The Boston Red Sox have been using an Apple Watch to illicitly steal signs from the Yankees and other opponents, according to a Major League Baseball investigation cited by Michael S. Schmidt of The New York Times. News that a Boston-area team had benefited from illicitly taping its opponents sent a tremor of disbelief through the sports world.
According to the report, Red Sox team personnel would pick up a catcher’s signs from the instant-replay video feed, then relay those signs to a trainer in the dugout through the trainer’s Apple Watch. The trainer would then signal the incoming pitch to the players. When the Yankees uncovered video of the final step in this process, general manager Brian Cashman filed an official complaint with the league two weeks ago.
While baseball teams have been stealing each other’s signs for more than a century, the involvement of the Apple Watch is important for two reasons: First, wearing an Apple Watch in public makes you look like an asshole. Second, using technological aids to steal signs violates both the game’s written and unwritten rules. The 1951 Giants used a sophisticated buzzer system to aid the greatest regular-season comeback in baseball history, and in 2010, MLB reprimanded the Phillies when bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer used binoculars to steal signs from the Rockies, though the league didn’t punish the team further.
That reprimand followed a 2001 directive from Sandy Alderson, then an executive with the league office, outlawing the use of electronic communications on the field. And in the age of smartphones, tablets, and now smart watches, the league takes that directive seriously. MLB currently delivers Wi-Fi-disabled iPads to teams before each game for use in the dugout, and in 2015, Royals manager Ned Yost caused a stir by wearing an Apple Watch in the dugout, though MLB determined that Yost wasn’t using his watch for anything that violated league rules.
MLB called Ned Yost to ensure he didn't use his Apple Watch during games. He said, "When you're away from your phone, all it is is a watch."— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) August 18, 2015
Fascinating as this sign-stealing escapade would be if it involved, say, the A’s and Mariners, the involvement of the Yankees and Red Sox ratchets up the intensity a notch, particularly considering the two teams are fighting for the AL East lead, and Yankee pitcher CC Sabathia recently criticized Boston utilityman Eduardo Núñez for bunting on him, saying Núñez was targeting his weak knee. Targeting a weakness, however, is not against the game’s rules or norms, as evidenced by the fact that it’s not illegal to hit the ball to Matt Kemp.
The consequences of the MLB investigation—apart from momentary embarrassment for the Red Sox—are unclear, particularly after Boston filed a counter-complaint under the time-honored American legal tradition of “I’m rubber, you’re glue,” accusing the Yankees of stealing signs off the YES Network feed.
Having the runner on second count the catcher’s fingers is fine—and Boston manager John Farrell admitted to sanctioning a sign-stealing enterprise in general, just not the specific use of technological aid—but a full-blown computer hacking operation is against the rules, as former Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa discovered. Using an Apple Watch to relay signs falls somewhere between the two.
Finally, it’s important to remember that whatever means the Red Sox used to steal the Yankees’ signs, the Yankees still had their code broken, which makes them more dupes than victims. Baseball players have communicated through hand signals since time immemorial, specifically to avoid having their messages decoded and intercepted—a hand signal is no different than any other coded message—and if those signals aren’t sophisticated enough or changed frequently enough to prevent their meaning from becoming plain, there’s only one party to blame. A front-office executive went to jail for corporate espionage last year—why should a catcher’s signals be treated with any less care than scouting reports? The use of an expensive hipster fashion bauble doesn’t mean the Red Sox were running their operation through Fort Meade; it was still just a couple of dudes and a camera.
The Yankees should know better than anyone that baseball teams will go to great lengths to gain a minute competitive edge. Maybe next time they’ll guard their own secrets better.