Yvonne Abraham

Stealing signs and heroes

The River Ridge, La., team took a selfie after winning the Little League World Series Championship last August.
Tom E. Puskar/Associated Press/File 2019
The River Ridge, La., team took a selfie after winning the Little League World Series Championship last August.

It’s Little League registration time, when the fancies of shivering, cooped-up kids lightly turn to thoughts of green fields and grand slams.

This year, the path from January snow to April sunshine passes through yet another episode of “Professional athletes are definitely not your best role models.”

The latest installment in this eleventy-part series is brought to you, fittingly enough, by Major League Baseball — specifically, by the Houston Astros and our own Red Sox, both of which were, it clearly seems, helped on the way to championship glory by cheaters.


On Monday, an MLB report confirmed a sign-stealing scheme first uncovered by The Athletic: In 2017, the year they won the World Series, the Astros were using an on-field camera to monitor catchers’ signs and banging on trash cans to relay them to hitters. The league is still investigating whether the 2018 champion Red Sox used video feeds to steal signs during games, after having already been fined for doing so in 2017.

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The common factor on both teams was beloved Red Sox manager Alex Cora, named as one of the scheme’s architects in Houston. That would be the same good guy Cora who signed on with the Red Sox only after they agreed to deliver relief supplies to his native Puerto Rico, ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

Et tu Alex?

And, because this whole cheating thing isn’t dispiriting enough on its own, some sports fans have been calling one of the guys who finally blew the whistle on the sign-stealing — former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers — a snitch.

Blech. How do we explain this one to our kids?


For years, my 12-year-old and his teammates have heard their coaches and parents droning on about sportsmanship, and the absolute necessity of respecting their teammates and opponents, their coaches and umpires. No taunting, no nastiness in the dugout, no chants while the pitcher is winding up, no rule-bending of any kind. Baseball is life, it’s how you play the game, and so on.

As he’s gotten older, it has been harder to hide from him the fact that we demand more in the way of honor from 11- and 12-year-olds than we get from many of the guys paid obscene amounts of money to play the games they love.

Not so long ago, my son would get obsessed with a certain catcher or point guard, and I’d do a search to see if that month’s hero had beaten his wife, cheated to win, juiced his way into the record books. Just to prep myself for the hard conversation after the inevitable question: “Is he a nice person?”

But the kid can Google it all for himself now, puncture his own illusions. Cora — leveraging his status to help people a lot of Americans (including the president) would rather forget — seemed like safe bet, as far as role models go. Tap, tap, click. Another one bites the dust.

Not that youth sport is some utopia: Plenty of kids, and grown-ups, fail to live up to those guidelines that appear in our inboxes at the start of every season. All of us have seen or heard about taunts and bullying in dugouts, parents who scream abuse at kids and each other on the sidelines, brutal coaches who seem determined to relive their youthful glory days, their charges walking off the field in tears.


Little League even had its own sign-stealing controversy last year, as a New Hampshire team accused a World Series-bound team from Rhode Island of communicating catchers’ signs to hitters (the Rhode Island team denied the allegations).

But great coaches, like Swampscott’s Al Pica, press gamely forward, drumming it into players that the game is about something much bigger than wins.

“They’re so impressionable at that age,” said Pica. “We’re not there to groom the next Mookie Betts. We’re trying to instruct, to provide a community service, to teach them the game, but also life lessons.”

Pica, who happens to have coached my kid, is all about fairness, and perspective: I’ve seen him agree to call a game his team might have won because his kids were tired and upset. If the Major League sign-stealing scandal comes up, he’ll tell this year’s players that “just because you hear people say everybody cheats and tries to get an edge doesn’t mean that’s how we will conduct ourselves on this team.”

There are other lessons in the scandal, too. The fact that Cora and two Astros officials were quickly parted from their employers once the report came out shows actions have consequences. Though not all actions: None of the current players who clearly willingly participated in the schemes will face penalties.

That’s a lesson, too, and a hard one: Sometimes, cheaters really do win.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.