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How The Houston Astros Stole Signs In The 2017 Season


There's a lot of noise during a baseball game, so it's forgivable to not pick up on a particular drumbeat.


CORNISH: Now, that is the sound of the Astros banging a trash can to signal an incoming pitch to their hitter during a September 2017 game. Here it is again.


CORNISH: According to a story published this week by The Athletic, the Houston Astros violated rules on sign stealing. Joining us is sports columnist for The Washington Post Barry Svrluga. Welcome to the program.

BARRY SVRLUGA: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Let's start with the sound itself. Who spotted it? Who realized it was a problem?

SVRLUGA: Well, a pitcher named Mike Fiers, who was on the 2017 Astros, subsequently went to other teams, told his teams that if - when they played Houston, they should be ready for pretty elaborate and technological sign stealing. He was quoted in The Athletic story that also cited three other sources saying that the Astros had this system in place and clearly a violation of MLB's rules about using technology in the dugout.

CORNISH: Remind us what sign stealing is and why electronic stealing would be a big deal.

SVRLUGA: So sign stealing is really woven into the fabric of baseball. Players are trained to watch for differences in how a pitcher places his hands before he throws a different pitch. And then they talk about it in the dugout and say, hey, if he does this - if he comes to rest his hands at his belt, that means he's going to throw a curveball or a change-up or a fastball. That's all well above board.

What the Astros did here, allegedly, in installing a camera in center field to train in on the catcher's signs of what pitch a pitcher was going to throw and then showing that in real time on a television screen in the tunnel between the dugout and the clubhouse, where the players could figure out the signs and then relay them to the batter in the batter's box by using what The Athletic cited as a banging on a trash can - that's considered well outside of baseball's legal purview. So...

CORNISH: That's incredibly elaborate, that description.

SVRLUGA: Exactly.

CORNISH: It hits both high- and low-tech - got to admire it.

SVRLUGA: Yeah, for sure. As one Nationals pitcher I talked to yesterday - the Nationals and the Astros met in the World Series last month. We don't know whether this is true, he said. But if they won the World Series using these tactics in 2017, what's to say that they stopped in subsequent years?

CORNISH: Let me dig into that a little more. You spoke to the Nationals pitching coach, Paul Menhart. What did he say to you about how that team prepared to play against the Astros in this year's World Series if this was - I don't know - an open secret in baseball?

SVRLUGA: Yeah. So - because the Astros' reputation preceded them before the World Series this year, even before this story came out in full public view, the Nationals took some pretty extraordinary steps to use counterintelligence and offset any advantage the Astros might have been gaining.

They assigned each pitcher five different set of signs. Their two catchers had a laminated card on their wristband that showed all five sets of signs for each pitcher. The pitcher then put his sets of signs on the inside of his cap. And so if they suspected anything was going wrong, the catcher and the pitcher could get together and say we're going to switch up our set of signs right now.

CORNISH: What does Major League Baseball have to say about all this?

SVRLUGA: So they're conducting an investigation. They'll certainly interview members of the 2017 world champion Astros who have since gone on to work elsewhere, both players and coaches. There are two other major league managers that are - were members of that team and staff. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a huge fine or some sort of penalty on the Astros and some new regulations in place before spring training starts in February.

CORNISH: All right. Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga, thanks so much.

SVRLUGA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.