Sports have existed all over the world, physical games that may involve anything from balls to sticks and marked zones on the ground where two teams compete to score points or some other objective. Some sports even had a religious tone in their culture of origin or served an important part of the civilization’s function, such as Aztec ball games. Today, sports such as baseball, soccer, cricket, tennis, and golf are among the most popular of all, and many teams and leagues are formed so that professionals can play and compete for trophies and recognition. Baseball, in particular, is quite popular in the U.S. and Japan, and it dates all the way back to the late 1800s or so. Many baseball teams have made a name for themselves, but not even time-honored teams always play fairly. As for what constitutes fairness and good sportsmanship, there are both written and unwritten rules for this, and that is especially true for baseball. The Houston Astros, in particular, are facing all kinds of issues in light of a recent sign stealing scandal.
Baseball in the United States
This sport is often known as “America’s favorite pastime,” though it also has roots in Canada, according to some evidence, and the first recorded game was played in Ontario. At any rate, this sport is a staple among American youths, along with soccer. These sports are often used as an outlet for exercise and cardio, and they are a fine way to teach good sportsmanship and teamwork to kids of all ages. Even fishing is popular among youths; in the year 2017, for example, some 11.6 million youths aged six through 17 took part in fishing. Many high schools and colleges across the U.S. have baseball teams, and many children also form informal baseball teams to play during their own time, such as at local parks. Some parks are equipped with simple baseball diamonds, complete with the necessary fencing behind the batter to catch balls.
However, there are ways to alter how baseball equipment functions and players are also known to spy on the opposing team’s communications to get an edge on them. There are honest ways to do all this and dishonest ones. The Houston Astros team, for example, performed an illegal form of sign stealing.
The Houston Astros and Sign Stealing
What, exactly, is the Houston Astros baseball team guilty of doing? That city won a World Series in 2017, despite Hurricane Harvey striking the Gulf of Mexico at the time (hurricane season runs from June 1st through November 30th each year). This team has enjoyed recent success, but it might not be called honest success. In a typical baseball game, a team’s catcher and pitcher will communicate with one another using signs, and a catcher is positioned to see the entire field from their vantage point behind home plate. Vital information is being transmitted, mainly the type of pitch that the pitcher will perform. A challenge the batter faces is determining the type of incoming pitch and swinging their bat correctly to strike the ball.
Naturally, the batter has an interest in knowing ahead of time what sort of pitch is coming, and the batter’s team may use sign stealing to “listen in” on the other team’s communications to that end. Often, players on one of the bases will use hand signs to transmit this information to the batter, and this is within the rules of baseball. In fact, some players may be known for their advanced sign stealing capabilities.
But there are limits to legal sign stealing, and the Houston Astros exceeded those limits. MLB rules forbid the use of electronic devices for the purposes of sign stealing, but investigations on MLB’s part confirmed that the Astros team used field cameras to perform illegal sign stealing against their opponents during the 2017 baseball season. Mike Fiers, who played for the Astros in 2017, informed The Athletic magazine about all this, and so the truth was discovered. As a consequence, the Astros team was fined $5 million, and they also lost their 2020 and 2021 first and second-round draft picks. It may also be noted that the Houston Astros’ general manager Jeff Luhnow and field manager A.J. Hinch faced suspension for all of 2020, owing to their failure to prevent that illegal sign stealing from taking place. What is more, on the same day those two suspensions were announced, the Houston Astros fired them both. As for the severity of this scandal, the sanctions stand as the most serious for any club and are among the most serious for in-game misconduct in the sport’s history.
Even before all of this came to light, other baseball teams suspected that the Houston Astros were performing illegal, electronic device-aided sign stealing during the 2017 season. The Dodgers, for example, were quite suspicious of the Astros, but they could only speculate at the time. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians team believed that the Astros were taking illegal photographs of their dugout during the 2018 AL Division Series. The Indians then warned the Boston Red Sox, who soon played against the Houston Astros. Even the New York Yankees believed that the Houston Astros were using dishonest sign stealing methods against them, reporting a strange whistling sound during Game 1 in the 2019 AL Championship Series. MLB investigated, but no evidence of dishonest play was found.
Other Methods for Modifying the Game
As mentioned earlier, baseball players may affect the outcome of a game through not only skilled sign stealing but also through modifying their equipment, most often the bats. This should be done in a proper context; modified bats are not allowed in sanctioned games at all. Besides, an expert on the field may be able to identify these modified bats by sight. But modified bats are a fine option for casual, amateur games where league rules are not enforced, and these doctored bats can also be used during home run derbies.
Baseball bats today can be made either of ash wood, which is the traditional material, or they can have hollow metal bodies with padding on the inside to protect their frame after hitting a baseball or softball. Baseball bat shaving and rolling are how these bats can be modified, with wooden bats getting rolled and metal ones being shaved. How does this work?
A wooden baseball bat’s fibers will naturally bend and break as the bat is used to strike balls, and this is to be desired. Once a wooden bat has struck a few hundred baseballs and its fibers bend and break the right way, the bat is fully “broken in.” At this point, the bat is more flexible, and it can strike a baseball further than a fresh wooden bat will. A player might have a few prized broken-in wooden bats in their collection, and use them during casual games for optimal performance. But such bats might break during practice, so a player can use a rolled wooden bat as a substitute since rolled bats have a similar performance profile as regular, broken-in bats.
A rolled bat can be bought online if so desired, and a player can take a fresh wooden bat to a rolling service and have the staff there modify it. That bat is then passed through a series of rollers that will pressure and distress the bat, and bend its fibers in the right way. Care should be taken so that the bat isn’t badly damaged as a result.
Metal bats don’t have wooden fibers, but they can be shaved. A shaved bat can be purchased, or a player can take their metal bat to a shaving/rolling service. There, the staff will remove the metal bat’s end cap and fix it onto a lathe table, and the table will slowly feed the bat’s exposed interior to a rotating grinder. That grinder will remove a few ounces of the inner padding, but the shaver should not remove too much padding, or the bat will become too fragile and may break during a game. No padding should be removed from the handle, either, for the same reason. Finally, take note that shaved metal bats do not perform well in temperatures lower than 65 degrees Fahrenheit. So, a player can use them instead during warm weather, or indoors, for a casual game. A shaved metal bat is more flexible than off-the-shelf metal bats, after all, and thus can strike baseballs further.
Baseball will survive but it’s certainly a bad time for the sport. The Astros had some of the most exciting, talented, and young players in the game — but their success now has a dark cloud over it. As the MLB’s investigation continues, more and more information will surely arise. It should be an entertaining 2020 MLB season.