Baseball’s biggest challenge is how to harness and control evolving technology

MLB officials have to know it was only the clumsiness of some Watergate-like burglars that brought the sign-stealing scandal to light.

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Boston Red Sox News Conference

Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy addresses the departure of Alex Cora as the team’s manager during a news conference last week in Boston. A Major League Baseball investigation concluded that Cora was involved in the Astros’ sign-stealing operation in 2017 while he was their bench coach.

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Baseball’s cheating scandal has knocked the wind out of anyone who believed that trash cans were meant solely for garbage.

Three managers are out of jobs and the legitimacy of at least one World Series title is in question following Major League Baseball’s investigation into sign-stealing.

But as ugly as the scandal might be, the cheating part isn’t even baseball’s biggest problem. It’s technology and how to harness and control it.

MLB found that the Astros had stolen opposing catchers’ signs in 2017 using a centerfield camera connected to a monitor in the Houston dugout. Someone would look at the monitor and use a bat to bang on a trash can to notify the hitter whenever a breaking ball was coming. No clanging meant a fastball was on its way.

This can’t be overstated: The Astros thumped a garbage can with a bat to relay information to the hitters. You can’t get more rudimentary than that. It’s about as sophisticated as using two cans and a taut string to communicate. So even though baseball commissioner Rob Manfred can pat himself on the back for being a law-and-order sheriff, he has to know it was only the clumsiness of some Watergate-like burglars that brought the scam to light.

With gains being made in technology on a daily basis, it’s hard to believe other teams aren’t using more advanced methods to cheat. And it’s hard to believe MLB will ever be able to catch up.

The solution to the immediate problem? As simplistic as the Astros’ cheating method was, it’s no more simplistic than a catcher using the fingers on his right hand to tell a pitcher what pitch to throw next. Think about that. It’s 2020, and a sport that spends millions and millions of dollars to scout opponents, identify tendencies and crunch numbers is still having a catcher use his fingers like a preschooler manually counting to five.

Is there not technology that could relay a catcher’s pitch request to the pitcher’s ear? NFL teams send in plays through radio receivers in quarterbacks’ helmets. A similar system would rid MLB of its sign-stealing issue — at least until teams figure out how to steal the radio signal.

Therein lies the problem for a sport trapped between its agrarian roots and a modern world wired to the hilt. Just as drug cheaters in sports will always be ahead of drug testers, so, too, will technology always win out. One day in the distant future, a pitcher is going to ask his arm to throw a curveball, and it’s going to answer: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.’’

But now? There’s a weird tug of war still going on.

Baseball has been using Ivy League brains to find new ways to take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses, but it’s terribly behind the times in other areas. Is there anything in sports sillier than a third-base coach’s signs? It’s like watching a game of charades. Two words. First word. Sounds like … you appear to be clapping flippers like a seal. Sounds like seal? Steal? Would the word be steal? Yes? Yay! OK, second word. Why do you keep flashing two fingers? I know it’s the second word. Are you saying steal peace sign? Steal peace? That makes no sense. Steal two? Wait! Steal second! The man on first is going to steal second and I shouldn’t swing! Of course!” 

Again, isn’t there technology that could take the place of a system of communication that goes back to the 19th century? I’d like to think there is.

We’re going to see a lull in sign-stealing for a while, as team officials make it clear to managers and players that they don’t want to lose jobs and draft picks over another cheating scandal.

But human nature always seeks out a shortcut, especially when there’s a massive pile of money involved. Baseball’s defenders call it “gamesmanship.’’ That’s a sanitized word for cheating. If stealing catchers’ signs in order to gain an advantage is gamesmanship, then so is jabbing a syringe full of steroids into your thigh.

Baseball already is headed toward robot umpires. Computer-generated analytics tell managers what lineups to use. High-tech cameras allow teams to see everything their opponents are doing, and as we’re learning, not all of it is legal.

I don’t know where technology will take the game, only that baseball will look a lot different when it arrives. After electric guitars became popular in the 1950s, music was never the same. That’s how this is going to be, for better or worse.

There will always be cheaters in baseball. In the past, they wore baseball uniforms and took their hacks at the plate. In the future, computer prodigies with baseball caps on backward will do the hacking in dark rooms. Winning is a habit, success is a choice and technology is a frenemy.

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