Here’s Your Sign: A Lapse in Integrity is Stupid

Red stop sign nestled in the bushes, conveying a request to MLB to stop illegal sign stealing and choose integrity instead.

Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall are two really funny guys who once were part of the famed Blue Collar Comedy Troup. One became famous for bits with the punchline, “You might be a redneck …,” while the other is best known for his “Here’s your sign” line that follows stories about people who had done something stupid.

Those two routines came to mind as I read the news on the sports pages recently. A combined Foxworthy/Engvall line might sum it all up like this: “If you use technology to steal signs in Major League baseball games, you might lack integrity. Guilty? Here’s your sign.”

Unfortunately, the antics of the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox (and maybe others) weren’t at all funny. An investigation by Major League baseball found that the Astros violated league rules by using technology, mainly video, to steal the signs catchers were giving pitchers, thus giving their hitters the potential advantage of knowing whether they are about to see a curve, slider, changeup or fastball.

MLB suspended the Astros’ Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow for a year, but the team then fired the both of them. Alex Cora, a former coach for the Astros who became the manager of the Boston Red Sox in 2018, was implicated in the report, as well, and was fired before his  punishment was handed down by the MLB.

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There are plenty of people out there saying the punishment was too harsh. MLB invited the problem by allowing laptops in the dugouts and putting video rooms close by. And there’s evidence to indicate stealing signs didn’t help the players hit any better. And the crime isn’t as bad as, say, using steroids or criminal behaviors like domestic abuse. And, besides, stealing signs is an age-old tradition in baseball, and it’s actually not illegal in some cases.

The issue here is about integrity. Leaders in every industry face the temptation to cut corners, a little here and a little there, and it’s not just leaders in professional sports.

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The most common (and legal) way to steal signs is for a runner at second base to visually watch the catcher give the sign, figure out what it means, and then convey a message to the batter using, of course, a sign.

In the old days, some pitchers would retaliate against sign-stealers by planting a fastball in their backside the next time that player stood at the plate. But we live in a more technologically advanced age, and using electronics as a partner in the pilfering is strictly forbidden.

The fact that “everybody is doing it” is no excuse for anyone doing it. And the lack of strenuous punishment for other serious crimes only tells us that there is another problem the league should address.

The issue here is about integrity. Leaders in every industry face the temptation to cut corners, a little here and a little there, and it’s not just leaders in professional sports. A study by PwC found that about 20 percent of the CEOs who left their jobs at one of the world’s 2,500 largest companies in 2018 did so because they were forced out. That wasn’t an unusual percentage. “But the reasons that CEOs were fired in 2018 were different,” the report stated. “For the first time in the study’s history, more CEOs were dismissed for ethical lapses than for financial performance or board struggles.”

CEOs, like managers and general managers in professional baseball, can’t control the actions of everyone around them. But they can set a standard with their own behavior, and they can put a stop to unethical practices as soon as they know they are taking place. It’s not easy, and the slope is slippery. But think about this when you, as a leader, face these types of temptations: Imagine that day in the future when you sit with a grandchild on your knee. What do you want that child to remember about you? That you were smart enough to cheat the system? Or that you were honorably enough to win within the rules?

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