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CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Astros punishment shows sign-stealing days are over — and the Red Sox are next

The warning commissioner Rob Manfred issued in 2017 apparently wasn’t enough, so he took stronger action this time.
The warning commissioner Rob Manfred issued in 2017 apparently wasn’t enough, so he took stronger action this time.gregory bull/Associated Press

Deciphering an opponent’s signs has been a lot easier than deciphering right from wrong in Major League Baseball. The sport seemed to have a broken moral compass or at least one that needed to be recalibrated for rectitude.

According to the contemptible and hypocritical Unwritten Rules of Baseball, players who celebrate home runs too demonstratively, such as White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, are baseball’s bad actors, violators of the sanctity of the game. But stealing an opponent’s signs is a time-honored element of strategy, cheating elevated to a cherished tradition. Yeah, that sounds logical.

It obviously didn’t sound logical any longer to fed-up MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who dropped the hammer on the Houston Astros Monday for their coordinated electronic sign-stealing system during their World Series-winning 2017 season, a system MLB determined was masterminded by Red Sox manager Alex Cora, then Houston’s bench coach.

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Manfred suspended Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch for a full year, fined the Astros $5 million, and stripped them of first- and second-round picks in the next two drafts for employing a system that involved a TV monitor just outside their dugout to steal signs and banging on trash cans to tip off hitters to off-speed pitches. The Astros subsequently fired both men.

What the MLB’s report says about Alex Cora

Manfred’s punitive punch-out of the Astros doesn’t bode well for the Red Sox, alleged two-time electronic sign-stealing offenders, and Cora, the reconnoitering common denominator between the two clubs who was singled out in the commissioner’s report for his role in devising and employing Houston’s sign-stealing scheme. Cora is a baseball Bill Belichick. The Sox, accused of using their video replay room to steal signs under Cora in 2018, should be quaking in their cleats.

According to a report from The Athletic earlier this month, three unidentified members of the ’18 World Series champs revealed the 108-win Sox used their video replay room at Fenway Park to decode opposing teams’ signs and then relayed the information to baserunners who tipped off batters. The Red Sox’ reckoning is forthcoming, and it’s going to be a metaphorical fastball to the face, which could even result in the firing of Cora.

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Manfred slapped Boston on the wrist with an undisclosed fine in 2017 when the rival Yankees caught former manager John Farrell’s Sox relaying information from their replay room to a trainer in the dugout via a smartwatch. In a statement announcing that decision, Manfred said, “I have received absolute assurances from the Red Sox that there will be no future violations of this type.”

There was a violation the following season.

MLB cracking down on sign-stealing is long overdue, but the sport has no one to blame but itself for the black eye of brazen cheating scandals involving World Series winners. We know that sign-stealing is practically as old as the game itself, but MLB continued to look the other way for too long. Times and standards change.

Related: Takeaways from the MLB’s report about sign-stealing

If you not only condone but venerate sign-stealing as an element of the game, you’re inviting these scandals. More than any other sport, baseball has been at the vanguard of increased efficiency and information flow through technology. So of course, in that spirit, teams are going to find a more effective way to pilfer signs. It follows the information advancement ethos of the game.

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There’s always going to be incentive and temptation to build a better mousetrap by any means available.

Manfred swung and missed the first time when he had a chance to curtail this behavior. His feckless “punishment” of the Sox in 2017 wasn’t a strong enough deterrent. In fact, his September 2017 statement tacitly encouraged the continuation of this activity.

“At the outset, it is important to understand that the attempt to decode signs being used by an opposing catcher is not a violation of any Major League Baseball Rule or Regulation,” said Manfred then. “Major League Baseball Regulations do, however, prohibit the use of electronic equipment during games and state that no such equipment ‘may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage.’ ”

The first part of that statement is problematic. What other sport codifies cheating and says it’s OK? Your New England Patriots were pilloried and tarnished by the Spygate scandal of 2007. What were they doing? They were doing the football version of sign-stealing.

Belichick and the Patriots got blasted in the court of public opinion and labeled deceitful scofflaws who impugned the integrity of the game and offended the sporting sensibilities of America. They were heavily punished by the NFL.

However, if they had done this in baseball, it simply would have been doing business as business is done, a quaint part of the spycraft of the sport. The juxtaposition between how espionage is regarded in the two sports couldn’t be any more stark.

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Manfred needs to go further. He should amend the MLB rulebook to state that sign-stealing is technically a rules violation, that cheating is not institutionally sanctioned by MLB. It’s analogous to speeding. There are laws on the books against driving over the speed limit, but the enforcement is somewhat subjective and everyone knows there is wiggle room. However, if there were no speeding laws at all, how much worse would the transgressions be?

Now, some of the self-appointed guardians of baseball are clutching their pearls at the heretical idea that sign-stealing could be deemed technically against the rules. They would rather root out picayune offenses such as styling on a home run or stealing third base with too big a lead, the venial breaches of etiquette that make baseball’s unwritten rules such a joke.

But times and mores change, attitudes evolve.

There was a time when takeout slides and throwing at batters to back them off the plate were time-honored parts of the game, too. No longer. The same can be true of industry-sanctioned sign-stealing. The espionage also contributes to baseball’s laborious pace as teams try to prevent their signs from being swiped. That’s the real death knell for sign-stealing.

MLB is already investigating using technology that would end the flashing of signs by catchers entirely. According to Yahoo! Sports, there could earpieces for pitchers or a system of lights embedded in the mound or a wearable random number generator that would require the presence of Alan Turing, who cracked the unbreakable German code during World War II, to steal signs.

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One way or another, the prevalence of sign-stealing in baseball — and the pursuant paranoia it creates — is going to be stripped from the game.

There are no more warning shots from Manfred.

He’s finally going to point baseball’s competitive-integrity compass in the right direction, and Cora and the Sox are squarely in the crosshairs of the crackdown.

Read the MLB report


Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com.