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(Stolen) sign of the times – ‘Cheated’

June 15, 2021
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Ever since the early days of baseball, there have been those who seek to gain a competitive advantage through various forms of chicanery. And while there are certainly rules regarding the way in which the game is played and the conduct maintained while playing it, players have always pushed the envelope, seeking to come as close to the line as possible … and sometimes crossing it.

The largest cheating scandal of the past few years involved the Houston Astros, who put together an elaborate scheme combining high- and low-tech techniques to steal the signs of their opponents and gain an advantage – an advantage that took them all the way to a World Series championship before later revelations brought the whole thing tumbling down.

Andy Martino’s new book “Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing” (Doubleday, $28) takes the reader inside that scheme, introduces us to the primary figures in its execution and discusses its aftermath. It also takes a trip through the history of sign stealing, a form of gamesmanship that has always been a part of the sport even as it has invited controversy along the way.

It’s a well-reported and well-written book, one that details the extent of the Astros’ sins while also showing that while this recent scandal might be the one most prominent in our memories, it is far from the only time that a team has crossed a line in its efforts to gain a better understanding of (and advantage over) their opponents.

Sign stealing has been a part of baseball since its inception. Generations of players have sought to gain whatever edge they can through figuring out a way to inform their hitters about what pitch is going to be thrown. And the general attitude of those in the game has always been that if you can crack the code, you’re welcome to the fruits of your labors. However, while doing so with your eyes and your wits is viewed as gamesmanship, the use of technological assistance is forbidden.

Strangely, in a profession packed with wildly, almost pathologically competitive individuals, it turns out that just telling people not to do something isn’t enough of a disincentive if they think it will win them ballgames. And it has won some big ones.

The primary focus in “Cheated” is the Astros scandal, of course. And Martino does a fantastic job of really getting granular with regard to how the scheme was hatched, how it evolved and how the primary players engaged with it.

In brief, it worked like this: team operatives would study video of the game in real time, seeking to decipher the signs of the opposition. Once that was achieved, they could determine which pitch was coming. That information was then conveyed to the player at the plate via noise – they used a number of methods, but the most popular seemed to be simply banging on a plastic trashcan. Armed with the knowledge of what was coming, the batter could adjust accordingly. Again, an ingenious marriage of high-tech and low.

Veteran player Carlos Beltran and bench coach Alex Cora are generally considered the ringleaders; many (but not all) players took advantage to varying extents. Manager A.J. Hinch was aware but disapproving; GM Jeff Luhnow attempted to claim a degree of ignorance. All of it played out on the grand stage, with alleged cheaters and victims both coming to the forefront and altering the perception of the game.

It’s all fascinating stuff, rendered all the more engaging by the context that Martino constructs. He reaches back through the history of the game and pulls examples of technologically-assisted sign-stealing from the past. Early on, the Phillies had a scheme that involved a bench player with opera glasses, a modified telegraph and a buzzer buried beneath the third base coach’s box – an elegant, innovative and totally unethical plan.

And of course, the previous champion as far as sign-stealing scandals, the decades-later revelation that 1951’s legendary “Shot Heard Round the World” hit by New York Giant Bobby Thompson off Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca – a home run that would send the Giants to the World Series – was influenced by the fact that Thompson likely knew what was coming. The Giants had a setup in their home park that involved a center-field telescope and a particular scoreboard light.

But it is the Astros who sit at the center of “Cheated.”

Martino gets really granular here, relying on a significant depth of reportage. He meticulously reconstructs events while also finding ways to delve into the mindsets of the primary figures involved. It wonderfully captures the slippery slope nature of the scandal, the ethical erosion gradual in a way that allowed the main players not to grasp the full nature of their offense – or at the very least, allowed them to delude themselves with a variety of excuses.

There are a lot of gray areas in the rules of baseball, both written and unwritten. “Cheated” is a compelling look at what can happen to a team when they wade into the murky middle and allow their competitiveness to push them over the line. The Houston Astros cheated and their 2017 title will be forever tainted because of that; thanks to the work of Andy Martino and others like him, we’ve all gotten a fuller, more detailed picture of just how that came to pass.

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 June 2021 18:27

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