Baseball has a certain beauty to it that can not be seen in any other sport. If you fail 70 percent of the time at the plate over the course of a season, you are considered an Allstar. Players are expected to fail at this game, and the ones that fail less than others are the ones that end up being great. It is astonishing to think about it this way, but it puts it into perspective how challenging the game is. Hitting a high-speed moving ball with a cylinder-shaped bat is arguably one of the most difficult things to do in all of sports.
In game 6 of the 2019 ALCS, Houston Astros’ star second baseman Jose Altuve was up to bat facing the New York Yankee’s closer, Aroldis Chapman. To give you a little insight into the type of pitcher Chapman is: his fastball is over 100mph, and he has a great changeup and slider. However, despite facing the best closer in baseball, Altuve still manages to hit a walk-off home run to send his team to the World Series. To an ordinary viewer, they would think that it was surreal to see a 5’6 man hit a towering shot off Aroldis Chapman’s slider. The difficulty to react between a 100 mph fastball and an 84 mph slider is extremely difficult. Most players would say you have to just sit on one pitch and hope that you see it. However, if you have a little insight (or a lot) on what pitch is coming, that could change everything.
September of 2016 was the birth of the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal. It began by an idea presented to the Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and presented the idea of a systemic sign-stealing scheme in which the team would use illegal cameras to know what pitch was being thrown and relaying that information to the batter in real-time. While this idea was pitched at the end of the 2016 season, it was not implemented until the following season. Beginning in April of 2017, the Astros began stealing signs electronically and they would relay the information to the runners on second, who would then signal to the batter what pitch was coming. They used the cameras from the center field feed to decode the catcher’s signs and the sequence was relayed to the dugout, which was then relayed to the runner on second. It was not until June of 2017 when the team implemented the now widely known trash can method. This method came to the surface after the team realized that they could put a monitor at the entrance of the dugout that would receive the feed from the centerfield cameras. They had team personnel monitoring the feeds in the dugout and they would bang on a trash can whenever an off-speed pitch was coming. They initially tried to whistle and clap to signal when the off-speed was coming, but quickly realized that it was not a reliable method. They used this trash can method throughout the 2017 season and even through a good portion of the 2018 season. The significance of this cheating scandal during the 2017 season is that the Astros ended up winning the World Series.
Before I continue, I would like to note that this is not the first time we have seen a team engage in illegal conduct like this. Teams have been trying different ways to steal the other teams’ signs since the early 1900s. However, with the introduction to new TV cameras, it has made the opportunity to cheat easier and more appealing. Another recent example of a team illegally stealing signs was the Boston Red Sox, and it was also in 2017. The Red Sox were sending electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout. While both the Red Sox and Astros cheated in the same year, the Astros suffered far more scrutiny for it due to them winning the World Series.
Now let’s take a look back at that at-bat between Jose Altuve and Aroldis Chapman. In real-time, it was unbelievable to watch. I remember I was left speechless as Altuve trotted around the bases. Even Chapman’s face portrays sheer astonishment. However, after knowing what we know about the Astros’ illegal sign stealing, the at-bat between Altuve and Chapman kind of makes more sense now. Although there is no evidence that the Astros continued to cheat in the 2019 season, there was major speculation that Altuve was wearing a buzzer underneath his jersey that game. The speculation is due to the fact that Altuve was holding onto his jersey while rounding third base demonstrating that he did not want his jersey to be ripped off while his teammates celebrated with him. To makes things even more suspicious, Altuve went into the locker room to change before doing his post-game interviews. I believe that Altuve got away with wearing a buzzer that game and as a result, he was more than ready to face Chapman.
It is extremely frustrating for teams and players in the MLB to lose to a team in the playoffs and then find out they were illegally stealing signs afterward. Several players from around the league verbally expressed their frustration to the media explaining how they felt robbed and used many expletives to describe the Astros. Imagine being beaten by the opposing team to lose the World Series, watching them celebrate right in front of you, just to end up finding out that they were cheating the whole season. I don’t know about you, but I would be livid. On the other hand, though, talk about a creative crime. The Astros spent over half a year preparing to implement their sign-stealing scheme, and even a few more months until they started using their go-to trash can method. This process must have taken a lot of thought and development for it to have lasted for so long. There is a video on Youtube that perfectly captures this method into a two-minute video and it is quite remarkable. Every single time the catcher calls an off-speed pitch, the banging sound occurs within a few seconds later, just like clockwork. The batter literally knew every pitch that was coming at him. The advantage that the Astros batters’ had over the opposing pitchers was insurmountable and it clearly showed as they dominated throughout the regular and postseason. I would classify this as a creative crime because the Astros combined technology and a trash can to cheat their way to a World Series title. Almost everyone can agree that the Astros are scumbags for these sly antics, but I think we can also agree that it was pretty clever. It was creative in the sense that it was undetectable for most people. A few opposing pitchers started to realize something was up, but everyone else that can not see the signs had no idea. The subtle banging of a trash can in a dug out flies under most people’s radars, however, it was inevitable that they were bound to get caught eventually.
The beauty of baseball is that whether you are cheating or not, at the end of the day, you still have to play the game. Even if you do know that an off-speed pitch is coming, that doesn’t mean you’re going to crush it. Sure it makes your chances of succeeding go up a little bit, but probably not much. It is one damn hard game to play, and it will always find out who is cheating.