The thing about the overwhelming majority of unwritten rules is their nebulous nature—the gray area in which acceptable behavior becomes entangled with less palatable fare, essentially creating a murky stew in which bad blood can reasonably fester on both sides.
Today’s news is much more clear-cut. Tracy Ringolsby reports for Fox Sports that the Philadelphia Phillies have been warned by Major League Baseball about their alleged tendency to steal signs from other clubs.
But wait a minute—this blog has consistently touted the propriety of sign stealing, with the caveat that once caught, the activity is halted. So why the big deal?
The Phillies, if one believes the rumors, were using binoculars to aid their cause. According to the unwritten rules, this is never okay. (It’s also prohibited by the written rules, which is why the league stepped in.)
The specific accusation points at bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer, alleging that he trained his lenses on Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo; Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino was subsequently seen on the bullpen phone, ostensibly receiving stolen signs to relay to the Phillies hitters.
Ringolsby reported that the New York Mets might have made a similar accusation after the Phillies battered Johan Santana for 10 runs in 3.2 innings on May 2.
The league called the evidence “inconclusive,” but has warned the Phillies and alerted the umpiring crew to pay close attention to the situation.
Billmeyer seems a perfect choice to run such a scheme. He knows catchers and their signs, having worked as Philadelphia’s minor league catching coordinator from 2000-03, and as the major league catching instructor from 2004-08.
Philadelphia’s excuse: Billmeyer wasn’t looking at Olivo, but at his own catcher, Carlos Ruiz. The only problem with that reasoning is that the Phillies were up to bat when the situation was brought to light on the game telecast, and Ruiz was in the dugout.
Assuming that the allegations are correct—that Billmeyer was picking off signals and relaying them via telephone to the Philadelphia dugout—how difficult would it be to then get word to the hitter?
In the 1960s, New York Yankee Bob Turley would whistle from the bench when the upcoming pitch was different from the one that preceded it. (Had the previous pitch been a fastball, for example, Turley would whistle if the next pitch was to be a curve.)
Tigers manager Del Baker signaled Hank Greenberg with a system of “all right”s and “come on”s. (“All right, Hank, you can do it” indicated that a fastball was on the way, whereas “Come on, Hank” meant curve.)
The possibilities are limitless.
Similarly, it’s hardly the first time that a team has used foreign assistance to peek in on the opposition. In the late 1950s, the Milwaukee Braves stationed pitchers Joey Jay and Bob Buhl in the Wrigley Field bleachers, shirts off and dressed like fans. They’d train binoculars on the catcher, and signal the pitch with a rolled-up program.
In the 1970s, Cubs manager Herman Franks once stationed himself inside the WGN television truck outside the ballpark, using their feed to relay signals to coach Harry Lowrey via the dugout phone. (The experiment lasted all of one game, after Franks’ instructions interfered with the WGN producer’s instructions for his crew, and vice versa, serving mostly to screw everybody up. It was, after all, the Cubs.)
During the 1976 World Series, three scouts for the Yankees were spotted in the ABC-TV booth, huddled around a television and talking into walkie-talkies. Although no formal charges were filed, they were quickly removed from the premises.
If the Phillies are to accede to any piece of the Code now, it’s clear which part they should heed: They’ve been caught, and it’s time to stop.
Update: Watch the video as part of an MLB Network panel discussion here.
Update II: The accusations against Philadelphia were nothing new.