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My question pertains mostly to baseball, but I imagine it is just as relevant in other sports as well. Every so often I hear about a disgruntled team, accusing the other team of stealing signs. I don't get it. What actually makes it wrong?

This just seems like any other aspect of the competition that is fair game. For example, if a pitcher inadvertently "tips" his pitches, and the other team is smart enough to pick up on it and use that knowledge to their advantage, then it is generally considered a flaw of the pitcher. It is now his responsibility to correct the problem, and improve his skills by becoming more deceptive and unpredictable. I wouldn't blame the opposing team for cheating; I would say they played smart baseball. I'm having a hard time understanding how "decrypting" signals is any different?

Additionally, the coach who creates the signals does so with the intention to obfuscate them as much as possible. Obviously this is to maximize competitive advantage. So does that not imply competition even within this narrow aspect of the game?

Someone help me out please. What makes stealing signs wrong that teams rightfully take exception and feel cheated?

  • Well, nothing makes it wrong. Since when has factual wrongness been a necessity for complaining? – Nij Oct 8 '16 at 0:29
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    I think "wrong" here is used in the moral sense, not in the factual sense. – Joe Oct 8 '16 at 4:40
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    @Nij factual wrongness being a necessity for complaining isn't my question. Complaining regardless of right or wrong happens all the time. Take for instance the tension between a pitcher and hitter after an admired home run and bat flip. There a a lot of polarizing subjective opinions on this without either side necessarily being incorrect. What I'm looking for in my question is something more objective. Like a rule prohibiting it, or generally established guidelines of when stealing signs is OK and what boundaries should not be crossed. – Ben Harrison Oct 8 '16 at 14:33
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Stealing signs is "wrong" because Baseball's history goes back to the 1800s, when it was more of a "gentleman's game" (as compared to, say, American Football) and things like stealing signs would have been seen as beneath the managers (and players). The idea is that the purity of the batter versus pitcher matchup should not be tarnished (on either side - pitchers should not use spitballs or pine tar to alter the ball, batters should not rely on information given to them by others).

However, in the modern day no-one would really complain about the simple versions of stealing signs - the runner at second base tipping the batter off. They specifically use special signs to avoid that happening, and often switch them up mid-game or even mid-at bat. What the complaints are typically, are that someone is either using technology (such as a hidden camera) or the old-school version of that, namely a person in the bleachers with a phone or similar. That's considered cheating, since it involves people not in the game communicating information.

This is something that's fairly well covered in the media. MLB.com published an article on the subject, Fair or Foul? Sign-stealing is part of the game for example. They begin:

Nowhere in baseball's rulebook will you find anything prohibiting sign-stealing, although most casual observers figure the spirit of sportsmanship and the unwritten "Code" of the big leagues should say it's a big no-no.

They go on to explain what would be considered a no-no in particular:

"A pair of binoculars staring down the gun barrel of the hitting area? You know what, I don't think any club in baseball ... would take too kindly to that," Rockies manager Jim Tracy said.

But it's pretty clear that it's not cheating, and it's not something that's unexpected in this day and age:

And if you ask the players, managers and coaches of today's game for their thoughts on the subject, most seem to agree on one thing: sign-stealing is not necessarily cheating, since it's not against the rules, but you better be aware of it and you better know when it's happening.

  • I absolutely agree "it's not something that's unexpected in this day and age". Baseball is basically based on cheating and stealing. :-) – user10632 Oct 8 '16 at 5:33
  • Great response. +1 for the reference on the rulebook. The use of technology, binoculars, or people not on the team is a good common sense example of when it becomes unethical to steal signs. – Ben Harrison Oct 8 '16 at 14:44
  • @Rathony speaking of baseball being based on stealing, it seems that players stealing signs (reasonably) is the ethical equivalent of stealing home. When you've studied the pitcher well enough to discover a vulnerability and window of opportunity, take it. – Ben Harrison Oct 8 '16 at 14:49

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