Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Part I

Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Part I

Take me out to the ballgame

“If you know how to cheat, start now.”

Baltimore manager Earl Weaver, to pitcher Ross Grimsley on the mound

While Weaver’s remark was meant as a joke, Major League Baseball’s current cheating scandal is not so funny – it’s the sport’s biggest scandal since the steroid era. Turns out the Houston Astros have been cheating – for sure in 2017 and perhaps since then as well. 

For those of you who don’t follow baseball, the game works like this: the catcher proposes to the pitcher the type of pitch to be thrown – fastball, curveball, change-up, etc. – by flashing one, two, or three fingers. Which type of pitch corresponds to the number of fingers shown is known only by the pitcher and catcher. If the pitcher likes the proposed pitch, he nods his head to say “yes.” If he does not, he shakes his head to say “no,” whereupon the catcher flashes a different number of fingers, proposing a different type of pitch. The process continues until the pitcher nods “yes. After the “yes” nod, with the pitch type now decided, there’s always a pause of a few seconds before the pitch to the batter is thrown. And it’s in those few seconds that the Astros devised a way to cheat. 

“How’d they do that?” you ask. By devising a three-step process (Aristotle loved thinking in threes, so maybe they got it from him):

  • Step 1: Use a centerfield camera to detect the number of fingers shown by the catcher just before the pitcher nods “yes”
  • Step 2: Develop and use an Excel-based algorithm called “Codebreaker” to figure out which finger count corresponds to which type of pitch, and 
  • Step 3: Immediately relay this information to the dugout whereupon someone beats on a trashcan to alert the Astros batter as to the type of incoming pitch

In short, the Astros devised and implemented an intentional, difficult to execute but apparently effective scheme referred to within the organization as “Dark Arts.” 

Knowing what pitch is coming gives the batter a huge advantage, and players on other teams are none too happy about it. Even big stars are publicly hammering the Astros players. This is not an “everyone does it” response from around the league. Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton commented, “If I knew what was coming in ’17, I probably would have hit 80-plus home runs.” One former pitcher is suing – his career ended after giving up four runs on just 29 pitches against the Astros in 2017. According to the data, trash can banging was detected on 12 of the 29 pitches he threw. Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis sums up opposing player sentiment: “I feel like every guy over there needs a beating.”

While Major League Baseball has elected not to punish the players in exchange for coming clean, the executives involved have not been so lucky. Houston fired both their General Manager and Manager, and two others who had left the Astros organization to manage other teams have been let go by their new employer. 

So what’s the lesson for us? We discuss in Look Out Above! the concept of differentiating oneself through character. In any company, some people are trusted more than others. Seek to earn the trust — and respect — of your manager and colleagues by acting with integrity in all matters and at all times. The ancients called it “ethos,” meaning argument by character.

Differentiating through character requires having principles and adhering to them, and being honest in all matters, large and small. It’s not easy to speak up and refuse to participate when you’re instructed to do something you know is wrong, or when taking a stand makes you unpopular or puts you at risk. Employees who, at the behest of their manager, lie to key stakeholders, or falsify earnings or test results, or engage in criminal acts, usually regret doing so. When exposed, their world comes crashing down. 

Same when they cheat in baseball. On the Astros, apparently not all players participated in the scheme, but all players knew about it. Some have lamented their lack of courage in not coming forward and demanding that the cheating stop. What about us? Do we have the kind of courage to differentiate through character?   

Notes and sources: ESPN online article, “Everything you need to know about MLB’s sign-stealing scandal.”

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