As the fallout from the Houston Astro’s cheating scandal continues, one can wonder what effect, if any, will this have on amateur baseball at the high school level. This spring all over the country teams will take the field aiming for the same goal, to win a state championship. Part of what makes high school sports great is that the kids are still learning the game and coaches make it their responsibility to teach them the right way to play it. It is an open secret in baseball that teams will do whatever they can to gain an advantage. But not at the expense of the game itself. The Houston Astros relied on high tech cameras to pull off their manipulation of the game. This technology simply isn’t available at the high school level; there are no tunnels and no large support staffs. Schools have trouble keeping a field in playing condition, let alone worry about all the extras.
The rules under NFHS are strict when it comes to unsportsmanlike conduct and there is zero tolerance for cheating. As it relates to the Astros, the NFHS rules explicitly states that use of amplifiers for coaching purposes during the course of the game is illegal. This includes the use of any object in the coach’s box other than a stopwatch, rule book (hard copy), or scorebook. Nothing electronic is allowed on the field. And because there are no television cameras at most high school games, one in the outfield would stand out and bring scrutiny.
For an umpire, the NFHS rules give them ultimate authority to govern the game so that neither team gets an unfair advantage. For example, anything that the home team has access to, such as batting cages, the away team must also be given access. If the away team can’t use the cage, then the home team is not permitted to use it during the game.
Ben Levin has been a High School Umpire since 2003, was a Minor League Umpire for 8 years and is currently a NCAA Umpire. He weighed in on what the NFHS says about sign stealing; “In high school baseball, there are several rules that cover the situation of sign stealing, though not directly. First, no uniformed personnel are allowed outside the dugout or bullpen (like behind a fence in the stands, behind center field, etc.). If a uniformed player is observed outside the dugout, that player is subject to ejection. If it a minor offense, such as a player in the stands charting pitches, then a warning would be issued and the player asked to move to the dugout. If a uniformed player or coach is outside of the dugout for the purpose of stealing an opposing team’s signs, that player or coach would be ejected.”
Levin added that, “no videotaping of any kind is allowed outside the dugout by members of either team. If a team were to attempt to set up a camera in a position where it could be used to steal signs (behind center field or pointed at the 3rd base coaches’ box), the camera would be ordered taken down. If the camera were manned by a uniformed player or coach, that person would be ejected.
As for NCAA rules he noted, “The NCAA has a rule prohibiting any filming from behind the outfield, with the exception of TV cameras if the game is being broadcast (this is to stop anyone from using a camera behind center field to steal the catcher’s signs). If the game is being broadcast, no monitors in the dugout, bench area, or locker room may broadcast the live feed of the game.”
MINOR LEAGUE ACTION
Given his Minor League experience I wondered what would happen if this was discovered during a game. “…in pro baseball, the use of laptops, tablets, cellular phones, walkie-talkies, or any other electronic equipment to communicate in any way with any personnel who are on the field, in a dugout, bullpen, press box, clubhouse, or in the stands is prohibited. The tablets you see players use in dugouts to watch film have no internet connectivity, all scouting video is pre-loaded onto the device’s internal memory.”
He went on further, “The penalty specified is that if a violation of this rule is observed, the crew chief shall file a written incident report with the league. There is no in-game penalty for what the Houston Astros have been disciplined for doing – which is using video cameras to communicate pitch signs and relaying that information to hitters at the plate. When the violation was noticed, it was reported to the Commissioner’s office, and discipline for such actions is the responsibility of the league.”
CAN THIS BE A TREND HAPPENING IN HIGH SCHOOLS
As for the possibility of electronic sign stealing coming to high schools? “I don’t see electronic sign stealing coming to high school baseball in any way, honestly. It would be too painfully obvious on most high school baseball fields if a camera was set up in center field or players were using radios to relay signs, and it would get put to a stop.”
According to George Demetriou, Rules Interpreter for the State of Colorado, the biggest difference between MLB and High School athletics is that High School sports are education based. He noted, “The coaches are primarily educators and it’s really a very, very, clean environment. It’s totally different than professional sports.” And where there are hundreds of millions of dollars on the line in the pro game, that isn’t the case in high school. There is no reason that teams would place a value on cheating. Demetriou says that, “there are isolated instances here or there, but generally everybody follows the rules or tries to follow the rules. Something like that that happened with the Astros and Red Sox, I don’t think would ever happen in a high school baseball game. Aside from not having the capability, I just can’t believe a coach would do something like that.”
CHEATING ATTEMPTS THAT REALLY HAPPENED
Demetriou did mention two incidents that he personally experienced as an umpire. The first took place during the summer and wasn’t a sanctioned game under the state, but the players were high school age. It started with when a batter was hit by a pitch. It had just grazed his arm, but the catcher turned to the batter and said, “that’ll teach ya!” The batter was unphased and Demetriou didn’t think anything about it. Between innings he spoke with the coach who, Demetriou noted was not an educator. The coach indifferently stated, “If they steal our signs we can hit ‘em.” Dremetriou told this story to illustrate that there is sign stealing in baseball, but “if you can see them, you can steal them.”
The other incident took place during a state sanctioned high school game. The away team had traveled three hours to play this game, but their fans outnumbered the home teams in attendance. The parents set up their seats behind the home plate backstop. The parents were telling the batter where the catcher was setting up. Demetriou said, “The home team was oblivious to it. The batter wasn’t listening to it. The home coach didn’t know about it and we’re not allowed to deal directly with spectators.” “So, I mentioned it to the visiting coach and I’m not really sure what he was doing, but he reacted like he was indignant that I’d bring something like that up.” The coach then hollered back at Demetriou the exact message but in question form, “so you want me to tell the parents to stop?!” He went stomping off and the parents stopped for the remainder of the game. This second anecdote illustrates what Demetriou calls, “the biggest problem in high school sports,” and that is the parents’ behavior at events.
Demetriou emphasized that outside of occasional minor incidents, nothing has taken place on a large scale that would rise to the level of sanctions. In fact, in all of his years as an official, he says that he has seen no drop in the level of sportsmanship. It is his opinion that coaches and players at the high school level exhibit nothing but respect for their opponents, the officials, and the game. Major League Baseball could learn a lot from the kids on a high school field.