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Baseball Buys In on the Digital Age. But at What Cost?

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Baseball and technology have always made for wary partners.

For a five-year span in the 1930s, as radio became more popular, all three New York teams — the Yankees, Giants and Dodgers — banned live play-by-play of their games because they feared the new medium would reduce attendance. When the Chicago Cubs added lights to Wrigley Field in 1988, allowing them to walk away from generations of games played exclusively during the day, fans were up in arms. When electronic calls of balls and strikes were proposed, it was the umpires’ turn to complain.

Other sports may change, but baseball, by and large, has made a business of staying the same.

With the installation of limited instant replay in 2008, and with replay’s expansion in 2014, the game tentatively stepped into the Digital Age. But adding cameras in every ballpark and video monitors in every clubhouse opened the door to an unintended consequence: electronic cheating.

The 2017 Houston Astros brazenly stepped through that door, developing an elaborate sign-stealing system that helped them win a World Series. Two years later, when that system was revealed to the public, it resulted in firings, suspensions and, ultimately, the permanent tarnishing of a championship.

Nothing spurs action in baseball faster than a scandal — the commissioner’s office was created, after all, as baseball dealt with the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season, Major League Baseball took a big leap forward in distancing itself from the stain of sign stealing with the introduction of PitchCom, a device controlled by a catcher that allows him to wordlessly communicate with the pitcher about what pitch is coming — information that is simultaneously shared with as many as three other players on the field through earpieces in the bands of their caps.

The idea is simple enough: If baseball can eliminate old-fashioned pitch-calling, in which the catcher flashes signs to the pitcher with his fingers, it will be harder for other teams to steal those signs. There have been a few hiccups, with devices not operating, or pitchers not being able to hear, but so far this season, everyone in baseball seems to agree that PitchCom, like it or not, is working.

Carlos Correa, a shortstop for the Minnesota Twins who has long served as the unofficial, and unapologetic, spokesman of those 2017 Astros, went as far as saying that the tool would have foiled his old team’s systemic cheating.

“I think so,” Correa said. “Because there are no signs now.”

Yet not all pitchers are on board.

Max Scherzer, the ace of the New York Mets and baseball’s highest-paid player this season, sampled PitchCom for the first time late last month in a game against the Yankees and emerged with conflicting thoughts.

“It works,” he said. “Does it help? Yes. But I also think it should be illegal.”

Scherzer went so far as to suggest that the game would be losing something by eliminating sign stealing.

“It’s part of baseball, trying to crack someone’s signs,” Scherzer said. “Does it have its desired intent that it cleans up the game a little bit?” he said of PitchCom. “Yes. But I also feel like it takes away part of the game.”

Scherzer’s comments elicited a mixed reaction from his peers. Seattle reliever Paul Sewald called them “a little naïve” and “a bit hypocritical.” The Minnesota starter Sonny Gray said he agreed with Scherzer in theory, “but my rebuttal would be when you’re doing sign-sequences when a runner is on second base, you have teams who have it on video and break it down as the game goes on.”

Continuing his skepticism, Sewald said of Scherzer: “I have a very good feeling that he’s been on a team or two that steals signs.”

Whether true or not, Sewald’s suggestion was representative of what many in the game generally believe: Multiple managers say there are clubs who use a dozen or more staff members to study video and swipe signs. Because it is done in secrecy, there also is a leaguewide paranoia that has developed, with even the innocent now presumed guilty.

“I think we’re all aware of that,” Colorado Manager Bud Black said. “We’re aware that there are front offices who have more manpower than others.”

The belief that sign stealing is rampant has led to widespread use of PitchCom, perhaps faster than many imagined. And that is welcome news to Major League Baseball’s top executives.

“It’s optional, and probably the best evidence is that all 30 clubs are using it now,” said Morgan Sword, M.L.B.’s executive vice president for baseball operations. “It eliminates a significant issue for the game in sign stealing. But, secondly, it has actually sped the game up a little bit. Without the need to run through multiple sets of signs with runners on base, the pace has improved.”

So the question becomes, what is lost to achieve those gains?

While code breaking is as old as sport itself, the intrusion of tech into what for more than a century had been a languid, pastoral game has precipitated an intense culture clash. Sign stealing has always been accepted by those who play, as long as it is committed by someone on the field. But hackles are immediately raised — and the unwritten (and now written) rules of the game are broken — when technology is used as an aid in real time.

Drawing clear lines is important in an era where computer programs are so sophisticated that algorithms can reveal whether a pitcher is about to throw a fastball or a slider simply by the way he is holding his glove.

“It’s when you’re using people who aren’t playing the game to gain an advantage, for me, at least personally, I have a problem with that,” San Diego Manager Bob Melvin said.

Most agree there is a fine line between technology improving the current product and, ultimately, changing its integrity. Getting them to agree on where exactly that line is drawn is a different matter.

“I wish there was no video technology or anything,” Yankees second baseman D.J. LeMahieu said.

Sword says that PitchCom was an example of technology’s ability to “produce a version of baseball that looks more like it looked a couple of decades ago” because it “neutralizes a recent threat.”

“I think it’s just the way the world is going,” Black said. “And we’re part of the world.”

And more tech is coming. On deck is a pitch clock that is being tested in the minor leagues that, according to Sword, has been “extremely promising” in achieving its intended goal: shortening games. It is expected to be implemented in the majors soon, and pitchers will have to deliver a pitch within a set amount of time — at Class AAA, a pitch must be thrown within 14 seconds when nobody is on base and within 19 seconds when a runner is aboard.

Generally speaking, pitchers are less enthusiastic about pitch clocks than they are about PitchCom.

“Ninety percent of baseball is the anticipation that something really cool is about to happen, and you have flashes of really cool things happening,” said Daniel Bard, the closer of the Colorado Rockies. “But you don’t know when they’re about to come, you don’t know on which pitch it’s happening. Especially in the ninth inning of a close game, with everyone on the edge of their seat, you want to rush through that? There’s a lot of good things in life that you don’t want to rush through. You enjoy. You savor. To me, one is the end of a ballgame.”

The most radical change, though, might be the Automated Strike Zone — robot umpires, in common parlance. Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this summer that he hoped to have such a system in place by 2024. Automated calls are anathema to umpires, who feel it infringes on their judgment, and to catchers who specialize in pitch framing — the art of receiving a pitch and displaying it as if it was in the strike zone, even if it wasn’t.

“I don’t think that should happen,” said Yankees catcher Jose Trevino, perhaps the game’s finest pitch-framer. “There’s a lot of guys who have gone through this game and a lot of guys from the past that have made a living off of catching, being a good game-caller, being a good defensive catcher.”

With the so-called robot umpires, Trevino said, a skill so many catchers have worked so hard to master will become useless.

“You’re just going to be back there blocking and throwing and calling the game,” he said, adding that it could affect the financial earning power of some catchers.

But that argument is for another day. PitchCom is this year’s new toy and, beyond the obvious, it is smoothing things in unexpected areas. It can be programmed for any language, so it bridges barriers between pitchers and catchers. And, as Bard said: “My eyes aren’t great. I can glare at the signs, but it just makes it easier to just put the sign right in my ear.”

Opinions will always vary, but the one thing everyone agrees on is that the tech invasion will continue.

“It will keep going,” Correa said. “Pretty soon, we will have robots playing shortstop.”

James Wagner and Gary Phillips contributed reporting.

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Rangers blow another multi-goal lead in alarming loss to Devils

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Devils fans showed up in numbers to Madison Square Garden on Monday night to see it. 

Their flourishing, Metropolitan-leading Devils marched into enemy territory, winners of 15 of their last 16 games, to take on the slipping Rangers in a battle for power after years of simmering in their shadow. Their team did not disappoint, but the Rangers did, as they allowed another multi-goal lead to vanish in an alarm-bell-sounding 5-3 loss — their third in a row. 

The Rangers had won nine of their last 10 games against the Devils dating back to March 4, 2021, and had gone 14-6 since 2018-19. This was a Devils team that the Rangers finished 47 points ahead of last season, when they reached the Eastern Conference final while their counterparts across the Hudson watched the postseason from afar for a fourth straight year. 

Two things are for certain after this game: The Devils are no joke and the Rangers are in a predicament. 

The Devils rallied from two goals down to beat the Rangers on Monday.
Robert Sabo

“We’ve got to turn it around,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “Tonight was a good night to try and turn it around with the team that we were playing: a young team but they play hard, they play fast. I wouldn’t say that they’re the surprise team of the year, but they look really good and they play hard. 

“[Devils head coach] Lindy [Ruff] has done a good job with that team. They’ve got a lot of confidence and they’re playing the right way.” 

It’s not just the Rangers’ turnovers, which there have been plenty of in recent games, but how those mistakes always seem to end up in the back of the net one way or another. The Rangers are paying for it almost every time. That may be a testament to some bad puck luck, but also to goalie Igor Shesterkin’s drop-off from supernatural goaltender to just a good goaltender. 

Rangers
Devils center Michael McLeod (20) reacts after he rebounds the puck and scores a goal pass New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin.
Robert Sabo

Shesterkin put all of the blame on himself after the loss, saying that he played “a s–t game” and that he’s “ashamed.” The Russian netminder stopped 33 of the 37 shots he faced, but it’s the goals the reigning Vezina Trophy-winner never surrendered last season that are likely weighing on his mind. 

“Every goal is [an] easy play for me,” he said without the help of translator. “I have to stop those. If our team wants to win the game, I have to play better.” 

The Rangers blew their second multi-goal lead in as many games, but it all went down in the opening 20 minutes instead of the final frame — as was the case in their third-period collapse against the Oilers on Saturday. 

After Artemi Panarin snapped a 12-game streak without a goal off an odd-man rush with Filip Chytil less than a minute and a half into the game, Devils goalie Vitek Vanecek fumbled a Jacob Trouba shot and Mika Zibanejad jammed home the rebound to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead roughly three minutes after the initial puck dropped. 

A two-goal deficit didn’t faze the Devils in the slightest. Their confidence with the puck never wavered, and the visitors finessed their way back into the game even before the first period ended on goals from Tomas Tatar and Yegor Sharangovich. 

Rangers
Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin (10) celebrates with Rangers center Filip Chytill after he scores a goal.
Robert Sabo

Fans in red chirped their signature ‘Woo’s!’, which multiply when a game is leaning heavily in their favor, as their team ripped the game away from the Rangers. 

“It feels great to beat the Rangers,” Devils captain Nico Hischier told reporters. 

It wasn’t until there was 6:42 left in regulation that Vincent Trocheck made it a one-goal game for the Rangers, who failed to capitalize on any of their four man-advantage opportunities in the final 20 minutes. The Devils still closed them out — with Sharangovich adding an empty-netter for good measure — despite getting outshot 17-5 in the final frame. 

There was a shift that unfolded on the Garden ice Monday night. The Rangers were on the wrong end of it.

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Joe Harris provides Nets with Kevin Durant backup in win over Magic

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The Nets have gotten huge nights from Kevin Durant before this season. 

This time, they didn’t squander it and pulled out a 109-102 escape against woebegone Orlando before a crowd of 15,704 at Barclays Center that serenaded Durant with chants of ‘M-V-P!’ 

And who was to argue? Certainly not the Magic, beaten by his brilliance and machine-like efficiency. 

Durant poured in a season-high 45 points Monday, doing it on 19-for-24 shooting. But after the Nets had lost his two 37-point outings against Memphis and Dallas, this time they got some timely stops and a breakout from struggling Joe Harris. 

“Just keep playing within the flow, because — respectfully — I feel like I’m always on. I feel like I always, even if I’m not making shots that night, I feel like my jump shot is always sharp,” Durant said. “So I just got to see how the game has been played, see how the defense is being played, what my teammates are doing as well. It’s a lot to think about out there, but it’s a fun mental game that I play.” 

Durant out-thought and outwitted Orlando (5-16) all night. 

Joe Harris came into Monday night ice cold, but broke out to the tune of a season-high 17 points against the Magic.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST Photo

Kyrie Irving added 20 points, and Nic Claxton had 17 with 13 rebounds. But the biggest help may have come from Harris, who’d been mired in an awful 3-for-24 shooting skid the prior four games but broke out with 17 points. 

All were left suitably awed by Durant — not for the first time. 

“Oh yeah, all the time,” Irving said. “All the time. I think it’s a natural reaction when you’re seeing something special occur in front of you. You do your best to still be engaged, but it’s hard not to just stare and just watch somebody that special and talented. We know what he’s capable of, but when he shows his talent … it’s definitely an honor to be a part of. Grateful to be his teammate. 

“Super efficient, bailing us out a lot of times on possessions. And when he’s got it going like that, we don’t want to force him the ball, but we definitely want to let him work. … I feel like we still could do more as teammates, but he carried us.” 

The Nets trailed by double digits, down 28-18 with 3:14 left in the first on a 3-pointer by spindly Bol Bol. But they clawed back into it, leading by one at the break. 

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) drives against Orlando Magic forward Franz Wagner
The Nets didn’t let Kevin Durant go at it alone against Orlando.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST Photo

Durant poured in 19 points in a third quarter that saw the Nets outscore the Magic 35-25, shooting 60 percent and 5 of 9 from behind the arc. 

“That’s not my first time, it won’t be my last. He’s arguably the best player in the world. Brings it night in and night out, competes on both ends. And [this] was special performance,” said Harris. 

Trailing 53-52 after a Gary Harris finger roll, Durant edged the Nets ahead. 

The Nets were clinging to a 77-76 lead with 2:53 left in the third, before Durant punctuated a 10-0 run. His midrange pull-up padded the cushion to 11 with 38 seconds left in the third, and they managed to hold Orlando at bay in the fourth to reach 11-11 on the season. 

“We got so close and we ended up falling two games under .500,” Durant said. “So just wanted to … it’s a little milestone we wanted to achieve in the early season, and definitely was motivated to come out here on our home floor and get back to .500. 

“Every game we play at home is so important because we want to keep our friends engaged and keep them supporting us through just having a good product out on the court, which is playing hard, playing together. We want guys to feel comfortable in our home arena when they take shots. So it’s a lot on the line when we play at home. And we want to take advantage of those opportunities.”

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Igor Shesterkin ashamed of his play in latest Rangers loss: ‘S–t game again’

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The Rangers’ mistakes have been costly — exasperating even — given the fact that they aren’t getting the same otherworldly saves from Igor Shesterkin as they did a season ago.

There’s no question the Russian netminder is still at the heart of this team, but it is not to the degree that it was during his Vezina Trophy-winning season of 2021-22. Such has been apparent for much of the Rangers’ start to the season, and even more so in their disheartening 5-3 loss to the scalding Devils, who erased a two-goal deficit and hung four goals on Shesterkin to pick up their 16th win in their last 17 games.

“The goalie played a s–t game again,” Shesterkin said, referring to himself, without the help of a translator. “I’m ashamed.”

Devils fans in attendance Monday night at Madison Square Garden even felt confident enough to taunt Shesterkin, echoing his name throughout the lower bowl as he gave up three goals on 15 shots at one point before ultimately allowing four on 37. Shesterkin insinuated that he felt he should’ve had every goal he yielded, saying they were “easy plays for me.”

The Devils’ Jack Hughes scores a goal past New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin.
Robert Sabo

“I feel so bad,” Shesterkin said. “I’m playing so bad, so I’m ashamed. If our team wants to win the game, I have to play better.”

This is a player who is not only the reigning goalie of the year, but a Hart Trophy finalist from last season. If the Rangers can’t get the same results without Shesterkin playing up to those standards, it could be detrimental for the club.

Gerard Gallant and the rest of the Rangers obviously aren’t letting Shesterkin take all of the heat — especially after how important he was to all their success last season. When asked if he sees Shesterkin as part of the Rangers’ problem, the Rangers head coach assumed the blame on the entire team.

“The team is the problem,” he said bluntly. “The whole group of us. Coaches, the whole group. We’ve got to turn it around.”

Rangers
Devils center Michael McLeod (20) scores a goal past New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin.
Robert Sabo

The Rangers lined up against the Devils the same way as they did in practice on Sunday, with Jimmy Vesey slotting back onto the top line alongside Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. Filip Chytil stepped in as the No. 2 center next to Artemi Panarin with Kaapo Kakko on the right side.

Vincent Trocheck dropped down to the third line in between Alexis Lafreniere and Barclay Goodrow, while the fourth line of Sammy Blais, Ryan Carpenter and Julien Gauthier remained intact.

The only change on defense was, once again, Zac Jones replacing Libor Hajek on the left side of the bottom pair next to Braden Schneider. The two young blueliners have alternated the last three games.

Vitali Kravtsov was also scratched for the eighth consecutive game. The Russian winger hasn’t played in 18 days, partially due to the tooth infection/stomach bug that came about after his last appearance on Nov. 10 in Detroit.


The Devils were without Nathan Bastian, who was knocked out of the team’s previous game against the Capitals in the first period after absorbing a hard hit from T.J. Oshie. The 24-year-old winger sustained an upper-body injury and was sidelined for just the second game this season.

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