I spend winters in Century Village of West Palm Beach. I bought a residence there eight years ago because of the Aitz Chaim shul opposite the main entrance to the Village. What I didn’t know at the time was that a beautiful spring training complex – shared by the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals – would soon be built nearby.
The Nationals won the World Series last year, but recent media attention has been mostly focused on the Astros due to the sign stealing scandal. The league determined that Houston had used television cameras to steal catchers’ signs in 2017 and 2018 and suspended its manager and general manager (who were subsequently fired). The players escaped any discipline.
Carlos Beltran (who played for Houston before being hired by the Mets as their manager) and Alex Cora (their bench coach before being hired to manage the Red Sox) were the main brains behind the cheating system. A camera would relay to them what pitch the opposing team’s catcher was signaling and then they would share that information with the batter by beating on a trashcan a given number of times. That way, the batter would know if a fastball, curveball, or slider was coming.
Of course, the batter still had to hit the ball, but knowing what pitch was coming probably led to an extra home run or two for certain batters and higher batting averages over all.
George Kell, a Hall of Famer third baseman who played in the 1940s and 1950s, told me that the best sign stealer he ever played with was Hank Greenberg. Greenberg and Kell were teammates on the 1946 Detroit Tigers, and Kell related that when Hank got to second base, it didn’t take him long to figure out the signs the catcher was flashing to the pitcher. Greenberg would relay the information to his teammates by touching different parts of his body. Of course, that was – and still is – considered legal sign stealing.
But the Astros used a center field camera (which is focused on the batter and the catcher behind him) to steal signs, and that is considered cheating. With this camera (which captures images for viewers at home), teams can cheat in any number of ways. Managers can, for example, station a baseball maven in a luxury box or in a stadium office and ask him to watch the catcher closely on television.
Meanwhile, an employee posing as a fan could sit in a lower box seat within easy view of the dugout. The fan could have a phone in his ear and a beer in his hand. The sign stealer could be on the phone with his accomplice and relay what pitch is coming by raising the beer to his lips for a fastball, adjusting his cap for a curveball, etc. The only way to make sure cheating doesn’t take place is by eliminating the center field camera or blocking out the area showing the fingers of the catcher between pitches.
Houston paid a big price for cheating. The franchise was fined $5 million and the team has to forfeit some future draft picks.
Spring training crowds are made up of older, better-behaved fans, so it’s hard to get a reading on how fans will treat Astros players in the regular season from spring training. Of course, we can expect more booing from opposing fans. During the games here in West Palm, fans were stopped from banging on garbage cans behind the top row of the lower deck near the concession stands. Ushers also stopped fans from displaying signs mentioning cheating. But ushers won’t be as kind to Houston in other ballparks.
Loyal Houston fans are still proudly sporting Astros jerseys with the name of their favorite players. Jerseys of Alex Bregman, the Jewish third baseman of the Astros, is very popular; I even noticed two elderly female fans wearing earrings with Bregman’s face on them.
I personally would like to see Bregman have a great year at the plate to prove he’s a great player – whether he knows what pitch is coming or not.