Cheating in Baseball: Past, Present, and Future

January 17, 2020 Updated: January 23, 2020
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The world of Major League Baseball (MLB) has been rocked by a major scandal. Several teams, most prominently (so far) the 2017 Houston Astros championship team, have been implicated in schemes to steal catchers’ signs to pitchers.

The Astros combined high-tech and low-tech means—television cameras and monitors to detect the signs and then banging on trash cans to alert batters to what kind of pitch to expect. That reduces a pitcher’s greatest advantage—the batter’s uncertainty about what kind of pitch he would face—and Astros’ batters feasted as a result.

Cheating in baseball (and indeed in all sports) is as old as sport itself. The desire to compete, excel, and win is part of human nature. Alas, so are baser tendencies, such as pride, envy, and greed, that motivate some participants to cheat.

The good news is that Americans overwhelmingly despise cheating (except in politics, but that’s another story). They want their champions to win fair and square, admiring them for their goodness as well as their athletic accomplishments. Knowing this, the overseers of professional sports—league commissioners, team owners, and, by extension, corporate advertisers—strive to maintain the integrity and fundamental fairness of their “product”—their sport. They know they can’t afford to let some bad apples ruin the market for the sport for everyone.

MLB’s current cheating scandal is far from its first, and certainly won’t be its last. Coincidentally, this one has come exactly one century after MLB’s biggest scandal—the infamous Black Sox scandal, in which several Chicago White Sox players accepted bribes from gamblers to throw the World Series. To rescue MLB’s reputation, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned eight Chicago players for life, including the great “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, even though Jackson (as we are reminded in the great movie “Field of Dreams”) played flawlessly.

MLB has strictly prohibited players from getting involved in gambling ever since. This is why the sport’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose (who bet on games, although he was never suspected of throwing a game), hasn’t been inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. As one who greatly admires Rose’s skill and considers him to be one of the top two hitters I ever saw bat in person (the other was Ted Williams), I agree with Rose being banned. The sport must be bigger than any individual player, and MLB can’t afford to send out the morally dubious message that one can get away with misdeeds if one is a star.

There have been all sorts of relatively minor episodes of cheating in MLB’s history. Some players have used corked bats. Pitchers have found sneaky ways to “doctor” the ball. But the biggest scandal between the Black Sox fiasco and today’s depressing news was the steroid/performance-enhancing drugs scandal that erupted early in the previous decade.

One of the great attractions of sports is the possibility of seeing prodigious feats of athleticism that are beyond the reach of ordinary human beings. One of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen in baseball happened in 1998. I was visiting a friend in St. Louis who happened to pitch BP (batting practice) for the Cardinals. That was the year the Cards’ Mark McGwire hit the astounding total of 70 home runs. My friend and I (along with 10,000 to 15,000 other fans) went to Busch Stadium two hours before the game to watch McGwire take BP. Watching him crush ball after ball, sending them speeding to the far reaches of the park, was breathtakingly awesome.

Alas, though, the stunning feats of certain sluggers and pitchers in the ’90s and early 2000s were tainted when it came to light that players were taking drugs that bulked up their musculature and strength. Players were no longer competing on a level field, and it left a bad taste in the mouths of baseball fans. While MLB seems to have suppressed the most flagrant performance-enhancing drug abuses, from time to time, players are still caught and punished.

The last thing MLB needed today was another cheating scandal, but here we are. Baseball fans are united in agreement that such cheating is wrong and unacceptable. The only debate is whether the penalties assessed to the Astros—suspension of their manager and general manager for the 2021 season, forfeiture of the team’s top two draft picks in the next two annual drafts, and MLB’s maximum allowable fine of $5 million—were harsh enough.

Should the commissioner strip the Astros of their 2017 World Series championship? That would certainly disincentivize such cheating. But what would MLB do—award the championship to the team that lost the series? But what if they cheated, but eluded detection? Have no champion at all? These are not attractive options. Plus, the full extent of the sign-stealing cheating isn’t yet known. Multiple teams have been implicated, including the Boston Red Sox, which won the 2018 World Series.

MLB is facing the grim possibility that more than one championship season has been tainted by cheating.

By the way, let me suggest a simple solution for the sign-stealing problem. Technology made the cheating possible, and technology can end it. Just have catchers wear a small device by which they can transmit their signal (encrypted, of course!) to a similar device worn by the pitcher.

And while I’m at it, let me do something very dangerous for an economist: make a prediction. Baseball may have a problem, and probably sooner than later, caused by advances in artificial intelligence (AI).

As shown in the movie “Moneyball,” MLB general managers are making increasing use of sophisticated quantitative analyses to assemble winning rosters at affordable prices. As such analyses become increasingly advanced, inevitably, AI is going to produce a blueprint for how to squeeze out a few more wins over the course of a season—the difference between qualifying for the playoffs or not.

Just as MLB is now looking at machines to take over the calling of balls and strikes from fallible human umpires, AI conceivably could produce a scenario in which a team’s human manager ends up being little more than a messenger boy from the AI program to the players. It could be AI, not a human being, determining which players to play against given opponents and at what times to make substitutions, bunt, throw a curve, steal a base, etc.

We live in an age of computers, so MLB can’t and won’t ban the use of computers. But what will happen if the team that has the most powerful, advanced AI wins championships? Ugh.

Ultimately, cheating is a moral problem. Cheaters are tempted to believe they will gain by their cheating, but then, when they get caught and disgraced, their glory turns to ashes. They see the respect of fans slip away like quicksilver, and they realize that their phantom “achievement” was nothing more than fool’s gold. Think of the shame that Joe Jackson (guilty or not) must have felt in that famous moment when a boy who was one of his fans mournfully pleaded with his hero, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

Perhaps, we as a society need to revisit more often those cautionary tales of making deals with the devil, of sacrificing one’s human legacy and immortal soul for short-term material gain. Faust, Mephistopheles, Dorian Gray—even Joe Hardy in Broadway theater’s paean to baseball, “Damn Yankees”—these and other fictitious stories teach us the great truth that doing wrong never ends well.

And so it is proving in baseball as in other areas of life.

Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.