It’s been a while since a good sign-stealing controversy erupted in the big leagues. That type of eruption, of course, is contingent on an eruption of offense, which is what the Blue Jays had against the Yankees on Thursday.
On its surface, Toronto’s 16-7 victory was little more than a solid whooping, as the Jays jumped on Bartolo Colon for eight first-inning runs and touched four New York relievers for at least a run apiece.
Then Russell Martin went and opened his mouth.
“You move your head one way it’s a fastball, you move your head the other way it’s a slider,” he said in an ESPN report. “It was pretty blatant.”
Martin was referring to Blue Jays baserunners, particularly the ones frequently camped at second, who he accused of looking in to his signs and signaling upcoming pitches to the men at the plate. These are the kinds of things that happen when one’s starting pitcher throws 42 pitches over two-thirds of an inning, resulting in six hits and eight runs (three earned).
Martin’s primary issue was that he (or anyone else in the dugout) didn’t catch on to the Jays’ system (if that’s indeed what it was) until the fourth inning, when he noticed Jose Bautista acting strangely (moving his head this way or that, perhaps) while at second base.
Turns out that Toronto has a bit of a history with the subject. From The Baseball Codes:
Marty Barrett played second base in Boston for nine seasons in the 1980s, every one of them with right ﬁelder Dwight Evans. While playing the ﬁeld, Evans liked to know the pitch that was coming in advance, to help him get an early break on balls hit his way, so Barrett would make a ﬁst and put it behind his back. If his hand didn’t move, a fastball was imminent. If his arm wiggled, it would be something softer.
In Fenway Park, the bullpens for both teams are located in right ﬁeld, allowing visiting relievers a clear view of Barrett’s machinations. The only club to pick up on his tactic, though, was the Toronto Blue Jays. Through much of the 1980s, bullpen coach John Sullivan would look over the fence at Barrett’s arm, then signal the hitter with a towel (draped over the fence meant fastball, off the fence meant curve). Sometimes, so as not to draw too much attention, Toronto pitchers would simply stand up or sit down, depending on the pitch type, in accordance with prearranged signals. During Barrett’s ﬁnal two seasons as a full-time player in Boston, the Blue Jays went 13-0 in Fenway Park (as compared with 6-7 when the teams played in Toronto). “Haywood Sullivan [the Red Sox general partner] came down a couple of times and said, ‘I think they’re getting our pitchers’ pitches,’ ” said Bill Fischer, the Red Sox pitching coach at the time. “We would look at the videotape for hours, and we couldn’t ﬁnd anything.”
“You’re taught to catch things on the ﬁeld,” said Blue Jays manager Bobby Cox, who helmed the sign-stealing operation. “You watch body language with coaches at ﬁrst and third, and runners with their body language when the hit-and-run and squeeze is on. There’s tip-offs and tells throughout a nine-inning ballgame. If you pay attention, you might catch something.”
Fischer eventually discovered the secret, but only after he joined Cox’s Braves staff in 1992, at which point the manager fessed up and told him that Toronto “had every pitch” the Red Sox had thrown.
The standard major league attitude toward these kinds of activities is that teams are expected to do whatever they can to get an edge within the boundaries of fair play, and if somebody’s getting his signs picked it means mostly that he needs better signs. Once a team is caught trying to pinch them, the activity is expected to cease (or at least be carried out more discreetly); should this happen, everybody tends to go on their merry way.
(This should not be confused with stealing signs via a telescope or any other equipment beyond one’s own observational power from field level—a tactic that is never sanctioned. When Phillies bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was spotted pointing binoculars at Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo last year—followed shortly thereafter by Shane Victorino on the dugout phone, ostensibly to receive and relay whatever signs Billmeyer had picked up—the commissioner’s office stepped in to offer a watchful eye. The Yankees, in fact, had their own run-ins with the Phillies on this subject during Game 4 of the 2009 World Series, when catcher Jorge Posada visited pitcher CC Sabathia six times in the first inning, then eight more times in the fifth—because, said the rumors, New York had suspicions of Philadelphia stealing signs via in-house TV cameras.)
To his credit, the just-change-our-signs mentality is precisely the one Martin employed. “It’s up to us to catch it and change the signs,” he said. “I’m not blaming them for anything. . . . It’s one of those things you don’t really talk about, but it’s part of baseball. It’s always been.”
In an AP report, Yankees manager Joe Girardi detailed some of the ways to tell if a team might have your sign. “You watch some of the swings that clubs are taking,” he said. “Are they fooled on any of the pitches? Are they bailing when you’re throwing the ball in? There’s a lot of things that you watch for.”
Former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper put it more bluntly in The Baseball Codes: “When you’re throwing a bastard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture.”
In the fourth inning, Martin saw something along those lines, and responded by switching up his signs with pitcher Hector Noesi. The batter, Aaron Hill struck out swinging. (Changing signs is easier than it sounds; the signs themselves remain the same—only the indicator for which sign to pay attention to changes.)
Like Martin, Girardi failed to find fault with the Blue Jays for stealing his signs, if in fact that’s what they were doing.
The surest tell? When asked about it later, Toronto manager John Farrell didn’t flatly deny that it was happening, but claimed to be “unaware” of those types of activities.
Of course he was. Even Bobby Cox expressed outrage when asked about Toronto’s system utilizing Marty Barrett’s signals—about 20 years after the fact. He finally settled in and discussed the topic, but still refused to confirm many specifics.
His answers, however, left enough wiggle room to see exactly how much he knew. Which is all part of the espionage.