Sign Stealing

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
For a lot of people, being a professional baseball player sounds like a total dream job. I mean, you get paid millions of dollars to play a game, but there are downsides. Like if you have a bad night at work as a baseball player, it’s usually in front of 40,000 screaming fans.

Ben Reiter:
This story is about one of those nights in Houston, Texas. The Toronto Blue Jays were losing to the hometown Astros. When they called in pitcher Mike Bolsinger.

Roman Mars:
That’s baseball reporter, Ben Reiter. He covered the game for 15 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated.

Ben Reiter:
Some Major League Baseball players have job security and $20 million salaries. They are paid huge bonuses just for getting drafted and their teams have spent years developing them. Then there are guys like Bolsinger.

Mike Bolsinger:
“I signed for $1,000 with a billion-dollar organization.”

Ben Reiter:
“$1,000?”

Mike Bolsinger:
“I think it was $667 after taxes.”

Ben Reiter:
“So they don’t have that much invested in you.”

Mike Bolsinger:
“You can make jokes about it. It’s like a bucket of baseballs for them.”

Roman Mars:
The night Bolsinger came in, he was facing a stacked Astros lineup. They had star players like Alex Bregman and Carlos Beltran. They were a total juggernaut.

Mike Bolsinger:
Oh yeah. I mean, they were unbelievable. From what you see, the runs they were putting up. In my head, I was like, “This is the best team in baseball.”

Roman Mars:
Bolsinger came into the game with a man on first and two outs. All he had to do was get one more out and the inning was over.

Mike Bolsinger:
Just get one out. I mean, in theory, it should be easy.

Ben Reiter:
But instead, Bolsinger walked his first batter. The second hit a three-run homer. Then the Astros really started pouring it on.

Sports Announcer
[Carlos Beltran jumps on the first pitch.]

Mike Bolsinger:
They just kept getting hits, laying off pitches. I’m trying to remember a time I was rocked more than that and I just don’t remember a time.

Ben Reiter:
Mike Bolsinger was stressed. He was a journeyman. One bad outing could be the difference between hanging on to his job or being sent down to the minor leagues. His major league career hung in the balance every single time he took the mound. The eighth batter he faced was Alex Bregman. With the bases loaded Bolsinger was desperate not to give up another home run. So he turned to his best pitch, his slow looping curveball, but Bregman was ready for it. And he hit it deep.

Mike Bolsinger:
At that point, I was like, “Well, what else is new? Everyone else is hitting everything off me, might as well just go over the fence.”

Roman Mars:
The ball kept going and going and going. And actually, the Blue Jays caught it. Bolsinger got his one out and the inning was finally over. It had gone just about as badly as an inning can possibly go.

Ben Reiter:
Mike Bolsinger gave up four runs on four hits and three walks. He was stunned by what happened. He felt good that day. He was throwing good pitches, but the Astros just kept hitting them.

Mike Bolsinger:
I remember in the interview, after the game, I told the reporter, I was like, “Man, it was like they knew what I was throwing. They were all over my stuff. There’s nothing I could do.”

Roman Mars:
Mike Bolsinger was demoted to the minor leagues that night, like right after the game was over. And he stayed in the minor leagues. After 2017, he played a few seasons in Japan, but he would never pitch in the big leagues again.

Ben Reiter:
Bolsinger had a lot of time to replay that final inning in his head. He thought he’d thrown the ball well against the Astros. His arm felt good. His velocity was normal. His curve ball was biting. It just hadn’t mattered.

Roman Mars:
It turns out there was a reason the Houston Astros hitters seemed like they knew exactly what pitches Bolsinger was going to throw and that’s because they did. And they knew because the Astros were engaged in an age-old practice called sign stealing. They were cheating. Baseball is a game with a ton of nonverbal communication between players and coaches. All of which happens out in the open. Coaches will swipe their hands across their chest and down their legs to tell a player to steal the base or lay off a pitch. Infielders will wave at each other to move over a couple of feet to the left or to the right. There are thousands of moments like this in every game.

Ben Reiter:
And the most important non-verbal communication is between the pitcher and the catcher. The catcher is responsible for knowing the opposing hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, and for suggesting what pitches to throw. He does it using a system of discrete hand signals. If you’ve seen a baseball game, you’ve seen this happen. The catcher crouches down, he puts one hand between the shin guards and he starts pointing his fingers towards the dirt.

Roman Mars:
One finger means throw a fastball. Two is a curveball. Teams will mix up their signs like when a runner is on second, who has a clear view of the catcher. But for the most part, this is just how it’s done.

Ben Reiter:
If a batter knows what pitch is coming, it’s a lot easier to get on base because that knowledge means they can figure out exactly when to swing or let a pitch go. Here’s Mike Bolsinger

Mike Bolsinger:
I think the hardest thing to do in any sport is to hit a baseball. So a pitcher already has an advantage right there, but a hitter not knowing what you’re going to throw or where you’re going to throw it… I mean, It’s almost like hitting, unless you’re extremely good at it, it’s a guessing game.

Ben Reiter:
This is where sign-stealing comes in. If you can decode an opposing pitcher’s signs, you have a big competitive advantage.

Roman Mars:
Sign stealing is a two-step process. First, someone has to see the catcher’s signals, and then they have to communicate that information to the batter and this whole process has to take place in a matter of seconds. This may sound like a lot of effort, but as long as there have been nonverbal signs in baseball, crafty players have been stealing them.

Ben Reiter:
In the early days of baseball, sign stealing was almost like a game within the game. Teams and players would try all kinds of tricks to get a glimpse of what the catcher was signaling to the pitcher.

Paul Dickson:
The axiom which I heard many times, if you’re not stealing, you’re not trying.

Ben Reiter:
That’s Paul Dickson, the author of “The Hidden Language of Baseball.” He says the first recorded instance of sign stealing goes all the way back to 1876, the very first year of the National League.

Paul Dickson:
There was a shack that had been built hanging from a telegraph pole overlooking the stadium in Hartford.

Ben Reiter:
The shack was hidden away from fans almost like a hunting blind. Details are sketchy because this happened in 1876, but apparently, there was a man hiding in the shack, probably with a pair of binoculars.

Paul Dickson:
And they were stealing the sign from there and getting them somehow down to the guys on the field. And they were taking it from there.

Roman Mars:
In those early days, sign stealing wasn’t against the rules of baseball. There was no clear line that teams knew not to cross. Lots of people considered it cheating, but much like in “Air Bud”, there was nothing in the rule book that outlawed a dog from playing basketball, nothing in the rule book stopped players from building a shack on a telegraph pole and spying on the other teams with binoculars.

Ben Reiter:
The sign dealing arms race may have had some big impacts on the game. Catchers in baseball used to lean over to receive pitches, but that made it too easy for other teams to steal their signs. So it’s believed that that’s why catchers began to squat.

Roman Mars:
There’ve also been some more outlandish and creative efforts like in 1900, there was an incident during a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies.

Ben Reiter:
The Red’s shortstop, Tommy Corcoran, noticed the Phillies third base coach was always putting his foot in a specific patch of dirt on the field just before a pitch was coming in and Corcoran thought something’s wrong here.

Paul Dickson:
He goes tearing across the field and starts kicking with his foot, digging up the dirt and dirt is flying everywhere. And he comes with his little box and in the box is a buzzer.

Roman Mars:
Corcoran discovered that the Philly’s coach had been stepping on the buzzer box.

Paul Dickson:
And the buzzer is taking a telegraphed signal and buzzing, but it’s not loud enough to be heard, but he could feel it at the bottom of his foot.

Ben Reiter:
It turned out the Philly’s coach was receiving a modified Morse code to tell him what pitch was coming. The message was coming from a Phillies player who was using binoculars to look through a peephole in the outfield fence to watch the other team’s signs. The player relayed those signs to the coach using the buzzer. And then the coach sent that message to the batter. Again, this might sound like way too much effort to steal signs, but every team was looking for even the smallest edge to win ballgames.

Roman Mars:
And it worked. Sign stealing probably helped the team win the World Series in 1948. Bob Feller, a hall of fame pitcher for the Cleveland team, used the telescope he brought back from World War II to pick up signs. They won the championship and Feller was pretty unrepentant about it.

Paul Dickson:
Later he said, “Hey, all’s fair in love and war and when you’re trying to win a pennant.”

Sports Announcer:
[And the 1948 world series is all over.]

Roman Mars:
Sign stealing occupied a gray zone in baseball ethics. On one hand, players were hiding it from their opponents and from fans. On the other, everybody knew it was happening. One player, a Hall of Famer named Rogers Hornsby did an interview with True Magazine that was published under the headline “You’ve Got to Cheat to Win in Baseball.”

Ben Reiter:
Because of this ethical gray area, for years it went like this — a team would be caught sign stealing. The other team would say, “Hey, cut it out.” And then they would come up with a new way of doing it. For years, Major League Baseball did nothing, but their view on sign stealing changed after a technological breakthrough in the 1950s. NBC had just invested in a camera with an 80-inch Spacemaster telephoto lens and unveiled it for a game of the week.

Sports Announcer:
[Begin the scene here today. Now Alan Bill with Red Barber and I are all set to send it your way…]

Roman Mars:
The broadcasters realize that they can now clearly see the catcher’s signs and told the audience what was coming before each pitch.

Paul Dickson:
One of the people who happened to be watching the game that day was the commissioner, who was Ford Frick at the time, and he thought it was a horrible idea. He immediately went to NBC to agree not to use the camera again, ever. If the guys in the booth could pick it up, the dugout could have the TV on.

Roman Mars:
In 1962, the commissioner took a baby step to discourage sign stealing.

Ben Reiter:
Frick said publicly that he would overturn any game if it was proven the winning team had stolen signs using mechanical means, like a camera or a buzzer system or even binoculars.

Roman Mars:
This was the line in the sand in terms of baseball ethics. Players were allowed to steal with their eyes because that was considered a skill, but you couldn’t steal signs using technology.

Ben Reiter:
Frick never actually punished anybody for sign stealing. And it took Major League Baseball 40 years to make an official rule about it. In 2000, they finally banned signed stealing by electronic means. They had to do it because technology was moving so quickly at that point.

Roman Mars:
The 2000 rule was meant to stop cell phones from being used to steal signs. But by the early 2010s, baseball clubhouses were filled with video screens. Some of them were installed by the league itself when they started allowing teams to use video replay to challenge umpire’s calls. The presence of all these new screens made cheating incredibly tempting.

Paul Dickson:
Major League Baseball brought the snake into the garden of Eden. And then we’re surprised when the players took a bite of the apple.

Ben Reiter:
After a century of back and forth, by the 2010s, there was finally a clear line in the rules of baseball. Sign stealing using technology was not okay, but with screens everywhere, it felt like a matter of time before someone crossed that line and got caught doing it.

Roman Mars:
Before they were winning games and sending opposing pitchers back to the minor leagues, the Houston Astros were one of the worst teams in the history of baseball. Starting in 2011, they lost 100 games three years in a row. Some of their games had local TV ratings of 0.0, which meant that Nielsen couldn’t confirm a single Houstonian who watched the games. They earned nicknames like the Lastros and the Disastros, which are pretty good.

Ben Reiter:
To turn things around, the Astros took a page from the Moneyball playbook and hired a fleet of math nerds. They worked on sophisticated algorithms that would help the Astros decide which players to draft and what strategies to execute on the field. The stats team was called the Nerd Cave.

Roman Mars:
“And so Ben, you know this because you actually covered the Astros firsthand.”

Ben Reiter:
“Yeah, I did. So in 2014, I spent a lot of time in the team’s front office for a story for Sports Illustrated. And when I got there, I found I was really impressed with what I saw. I came away convinced that they were on the path to turning things around. So before the story ran, my editor asks me to estimate the year it’s all going to come together. And I gave him my best guess. So at the end of 2014, the issue containing my piece hit mailboxes across the country with a cover that reads: Your 2017 World Series Champs. Turns out I was right.”

Sports Announcer:
[High fly ball to left field. Good. Walk it off, George Springer. Deep drive, right field. This is going to soar… grand slam!]

Roman Mars:
In October 2017, Mike Bolsinger was sitting at a bar watching the Houston Astros play game seven of the World Series. This was only three months after his final Major League Game. The Astros were playing one of Bolsinger’s old teams, the LA Dodgers.

Mike Bolsinger:
“The Dodgers, you know, I love every single one of them. It was the greatest organization I ever played for. So I wanted them to win.”

Ben Reiter:
“But you felt the Astros deserved it.”

Mike Bolsinger:
“Oh, I mean, yeah. 100%. I mean, I think to me, they had the better lineup. It is what it is.”

Ben Reiter:
Mike Bolsinger had mixed emotions about the whole series. He respected the Astros for their talent and baseball fans everywhere were rooting for them. The Astros weren’t just winners, they were likable winners. They were playing in Houston’s second World Series ever. And they made it the same year hurricane Harvey devastated their home city. Their stars, like Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, were fun to watch. It was a real Cinderella story.

Sports Announcer:
[The Sports Illustrated cover in 2014 and the article by Ben Reiter, they nailed it.]

Roman Mars:
“Hey, that’s you?”

Ben Reiter:
“Yeah. Although, they kept pronouncing my name wrong.”

Roman Mars:
Anyhow, the Astros were champions.

Mike Bolsinger:
If you have a lineup like that, if you’re hitting the ball like that, putting up numbers like that, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t win. You know, when you have a good pitching and you’re putting up 10 plus runs a game, it feels like, how can you lose?

Ben Reiter:
Me, Mike Bolsinger, and almost everybody else assumed the Astros took the World Series because of their mix of young talent and the shrewd decision-making from the Nerd Cave. But two years later we learned the truth. There was a lot more to the story.

Sports Announcer:
[The Houston Astros cheated their way to a world series championship in 2017.]

Roman Mars:
In late 2019, a whistleblower came forward, a pitcher who had played with the Astros for three seasons.

Sports Announcer:
[They have a guy on the record. A guy that was on the team. Mike Fiers, a pitcher, who laid out exactly what they do.]

Roman Mars:
Mike Fiers alleged that the Astros had been sign-stealing during their championship season. While the team had these fancy modern algorithms and an entire cave full of data nerds, their signs stealing plan was a lot like those used 50 years earlier. It was a mix of high-tech tools and low budget mischief.

Ben Reiter:
The Astros had a camera aimed directly at the other team’s catcher, which broadcast to a TV in the tunnel behind the dugout. To communicate the pitch to the batters, Astros players would watch the TV. And when they saw a fastball coming, they did nothing. Any other pitch, they would hit a bat against a plastic garbage can. It sounded like this [sound of bat hitting a garbage can]. Here it is again. We tried to come up with an analogy for what it sounds like, but really it sounds exactly like a bat hitting a plastic garbage can. [sound of bat hitting a garbage can]. Major League Baseball opened a full investigation into the accusations. The Astros manager and general manager were suspended and then fired by the team. The team was fined $5 million, which is not a lot of money for a franchise worth nearly 2 billion.

Roman Mars:
The investigation confirmed the Astros had been sign-stealing during the 2017 and 2018 seasons and during the playoffs, and maybe even the World Series.

Ben Reiter:
The Astros are still the 2017 World Series champions, even though many baseball fans insist they deserve a massive asterisk. Some of the game’s biggest stars think that, too, like Aaron Judge of the Yankees.

Aaron Judge:
“Yeah, I just don’t think it holds any value. You know, you cheated and you didn’t earn it. That’s how I feel.”

Ben Reiter:
And Mike Trout, the best player in baseball.

Mike Trout:
“It’s sad for baseball. you know, it’s tough. You know, they cheated. And you know, just I don’t agree with the punishment.”

Ben Reiter:
The Astros scandals created many what-ifs that can never be answered. No one denies that the Astros were a really talented team, but would they still be World Series champions if they hadn’t cheated? Data analysts have tried to answer that question. And several prominent ones have found the advantage the Astros got from sign-stealing might’ve been surprisingly small. Of course, a small advantage can mean a lot in such a competitive sport.

Roman Mars:
These questions aren’t so abstract for someone like Mike Bolsinger. An analysis by a computer programmer revealed that when the Astros faced Bolsinger, they banged on their trashcan lid 54 times, the most times the Astros had used that system in all of 2017.

Ben Reiter:
And a lot of those bangs happen during Bolsinger’s short appearance in the game. Someone hit the trashcan immediately before 12 of his 29 pitches.

Mike Bolsinger:
It just makes you mad. I think, you know what would’ve happened if I’d hadn’t have pitched that game. So then you start to question things about your career now and then. It truly was the most embarrassing moment in my career. 100%. I’ve never been more embarrassed of myself, ever.

Ben Reiter:
Mike Bolsinger filed a legal complaint against the Astros on February 10th, 2020. In the complaint, he blamed them for effectively cheating him out of his career. He’s seeking damages and he wants the team to give up $31 million in bonuses that the players received for winning the World Series, which would be donated to charity.

Mike Bolsinger:
It makes you mad every once in a while. It truly does, because you put so much work into getting to this spot in your career. And then you kind of find out, hey, this was taken away by people that cheated.

Ben Reiter:
This isn’t exactly the first time somebody’s broken the rules of baseball. In the early 2000s, there was the steroid scandal. And since the beginning of baseball, players have doctored the ball or put cork in their wooden bats or slid into their opponent’s legs cleats up. They say baseball is a game of inches, a game in which every small advantage matters. And the Astros embraced every edge they could find as they transformed themselves from a laughingstock into a champion. But when it came to baseball’s age-old tradition of sign stealing, the Astros didn’t just push to the edge, but over it.

Roman Mars:
This episode is adapted from “The Edge”, a six-part series hosted by Ben Reiter. You can download it now wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll have more with Ben, after this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So I’m back again with Ben Reiter. And as we’re talking this week, the Amy Coney Barrett hearings are happening in Washington. And during the hearings, Senator Ben Sasse started attacking the Astros, for seemingly no reason. So here’s a clip of that.

Ben Sasse:
“I’d like to talk about the Houston Astros, who are miserable cheaters. Sorry Cornyn and Cruz, but both of the Texas senators sit on this committee. But I think all baseball fans know that the Houston Astros cheat, they steal signs, they bang on cans. They’ve done a whole bunch of miserable things historically and they deserve to be punished probably more than they have been.”

Roman Mars:
And then, Ted Cruz defended the Astros, and it feels really weird that this is happening during a Supreme Court hearing. What did you make of all this?

Ben Reiter:
What I made of it, Roman, was that the Astros are now the go-to symbol for villainy for everybody. Right? No matter who you are, no matter what you think, you can point at what the Astros did as representative of villainy, as representative of corruption and there’s little risk in doing it. That’s what I took away from that.

Roman Mars:
Right. Right. So you mentioned on the show that you’ve covered the Astros, and you wrote about them for Sports Illustrated. And you actually wrote a whole book called Astroball. So when you heard about the sign stealing, what did you think? Were you personally disappointed?

Ben Reiter:
I was really, really surprised because I had spent so much time with this team over the years, I’d written a whole book about them, as you said, and I had no idea about this. But I was also interested in part of my own reaction, which is that while I was surprised by the particulars, I wasn’t entirely shocked to hear that the Astros had been the one to do this, just because they did everything to an extreme, right? Their pursuit of the edge went so far in every way, most of them perfectly legal, that it kind of made sense that, oh, maybe they just took sign stealing, which as we know from the episode is an age-old tradition in baseball, to a new extreme as well. So that was kind of what sent me on my quest here and sent me into the making of my podcast, to answer that and many other questions about a subject I thought I knew really well.

Roman Mars:
So we talk about this long history of sign stealing and various ways in which people did it, and it was really egregious and violated norms, and ways in which it was not so egregious and people kind of thought it was okay. Where do the Astros fit into all this?

Ben Reiter:
Well, as we heard, everybody cheats in baseball, but it’s kind of like everybody else is going 75 in a 65 mile an hour zone, right? And the Astros went straight to 100. And what they did also fit into their kind of technocratic MO, which the baseball world had really started to turn against. This was an age-old, fun, admired tradition and they took all the fun and artistry out of it, right? It almost used to be like a caper film, the telescopes here, the binoculars here. What the Astros did was just kind of mechanized dominance, and it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

Roman Mars:
So one of the big questions that we ask in this episode and is part of the series, is would the Astros be World Series champions without sign stealing? They made the playoffs this year, they did not make it to the World Series.

Sports Announcer:
[File to the right of second of the pitch, swing, and a pop fly shallow right, charging Margot, he is under it. And the Tampa Bay Rays have just won the American League Pennant. For the second time in franchise history, the Rays are on their way to the World Series.]

Roman Mars:
Does that kind of settle the question? What do you think?

Ben Reiter:
No, I don’t think it settles the question. And that’s one of the tragedies of this entire story, is that we’ll never be able to go back and replay that history fair. And why did a team that was already so talented feel like they had to do this? They were so good anyway, right? We met Mike Bolsinger in our episode just now, a guy who throws 90 miles an hour, whose ERA is near five in his career, which isn’t so great. A team like the Astros could have knocked him around. They could have ended his career anyway, fairly, but it wasn’t fair. So one of the things I really want to know is why did a team with all this talent take this extra step it didn’t even necessarily need?

Roman Mars:
It kind of reminds me of the Watergate break-in. Nixon was so far ahead, but they still had to break into the DNC to make himself feel better about… To make him more comfortable with winning. He had to cheat to win, even though he was winning. It’s sort of a weird tragedy to have people like that.

Ben Reiter:
I made this podcast with Prologue Projects, including the guys who made the Watergate season of Slow Burn. They’re not big sportspeople, but they certainly know about scandals like this. And I think it was that element that really connected with them and continues to.

Roman Mars:
So we’re only covering one small aspect of the entire series that you’re doing, called The Edge. So what can people expect when they subscribe to this? When they’re going to rush out and subscribe right now to The Edge, what are they going to hear?

Ben Reiter:
Well, there’s a lot more to this. You’ll learn a lot more about why they did it, exactly who was doing it, the specific dynamics within the organization that led to corruption like this taking root. Now I’m going to give you a little teaser. You’ll also learn something else, that they were running a second sign-stealing system parallel to the first, at the same time.

Roman Mars:
What?

Ben Reiter:
But you’re going to have to subscribe to The Edge to find out about that. I’m not giving that away right now.

Roman Mars:
Oh, I love it. I love it. That’s fantastic. Well, that’s so cool. It’s called The Edge. Ben Reiter is our reporter and is the host of the whole series. Thank you so much for doing this story with us, it was a lot of fun.

Ben Reiter:
So much fun, Roman. Thanks a lot.

Roman Mars:
This week’s episode was adapted from The Edge, which is produced by Prologue Projects in partnership with Cadence13. The show is made by Ben Reiter and Sam Lee. The team at Prologue Projects includes Leon Neyfakh and Andrew Parsons.

———

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube, music by Sean Real, sound mix by Kevin Ramsey, fact-checking by Francis Carr. Our Senior Producer is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the Digital Director. The rest of the team includes Emmett FitzGerald, Joe Rosenberg, Vivian Le, Christopher Johnson, Abby Madan, Katie Mingle, Sofia Klatzker and me, Roman Mars.

We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on Radio Row, which is scattered across the North American continent, but the geographic center, the exact mathematical geographic center, is centered right there, lands right there in beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listener-supported, 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at radiotopia.fm. You can tweet at me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too. You can get the brand new, New York Times bestselling book, The 99% Invisible City at 99pi.org.

Credits

Production

THE EDGE is presented by Prologue Projects in partnership with Cadence 13 and produced by Sam Lee, and Ben Reiter, with editorial support from Madeline Kaplan and Ula Kulpa. The executive producers are Leon Neyfakh, Andrew Parsons, Chris Corcoran, and Steven Fisher

Voices included are Mike Bolsinger, former MLB player, and Paul Dickson, author of The Hidden Language of Baseball.

This episode was produced for 99% Invisible by Chris Berube.

  1. Seth

    YES!
    can’t wait to listen!

    Bobby Thompson’s Famous home run off the Dodgers came off of sign stealing

    PS have the book..love it!

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