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Bruce Dowbiggin“I’ll take Baseball for $800, Alex.”

“The answer is: paint your fingernails bright colours.”

“Alex, what is, ‘What does baseball think is the best way for a catcher to signal pitches to the pitcher?’”

That’s pretty much the sophistication level of a 21st-century sport being governed by 19th century technology. And, as a result, teams using contemporary technology are taking advantage of “one is a fastball, two is a curveball” being signalled between his legs by a guy crouching behind home plate.

A recent exposé in The Athletic had former Houston pitcher Mike Fiers alleging that the Astros used a secret camera to steal the signals being relayed to the opposing pitcher by the catcher. Houston batters were then warned in advance by either a whistle or someone banging on garbage cans to signal fastball, slider, curveball, etc.

“That’s not playing the game the right way,” Fiers said in the story. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”

There have been rumours from teams about the Astros cheating for some time. But most people wrote it off as bitter losers trying to rationalize why the talented Astros were taking them to the woodshed. But the first-hand revelation from Fiers has taken the accusations past the rumour stage. One of the elite teams in Major League Baseball – some might say the best team in spite of losing the World Series – is blatantly cheating.

Suspicion fell on Joey Cora and Carlos Beltran – who was just named manager of the New York Mets – as the dugout architects of the scheme.

The reaction to the revelation has run the gamut from “Ho hum, it happens all the time,” to “a greater scandal than steroids.” The most outraged feeling seems to be that, while steroids were a bad thing that happened off the field, the Astros’ pitch tipping represents a whole other level of on-field cheating just this side of the Black Sox betting scandal in the 1919 World Series.

Some might wonder why MLB has never investigated the persistent rumours of the Astros’ pitch tipping. It would seem to have been a simple matter of doing a surprise visit to the camera bay in centre field or launching an inquiry with the batters of the Astros. But then recall how MLB handled the umpiring problems in the 2019 World Series and you get an idea how this could go on for so long.

So how bad is it to steal signs with a camera system?

It’s dishonourable and violates MLB rules. It now has tainted the playoff and World Series victories of the Astros – who didn’t need that much of an advantage. Some punishment is in order.

But until we know whether the Astros were the only team employing a rogue strategy it’s hard to gauge what penalty Houston deserves.

Disqualifying all their wins in the past few years is unworkable – would their opponents get those wins? Would it reverse playoff standings? How can you replay a World Series? The punishment would more likely be financial, lowering their threshold under the luxury tax as an example. The team could also have draft picks taken away.

The debate of what to do with the Astros also revives the steroid argument that’s keeping Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens out of the Hall of Fame – even as Bud Selig, the commissioner who turned a blind eye to the blatant cheating, has been enshrined in Cooperstown. We now know that Bonds and Clemens were just the sexy names connected to steroids. Their use was rampant at the time. How can you punish just a handful of stars – who were also unpopular with the Hall of Fame voters during their career – when so many lesser names skate into history unscathed?

And how can you punish steroid users when players who abused amphetamines for decades before them are given a pass into the hall? Hell, pitcher Gaylord Perry is in Cooperstown and he cheated incessantly with foreign substances on the ball – while everyone laughed about it. Just acknowledge that Bonds and Clemens used steroids but put them in the Hall.

Of course, the simplest solution to preventing sign stealing is to bring MLB into the 21st century. Stop telling catchers to paint their fingernails. It’s time to abandon the time-honoured ways and use progress to eliminate cheating. Institute a telex system for pitchers, catchers and the bench.

The National Football League and Canadian Football League have been using a microphone-in-the-helmet system to relay play calls for some time, eliminating the ability of coaches like Bill Belichick to circumvent the rules of play stealing. Surely with the lightweight micro technology in use today someone can design a microphone in the hat of a pitcher to allow the bench to relay the pitches from the pitching coach to the pitcher and catcher.

Or maybe the coach can just bang on a garbage can to signal the pitches. MLB doesn’t seem bothered by that at all.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

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