With the Houston Astros in town this weekend, expect the sound of collective booing to echo across T-Mobile Park. It has been 30 months since the Astros sign-stealing system was exposed, and five years since their supposedly tainted championship, but anger persists. Especially when veteran stars like Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman stroll to the plate.

If you’ve been following baseball in the past few years, you must have noticed that the Astros are hardly alone on our national pastime’s naughty list. First the game seemed to be overrun with steroids, then everyone was stealing signs and last year, pitchers kept putting sticky stuff on the baseball to illegally improve their grip. What has happened to our beloved game?

Actually, nothing new. Cheating has been part of baseball almost from the moment people started to play it — at least 150 years. Baseball folks — players, managers and front offices — are a highly competitive breed, and like their counterparts in other sports and industries, they spend a lot of time looking for an advantage.

Sometimes this results in innovative strategies such as the curveball or infield shifts. But more often than we’d like to admit, they stumble on something that goes beyond innovation and becomes unethical, even illegal. 

Think of the most competitive person you ever played cards with, or pickup basketball or golf, and imagine 30 teams of people exponentially more competitive. Is it any wonder that lines get crossed?

The dirty little secret about competitive sports is that we learn how to cut corners as children. If you’ve ever trapped a ball in the outfield and pretended you caught it, or stepped on the line in basketball and played on or feigned a foul in soccer, you’ve cheated. Many of you are nodding.


The polite word for this behavior is “gamesmanship,” but many recent cheating scandals have been much more serious. St. Louis Cardinals executive Chris Correa hacked into a Houston Astros database in 2013 and later served time in prison; Braves’ general manager John Coppolella was banned from baseball in 2017 for circumventing international player signing rules; Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, manager A.J. Hinch and coach Alex Cora were suspended for the 2020 season for the team’s sign-stealing, and the Astros subsequently fired Luhnow and Hinch. And many high-profile players have been suspended for months or entire seasons for using performance-enhancing drugs. 

What shenanigans might be in store for the future? Impossible to say, but one thing is certain: Right now, as you read this, there are baseball people looking for an edge where the potential advantage is large and the likelihood of detection or punishment small. Given the punishment meted out to Correa it seems unlikely that any team would engage in corporate theft. But Correa’s actions were already unlikely.

The Astros penalties and public humiliation over video sign-stealing will likely squelch similar schemes, at least for a few years. But the recent release of a 2017 letter written by Commissioner Rob Manfred to Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman about the Yankees’ own sign-stealing rekindled that episode. Baseball’s sign-stealing story is 120 years old, and a wise man would wager that it will be back.

What about performance-enhancing drugs? Baseball’s testing program still uncovers a handful of positives every year — four in 2021 and five in 2020 — but regulators seem to have gotten ahead of this problem. Still, count on a few players getting nabbed this year. Meanwhile, chemists are continually creating new undetectable formulas. 

The most likely cheating story in 2022 could be a carry-over from 2021: use of grip-enhancing substances by pitchers. Last June, umpires began checking pitchers’ gloves, hats and belts as they left the field, and there is evidence that this crackdown had the desired effect on spin rates.

But there is also evidence to suggest that late in the season pitchers found another way — legal or illegal — to achieve their beloved spin. With run-scoring down again in 2022, this is a trend worth watching.


As technology becomes a bigger part of the game, will new opportunities arise? Electronic ball and strike assist is being used by several minor leagues and might soon end up in the majors. Will players or teams find ways to interfere with the machines? Or with the medical databases, high-tech training aids and computer systems of rival teams?

We haven’t had a good bat-corking story in a few years, but enterprising scientists may find a foothold there too. With any innovation comes the possibility of misuse and malfeasance.

In the coming months, we’ll witness extraordinary acts on the field — long home runs, diving catches, impossible pitches — by the greatest players in the world. But if you know baseball, you know that cheating — for better or worse — is a time-honored part of our beloved game.