Two outs, bases loaded, the go-ahead run in scoring position. This common baseball motif is the real-life predicament in which Red Sox first baseman and subpar batsman Mitch Moreland found himself on a soggy New England evening in August.
Facing the hated New York Yankees, Moreland was down two strikes to none—a loss would give the Yankees momentum heading into the final 40 games of the season and move them closer to the Red Sox in the American League East standings. Moreland sighed, wrung his hands together, gripped his lumber, stepped into the batter's box, and crushed a slider into center field. The Red Sox took the lead; the Yankees lost the game and fell five games behind their rivals in the standings.
In baseball lore, Red Sox versus Yankees is the equivalent of Apple versus Microsoft. Since the early 1900s the franchises have battled for baseball supremacy, with the Yankees dominating the 20th century, and the Red Sox owning the first fifth of the 21st century. During their long and storied rivalry, the teams have played against one another more than 2,100 times, starting with their first ever meeting in April of 1901.
The teams have had multiple violent brawls, including one in 2003, during which Red Sox star Pedro Martinez grabbed Don Zimmer, a charging 72-year-old Yankees coach, and slammed him to the ground. Just last week, Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia had words with Red Sox utility man and former teammate Eduardo Nuñez for breaking one of baseball’s unwritten rules: bunting for a base hit against a pitcher with a bad knee.
Under ordinary circumstances, Moreland’s hit would have been forgotten by all but the most ardent of Red Sox diehards. In any given baseball season, a successful team will suffer dozens of gut-wrenching losses, and reap the reward of dozens of momentum-building victories. The saying goes: Every baseball team wins 54 games. Every baseball team loses 54 games. What a team does with the other 54 games is what really counts. This Red Sox victory, No. 70 of the season, was no ordinary victory, and this series no ordinary series. It turns out the Red Sox cheated that weekend, and in the surrounding weeks, in a novel, ingenious, and technology-inspired fashion (or should I say fashion-inspired technology).
The New York Times reports that Red Sox video replay personnel, while watching the games on television, read the opposing catcher's hand signals to determine what kind of pitch the next offering will be. The video replay team then texts the type of pitch to a Red Sox training staff member in the dugout. The staff member, armed with an Apple Watch, alerts the hitter via hand signal to what kind of pitch he should be prepared to hit.
(Disclosure: I'm a huge Yankees fan and this story brings me nothing but joy and love).
Why Does This Matter?
If you're not a baseball fan, you're probably thinking, "What's the big deal?" Well, in the case of Moreland's big hit, the difference between pitcher Tommy Kahnle's fastball and slider is roughly 11mph. At a distance of 60 feet and 6 inches, hitters have roughly 0.40 seconds to determine the type of pitch being thrown in their direction—a fastball? a slider?—and the pitch's location before deciding what kind of swing to put on the ball (whether to pull it, hit it back toward the pitcher, or push it the other way). That's about the time it takes to blink. The difference in reaction time required for Kahnle's 98mph fastball and his 87mph slider is approximately 0.05 seconds. In real life, that time amounts to an eighth of a blink; in baseball time, 0.05 seconds is the equivalent of a lifetime.
Stealing signs isn't against baseball's lengthy charter of written and unwritten rules. In fact, it's commonplace for pitchers and catchers to switch signals mid-game to ensure that the opposing team hasn't caught onto a specific pattern. Whenever runners reach second base (which is in clear view of the catcher's hidden signals), pitchers and catchers switch to a second set of signs for this exact purpose.
However, a 2001 memo from EVP of Baseball Operations, Sandy Alderson, forbade teams from using electronic equipment "for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage."
Major League Baseball is investigating the Red Sox's infractions to determine the extent of the cheating and what, if anything, should be done to punish the franchise. Despite harsh penalties for players caught using performance enhancing drugs, Major League Baseball is actually pretty mellow with regards to players gaining competitive advantages under less-than-ideal circumstances. Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was tossed from a 2014 showdown with the Red Sox because he'd been illegally applying pine tar to balls in order gain a better grip on his pitches. Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry is known to have put Vaseline on his zipper in order to moisten pitches. And players add cork to their bats in order to generate more resistance when pitches meet barrels.
These transgressions are banned, and all cheaters caught conducting these, or similar, transgressions are suspended. However, the suspensions are usually minimal, and the reaction around the league is the equivalent of a collective shrug.
The Red Sox have reportedly admitted to Major League Baseball that they committed the violation. To make matters even more intriguing, the team filed a counterclaim with the league accusing the Yankees of using the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network TV crew to conduct a similar form of cheating.
The Tock Heard Round the World
This isn't the first time technology has played a role in illegally aiding a sports franchise. As far back as 1951, the New York Giants were rumored to have used a telescope to relay signs to pitchers in the bullpen who would then relay the information to hitters. Perhaps the most famous home run of all time, Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard Round the World" was hit that same year. It's highly possible he knew which pitch was on its way.
A St. Louis Cardinals scouting director named Chris Correa was caught in 2015 hacking into the internal database of the Houston Astros in order to gain a competitive advantage with regards to talent evaluation and player trade value. MLB forced The Cardinals to pay $2 million and forfeit two draft picks to the Astros. Correa was sentenced to 46 months in prison for 12 counts of corporate espionage for his actions.
In 1997, the New York Mets reportedly used a camera near home plate to relay signs. The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies were also accused of binocular peeping. Former Major League manager Jackie Moore once said the White Sox would position someone in center field with binoculars to read the catcher's signals. The White Sox had a light in their scoreboard that would be illuminated if the man with the spyglass indicated an off-speed pitch was on its way. The Royals accused the Blue Jays of stealing signs via binoculars during the 2015 postseason. Although he wasn't on that particular team, former Blue Jay Greg Zaun admitted that during his time in Toronto from 2004-2008 the team stole signs and "We were happy to do it."
Baseball isn't the only sport that's suffered its share of technology-induced cheating. The New England Patriots ran what is perhaps the most well-known technology-enabled cheating operation in 2007. The team was caught illegally videotaping an opposing team on restricted areas of the sidelines during a game. The NFL fined head coach Bill Belichick $500,000, the team $250,000, and the NFL docked the team a subsequent first round draft pick.
What happens to the Red Sox is still undecided. Major League Baseball is investigating the incident and will enforce a decision. MLB could force the Red Sox to forfeit the games during which messages were relayed, or, more likely, fine the team and force them to vacate future draft picks. Either way, MLB will likely use this occasion to take a firm stance on technologically aided cheating.