Category Archives: Sign stealing

Baseball Order of the Day: Have a Long Memory and Skip to My Lou

There is something beautiful about the mind of a ballplayer. For all the flak they might get for being dumb jocks, these guys occasionally flash steel traps the likes of which would make an elephant proud.

Case in point: Jose Bautista. On Sunday, not only did he recall years-old bad blood with Orioles pitcher Darren O’Day, but he remembered exactly what happened and how it played out.

On June 21, 2013, O’Day struck out Bautista to end an inning, then skipped his way toward the dugout.

On Sunday, Bautista homered off of O’Day, then skipped his way toward first base. (It didn’t hurt that O’Day threw a pitch behind him earlier in the game.)

These two have history:

  • After O’Day struck out Bautista in 2013, the two exchanged words on their ways off the field. (Examine the video here.)
  • That same series, Bautista went deep against O’Day, then shouted at him as he rounded the bases.
  • Last year O’Day drilled Bautista, ostensibly as retaliation for an earlier incident in which Marcus Stroman threw a ball over the head of Caleb Joseph.

“Emotion, the moment, there’s history there,” Bautista said in an report. “He’s hit me a few times, he’s thrown behind me a few times and I’ve gotten him a few times.”

It’s merely the latest in a litany of stories involving long ballplayer memories, from Billy North decking Doug Bird in response to being beaned by the guy several years earlier in the minor leagues, to Bob Gibson drilling Pete LaCock in an old-timers’ game because he never got the chance to do it when he was still active. Today, however, we look at an incident from the playing career of Chuck Tanner.

It started in 1955, when Tanner was a rookie outfielder with the Braves. He was on first base against the Phillies one day when Philadelphia second baseman Granny Hamner low-bridged him—throwing a relay to first base at the runner’s chin level, forcing him to the ground before he reached the base—in the course of turning a double play. As Tanner lay in the dirt, Hamner walked past. “Hey kid, this is the big leagues,” he said dismissively.

Fast forward a couple seasons. Tanner is traded to the Cubs. Again he finds himself on first base against Philadelphia. A double-play ball is hit to Phillies shortstop Chico Fernandez, who feeds Hamner for the relay. This time, however, the second baseman bobbles the ball, giving Tanner all the opening he needs. Tanner hits him high even as he throws his spikes into Hamner’s knee, knocking him backward toward center field.

That night, Tanner was out to eat when Hamner approached and offered to buy him a beer. “You know, Chuck, when you hit me I remembered what I said to you when you were a rookie,” he said.

Two years later, Tanner was sold to Cleveland—whose utility infielder was a guy named Granny Hamner. Tanner takes it from here himself:

“I go in the clubhouse. We had Granny, Johnny Temple, Billy Martin, Vic Power, Jimmy Piersall—a bunch of tough guys. I walk in the door, he sees me and I said, ‘Hi, Granny.’ He said to the guys, ‘Hey, be nice to that guy. He never forgets.’ They all laughed when he told them what happened. It took me a couple of years, but I never forgot it.

“That’s the game. That’s the way the game is.”

[Gif via Deadspin]

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Filed under Baltimore Orioles, Retaliation, Toronto Blue Jays

On the Radio: Who Needs Signs When One Has Bluetooth?

Billy MartinIn his ESPN column on Sunday, Buster Olney discussed a proposal to speed up play: outfitting players and managers with earpieces and microphones, obviating the need for signs:

If pitchers, catchers and infielders worked with wireless earpieces — say, the size of a hearing aid — and catchers could speak a code word into a microphone inserted into the heel of their gloves, rather than giving signs, then the issue of having a runner at second base would be circumvented. Pitchers could hear a sign, and if they wanted something different, they could shake it off, as they do now.

Similarly, managers could communicate with their catchers in this way, and perhaps coaches at third and first base could speak to baserunners. This would greatly reduce the need for mound conferences between players, and in turn, it would improve pace of play.

An interesting idea, but not exactly new territory. From The Baseball Codes:

While managing the Texas Rangers in 1974, Billy Mar­tin came up with what he felt was a surefire way to safeguard his signals— he installed a transmitter in the dugout that broadcast his orders to earpiece receivers worn by each of his base coaches, eliminating signs entirely. Such technology has since been outlawed, but even then it wasn’t always useful. With a runner on third and Cesar Tovar at the plate against the Red Sox, for example, Martin told third-base coach Frank Lucchesi to give the suicide-squeeze sign. The transmission was fuzzy, however, and Lucchesi couldn’t make out Martin’s order.

“Billy says, ‘suicide squeeze,’ ” recalled Rangers catcher Jim Sund­berg, “and Frank hits his ear like he can’t hear Billy’s command. Billy says it a little bit louder: ‘Suicide squeeze.’ And Frank’s tapping his ear again and shaking his head like he can’t hear.” Finally, Martin yelled into the microphone, “Suicide squeeze!” It didn’t matter; Lucchesi couldn’t hear a word. Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, however, could. He stepped off the mound, looked at Lucchesi, and said, “Frank, Billy said he wants the sui­cide squeeze.”

Sign decoding is a high art, and men like Joe Nossek, while unknown to most of the baseball world, are revered for their abilities in that arena. For all the potential benefits of going to an electronic system, such a move would deprive baseball of one of its most fascinating (if checkered) facets. Worth it? Who knows. Regrettable on many levels? Undeniably.

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Everybody Needs Somebody, Even in the Center Field Bleachers: Victor Martinez, Chris Sale is Looking at You

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Stealing an opponent’s signs from the basepaths won’t exactly be met with a smile and warm handshake, but neither will it elicit too many bad feelings—especially if the thief knocks it off once the jig is up.

Nipping them from beyond the field of play via spyglass or binoculars, however …well, that’ll get ’em every time.

On Wednesday it sure did. Chicago’s Chris Sale appeared in every way to be convinced that something was happening beyond the center field wall at Comerica Park. During the course of the game he pointed toward center field in anger and he pantomimed binoculars from the bench and, most notably to the would-be beneficiary of allegedly stolen signs, he drilled Victor Martinez to fully express his dissatisfaction with the situation.

In the cases of hitters being drilled for perceived slights (“I don’t like how you flipped your bat after that home run”), critics of such old-school retaliation are standing on solid ground. This, though, is different. If Sale was correct, Martinez and his team were benefitting at Sale’s expense via shady and illegal practices that would otherwise be beyond discipline. Sale wasn’t talking afterward, but a well-placed fastball is the time-tested and very effective behavior-correction method of choice.

Some pertinent details: Martinez is hitting .517 with three homers in 29 career at-bats against Sale (including a .647 mark in 17 at-bats in 2013). Nobody who has faced the left-hander that much has done better. But those numbers are home and road both, and it’s a safe assumption that Martinez is not getting signs from the stands on the road, at least on a regular basis. (Oh, what a story it would be if he was.) Still, when the pitcher at the wrong end of those numbers is a perennial Cy Young contender, it’s easy to see how he might think something is up.

The thing is, Sale went 1-0 with a 1.88 ERA in two starts at Comerica Park last season, and this year struck out 10 while giving up one run in six innings in his only start there. So it’s clearly not a team-wide thing that has the guy riled. And, frankly, team-wide things are pretty much all that’s on the public record when it comes to this kind of activity.

In May, the Braves all but accused the Marlins of signaling hitters via their scoreboard. In 2011, the Yankees said that the Blue Jays were doing it from the Rogers Centre … and so did the Red Sox … and the Orioles. Whatever came of it? Not a whole lot. Even with damning evidence, when Phillies coach Mick Billmeyer was caught training binoculars on Rockies catchers in 2010, it elicited nothing more than a light warning from MLB’s home office.

And so Sale took action on his own. By the looks of it, the rest of his team was keyed to the moment, as well. From an report:

In the first inning Wednesday, with Ian Kinsler on second and two outs, Ventura made a rare early visit to the mound. Sale threw two pitches outside of the zone and then intentionally walked Martinez.

Martinez stepped to the plate in the third with runners on first and second and two outs, and struck out swinging. On the last fastball to Martinez, catcher Tyler Flowers set up inside but the deciding pitch landed high and away. That pitch sequence followed two visits to the mound by Flowers and Sale taking a couple of looks back toward center. After the strikeout, Sale turned toward right-center field and tipped his cap. That was followed by a wave in the same general direction.

During the argument in the sixth, Sale appeared to reference Martinez’s “guy out there,” and Martinez said after the game that White Sox right fielder Avisail Garcia told his one-time teammate during the scrum that the White Sox suspected sign stealing. Sale claimed postgame Wednesday that his hat tip was to a fan who was wearing him out during his pregame bullpen session, but Sale was unavailable for comment prior to Thursday’s contest. The left-hander was excused by the team for the game for personal reasons.

Perhaps one day he’ll talk about what was tipping him off, and the possibility exists that it was all just an elaborate ruse to throw at Martinez simply because the hitter’s protracted success against him finally got under his skin. Either way, evidence suggests merely that Martinez is just a very good hitter who likes the kind of stuff Sale throws.

Hell, he’s hitting .556 in 18 career at-bats against Colby Lewis, and Lewis hasn’t even bothered to drill him once.


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Undercover in Miami? Braves Hint at Sign Stealing in Marlins Park

Marlins sculpture

They’re getting squirrely in Miami—or so the Braves would have us believe.

As the Marlins touched Aaron Harang for nine runs on 10 hits Wednesday night, folks in the Atlanta dugout grew suspicious that something afoul might be afoot. Just a week earlier, after all, Harang struck out 11 of those same Marlins at Turner Field in six innings of one-run pitching.

The suspicion was that Miami players were being tipped to Harang’s repertoire by some sort of relay system within the stadium.

After the game, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told the tale in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report: “If you would have taken a look at our dugout at one point in the game, it was like the fourth or fifth inning, they were hitting balls everywhere, we got three guys looking at the scoreboard. You got two guys looking at their bullpen. I’m calling (bullpen coach) Eddie (Perez), ‘Eddie do you see anything?’ I’m looking at (catcher Evan) Gattis, thinking he’s maybe tipping his pitches. Carlos (Tosca) is looking in the bench over there, maybe somebody is whistling or something.”

This wasn’t just nervous energy from a manager whose team was getting hammered. Generally speaking, pitchers accept being beaten when things go poorly, and can live with the fact that even good pitches are occasionally hit well. But when everything’s working—good velocity and bite to one’s pitches, outstanding control—eyebrows tend to shoot up if the opposition begins consistently teeing off.

Gonzalez even laughingly referenced Mick Billmeyer, the former bullpen coach in Philadelphia who, four years ago, offered a sign-stealing lesson straight out of the Michael Pineda Subtlety in Cheating handbook.

Added to Gonzalez’s suspicions was the fact that left-hander Alex Wood brought a 1.54 ERA into Tuesday’s start, then gave up seven earned runs in five innings (more than in his previous five starts, combined). For what it’s worth, the Marlins are hitting .307 at home this year, but just .215 on the road. (Giancarlo Santon’s home/road split: .323/.200. Marcel Ozuna: .375/.208. Casey McGehee: .362/.234.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia: .360/.194.)

None of this necessarily means anything, of course. Teams tend to do better at home than on the road. And Aaron Harang is, at the end of any given game, still Aaron Harang.

Even if something is afoot, sign stealing is generally accepted as a baseball practice … right up to the point that a team leaves the field of play to do it. Spyglasses and TV cameras are verboten by the Code (let alone the actual rulebook), and teams don’t take it lightly when suspicions are aroused.

(Most recently, the Blue Jays were accused of nabbing signs from the Rogers Centre in 2011. Then again in 2012.)

Still, the Braves bench was able to find nothing amiss, going so far as to have their eyes on a guy in the bleachers wearing a red hat and orange shirt—an easily identifiable outfit for somebody signaling hitters—right up until he got up to visit a concession stand.

Regardless, Gonzalez has done his Code-related duty. By talking about the issue without leveling specific charges, he let the Marlins know that if anything is going on, the Braves are on to it and expect the practice to stop.

You can bet that the Dodgers, in town tonight for a three-game set, will be paying some attention of their own.

Update (5-3): Saltalamacchia laughed it all off.



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Mattingly No Fan of Cards’ Pryin’ Eyes

Jose OquendoSo Don Mattingly is peeved that the Cardinals were apparently interested in his team’s signs during last year’s NLCS. They were looking into the Los Angeles dugout, he told ESPN LA at the winter meetings. Runners at second may have been picking off catcher A.J. Ellis.

This is a weird one. This kind of thing not only happens all the time, to the extent that it’s accepted practice, but virtually every team does it to some extent. It’s a near certainty that the Dodgers do it themselves.

It’s weird because Mattingly doesn’t decry it outright, instead saying things like “We felt like we had to be sure we kept an eye on their first-base coach and their third-base coach,” and “[Third base coach Jose Oquendo] is a guy at third who’s always looking for my signs from our dugout.” Mattingly said it was on the Dodgers to stop it if was happening.

But if one possesses such entirely mainstream attitudes, why bring up the subject in the first place? These are the comments of a guy who says he has no axe to grind, even while he’s looking up from the axe grinder.

That said, let’s look at Oquendo for a moment. Back in 2008 or so, I interviewed him for The Baseball Codes. (He has been the St. Louis third base coach since 2000, and was the bench coach the season before that.) He addressed many of these issues, minus the part where he’s actually maximizing his team’s advantage:

“I steal signs every day as a coach. But one thing I don’t do, I don’t tell the hitters. Now, when somebody’s on base, I’m going to say to my runner when to run and when not to run. That’s part of the game. But I would never tell a hitter what’s coming. It’s respect. If a player asked me to do it, I would never do it. That’s my personal opinion, I respect the game in that way.”

So you sit on the coaching line and get the signs and use them to tell guys when to run?

“If I see a breaking ball, I know to have our guys steal. Or if a pitcher has a tell when he’s going to first, that stuff you take advantage of. To tell a hitter what’s coming, that’s never been my style. …”

How easy is it to steal signs, particularly if there’s a runner on?

“If nobody’s on base, I don’t even look at the signs. I don’t care with nobody on. Now with somebody on base, I might want to know if he is going to throw a pitchout, when they are going to throw to first, stuff like that. …

“I don’t “steal” the signs, I just see them. It’s pretty easy a lot of time—you see it from the catcher or from the pitcher. I’d say half of the catchers in the National League, I can see the signs from third base. [Mike] Matheny [then the Cardinals catcher, now the Cardinals manager] knows about it—he looks at me every time he’s going to put signs down. I drive him nuts at third base, but he knows that I’ll get it from him or from the pitcher. I’m gonna get it somewhere.

Draw your own conclusions.

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Hey Brother, Can You Spare Some Binocs?

Research for my next book, about the Oakland A’s dynasty of the 1970s, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2015, has turned up boundless examples of unwritten rules from that bygone era. The latest installment, from Ron Bergman of the Oakland Tribune, June 30, 1972:

binocsThe A’s have accused the White Sox of stealing catcher’s signals from the scoreboard on another vantage point in the park. “We switched signals every inning tonight,” [manager Dick] Williams said. “I had a message delivered to [Chicago manager] Chuck Tanner saying I’d sure hate to see a better get messed up on a sign and end up flat on his back with a baseball in his ear. He sent back a message asking if we had any high-powered binoculars because his guy had dropped his and broken them.”

This was hardly the first time an opponent had accused the White Sox of nipping signs from their scoreboard. (We’ve touched on some of them previously in this space.) For more current examples of sign thievery, go here.)

Tanner, of course, ended up helming the A’s himself in 1976. No word yet about sign-stealing schemes he may or may not have enacted at the Oakland Coliseum.

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Filed under Oakland A's, Sign stealing

Girardi to O’s: You Can’t Hide Your Spying Eyes

ShowalterWhether Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson was signaling pitch location to his team’s hitters is almost beside the point. The Yankees thought he was doing it, and that’s enough.

The dispute emerged at the end of the first inning of Monday’s game, when Buck Showalter raced from his dugout to yell at Joe Girardi for giving Dickerson a hard time from the Yankees dugout. According to Dickerson, the abuse started with Baltimore’s first hitter of the game, Nick Markakis (who hit a ground-rule double).

” ‘I know what you’re doing,’ ” Girardi yelled, according to Dickerson.

This means that if Dickerson was doing something suspicious, it probably wasn’t the first time. The only way the Yankees could be on something like that so quickly is if they were already aware of it and paying particularly close attention from the game’s first pitch.

“Yelling it, body language, pointing at me,” Dickerson said in an report. “That’s it. And I’m a grown man, that’s all. I don’t see why he was yelling at me. I just said, ‘You don’t know anything. You don’t even know me to be yelling at me.’ ”

Showalter should be commended for taking up for his guy—which he did in the most visible way possible, with sufficient animation that the benches cleared (watch it here)—but Girardi is the one on solid footing here.

If Dickerson was indicating location (Yankees catcher Austin Romine insisted that he had the signs themselves well protected), he was fulfilling a longstanding duty of base coaches throughout the history of the game. Not all of them do it, of course, but it’s expected—and accepted—that a certain number will.

Coaches may bend at the waist to indicate one type of pitch, and stand upright for another. When Leo Durocher was coaching third while managing the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-1940s, he’d whistle to the hitter to indicate he knew the pitch. (Not only would he take it from the catcher, but he’d also peer in to the pitcher’s grip for clues.) Giants right-hander Ace Adams made a point once of showing him a curveball grip, which Durocher dutifully relayed. Adams, however, threw a fastball right at the batter. That, he said, stopped the whistling in a hurry.

In the early 2000s, the Cardinals were convinced that Cubs first-base coach Sandy Alomar was signaling pitches to Sammy Sosa. St. Louis coach Jose Oquendo handled the situation via a face-to-face confrontation with Alomar, during which he urged (at top volume) the cessation of such activity. That said, Oquendo himself carries a reputation as an accomplished sign thief. In an interview for The Baseball Codes, he admitted to stealing signs “every day” from the first-base coach’s box, but insisted that he used the information only to inform strategy for his team’s baserunners, never passing it along to hitters.

All told, such efforts to tamp down this kind of activity are entirely expected. Which is precisely what Girardi did. As a manager, it’s his job to call out such intransigence as soon as he’s aware of it, at which point it becomes incumbent of the offender to knock off whatever it was he had been doing.

Had Showalter played by the unwritten rules and remained in his dugout while making sure Dickerson laid low for a while, the outcome would have been no different—we’d just have heard nothing about it.


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