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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

It’s time for baseball to overhaul The Code

Winslow Townson/AP

Commissioner Rob Manfred had an issue with how the Red Sox stole signs, not that they stole them in the first place.

By Globe Columnist 

The Red Sox cracked the code of the New York Yankees signs with the help of an electronic device, but it’s more difficult to decipher baseball’s inscrutable and hypocritical unwritten code of conduct. We’re told that sign-swiping to gain a competitive advantage doesn’t breach the integrity of the game, but don’t you dare a flip a bat or show emotion after hitting a home run.

In baseball, playing by the rules is imperative. It’s just that the rules that baseball holds most dear aren’t found in the rule book. They’re part of an unpublished and arbitrary canon that governs proper behavior on the diamond. The Code rules baseball in all its inconsistent, nonsensical glory.

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Everyone in baseball, including Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, buys into the idea that sign-stealing is simply part of baseball. However, baseball’s tolerance and justification of sign-stealing send mixed signals on the sport’s honor culture. If you steal opponents’ signs so you know what’s coming that can’t be labeled cheating. If you celebrate a home run with too much exuberance or flair you’re an Unwritten Rules scofflaw who has disrespected the game and dishonored your team.

The latest example of this integrity inconsistency is MLB’s response to the Red Sox getting caught red-handed stealing signs with a system that involved using an electronic device to relay information from the team’s video coordinator to a trainer in the dugout who passed it on to players. The players then signaled to teammates at second base that could see the signs being put down by the catcher. Famed British code-breaker Alan Turing, who deciphered Nazi Germany’s code during World War II, would’ve been proud of the Sox.

Manfred used a velvet hammer to punish the Red Sox on Friday, fining the team an undisclosed amount that will go toward hurricane relief efforts in Florida. The Sox had offered a recrimination when the allegations first came to light, accusing the Yankees of stealing signs using a camera from their YES Network, the Pinstriped version of NESN. MLB found insufficient evidence to punish the Yankees for that alleged infraction, but it fined the Bronx Bombers a lesser amount for improperly using a dugout telephone in a prior season.

Manfred pointed out there is no specific rule in baseball against sign-stealing and detailed that the Red Sox were being punished for how they stole signs, not for stealing them.

“Our investigation revealed that clubs have employed various strategies to decode signs that do not violate our rules,” said Manfred in a statement. “The Red Sox’ strategy violated our rules because of the use of an electronic device.”

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Swell. The Red Sox’ punishment, or lack thereof, exposes the hypocrisy and lunacy of baseball’s famed Unwritten Rules, which are really no different from the arbitrary rules a group of kids would fabricate for entrance to a tree house.

In baseball, you’re better off stealing signs than stealing a base with a six-run lead in the eighth inning (unless you’re presumably doing it to get in position to steal signs from second base) or flipping your bat after an emphatic go-ahead home run in the deciding game of a playoff series, as Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays did in Game 5 of the 2015 American League Divisional Series against the Texas Rangers. That led the sore-loser Rangers to tell Bautista he needed to respect the game more and that he was a bad baseball role model.

Those acts are viewed as an affront to the game, but sign-stealing is a sanctified and sanctioned part of The Code. What kind of culture is that? It’s one that condones skullduggery under the guise of gamesmanship, yet condemns players who don’t play the game the so-called “right way” as baseball sinners for not letting up and celebrating success.

If MLB had a playlist it would include Hank Williams’s “Your Cheatin’ Heart” but not “Celebration” from Kool & the Gang.

Baseball should be less focused on suppressing personality and celebratory displays and more focused on not enabling teams to concoct better ways to tilt the playing field. If a pitcher is tipping his pitches or has an obvious pattern, that’s fine. But there is a difference between being in a card game and picking up on a tell and having someone sneak a peak at everyone else’s cards to tip you off.

Even if you believe in the incontrovertibility of the Unwritten Rules, baseball has an issue here.

Manfred’s punishment could have unintended consequences for one of his pet causes — improving the pace of play. During the Red Sox’ four-game series in the Bronx from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, NESN broadcasters commented on Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez’s penchant for going to the mound. It’s now clear that one of the reasons Sanchez kept wasting time traveling 60 feet, 6 inches and back was to avoid having the signs he was putting down from being intercepted by the Red Sox.

The game will continue to be bogged down as teams take steps to avoid sign-swiping, which isn’t cheating but isn’t exactly welcomed either.

Another argument from baseball purists and defenders of the game’s confusing culture is that sign-stealing is policed by the teams. The Yankees violated baseball’s invisible precepts by reporting the Red Sox to MLB, instead of handling the issue between the teams — off the field or on the field.

If a team is stealing signs the response could be to plunk an opposing player. But if there’s nothing wrong with sign-stealing in the first place why would there need to be a deterrent?

It doesn’t follow reason and logic, just like what constitutes a major transgression in the Unwritten Rules. You can throw spitballs, put Vaseline on the ball, and doctor the baseball during your career and end up a venerated Hall of Famer. The culture that upholds baseball’s Unwritten Rules codifies the old bromide of if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.

So, the best defense against a charge of excessive home run celebration would be to declare that the homer was hit because a teammate at second base relayed what pitch was coming.

I’d love to know where The Code stands on that.


Christopher L Gasper is a Globe columnist He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @cgasper