Sign stealing

Sign-gate at the Rogers Centre, Day II: Are the Blue Jays Going Above and Beyond?

Well, things have officially gotten interesting. A day after Yankees catcher Russell Martin accused the Blue Jays of stealing New York’s signs, New York manager Joe Girardi injected some seriousness into the charge.

During the course of the Yankees’ 7-1 loss to Toronto, Girardi had Martin display complex sign sequences for pitcher Freddy Garcia even with the bases empty—a time during which catchers ordinarily utilize only the most basic signals. The only possible reason for this: the prospect that the Jays employ a comprehensive system for sign stealing, likely from somewhere beyond the field of play.

When questioned about it, Girardi didn’t hold much back.

“Sometimes we have inclinations that certain things might be happening in certain ballparks and we are aware of it and we try to protect our signs,” Girardi said in an report.

In response to a question about whether that could mean using foreign devices such as binoculars or even TV cameras, Girardi said, “Could be,” and added that “there are ballparks where you need to protect your signs.” The manager softened his stance somewhat by pointing out that he was “not accusing anyone” of impropriety.

Not directly, anyway.

Blue Jays manager John Farrell, of course, denied everything. “I have no idea what that might be referring to,” he said. “Honestly, why that would even come out, I don’t know. We play this game to compete every day and we don’t look to any other means than what takes place between the lines.”

Accusing a team of stealing signs from the basepaths is mild, usually serving merely as a preventative method against it happening again. When entire ballparks—and binoculars and relay systems and everything else associated with pilfering signs from beyond the field of play—are brought under scrutiny, things become significantly more charged. Rare is the player who won’t forgive a basepath sign stealer; even rarer is the manager willing to forgive an institutional breach of confidence such as the one to which Girardi alluded.

As referenced yesterday, this is hardly new territory, with the Phillies standing accused of similar tactics last season. They had a solid base on which to build; the Yankees themselves served as some of the first practitioners of off-field espionage. In 1905, back when they were still known as the Highlanders, the team rigged a hat-store advertisement on their outfield wall so that the crossbar in the letter “H” could be manipulated in accordance with the upcoming pitch. In 1909, Highlanders manager George Stallings rented an apartment behind the right-field fence of the team’s Hilltop Park, from which he had someone relay signs by flashing a mirror at the batter. (On cloudy days, a similar crossbar continued to come in handy—this time in a “Highlanders” sign.) When Detroit went to New York for a must-win series at the end of that season, Tigers manager Hughie Jennings—having heard the rumors and willing to take no chances—showed up to the ballpark early and, with some help from his team, tore down the scoreboard in which the New York spy—the guy relaying the signals—had been hiding.

A more modern implementation came courtesy of Billy Martin, during Game 1 of the 1976 World Series. A commotion was raised in the middle innings when three New York scouts were found in the ABC-TV booth, gathered around a television set and speaking into walkie-talkies. Cincinnati had previously granted permission for the scouts to assist with defensive alignments from on high, but watching them in action raised Red flags and they were removed from the premises.

Going public with his own complaints is a decent gambit for Girardi. Save for annoying Farrell and other members of the Blue Jays, there’s little downside to thinly veiled accusations—but by bringing the subject to the media, Girardi has insured vigilance not just from their own dugout, but from the public at large. Had the Blue Jays been stealing signs with a TV camera or some other such device, they’d be hard-pressed to continue the practice, at least in the short term.

The primary question with which we’re left: If Girardi feels that “certain things might be happening in certain ballparks,” where else might they be happening, and who else knows about it?

Which is all the Yankees really want.

– Jason

Related: Break Out the Binocs—There’s Thieving to be Done

5 thoughts on “Sign-gate at the Rogers Centre, Day II: Are the Blue Jays Going Above and Beyond?

  1. With so many eyes in the ballpark (including multiple journalists) plus the TV cameras, it’s incomprehensible to me that this kind of thing is not quickly spotted and called out.

    I understand there is a code among players and managers, but is there some misguided code among sportswriters and TV broadcasters that they’re not supposed to investigate these things, even when they go outside the white lines? (I haven’t seen the Yankees’ broadcasts, so maybe they’ve got their cameras trained on every inch of the ballpark looking for clues, but I’d say that’s unusual.)

    It’s just hard to believe that even a complex sign-stealing system would stick for too long before the cameras or mics would find it.

    1. I think it’s as simple as this kind of thing being difficult to catch from above field level, by broadcasters who are paying attention to the game’s action away from second base. (In other words, I don’t think it’s a conspiracy to keep the practice silent.)

      One of my first posts at this site had to do with Joe Mauer being clearly caught tipping pitches from second base on a TV broadcast. Unfortunately, the embedded video is no longer active, but it was interesting for the fact that the announcers didn’t make mention of what was going on, even with it clearly on the screen.

      The easy answer: Unless you’re looking for it, it’s easy to miss.

  2. But that’s what I mean–why don’t they look for it more? I mean, surely there’s no way Toronto could continue to get away with whatever they might be doing, right?

    More than once, on my couch at home, I’ve thought to myself, “it sure seems like the hitters are guessing well” and wondering if there’s sign-stealing or pitch-tipping going on. Yet I rarely hear announcers or sportswriters address that question, at least until well after the fact (“We found out so-and-so was tipping his pitches so we changed his motion”). It’s the kind of insight that would add to the game, and I don’t think I’m alone as a fan in wishing that.

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