The Boston Red Sox are under investigation by Major League Baseball for allegedly using the Apple Watch to help them steal signs from opposing catchers, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
According to the story, the rival New York Yankees caught evidence of the scheme on video following a series against the Red Sox in Fenway Park last month and sent it to the commissioner’s office two weeks ago. It seems Red Sox personnel watching the catcher’s hand signals on video were using Apple’s smartwatch to quickly convey information about those signs to trainers in the dugout, who could then pass it on to players on the field. The Red Sox apparently ’fessed up when confronted by the commissioner’s office—then retaliated with a complaint alleging that the Yankees have been using a special TV camera to steal signs at their own home park.
Stealing signs—which, if done properly, tips off the batter to the type of pitch he’s about to face—is a time-honored ploy in baseball. And it’s actually not against the rules, provided it’s done without the aid of any technological tools, probably because it’s so hard to pull off. Using binoculars, video cameras, or other electronic devices to steal signs, however, is officially prohibited.
If true, the story may be another smudge to the reputation of Boston’s pro sports franchises. But it’s something of a PR coup for Apple, which has struggled to convince consumers of the Watch’s utility. The (presumably) unplanned advertisement comes exactly one week ahead of an Apple launch event that many expect to include a new Apple Watch—one that might finally receive cellular data without being tethered to an iPhone.
When Apple first announced the watch three years ago, the company made it look like the next great mobile computing device—a retrofuturistic, Dick Tracy–esque gizmo that would let you check email and send messages from the convenience of your wrist. But to the extent the device has caught on, users have tended to find it handy mostly as a fitness tracker that happens to have some additional bells and whistles. When Apple launched its second version of the watch last fall, it embraced that reinterpretation. And Men’s Health magazine this week ran an in-depth feature story on a “secret exercise lab” at Apple headquarters where the company puts employees through workouts to gather fine-grained fitness data and test new features.
Professional athletes using the watch to gain a competitive advantage might seem to be in keeping with the device’s new image. In a funny way, though, the Red Sox’s sign-stealing shenanigans are actually a perfect illustration of the sort of Watch functionality that Apple originally had in mind. The baseball dugout, it turns out, is just the sort of place where one might want to check some basic yet vital information via a subtle glance at the wrist, rather than by conspicuously pulling a phone out of one’s pocket.
On the other hand, if it took two years, baseball’s greatest rivalry, and a network of unscrupulous ballplayers to uncover the Apple Watch’s ideal use case as a communications device, perhaps it’s not such a killer app after all. Especially since, you know, they still got caught.