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Cheating Rules! Problems with the Astros Sign-Stealing Scandal

The recently-discovered actions by the Houston Astros in stealing opponents’ catchers’ signs with the use of electronic communication has left a black mark on baseball. Having an MLB home team use multiple electronic communication devices and a telephoto lens in their home stadium to steal the catcher’s sign and signal the on-field batter is clearly morally wrong. However, are these immoral actions by the Houston Astros against the Official Rules of Major League Baseball?

Interestingly enough, none of the official enforcement rules for Major League Baseball (nor any previous annual version of any official rules) prohibit the Houston Astros’ electronic sign-stealing activities as described in this scandal. Instead, the Astros' activities appear to contravene an unpublished “directive” issued to all MLB teams in 2000 by Sandy Alderson, MLB operations chief, regarding electronic devices (“Alderson Directive”). While not established in any form in any of major league baseball's official rules, the Alderson Directive allegedly has mandated:

“Please be reminded that the use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted. No club shall use electronic equipment, including walkie-talkies and cellular telephones, to communicate to or with any on-field personnel, including those, in the dugout, bullpen, field and-during the game-the clubhouse. Such equipment may not be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.”

Curiously, neither the Alderson Directive nor its reminder about the electronic equipment restriction has been codified or written in any of the official enforcement rules of Major League Baseball: The Official MLB Baseball (“MLB Rules”) or The Major League Professional Rules (“Major League Rules”). Officially codifying The Alderson Directive into the official rules of Major League Baseball has not occurred despite (1) there being 18 years since the Alderson Directive was written and (2) there being a specific section on “Electronic Equipment on Field” within the MLB Rules. The MLB Rules Index shows “Electronic Equipment on Field” governance at MLB Rule 3.10(b). However, Rule 3.10(b) merely states: “The use of any markers on the field that create a tangible reference system on the field is prohibited.” No language remotely similar to the Alderson Directive appears in the MLB Rules or Major League Rules.

Simply, nowhere in the Major League Rules or MLB Rules are there any specific rules about electronic devices (such as Apple Watches, computers, or iPads) in a team’s dugout, locker room, or other parts of the stadium.

However, the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks were both penalized in 2017 for having electronic devices in their dugout by the Commissioner under his authority through the Alderson Directive; and the Houston Astros will almost certainly be penalized for their sign-stealing use of electronic equipment discovered recently.

While the MLB Constitution does allow the Commissioner to create regulations, bulletins, and directives from “in matters relating to the Commissioner’s functions and the administration of the game of baseball that are not inconsistent with this Constitution,” a one-person-derived directive could clearly not become a multi-decade enforceable rule (Art. XI, Sec. 3). For example, (1) there is no centrally located collection of such regulations, bulletins, and directives, (2) the Alderson Directive was not created by the Commissioner, and (3) the Alderson Directive is seemingly not directly related to the “Commissioner’s functions and the administration of the game of baseball.” Presumably, such an important “rule” should be located within the public and actual MLB Rules.

While the source of punishment was never clarified by the Commissioner’s Office in its 2017 devices punishments to the Red Sox and Diamondbacks, it appears that the Commissioner used his plenary power under Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution to penalize the Red Sox and Diamondbacks for using electronic devices (i.e., Apple Watches) in their dugouts during games within the 2017 season. Nonetheless, as the language of the Alderson Directive has never been included in the Major League Rules or the MLB Rules, it is not accurate to say that the use of such electronic devices (such as the Astros’ actions) is against the official “rules” of baseball.

As stated above, nowhere in the Major League Rules or MLB Rules are there any specific rules against or restrictions on spying or electronic device use. However, another incident involving the Houston Astros occurred during the 2018 American League Playoffs. During the American League Championship Series, staff of the Houston Astros were observed closely monitoring or spying into the dugout of the Boston Red Sox from the stands. Seemingly, this spying offense – while not against any rule in the Major League Rules and MLB Rule – could be punishable by the Commissioner’s Office under the Article II Power similar to the 2017 Red Sox Dugout-Equipment-Use Incident. However, the Commissioner elected not to punish the Houston Astros because the Commissioner’s Office deemed that:

"A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules.”

Nonetheless, no specific written or clearly-articulated baseball “rule” was technically violated by the Astros, Red Sox, or Diamondbacks, during their 2017 and 2018 incidents (again, note that the Alderson Directive has never been codified in any Major League Baseball rule).

While the Astros’ recently-discovered sign-stealing activity from 2017-2019 is clearly immoral and violates an unpublished 2000 directive by the MLB Commissioner’s Office, Major League Baseball MUST clearly articulate their rules (and punishments) related to teams’ use of electronic devices in MLB stadiums. MLB teams need to clearly know what activities are prohibited and what actions will be punished. Fortunately the MLB Rule 3.10(b) provides the perfect location for this clarification.

As such, considering the unfair competitive advantage use of such electronic devices give to a home tea; hopefully, the MLB will make it clear in their official rules that the immoral electronic device activities such as those conducted by the Houston Astros are against the official rules.


Adam Van Grack is an attorney at the law firm of Longman & Van Grack, LLC practicing litigation, business law, and sports law. Adam is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals having attended Washington University in St. Louis for college and law school. Adam has been previously appointed as the Chair of a U.S. Olympic National Governing Body.


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