Umpires Don’t Make Law, Players Do.

Via Deadspin comes this great video of Joe Mauer, apparently reading the catcher’s signs and relaying them to batter Jason Kubel.

Putting aside Mauer’s denial, the interesting thing about this is whether it’s actually wrong to steal signs. There’s no rule against it, and so the answer is: it depends on the players’ perceptions of the situation. If you run afoul of the norm (i.e., a batter looking behind him) then you are likely to face informal sanctions in the form of a baseball to the body. Mauer’s sign-stealing, by contrast, seems acceptable: (1) it was a crucial game; and (2) the Tigers didn’t protect their signs despite knowing a man was on second. But it isn’t so acceptable that he can admit it publicly. That is: Mauer’s sign stealing was at once lawful, permitted in the social context, and publicly wrongful.

(H/T: Reader CDP. For more on the history of sign-stealing in baseball, check out The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World)

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6 Responses

  1. waldo says:

    Legality & morality aren’t always congruent. What’s legal may be immoral. What’s moral may be illegal; see Three Felonies a Day.

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    There also was a sense that Mauer was being too obvious about it, which is the kind of thing that might get the next batter hit, had the pitcher been aware of it.

  3. DCLawyer says:

    Sign stealing only violates the rules to the extent that a player utilizes a mechanical device. I’d say the post’s characterization (something we accept that happens but is bad form to admit actually doing) characterizes the baseball ethos surrounding it.

  4. “… There’s no rule against it, and so the answer is: it depends on the players’ perceptions of the situation …”

    I think this sentence ended wrong. There is no rule against it, so it is not cheating. It is no different than a fake pick-off throw to third, a drag bunt, or a shortstop distracting a runner with footwork.

  5. Jeffrey Standen says:

    Of course it’s cheating, although not actually prohibited by a rule. Even if it were, no matter: players routinely and intentionally violate explicit rules (no holding in football) if they can get away with it. It’s part of the game. There is no moral element to sports, at least not one that should matter to non-participants.