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The Treatment for Sign Stealing Isn’t a Cure for MLB’s Disease

The Red Sox and Alex Cora have parted ways. But baseball must decide whether it wants to address the systemic issues that led to the scandal.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Red Sox and manager Alex Cora announced Tuesday evening that they were parting ways by mutual consent. This news came about 30 hours after Cora was named in a report by the commissioner’s office as one of the masterminds behind the trash-can banging and other methods that allowed the Houston Astros to communicate opposing pitchers’ signs to batters for the better part of two seasons. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred suspended Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch one season each for knowing about this ongoing bit of percussive espionage and doing nothing to stop it; Manfred granted Cora a stay of execution only because the league office is also looking into allegations that Cora’s 2018 Red Sox used similar sign-stealing techniques through video monitors in the team’s replay room. An even lengthier suspension is almost certainly in the cards for Cora.

Which is to say this: The press release may have said “mutually agreed to part ways,” but Cora was fired.

Astros owner Jim Crane waited until Luhnow and Hinch were suspended before firing them, but the tripartite Red Sox godhead of John Henry, Tom Werner, and Sam Kennedy cut the string on the sword of Damocles without Cora’s ultimate fate being announced. Doing so now, rather than waiting indefinitely for an official sanction from the league, allows Boston to get started on its search for a replacement, and it’s an almost merciful grant of closure for Cora, who’d otherwise be left twiddling his thumbs until Manfred’s judgment was announced.

With Cora out of the short-term picture, the scope of his punishment is no longer a pressing issue for one of the best and most-scrutinized franchises in the game. Whatever happens to him now will turn into a footnote once pitchers and catchers report. Even if he’s banned for life, well … does anyone particularly miss John Coppolella?

The Astros, Red Sox, and the league, all now have the opportunity to move on. The question before the league and the fans, reporters, and analysts who make up the broader American baseball community is whether it would be wise to take that opportunity.

These investigations, and the punishments they’ve inspired, are attempts to fix a problem. If the problem is “the 2017-18 Astros and 2018 Red Sox were using cameras to steal signs,” then consider that problem all but fixed. The principal offenders in the sign-stealing scandal have now been identified and sanctioned.

But what if the problem is that MLB teams are using technology to gain an unfair advantage during gameplay? Manfred has already said that Mets manager Carlos Beltrán, who was identified as a ringleader of the banging scheme, will not be disciplined, as he was a player at the time of the incident. But hours after Monday’s report, veteran infielder Logan Morrison named the Yankees and Dodgers, in addition to the Red Sox and Astros, as teams that have used cameras to steal signs. An October article on electronic espionage in baseball by Scott Miller of Bleacher Report cites league sources who also think the Diamondbacks, Indians, Rangers, Cubs, Blue Jays, and Nationals have dabbled in the electronic dark arts. Belleville News-Democrat and reporter Jeff Jones added the Brewers to that list shortly after Miller’s piece.

That’s more than a third of the league—apparently if you don’t know what pitch is coming next, you’re behind the times in baseball these days. Will MLB investigate any of those claims? Will any more heads roll?

It’s also reasonable to conclude that sign stealing isn’t the problem, but rather merely a symptom of baseball teams’ overreliance on technology. The mere existence of the replay room, which the Red Sox allegedly used to relay signs to hitters, is another example. The manager’s challenge is a pointless complication of replay review anyway, but allowing the manager to wait for a verdict from his own video staff before challenging a call is like giving students the answer to a test beforehand—if a call was so egregiously blown that it needs to be overturned, it should be obvious to the naked eye. But MLB clubs, unwilling to walk the tightrope of replay without a net, have turned around and used those nets to ensnare unwitting opponents.

It doesn’t end there. In 2017, the Red Sox used an Apple Watch in the dugout to relay signs to hitters, and technology has had far more deleterious effects within the game. Just ask the Astros, who over the course of the 2010s replaced their pro scouting network with cameras, eliminating dozens of jobs within the organization. It would make sense for MLB to react to this abuse of technology by taking away the offenders’ toys and returning MLB dugouts to their natural and analog state. In reality, the league is reportedly taking steps to expand the use of technology by having pitchers and catchers communicate pitch calls through wearable tech. (Those baseball fans who also follow the NFL will remember that on-field wireless communications are famously impervious to interference or interception.)

The real problem, of course, is that the upper echelons of power in baseball have been taken over by people with little regard for norms and customs, to whom human considerations are at best secondary to either the financial or competitive bottom line, and at worst not considered at all. Reading Manfred’s statement on Luhnow, it’s hard not to read the GM’s suspension in particular as punishment for a litany of sins that were not literally part of the big league roster’s decision to go full Gene Krupa on a trash can during games.

To quote Manfred’s statement: “At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture—one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to the Brandon Taubman incident, the Club’s admittedly inappropriate and inaccurate response to that incident, and finally, to an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.”

Luhnow might have been the noisiest and most conspicuous adherent to that type of toxic culture among recent MLB GMs. But the ranks of power in baseball are so riddled with his ilk that it’s impossible to know for sure, and at any rate he’s far from the only offender. Electronic sign stealing is the cause célèbre of the day, but it’s penny-ante shit compared to other behaviors that stem from the same societal disease that views rules, norms, and human beings as obstacles to be navigated around or run over on the way to the goal.

It is from this toxic stem that electronic sign stealing sprouted, as well as other even more insidious fruits: suspicious leaguewide spending freezes, service-time manipulation, improprieties surrounding the recruitment of amateur free agents, PEDs, starvation wages for minor leaguers, and a litany of other sins that are far more odious to fans and deleterious to the soul than sniffing out an upcoming breaking ball.

This is the disease, and MLB is treating one symptom. There’s no profit in finding a cure.