Our Man in Center Field
By jimmy@section411.com
By Jimmy Sawczuk
Published · 12 min. read

The end of the season for the 2018 Cleveland Indians came far too quickly, but for those of us who watched the team all summer, we’d have been lying to ourselves if we said we expected a far different outcome. Sure, we thought, maybe the Indians would pull together some magic against the Astros and win a game or two, or maybe even steal the series. But it was tough to imagine that Indians team, with its leaky bullpen and inconsistent offense, getting past not only the Astros but the Yankees or Red Sox as well, not to mention whoever came out of the National League. It was a disappointing showing, most of us conceded, but the Indians were way more than a couple of bad hops away from being a true contender that year anyway.

But as the Astros advanced to the ALCS against the Red Sox, it came out that the Indians had reached out to the Red Sox and warned them about a suspicious Astros employee who they caught taking pictures of the Indians dugout. Suddenly, we had a possible explanation as to why the Indians seem so overmatched in the Division Series. MLB tried to shut this story down quickly and cleared the Astros of any wrongdoing just a day later. Their explanation – “an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing club was not violating any rules” – asked more questions than it answered. For example: why are employees of the Houston Astros entitled to enforce the rules of Major League Baseball? I love that quote at the end of that LA Times article, where GM Jeff Luhnow defends his organization’s conduct by saying: “we were playing defense; we were not playing offense.” Uh huh.

I only made it to one Indians game in 2019, an afternoon game against the Cincinnati Reds. We got to the stadium a bit late and were waiting in line for food when the game started. By the time we made it to our seats, the Indians were already trailing, thanks to two first-inning Reds home runs. Tribe starter Zach Plesac kept them in the game for a few innings, but eventually he had to gave way to the bullpen, and the Reds blew it open. The Indians lost by a final score of 7-2.

“One day, this will all be yours…”

But this game was more important to me than just a routine, early summer pilgramage to Progressive Field. With me was my wife Sara, my parents, my aunt, my sister Katie, her husband Nick, and their two kids – my niece Allie and my nephew Lincoln. This was both Allie and Lincoln’s first Indians game. Katie, my parents and I spent a lot of time at Progressive Field when we were growing up, so we had all been looking forward to taking Allie and Lincoln to their first game. We made all the essential stops: the Right Field District for lunch, seats with a good view but well out of range of foul balls and mostly in the shade, a lap around the ballpark, certificates of their first visits for Allie and Lincoln, and a cotton candy break. We spent the last couple innings in the kids play area, which occupies two stories behind the right field corner and lets parents (and uncles) watch the game while the kids play. (Katie and I never spent any time in the kids play area when we were kids. Katie probably would have enjoyed an opportunity to visit, but I was far too baseball-obsessed to hear of spending that much time away from the game.)

Despite the Indians playing poorly, we had a great time. But as fun as the day was, something strange happened. The incident began behind the bleachers as we slowly worked our way around the ballpark. We had stopped for some refreshments, and I was waiting for everyone to regroup when an Indians employee approached me and asked how long the lens was on my camera. Thinking she was just interested in photography, I told her it was a 55-300mm (meaning it telescopes, from a minimum of 55mm to a maximum of 300mm). Her eyes got big, and she asked me where I was sitting, her tone suddenly much more interrogative. I told her we were in the upper deck behind home plate, but we hadn’t been in our seats in a while. I asked if there was anything wrong, and then she told me I wasn’t allowed to bring camera lenses that long into the ballpark and I might have to be ejected.

By this time most of my family was back, so I tried to remain calm and said surely that wasn’t necessary, I’ll just put the lens away and switch to one of my shorter ones. But no, she insisted I’d need to wait for her manager and he’d make the call. So she radioed her manager and we waited for five minutes or so. I was pretty annoyed that our day was being interrupted like this, especially – and this might seem silly, but I’m still pretty baseball-obsessed – when we were behind the bleachers, where I couldn’t even see the game.

Finally, the manager showed up. The first employee explained the situation to him, and he said, as if he was the first person to have the idea, “how about you just put that lens away and don’t use it again?” “That’s fine,” I said shortly, and we parted ways. The first employee looked a little frustrated as she walked away.

For the rest of the game, and on the car ride home, I racked my brain trying to think of why the Indians were so against longer lenses being in the ballpark. Maybe, I thought, it was just a way to get people to pay for professionals to take their pictures in the ballpark. But if that were the case, why wouldn’t they just ban all DSLR cameras, instead of just long lenses?

In the end, I could only think of one reason why the Indians didn’t want longer lenses in the ballpark. It might also have explained why this employee may have been more alarmed than normal that she found me near center field. That reason: a 300mm lens is plenty long enough to see the signs the catcher is putting down from center field.

This was one of the pictures I took with my 300mm lens, from near the Indians bullpen in center field.

Just to be clear: I wasn’t using my 300mm camera lens to steal any signs, from the Indians or the Reds, on that day last summer.

But as we’ve gone through what has to have been the craziest offseason in at least 25 years, I can’t fault the Indians for instructing their employees to be so vigilant. Especially the Indians, because their chief competitive advantage is their pitching.

Shortly after the end of the 2019 World Series, The Athletic was first to report on a scheme that the Houston Astros used to steal signs and relay them to batters in real time. According to The Athletic, the Astros used “[a] feed from a camera in center field, fixed on the opposing catcher’s signs, was hooked up to a television monitor that was placed on a wall steps from the team’s home dugout at Minute Maid Park.” Once a team employee or player decoded the sign, they’d signal the Astros batters with “a loud noise — specifically, banging on a trash can, which sat in the tunnel. Normally, the bangs would mean a breaking ball or offspeed pitch was coming.”

Sign stealing, it should be noted, is an accepted part of baseball. Most of the time, the catcher’s position alone is enough to mask the signs so only the pitcher and the rest of his fielders can see them. The dugouts are behind the catcher, and the batter doesn’t have the time or a good angle to decode a sign that the catcher is flashing in his crotch. But baserunners, particularly baserunners on second base, have a much better vantage point. It’s for this reason that the catcher pretty much always switches to a new set of more intricate signs when a runner reaches base. Every catcher simply assumes that at least some baserunners are trying to decode the signs he’s giving his pitcher and relay them to the batter at the plate so the batter can drive them home.

Is this cheating? I would argue no. This kind of sign stealing is akin to a batter watching where a third baseman is playing to see if he should lay down a bunt, or watching where the right fielder is shaded to see if he should shoot for the gaps or try and pull one down the line. It’s a player using information available to him on the field to inform his and his team’s strategy.

But players stealing signs while they’re on the field is different than non-players using video stealing them from off the field. What the Astros did – and I have to admit, it takes real chutzpah to insert an employee near an opposing team’s dugout and have him try to catch that team in the act of doing something your team is actually doing – is cheating. Players have utilized video during games for ages, but they’ve always used it between at bats, analyzing what they’ve done in the past to hone their strategy for future at bats. Using video this way is okay; using it to get information about a pitch before it comes, in real time, is not.

More troubling than the Astros cheating scandal itself has been their reaction to being caught. Their responses have varied between “we never did that, how dare you accuse us” to “of course we did it, but it didn’t affect anything.” These responses – or non-responses – have opened them up to seemingly incredulous accusations of cheating that continued through 2018 and into 2019, and may have evolved to use buzzers instead of trash cans. But because this team hasn’t shown an ounce of contrition, I’ve lost faith that they have some imaginary line they won’t cross, that they’ll do anything for that extra edge – if you don’t think you did anything wrong, why would you stop?

The Athletic also alluded to an idea that this scandal isn’t just a Houston Astros problem; it’s an MLB problem. Since the Astros were accused and punished, more accusations have surfaced against the Red Sox and other teams, and an investigation into the Red Sox is ongoing. The Red Sox and Mets both fired their managers because of connections to the 2017 Astros. Players who aren’t associated with the Astros are openly furious with them, and it’s only a matter of time before that anger boils over in a game this season.

Part of the reason for this frustration (apart from the fact that the Astros just plain cheated) is that MLB’s punishment of the Astros was pretty anemic. The Astros lost some draft picks and about $5 million. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred also issued one-year suspensions for both manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow, which led to owner Jim Crane firing them immediately. Manfred claimed those punishments were about all he could do, given the current CBA with the Players Association and his promises of immunity to the players who cooperated with the investigation. Some players and pundits have suggested the Astros should be stripped of their 2017 World Series title, or that those immunity promises should be ignored and players should be suspended anyway.

Although he absolutely butchered his argument in an interview with ESPN’s Karl Ravech – likening stripping a World Series title to “asking for a piece of metal back” – Rob Manfred has a point. Stripping a World Series title doesn’t have a ton of clout. Sure, it’d be removed from the official record books, but if you asked anyone, “who won the World Series in 2017?” they’d answer along the lines of, “well, officially, no one, but it was the Astros.” I also agree with Manfred he can’t go back on those immunity agreements he made with those players; if he does, no one would ever cooperate in any investigation ever again.

There is another option Manfred has, that, while it won’t change the past and it won’t force the Astros to answer for what they did, it will prevent them and teams like them from cheating in the future. He could simply make it possible for pitchers and catchers to communicate without using visible signals. Headsets, like what quarterbacks wear in the NFL, are probably the easiest option. But maybe an even better option is equipping both the pitcher and catcher with smart watches, with the catcher picking the pitch and the pitcher either agreeing or shaking him off. This addition would still require catchers to have skill in calling games and sequencing pitches. But without a visible sign, it would allow them to do so securely. This would also make “legitimate” sign stealing significantly harder, but I think leveling the playing field by wiping out video-aided sign stealing is more important.

That said, I still think the Astros’ punishment is far too light. I haven’t seen this plan suggested anywhere else, so maybe it’s too radical, but here’s what I’d do: I’d ban the Astros from the postseason for at least two seasons, maybe three. (If this rumor about José Altuve and the buzzer that helped the Astros win the 2019 AL pennant is proven, I’d escalate this to four or five seasons.) No matter what happens this season, no matter if the Astros win 50 games or 120, they’d go home at the end of the regular season. If they finished in first place in the AL West, the second place team would get the division title and the trip to the postseason.

Meanwhile, the Astros would waste two or three prime years of their young stars. Also, anyone thinking of signing with the Astros for a chance at a World Series in the next two seasons would have to think long and hard about whether or not it was worth the gamble that the Astros’ window wouldn’t be closed when the ban was lifted. In summary, this ban would strip the Astros of a huge competitive advantage for at least two seasons – exactly what they did to their opponents for at least two seasons and possibly more.

Without a stronger punishment, this crisis won’t go away anytime soon. The rest of the league is angry and frustrated that the Astros have escaped with barely a slap on the wrist. But worse than that, the precedent is set, and this kind of cheating will continue to plague baseball. And why wouldn’t it? Because ultimately, there isn’t a franchise in baseball who wouldn’t exchange $5 million and a few draft picks for a World Series title.

Thanks to Sara Sawczuk for reading a draft of this post.