummeled 33--11 by the White Sox over two days, accused Chicago of posting a spy in the centerfield scoreboard. The claim was ironic: Eight months earlier the White Sox were convinced that the Rangers had used a flashing light to let hitters know what pitch was coming.

Commissioner Bud Selig told me in 2005 that a rule was unnecessary: A team using a telescope or camera "would be dealt with." His threat recalled that of Frick, who said that if the charge against the '51 Giants was substantiated, "I would forfeit the game, but I would have to have evidence." I uncovered that evidence long after the commissioner died. (It's detailed in my book, The Echoing Green.) It is a surety that the stealing of signs by mechanical means will again affect play. It is time for baseball to ban what has time and again been defined as cheating. As Christy Mathewson wrote in 1912, "All is fair in love, war, and baseball, except stealing signals dishonestly."

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