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 ESPN.com 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.