There are two kinds of sign stealing. The first kind -- the kind everyone agrees violates baseball's rules and etiquette -- employs technology or non-field personnel to relay signs to players during a game. The classic example is the 1951 New York Giants. In the waning weeks of their pennant-winning season, the Jints concocted an elaborate scheme involving a coach, a telescope, a bell, and a jittery bullpen scrub who transmitted signs to New York hitters via semaphore. The Blue Jays were accused of something similar not too long ago.
The second kind of sign stealing -- Joe Morgan deciphering the catcher's signals and relaying them to his teammate in the batter's box -- isn't cheating at all. Oh, it may break baseball's hallowed unwritten rules, but if so, it belongs in a category with bunting when your team is way ahead. These are the "Stop Trying So Hard To Win" rules. All good-hearted people hate these unwritten rules and absolutely love hearing stories of ballplayers stealing signs from second base.
Too many people, however, conflate the second, fun type of sign stealing (the first type is kind of fun, too, as long as it's not happening to your team) with out-and-out cheating. Like noted ball ruiner Gaylord Perry:
If I was a cheater, there's 10,000 more out there. Not just pitchers, they got hitters stealing signs, corking bats, using (performance enhancing drugs). And ... OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT GUY DOING OVER THERE?! [runs away]
I may have embellished that.
You can kind of sympathize with Gaylord. I mean, he's obviously just trying to deflect attention away from his preferred (not to mention hilarious!) method of cheating and onto the dirty hitters who were always trying to pilfer his signs.
Here's Bob Costas lumping sign stealing in with actual cheating to make a political point about how some sports drugs are worse than other sports drugs:
Did guys always search for an edge? Yes. Did they get it with greenies? Did they get it by stealing signs? Did some guys get it by scuffing a ball or throwing a spitball or corking a bat? Yes. All minimal stuff compared to the effects of steroids ... To equate steroids to other forms of cheating and edges around the margins in baseball history is just stupid.
Well, what about equating stealing signs and ingesting ampheta--ah, screw it.
What worries me as a fan of the entire sign stealing genre is when modern players tacitly endorse the view that the practice is somehow unethical. Here's Chipper Jones recalling a little row he had with Jamie Moyer last season:
I literally am standing on second base and I'm talking to Tulo, and I turn around and [Moyer] is coming set. So I get ready and take my lead, and [Moyer] goes, "I see you." And I go, "What the [bleep] do you see? What the [bleep] are you talking about?" I go, "I was [bleeping] talking to your shortstop." And he said something else with his back turned, like he yelled but didn't face me. I go, "That's [bleeping] B.S." And I turned around to Tulo and Tulo's like [holds hands up] ... I've never relayed a sign from second in my entire career.
(That is so Tulo.)
I don't like that last bit, when Chipper avers that he never stole a sign from second. Well, why the hell not? It's not shameful to steal signs, it shows cunning! And it's fun to hear about! We need more sign stealing, not less. If anything, Jones should be ashamed he never unraveled Mike Piazza's or Darren Daulton's signals.
If stealing signs is cheating, why isn't utilizing signs in the first place -- that is, purposely deceiving your opponent -- considered cheating, too? After all, when a pitcher tries to deceive a baserunner, doesn't the umpire punish him by calling a balk? What makes one deception acceptable and the other not?
The day MLB outlaws sign stealing from second base is the day I check out. I'll cancel my cable subscription and just pirate movies. That's definitely not stealing, because information wants to be free and besides, you can't, like, own a movie, man. But that's another thing entirely.