How did the Aaron Judge sign-stealing dialogue miss the fact that no one did anything illegal?

Aaron Judge was the first person — well, the first person affiliated with a Major League Baseball team — to use the word “cheating” in the wake of his side-eye seen ’round the sport.

The Blue Jays broadcasters, Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez, did not accuse him of cheating on Monday. They did explicitly discuss the likelihood that he was peeking at the catcher’s setup behind him, a practice that is uniformly recognized to be against an unwritten rule, and deemed it implausible based on the angle. They referenced the idea of allegations about something and certainly implied a level of intent to Judge’s glance. But the leap to something illegal happened once their comments — and the skillful camerawork — entered the public discourse.

Blue Jays manager John Schneider called it “odd” and doubled down on the interpretation that Judge was looking somewhere “for a reason.”

Meanwhile, Judge was chalking it up to checking on his teammates in the dugout, looking to see who was still chirping at the home plate umpire after manager Aaron Boone was ejected. That might’ve been the least truthful thing anyone said about the situation.

The next day, having presumably seen the broadcast clip and perhaps even having been exposed to the least flattering interpretation, Judge was frustrated. “Especially with the things that have happened in this game with cheating and stuff, to get that thrown out, I’m not happy about it,” he told reporters.

OK, now he has a point, especially with the “things that have happened in this game.”

“Nothing that went on last night was against the rules,” Boone said. And since we’re parsing implications, he didn’t say that nothing went on — just that the goings-on were legal. This was backed up by reports that MLB would not be investigating.

Then, during Tuesday’s game, both teams in the roiling rivalry took issue with where the opposition’s base coaches were standing. As you know from looking at a baseball field, there are three-sided rectangles painted on the grass along each line. As you have no doubt noticed, base coaches tend to stand anywhere but in those boxes with impunity.

On Wednesday, Blue Jays reliever Jay Jackson, the pitcher who was about to begin his windup when Judge glanced away from the mound, spoke to Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic about how he had been tipping his pitches — both with his own motion and by leaving his grip visible behind his glove to the Yankees’ first-base coach. Judge, then, would’ve been looking for his coach’s indication of what was coming, an explanation corroborated by Blue Jay sources and consistent with what was observed.

Crucially, as Rosenthal went on to explain, an on-field coach or baserunner deciphering and relaying pitch information to the batter is explicitly legal.

So. Let’s assume that’s what it was: From a spot on the field that was not strictly within the confines of the base-coach box but perhaps not wildly out of line with where base coaches actually stand, Yankees first-base coach Travis Chapman could see Jackson’s grip on the ball and infer what pitch was coming. He devised some sort of signal to convey that information to Judge, who had a split-second between when the grip was settled and when the ball was released to surreptitiously glance over, interpret the signal and plan accordingly.

In this scenario, the batting team would like to retain this legal edge for as long as possible and so must deploy it covertly. It is a crucial but subtle part of what’s happening on the field. Professional baseball observers, with the aid of super slow-mo cameras, notice something unusual — a flare or a footprint or a ripple in a pond that represents action elsewhere, the tip of a scheme they suspect is contributing to how the game is playing out.

In presenting what they know, the broadcasters kick off a firestorm of accusations and counter-accusations about what they are assumed to be accusing. Articles about what occurred on the broadcast say that it implied Aaron Judge was cheating. Defenders of Judge provide exculpatory evidence to clear him of crimes no one has specifically raised; for instance, the Blue Jays’ use of PitchCom would’ve made it impossible to steal signs put down by the catcher. In an effort to defend himself against charges never formally brought, Judge offers an obvious lie.

This is all very dumb.

I’m not naive to what underpins all the suspicion and worst-case interpretations. When the Houston Astros’ elaborate, electronic and illegal sign-stealing scheme was revealed, years after it might or might not have helped them win a World Series, it was a bombshell to baseball, with shrapnel hitting high-profile teams who might or might not have gotten off too easy for things that might or might not have been as bad. (But, as far as we know, were not.) The Yankees are the highest-profile team in the sport. The Yankees’ captain, coming off an AL MVP season, a historic home run chase and a $360 million contract, is the highest of high.

But the acute attention to pitch-information-obtainment incited by the Astros scandal should not be a reason to erase all nuance within the issue. How did we, as a baseball viewing population, come away from years of detailed reporting about sign stealing able to understand it only as a binary and a bad thing?

Judge was right to assume that fans would paint with a broad brush that tarnishes anyone included in the same sentence as “sign stealing,” but he did the conversation no favors by offering a flimsy alibi, which crumpled under the obvious next step of talking to anyone else involved. And it’s not like the Blue Jays were placated by his explanation, anyway.

This could’ve been a fascinating, real-time opportunity to broaden our understanding of the various games-within-the-game, deepen our appreciation of every incremental advantage teams seek, marvel at the intricacies of every at-bat and the intensity of competition pulsating in every corner of the playing field. This is a part of baseball, a sport increasingly about strategy as much as it is about athletics.

I don’t really understand how the discourse got so far down the rabbit hole without taking into account whether any of what happened was actually against the rules. I have to think it stems from the maddening tendency these days to approach any conversation as a battleground and to hear everything as either an avowal of being on the same side or an attack. Wondering what Judge was looking at is not the same thing as implying that he was doing anything wrong (even if it comes from the opposing broadcast).

Ultimately, this kerfuffle will end up as fodder for a rivalry with real baseball stakes, which is fine. It adds a little extra intrigue to an already pressure-packed American League East. Judge should start rolling his eyes in the middle of every at-bat; inducing paranoia is a type of strategy, too.

But we can let the intrigue be born out of interest and insight, not outrage.

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