Oct 27, 2010
Using technology to cheat at baseball: a history
ShareIt's autumn in America, and that can mean only one thing: the World Series! But you know what they say about baseball: "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't trying." And although the game has remained largely unchanged over the years, it hasn't been immune to the technology that has evolved around it… which can sometimes used for nefarious purposes.
Every angle of a modern stadium might be covered by HD cameras that are uplinked to satellites and all the fans have smartphones, but on the field of play, technology is pretty much prohibited. For example, MLB rules don't disallow the stealing of signals, if done "naturally." A runner on second base can spot the signals, but he can't use any type of electronics to read or convey them.
Tricks of the Past
Still, technology and cheating are certainly not mutually exclusive in baseball. In fact, cheating has been around almost as long as the game itself. In 1898, Cincinnati Reds player Tommy Corcoran caught his cleat on a mysterious wire buried in the dirt. It turned out to be a telegraph cable running between the bases, used to tip off the third base coach to the catcher's signals. The concept of "home field advantage" was well established, and apparently had already gone high-tech.
The Bossards, a family of groundskeepers in the 1920s, seemed to take great pride in low-tech cheating. They were known to move the fences in the Cleveland Indians' stadium and change the density of the baseline to make it harder for runners to steal bases. They would even freeze baseballs in a humidifier before the game to make them heavier and denser than usual, so they wouldn't travel as far as a legal ball.
Later on, Bobby Thomson's bottom of the ninth "shot heard round the world" in the classic Giants/Dodger's playoff series in 1951 perhaps wasn't as miraculous as previously thought. It turns out that the Giants had an elaborate series of bells and buzzers running from their clubhouse, which had a straight-on view of the catcher, down to the bullpen. With the aid of a telescope, a signal was sent from the clubhouse to the bullpen and then out to the batter telling him what pitch was heading his way.
Issues in the Present
Today, most discussions about cheating in baseball concern steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. Clearly, those are banned, but what about other medical enhancements?
Mark McGwire was busted for taking gym candy, but his performance was also legally enhanced — McGwire wore custom contact lenses that gave him 20/10 vision, so he sees things that are 20 feet away as clearly as others see 10 feet away. Imagine how that improves his batting and fielding.
Contacts lenses can be removed, of course, but what if that performance enhancement is permanent? LASIK surgery has helped many people with impaired vision see clearly again. That's not illegal, though professional athletes take the technology one step further. A long list of players in many sports have gone under the laser knife to improve their vision to 20/15 or better, including Tiger Woods. If they're not happy with the perfectly good numbers after their initial LASIK procedures, some players go in for enhancements to bump up the numbers even higher.
Radar guns have long used to record the speed of pitches. As radar technology improves, so does the accuracy of radar guns, but only if used properly. Less than forthright teams might supply uncalibrated guns to the opposing team to give them bad data. These days, most teams bring their own (calibrated) radar guns to ensure the accuracy of the readings, wisely not trusting the other team's technology.
Possible Future Subterfuge
Unfortunately, with the ongoing evolution of technology, the future of techo-cheating is wide open. In particular, thanks to the war on terror and homeland security, there are all kinds of stealthy ways to look at details and spot behavior from a distance — just what a win-at-all-costs team manager needs. Let's consider some of the technically feasible ways that a ball club could use to gain a competitive advantage.
As discussed, It's illegal to use electronics to read or convey a catcher's signals, but, of course, cheating is only cheating if you get caught. So how about shelling out some of that big baseball cash for an aerial drone? It could fly over the stadium and capture the catcher's signals, and no one would be the wiser. You could probably spot some platinum credit-card numbers, too.
Speaking of no-fly zones, you know those small airplanes with banners that are always flying around the stadium? Let's equip them with face-detection cameras. There must be a stress factor or some facial "tell" that you could read to determine when a runner is about to steal a base.
You know those idiots who shine laser beams at aircraft? You could equip a small aircraft with a "dazzle rifle" that emits a laser beam that would blind a batter just as the 3-2 pitch arrives. For a more low-tech solution, people in the stands could use their iPads as reflectors to flash sunlight into the batter's eyes.
Sonic weapons are used to blast Somalian pirates, so why not Pittsburgh Pirates? A long-range acoustic device (LRAD) could be aimed at an outfielder just as he's going for a catch, and instantly, he'll double over in pain. For a less severe result, a focused audio beam could confuse and disorient players by making them think sounds are coming from right beside them, while no one else hears a thing.
On the upside, technology can also be used to help prevent cheating too. Umpires are the ones enforcing the rules, but even umps have been known to get creative about where they call the strike zone. Advanced cameras can be used to keep the strike zone consistent.
As long as there are sports, there will be people finding ways to cheat at them. Technology can be used to give unfair advantage, or advance the sport. Like most endeavors, one should hope for the best, but expect the worst. Especially when you trip over a wire buried in the dirt.