BOSTON — The Rays have enough to worry about — in real life with uncertainty over the impact of Hurricane Irma on their homes and their immediate travel plans, and in their baseball world, with playoff hopes dwindling. It's to the point where they need to win almost all of their final 21 contests given they are three games — and five teams — out.
And Friday they step into baseball's latest den of iniquity, Fenway Park. The Red Sox were, essentially, caught reportedly cheating in using electronic devices to steal signs about upcoming pitches, and arrogantly laughed it off as a technologically advanced long-time part of the game.
Now, like diners at a restaurant (or a domed stadium) just busted for health code violations, the Rays can probably expect the host Red Sox to be on their best behavior this weekend.
But news of the scandal — first reported by the New York Times, then front-and-back-paged in the tabloids, the Post screaming "BOSTON CHEAT PARTY" — definitely got them at least wondering aloud how far the Red Sox have gone.
"I think their offensive production speaks for itself in that category. When you see a team that good you always suspect everything," veteran Rays starter, and Boston-area native, Alex Cobb said. "Our human nature as pitchers is that every time we walk off the mound and get hit we think they've got the signs, and we're probably right one percent of the time.
"In the past I haven't specifically said, 'That team is up to something,' but I've always walked off the mound saying, 'Wow, that team is unbelievably plate disciplined and just being on pitches.' …
"I don't want to tarnish what they've done in the past, especially if they've earned it. We'll have to wait and see what MLB says."
What MLB should say is the Red Sox clearly went beyond the old-school "everybody does it" sign stealing and violated rules against using electronic devices in the dugout (except for the MLB approved secure iPads showing hitter vs. pitcher data).
This scheme, exposed by the Yankees in a complaint to MLB, involved the Sox using video cameras to study the signs and decode the sequencing. Then info was allegedly then sent via text messages to the dugout via an Apple watch worn by a trainer, who told players who would then signal to the hitters.
All teams, including the Rays, are looking for ways to steal signs. With the proliferation of cameras (including some supposedly hidden ones) in stadiums, many teams are suspected of using video to look at the signs and pass info through a messenger in the clubhouse or tunnel. What made this different was the immediacy of texting right to the dugout.
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Rays All-Star starter Chris Archer said the Red Sox already were among the teams he suspected of stealing signs through traditional methods.
"It's interesting because we know that people try to figure out the signs and we know that people go through different measures to do that, and I'll just keep it at that," he said.
"Using the technology, using the iWatch, that's just too far. There's simpler ways to do the same thing without going through the device on the person's wrist."
Archer, Cobb and other pitchers have good reason to be more concerned, citing the competitive disadvantage when the hitter knows what's coming. But they acknowledge the onus on the pitchers and catchers to be vigilant and change signs repeatedly. (Or, Cobb said, in an extreme — please don't — example, have the catcher come to the mound before each pitch and do it verbally.)
The perspective from 60 feet, 6 inches away can be different, though.
Evan Longoria, the Rays most veteran hitter, said "everybody does it" and has for decades, that "the run of the mill relaying of signs happens every day."
He didn't consider the Sox situation that egregious — not like the info was being relayed to players on the field via an earpiece or a coded scoreboard message. (Another member of the Rays joked they wish they'd thought of the Apple watch idea.)
Though commissioner Rob Manfred said he takes any issue that affects play "extremely seriously" and a primary factor in the penalty will be "deterrence," there is already chatter the Sox will get off light, with a fine and maybe loss of a draft pick. Certainly more deterrent would be suspending involved players or stripping the Sox of wins in games they were caught cheating.
"It's obvious this was going to happen at some point, there's always people pushing the envelope," Cobb said. "I'm really happy it was exposed and we'll be able to have MLB put in some protocols that will prevent this from happening in the future."
Especially, they're hoping, this weekend.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays