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The unwritten rules of stealing signs and taking your sweet-ass time with it

If baseball can eliminate sign-stealing and save time, would it make the game better?

San Diego Padres v Chicago Cubs Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Over the last week, I spent most of my time watching a 10-year-old baseball game that was decided by 27 runs. There were benefits to this, namely that I missed the struggle of the umpires, who are upset that their job has required them to get yelled at for the last 140 years. You can understand their feeling of powerlessness and need to make a public protest, considering they’re only unionized, with structures in place to address grievances internally. It was all really silly, though. I’m still mad at Angel Hernandez for calling Mark Lewis out on an appeal to third in 1997. An arm band isn’t going to change my mind.

However, in an article about the protest, we have a buried nugget that is interesting. Jason Beck of relays an alternate angle to the pace-of-plays discussion that I was unaware of.

Major League Baseball continues to study pace of play, including the role of mound meetings, a topic brought up earlier this year by Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander regarding pitchers and catchers concern about sign stealing. "I've had direct complaints from players about sign stealing," Manfred said. "In the context of discussing pace of game, players have made the point that the potential of sign stealing is something that slows the game down when there are men on base. I think, generally, the notion of sign stealing, people regard it to be a form of behavior that we should not tolerate. And certainly if there are, for example, electronic devices involved, we have rules that regulate the use of those devices."

There’s a lot to unpack, here.

  1. Players are complaining about sign-stealing
  2. It’s being framed as a pace-of-play issue because of the copious mound meetings that result from a player on second base
  3. The Commissioner of Major League Baseball is suggesting that stealing signs is against the unwritten rules
  4. Justin Verlander bro snitches get stitches come on

But I’m interested in the middle two. Without watching a 100-hour sample of baseball games — that’s some poor MLB staffer’s job, dang it — I’ll guess that if Rob Manfred could push a button that eliminated sign-stealing entirely, it would save an average of a minute per game. Part of me wants to appreciate every minute as a brick that eventually builds the bridge to two hours, forty-five minutes. Another part of me knows that eliminating the intentional walk didn’t do a damned thing, other than make me look up once every other game and say, “Huh? What? Wha’ happened? Why is ... ohhhhhhhh, right.”

Eliminating the stolen sign isn’t going to make baseball that much quicker. And I’m ... not really sure how it would happen? Eye-tracking software? Former CIA spooks at every game, watching every runner at second base? The honor system, but with some serious cold shoulders for the players who don’t listen? I’m completely unclear about how this would work. There is already a penalty for players caught stealing signs, and that’s a baseball to the butt.

Maybe Manfred is proposing two baseballs to the butt. He is truly a man of action.

That part that interests me the most, though, is when Manfred refers to stolen signs as “a form of behavior that we should not tolerate.” This is news because stealing signs is as old as baseball. Here, have a delightful anecdote:

One of Peanut (Lowrey’s) great skills as a coach was his supposed ability to steal opponents’ signs. ... (he) was managing a Cubs game in Herman Franks’ absence while Franks watched the game from a broadcast truck. There, Franks noticed how the center-field camera enabled him to pick up the catcher’s signs and thought that this would be a great opportunity to steal some signs. So he called Lowrey and told him he would call one for a fastball, two for a curve, three for a changeup. While Franks was calling numbers for the pitch, Arne Harris, the WGN producer, was calling numbers for the camera, and the poor guy switching the game was going crazy. The only thing wrong with the plan was that Lowrey was somewhat hard of hearing, and by the time Franks got through to him, the pitch had gone by. “They finally had to call it off,” Harris said, “because they were afraid someone was going to get killed.”

That story has everything. A hard-of-hearing manager who can’t even cheat right, a man named Peanut, and a completely frazzled production assistant. Stealing signs is part of the rich history of baseball, and if you don’t believe that, read up on how the Giants cheated to win the pennant, win the pennant, win the pennant.

What I haven’t taken the time to think about until now, though, is if stealing signs is a good part of baseball history. Astroturf is also a part of baseball history, and it actively made baseball much worse. Is baseball better because of sign-stealing, or is it unaffected, at least?

Arguments in favor of sign-stealing

It’s taking advantage of the other team screwing up, and that’s another way to describe what baseball is all about. If you don’t want your signs stolen, make it harder for other people to steal your signs. This has been a baseball truism for years, and it works pretty well.

Also, I enjoy general subterfuge and spycraft with my sports consumption. Stealing signs is another way for smart players to enhance their advantages without relying on natural athleticism. I’m all for additional ways to support the people like myself, who weren’t born with an olympian’s DNA. Evens the playing field, it does.

That’s about it, though. The argument for stealing signs is that the sneakiness is kind of neat. It’s not the most compelling reason, but it’s an excuse for me to type “subterfuge” several times. Also, “skulduggery.” These are just two of the language’s silkiest, greatest words, people.

Arguments against sign-stealing

It really is annoying when there’s a mound conference with a runner on second. There’s a rally going, the flow of the game is sweeping you up, and, whoopsie, here are a bunch of dudes taking into baseball gloves for 30 seconds. It’ll be impossible to eliminate them all, but eliminating any of them is a worthwhile goal.

After thinking about this for a long time, though, I’ve come up with my most compelling argument for or against this baseball tradition: I have no way of knowing when sign-stealing occurs, and it obscures my ability to evaluate and analyze the game. Watching a baseball game and thinking, “A-ha, he was sitting on that inside pitch because the pitcher was becoming too predictable,” is far more important to my enjoyment of the game than the idea that a sign might have been stolen. If the batter wasn’t picking up on the patterns of the pitcher, but was instead just looking at second base to see the runner tapping the side of his nose, not only am I wrong about what just happened, but it makes the “why” of it just a little less elegant.

Which means that all sign-stealing really does is makes it harder to explain why something happened in the baseball game. I watch baseball games to figure out what happened, why it happened, and how it happened. I watch to see the pitcher hang a curve, the batter patiently wait for it, the fielder time his jump, and the wind blow it out. I would watch to see a stolen sign ... except that’s not something that we can see. It’s completely in the background, something that almost always occurs off-camera.

In other words, if Manfred were to push that magic button and eliminate sign-stealing altogether, we wouldn’t notice. Not in the slightest. We would still watch baseball the same way and ascribe the same reasons to why players and teams succeed or fail. Except this time, we’d be more accurate.

And it would save us a minute or two. We would just waste them thinking about Taylor Swift or something, but that’s up to you. I’m not as tethered to the idea of stealing signs as I thought it was, and if this portion of the game disappeared entirely, it couldn’t possibly harm the sport.

All that MLB needs to do is figure out how to catch and penalize players who are doing something surreptitiously and imperceptibly by design. That seems impossible, and it’s not going to happen.

But if it could, though, count me in. I’m all for subterfuge and skulduggery. I just want to know when it’s happening, that’s all.