When I was 16 I played travel softball for a really, really good team. Like, stupid good. We finished third in the national world series tournament. Our No. 1 pitcher would sometimes back off her mid-60s fastball and throw a knuckleball. An underhanded knuckleball! I freak out every time I think about it.
I know what you’re thinking. “Wow, Cara played for a really good team. She must have also been really good.”
Not to brag, but yes, I was. And by really good I mean I was always the first one off the bench to pinch run. Unless on our of other incredibly fast players wasn’t playing that game and could pinch run instead.
Anyways, there was one game we played in the quarterfinals of that world series. Games in these summer tournaments are almost always played with a time limit, usually around 90 minutes or so. If the team that is winning is up to bat when the timer ends, the game ends right there. If the team that’s losing is up to bat when it ends, they’re allowed to finish that half inning.
So, my team was up like one or two runs, and it was late in the game. I had pinch run a few innings earlier.
We quickly got an out in what would be our final at-bat when my coach told me to pinch hit.
Again, not to brag, but the girl pitching for the other team was committed to play at University of Kentucky, and (not to brag) I hit a double off of her.
As soon as I stepped on second the coach of the other team walked out of the dugout and up to the umpire, looking at his lineup card. They talked for a minute or so before the umpire points at me and tells me I’m out.
I’m upset, but I look over at my coach and he isn’t saying anything, isn’t fighting it. He just has a sly smile on his face.
The next girl on my team steps into the batter’s box, and after a pitch or two the buzzer goes off to tell us time is up. We won.
After celebrating we all had the same question for my coach – why was I out?
Well, since I had pinch run earlier in the game, I couldn’t pinch hit because then I was batting out of order. But it wasn’t a mistake on my coach’s part. He did that on purpose.
“I checked and saw there was just a few minutes left on the clock, so I knew once the other coach realized we batted out of order he would go out and argue with the umpire and take up more time and they wouldn’t be able to start another at-bat.”
I was upset because I felt cheated out of my only hit of the tournament (I wasn’t very good…), but I guess I understood. You play to win the game.
Playing for this team was the first time I realized there’s so much more to sports than just being good at sports. At the start of every game our first base coach would come in the dugout and tell us what to listen for while batting. If he said “Let’s go,” that meant the catcher was lined up inside. If he said “Get a hit,” that meant the catcher was lined up outside.
That was fine. I never understood why some shifty players never quickly turned their head in the second before a pitch to see where a catcher set up, anyway. I think that would be possible? Who knows. But anyways, it’s easy to see where a catcher is lined up, so a coach telling you seemed innocent enough.
But usually an inning or two into the game that same coach would gather us in the dugout and say “O.K., I’ve got their signs. If I clap, that means it’s a fastball. If I pat my legs, it’s offspeed.”
This felt less innocent. A little shady if I’m being honest. It wasn’t cheating, I guess. More like icky gamesmanship. You play to win the game, though, right?
At least once a tournament an opposing coach would figure out our coach’s scheme and get all up in arms about it, marching out of the dugout yelling, “They’re stealing signs!” And then they’d complain to the umpire who was always like, “I don’t know what to tell you.” And my coach would fight it and protest and say “No we’re not!” before eventually conceding and saying “If you don’t want your signs stolen, don’t make them so easy to steal.”
There was a girl on this team who hit bombs. Like several home runs a tournament. You were never out of a game when she got up to bat. And after the game she would always say “Well, I saw the pitch and knew it was a curveball coming inside so I knew I had to wait on it,” or give a perfect description of the pitch and location of the balls she hit.
I was always blown away by that. I know it’s not crazy to think batters can pick up on that kind of stuff in the moment, but I also realized that she probably only knew the pitch because someone told her. And I realized that while she was very good she was also very good at gaming the system.
The Houston Astros are facing allegations that they devised several different methods to steal signs from other teams. Allegations that go as far as saying the team had cameras set up in the outfield and someone in the clubhouse watching live videos and hitting trash cans to relay pitches to batters.
The Astros aren’t the only team to face allegations of sign stealing, though these are certainly the most concrete. It seems obvious setting up cameras goes way over the line into cheating, but some fans insist it’s just gamesmanship. Getting an edge. You play to win the game.
That softball team I played for was incredibly good. (An underhanded knuckleball!) And the Houston Astros the last few years have been incredibly good, with a roster full of MVPs and future hall of famers.
I know it’s a naive way of thinking, but what ever happened to winning the game by simply being better than your opponent?
(This story originally appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin.)