Stealing signs has been part of baseball culture basically since the sport was invented, but the Houston Astros have been eviscerated for it after they were caught using cameras and electronic devices to assist in decoding signals.
As one former Cy Young Award winner reminds us, that is really nothing new, either.
Former MLB pitcher Jack McDowell, who won a Cy Young Award and made three All-Star appearances with the Chicago White Sox from 1987-1994, this week told Charlotte's WFNZ’s “The Mac Attack Show” that the White Sox used a system in the late-1980s that was not all that different from the one Major League Baseball determined the Astros had in place in 2017.
According to McDowell, former White Sox manager Tony La Russa implemented a system at the old Comiskey Park that involved a camera being fixed on the opposing catcher and a light on a sign in the outfield that could be turned on and off by a toggle switch in the manager’s office.
“We had a system in the old Comiskey Park in the late 1980s — the Gatorade sign out in center had a light, there was a toggle switch in the manager’s office and camera zoomed in on the catcher,” McDowell recalled. “I’m gonna whistle blow this now because I’m getting tired of this crap. There was that, Tony La Russa is the one who put it in.”
McDowell also pointed out that La Russa was the manager of the Oakland A’s when Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco were using steroids, but La Russa is still part of MLB as an adviser to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“No one is going to go after that,” McDowell said. “It’s just, this stuff is getting old where they target certain guys and let other people off the hook.”
La Russa managed in Chicago from 1979-1986, so he was gone by the time McDowell got there. However, the implication from McDowell is that La Russa implemented the system and it was still being used even after the Hall of Fame manager had departed.
No one is claiming sign-stealing is a new phenomenon. If you do a few minutes of research on it, you’ll learn there have been allegations of teams using electronic methods to steal signs as far back as 1900. One incident that comes to mind that sounds similar to what McDowell described was when former White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle accused the Texas Rangers in 2005 of using a high-tech light system in center field to tip off their hitters.
Even if you look beyond stealing signs, La Russa once accused an opposing team of tinkering with their lights to distract hitters.
This is precisely why MLB wanted to keep all of this quiet, but a bombshell report from The Athletic that outed the Astros forced the league to conduct an investigation.
The Astros may have used a video feed and potentially some other shocking strategies to steal signs, but are not the first organization to do so. That doesn’t mean they should be let off the hook, though it does speak to a culture of cheating across baseball that is more prevalent than some want to acknowledge.