The Boston Red Sox Got Caught Cheating – What Does It Mean For MLB’s Future?

“If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.”

Those were the words of Coach Jones, my high school baseball coach. And those words echoed the sentiment of the great players, coaches, scouts, and executives throughout baseball history.

Athletic competition is about winning. Say what you want about money (that’s important too), wholesome entertainment (meh), and role models (a nice idea) – for the people on the front lines, it’s all about winning. It’s bred into baseball players at an early age – win however you can. If that involves a little cheating, that’s okay, so long as you don’t get caught.

Which brings us to the recent news of the brilliant marketing campaign for the Apple Watch Red Sox sign-stealing scheme. If you’re receiving this column via Morse code transmission in your stalactite-riddled cavern home, here’s the skinny: a Boston trainer allegedly received stolen catcher signs to his Apple Watch, and relayed them to players in the dugout, who passed the signs to batters.

Here’s the funny thing: there isn’t a rule against stealing signs. It’s been happening consistently for more than one hundred years, as Jeff Passan describes in his excellent column. What’s illegal about the Red Sox’s actions – if true – is that they had an electronic device in the dugout. Essentially, they will end up getting punished not for stealing signs, but for doing it in such a blatant way.

I’m not saying this is a non-story. Au contraire – this is a wonderfully juicy story, made all the better by the strange sum of its fantastic parts: one of baseball’s best rivalries, the fact that the Sox and Yanks are in a heated division race, a seemingly useless product suddenly showing some utility, the drama of potential player suspensions, and the possibility that this spirals into a Deflategate-level cover-up.

It very much is a story. But not for reasons of morality or the sanctity of the game. At least not for this writer. It’s a story because technology changes everything.

Old-fashioned cheating feels quaint. Someone in the dugout cracks the other team’s hand signals and – like an Army code breaker intercepting Nazi radio waves – gives his side an edge. Heck, Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” was the result of sign stealing. But when technology gets introduced, things start to seem more sinister.

Take the Cardinals-Astros hacking scandal. Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa accessed terabytes upon petabytes of scouting data stored on the Astros database – AKA “Ground Control”. That feels dirty to me. Slimy. But why? Why is that so different?

As I unpack my reaction, I think I know why. It’s because Correa was doing the exact sort of Big Brother-style snooping that we fear the NSA and FBI are up to at all times. We’re paranoid about our devices and our data, and this scandal hit way too close to home. It made us realize that if a multi-billion dollar corporation’s data could be snooped through, ours definitely could, too.

Now this Apple Watch “scandal” doesn’t even approach that level of creepiness. But it begs the question – what is the next generation of sports cheating going to look like? What happens when the Apple Watch is replaced with a contact-lens style device – perhaps the iEye? What about bio-hacking? Our medical history and the details of our physical bodies should be our own private data, but what if technology is born that enables a machine to detect your blood pressure, heart rate, or even the strain on your elbow, from a distance?

I’m veering into the realm of science fiction here, but what is science fiction except a series of predictions about future technology? And when nanotechnology and bio-hacking become reality, who’s to say how ultra-competitive industries like MLB will apply them to getting an edge on the opponent?

Which brings me back to my opening line: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Baseball teams and players will always try to get ahead. Batters complain about getting quick-pitched. Fielders subtly try to push a baserunner’s hand off the bag on a pickoff attempt. Craig Kimbrel, Michael Pineda, and other pitchers will continue mixing sunscreen and pine tar to get a perfectly slippery substance that aids them in throwing wicked breaking balls. These things we tolerate.

So where’s the line? When does cheating stop being the fight for a competitive edge in a child’s game, and start being an espionage tactic from a Tom Clancy novel? That’s the question that MLB has to answer, and given the speed at which technology is evolving, they’d better figure it out soon.

Image Source: Kevin Sousa/USA TODAY Sports

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