Magoosh English Class: Sign Stealing Scandal in the MLB

In part two of our Sports in America: Baseball free English class series, we will look at one of the biggest scandals to rock professional baseball in decades: sign stealing in the Major League Baseball (MLB)!

Goals:

  • Learn how hand signals work in baseball
  • Learn more baseball and general English vocabulary
  • Learn how to use the past perfect continuous tense
  • Learn about the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal and investigation

Difficulty Level:

Advanced

Time:

Approximately 15 minutes

Reading Passage

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

Despite its status as “America’s national pastime,” baseball has seen a number of major scandals over the years. From steroids to players betting on games, Major League Baseball is no stranger to controversy. Most recently, the Houston Astros were the center of a scandal that put their 2017 World Series into question. To understand how this controversy unfolded, let’s first examine how hand signals work in baseball.

Baseball Hand Signals

Though baseball does not require much talking, players are constantly communicating with each other via hand signals. The primary signals come from the catcher. The catcher uses his fingers to show different numbers to the pitcher. This allows the pitcher and catcher to agree on where and how the pitcher will throw the ball.

For example, depending on the series of numbers the catcher shows, the pitcher could throw an inside (close to the batter) curveball or an outside (farther away from the batter) sinker. These signals also let the pitcher and catcher decide if they should intentionally throw a ball.

In addition to the catcher, many of the other players and even the coaches use hand signals to communicate with one another!

For example, the shortstop and second baseman keep a close eye on the catcher’s signal to see who should cover second base. Once they know, they signal to one another. Additionally, the third-base coach has a lot of signals that they use to tell different players whether they should try to steal a base, prepare for a pickoff, or simply stay in their current position.

As you can see, hand signals are extremely important in baseball. They are useful because they allow a team to stay in constant communication without divulging their strategy to the opposing team. That’s why the Houston Astros scandal was so shocking to baseball fans.

The Houston Astros Controversy

In 2019, journalists reported that the Houston Astros had been using cameras placed in centerfield to record signals made by the opposing catcher. Players or coaches for the Astros would then signal to the batter, letting him know what kind of pitch was about to be thrown.

This gave the team a HUGE advantage, allowing them to win the 2017 World Series, the American League Division Series in 2018, and reach (but ultimately lose) the World Series in 2019. While trying to decode the opposing team’s signals is not against the rules set by the MLB, using technology to do so is a clear violation.

The MLB opened an investigation into these allegations in 2020. In the end, the MLB concluded that the Houston Astros did use cameras to cheat during the 2017 season and part of the 2018 season, though they found no evidence of similar activity in 2019.

As a result, the MLB fined the team and suspended the general manager, Jeff Luhnow, and field manager, A. J. Hinch. Soon after, both managers were fired by the owner of the Houston Astros, Jim Crane. Thanks to their cooperation during the investigation, the players for the Houston Astros avoided any punishment.

Watch this news clip to get a better understanding of how the Astros used sign-stealing and why it violates the MLB rules.

Word Focus

Let’s take a closer look at some of the words in bold from the passage:

  • Pastime – (noun) – An entertaining hobby or activity.
    • Baseball has been America’s most treasured pastime for decades.
  • Steroids – (noun) – A type of drug used to make muscles grow faster and larger.
    • Barry Bonds admitted to using steroids for years.
  • To be “no stranger to” – (verb phrase) – To be familiar with a situation, experience, or activity.
    • The New York Yankees are no strangers to World Series titles.
  • Hand signal – (noun) – A position or movement of the hand used to communicate without words.
    • The coach used a hand signal to tell the batter what to do.
  • Catcher – (noun) – A position in baseball; the player who squats behind home plate and catches balls thrown by the pitcher.
    • The catcher signaled to the pitcher for a low fastball.
  • Curveball – (noun) – A type of pitch where the ball spins (or curves) in an unexpected direction.
    • Most of the batters couldn’t hit the pitcher’s curveball.
  • Sinker – (noun) – A type of pitch where the ball suddenly drops before it reaches home plate.
    • The batter swung at the sinker but missed it.
  • Throw a ball – (verb phrase) – In baseball, when a pitcher throws the ball outside of the batter’s range and the batter does not swing at the ball.
    • The pitcher decided to throw a ball and walk the batter.
  • Shortstop – (noun) – A position in baseball; the player who stands between second and third base.
    • Shortstop is one of the most important positions in baseball.
  • Second baseman – (noun) – A position in baseball; the player who stands between first and second base.
    • A second baseman needs to be quick and agile.
  • Third-base coach – (noun) – A coach who stands near third base and directs the actions of the baserunners.
    • The third-base coach signaled for the runner to stop at second base.
  • Steal a base – (verb phrase) – In baseball, to try to advance to the next base without being tagged out.
    • The runner wanted to steal third base, but the coach signaled for him to wait.
  • Pickoff – (noun) – In baseball, when the pitcher steps off of the mound and throws the ball to one of the basemen in order to tag out a runner.
    • The pitcher attempted a sudden pickoff at first base.
  • Divulge – (verb) – To reveal something hidden or previously unknown.
    • The players won’t divulge the meanings of their signals.
  • Centerfield – (verb) – The center of the outfield on a baseball field (directly behind second base).
    • The ball soared into centerfield, allowing the batter to reach first base.
  • Decode – (verb) – To translate or figure out a coded language.
    • Technology helped the Houston Astros decode the opposing team’s hand signals.
  • Allegation – (noun) – A claim that a person or group has done something wrong or illegal.
    • The cheating allegation permanently damaged the reputation of the Houston Astros.

Grammar Center: Past Perfect Continuous Tense

Let’s take a closer look at the following sentence from the passage:

In 2019, journalists reported that the Houston Astros had been using cameras placed in centerfield to record signals made by the opposing catcher.

This sentence includes an example of the past perfect continuous tense. The past perfect continuous refers to actions or events that took place over a period of time in the past and finished at some point in the past.

Another way to think of the past perfect continuous is to think about an action that progressed in the past and finished before something else.

In order to form the past perfect continuous tense, you will need to use the following formula:

Had + been (past participle of “to be”) + present participle

Here are a few more examples of the past perfect tense:

  • The MLB had begun investigating the Houston Astros prior to the 2020 regular season.
  • Despite the cheating rumors in 2017, the coaches had been using hidden cameras well into the 2018 season.
  • Pitcher Justin Verlander had been throwing curveballs all night, but eventually, the other team caught on.

As you can see, the past perfect continuous tense is extremely useful for discussing continual actions that occurred in the past. Now that you know how it works, you can use the past perfect continuous tense when speaking and writing in English!

Quiz

  1. Which of the following statements most accurately captures the central idea of the passage?A. In baseball, coaches and players use hand signals to silently communicate with each other.B. Hand signals are an important part of baseball, but in 2017, the Houston Astros used hidden cameras to record the opposing teams’ hand signals and gain an unfair advantage.C. The Houston Astros used a complex system to record the opposing team’s hand signals and relay that information to the batter.D. The primary hand signals occur between the pitcher and the catcher, though other players and coaches also make regular use of hand signals.
  2. What do hand signals allow the pitcher and catcher to do?A. Decide when to throw the pitchB. Figure out how to score a runC. Calculate the batter’s abilitiesD. Decide where and how to throw the pitch
  3. In which direction does a sinker move?A. UpB. DownC. LeftD. Right
  4. Which of the following could someone decode?A. Numbered lockB. Baseball stadiumC. ComputerD. Baseball game
  5. When does an action in the past perfect continuous end?A. In the presentB. In the futureC. In the pastD. Unknown
  6. Fill in the blank: “The Houston Astros players had been _______ that they didn’t know what pitch to expect.”A. SignalingB. ThrowC. ThinkD. Pretending
Show Correct Answers:
  1. B
  2. D
  3. B
  4. A
  5. C
  6. D
Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones is a freelance writer with a B.A. in Film and Philosophy from the University of Georgia. It was during his time in school that he published his first written work. After serving as a casting director in the Atlanta film industry for two years, Matthew acquired TEFL certification and began teaching English abroad. In 2017, Matthew started writing for dozens of different brands across various industries. During this time, Matthew also built an online following through his film blog. If you’d like to learn more about Matthew, you can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his personal website!
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