World Series viewing turning into a participation sport

Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. says he wasn’t tipping pitches during his Game 3 five-homer meltdown in the World Series. The internet disagreed.

Advantage, internet.

We may never know exactly what Phillies slugger Bryce Harper told Alec Bohm when he called the third baseman back toward the dugout and whispered a few words in his ear, but internet sleuths were happy to fill the void, with ‘whodunit-style’ videos popping up immediately. They dissected everything from McCullers’ leg kick, to the direction his feet were pointing, to where he was holding his glove during his delivery.

(Example: McCullers’ leg is two millimeters higher that it was on the previous pitch. That’s gotta be a changeup!)

Welcome to sports viewing in 2022.

That’s not to say the new world of enjoying sports on the couch is necessarily bad, or even all that new. It’s just become even more of a participation event. Professional golf has gone through its own mini-crises over the past decade because TV viewers call in potential rules violations that PGA officials didn’t catch.

Legal online live-betting — available in a large chunk of the U.S. — has created another incentive to decipher any in-game trends. Bettors can wager on anything from the speed of the next pitch, to the outcome of the next at-bat, to the amount of pitches thrown in an inning.

The lulls and relatively slow pace of both golf and baseball make them ripe targets for online, real-time detective work. The McCullers fiasco wasn’t even the first controversial case in this year’s World Series. In Game 2, the internet noticed that Astros starter Framber Valdez was making odd hand motions, rubbing his left thumb across his right hand, then rubbing the ball between pitches.

How did the Phillies find out the potential problem?

I’ll give you one guess.

“Yeah, we did … it’s all over Twitter,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “The umpires check these guys after almost every inning, and if there’s something going on, MLB will take care of it.”

Valdez made a good point: If he was cheating, he certainly wasn’t being very careful.

“I do it out in the open,” Valdez said via a translator. “But it’s all tendencies I do. I do it throughout the game. Maybe distract the hitter a little bit from what I’m doing. Like maybe look at me, rubbing different things, and nothing about the pitch that I’m going to throw. I’ve been doing it all season.”

It makes sense that the Astros — who now have a 3-2 lead as the World Series moves back to Houston — would be a highly sought target for baseball’s internet police. The franchise’s video sign-stealing scandal from 2017 still lingers, even though only five players remain on the team from that roster.

In retrospect, it’s kind of hard to believe those same online sheriffs didn’t catch those 2017 Astros in real time. Banging trash cans usually makes a lot of noise.

The evolution of sports viewing makes for some interesting thought exercises when it comes to baseball’s storied history. Can you imagine Twitter existing in 1985? Umpire Don Denkinger’s call at first base in Game 6, helping the Royals beat the Cardinals, might have broken the internet.

What about potential fan-angle phone videos of the Steve Bartman incident in 2003, when the Cubs fan famously got in the way of Moises Alou when he tried to make a catch near the wall in the NLCS? Or in 1996, when young fan Jeffrey Maier appeared to interfere with a fly ball that was ruled a homer for Yankees star Derek Jeter?

Surely, Twitter would have taken those events in stride. (Insert eye roll emoji.)

As for McCullers, it was never definitively proven he was tipping his pitches when he gave up his five homers to the Phillies in Game 3. Even one of the sport’s most respected internet sleuths — JomboyMedia — couldn’t find a smoking gun.

“Guys are always looking for something, always looking to see if they’re tipping their pitches,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We didn’t see anything.”

But once the internet has decided something, it’s hard to change its mind.

“I got whooped. End of story,” McCullers said in the aftermath of Game 3. “This has nothing to do with tipping.”

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AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum and AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken contributed to this report.

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