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How To Keep Signals Between Pitchers And Catchers Secret


The Houston Astros won the World Series back in 2017 and have won over a hundred games each of the past three years. But now Major League Baseball has taken a hard look at the Astros' success - in particular, recent claims of sign stealing. Commentator Mike Pesca weighs in.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Baseball is a game of action and reaction. But there is a major exception where foreknowledge, not instinct, is important. In fact, it happens on every play. The catcher must know what kind of pitch he is to receive. If the catcher is set up for a slow, loping curve but, instead, the pitcher delivers a 99-mile-an-hour fastball, all hell, and possibly a bone or two, could break loose. This is why catchers put down a finger or two to indicate a fastball or curveball - literally. One for fastball and two for curve is the universal sign.

The exception to this storied study in semiotics is when there is an opposing player on second base. Then the catcher will flash an array of digits in a sequence known only to the pitcher so as to secretly communicate. The clandestine nature of the communication is important. Otherwise, an opposing player on second base could steal a sign and signal it back to the hitter.

Now, so far, everything I've described might seem furtive and opaque if you're not familiar with the dark arts of baseball signs but as obvious as the nose on Yogi Berra's face if you are. There's nothing underhanded about signs, stealing signs or signaling stolen signs. In fact, it's what players would describe as part of the game. But what the Astros are credibly alleged to have done is not part of the game, nor should it be.

As reported by former players and confirmed by an analysis of game film, the Astros used powerful cameras to electronically monitor the catcher's signals and then to alert batters by the decidedly non-high-tech tactic of loudly banging a trash can. No banging, the pitcher was coming with a fastball. Bang, bang, bang - that'd be a breaking ball - might want to lay off. And statistics indicate the Astros did benefit at least a bit.

So what to do? That's a question being hotly discussed. And the answers usually deal in punishing the team with fines or revocation of future draft picks. But my answer to what to do is more about how to correct the problem. My solution is to simply allow the pitcher and catcher to communicate via microphone and headset. The NFL does it.

The idea of computerized umpires calling balls and strikes has gained widespread credence, endorsed even by prominent players. This year, two minor leagues will experiment with TrackMan radar technology calling balls and strikes during the game. To have a robot umpire at the same time you have a catcher flashing his fingers would be like having an advanced guided missile system triggered via semaphore.

Baseball is a traditional game resistant to change. But other than resistance to change, there is no reason to oppose having the catcher, or even a bench coach, dictate the pitch selection, which is a necessary bit of information for the very safety of the players. This will also eliminate those mound visits where the catcher goes over the signals with a confused pitcher. These in-game finger-waggle refresher sessions are a big timewaster, the bane of baseball as popular entertainment.

While this change won't rehabilitate the Astros' image, it will eliminate a potential source of chicanery for others, shave time off the game and embrace the realities of innovation. Best of all, I made the proposal without ever proclaiming, Houston, we have a solution.


MARTIN: Oh, good one. Commentator Mike Pesca hosts the Slate podcast "The Gist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.