Sign stealing, The Baseball Codes

Did the Peeking, Pesky Padres Plant a Peeper in Their Park?

Who was the binocular-toting man in the center field batter’s eye at San Diego’s Petco Park yesterday?

A checklist of information:

  •  He was positioned with a direct view into the catcher’s signals.
  • He was spotted while the Padres were at bat, late in a close game against St. Louis.
  • He was wearing a Padres-logoed polo shirt.
  • He was holding GODDANG BINOCULARS.

Putting a spy  in the scoreboard would hardly place the Padres in unique company. Most of their peers in the sign-thievery business, of course, are a bit more suave about the endeavor, at least to the point that the visiting catcher doesn’t notice what’s happening from his post behind the plate, more than 400 feet away.

For their part, the Padres offered the only logical explanation short of outing themselves as signal felons, saying the man was part of their ballpark’s security apparatus. San Diego manager Andy Green went so far as to claim that he was the one who alerted plate ump Sean Barber to the guy’s presence, objecting to the possible distraction to hitters caused by his white shirt.

Never mind that Green appears to be telling the truth—the TV broadcast shows Barber and Cardinals catcher Yadi Molina looking toward the Padres dugout before turning their attention to the outfield. It’s much more fun to believe that something shady is going on.

 

Petco CF
The camera well in Petco’s center field.

Sign stealing, of course, carries different tenors within the game, depending on who’s doing it. A runner at second base has relatively free reign to peek in to the catcher’s signals and relay what he wishes to the batter. If he’s caught, the aggrieved team’s usual reaction is to simply change its signs. Occasionally the runner will receive a verbal warning, and even more occasionally an intentionally errant fastball might find its way toward the batter’s box.

That, however, is far different than a team utilizing technology and non-uniformed personnel to do its dirty work from beyond the field of play—a tactic that is against baseball’s actual rules in addition to those of the unwritten variety. Which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Chicago’s old Comiskey Park was famous for signaling White Sox batters with its exploding scoreboard. Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World benefited from pilfered signals.

More recent occurrences:

Some of my favorite sign-stealing stories are much older, and took place on the north side of Chicago. From The Baseball Codes:

In 1959, Chicago finished in fifth place even though the team had a spy in the Wrigley Field scoreboard for much of the sea­son. He was traveling secretary Don Biebel, who, armed with binoculars, signaled hitters by sticking his shoe into an open frame used to post scores. Even through the losing, however, the Cubs still managed to arouse suspicion. Most skeptical were the Giants, whose ace, Sam Jones—the runner-up in that year’s Cy Young voting—got lit up every time he pitched in Chicago. (Against the rest of the league that year, Jones was 21-12, with a 2.54 ERA, and struck out a hitter every 1.25 innings; at Wrigley Field, he was 0-3 with an 8.53 ERA, and struck out a hitter every six innings.) It wasn’t long before San Francisco players identified the cause of the discrepancy.

“We just got wise and looked up, and sure enough in the scoreboard there was a big empty square,” said pitcher Mike McCormick. “Same scoreboard they have today, where they hand-place the numbers. There was somebody sitting up there in an empty square—one foot in the win­dow was a fastball, two feet was a curveball, no feet was a changeup. You let a major-league hitter know what’s coming, and he might not hit it all the time, but it certainly makes him a better hitter.”

Jones was particularly affected by the Cubs’ system, said Biebel, because he had trouble handling anything but the simplest signs, which kept Giants manager Bill Rigney from stymieing would-be thieves with a more complicated system. Instead, he dealt with the matter in a different way: six-foot-four, two-hundred-pound outfielder Hank Sauer, who was sent to the scoreboard to get some answers.

“Between innings I saw [first-base coach Wes] Westrum and Sauer and Bill Rigney get over in the corner of the dugout, and they were chatting,” said Biebel. “Sauer went out of the dugout and up the ramp, and I told the groundskeeper who was in the scoreboard with me, ‘You better lock this thing up—I think we’re going to have some company.’ About ten or fifteen minutes later, here comes Sauer along the back fence of the bleachers. He walks all the way out there and he starts pounding on our little door, shouting, ‘Let me in!’ He pounded for a while, but when he finally knew he wasn’t going to get in, he turned around and left.”

Biebel was good for more than stealing signs, of course. He was also proficient in catching opponents who were doing it. In 1960, Braves pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay were dressed in street clothes and sta­tioned in the Wrigley Field bleachers with a pair of binoculars, lounging in the sun as if they had just popped in from a North Side apartment. The pair vigorously waved their scorecards whenever a breaking ball was on its way, and Biebel caught them immediately. “It was easy to spot them,” he said. “I knew who they were. You have a good view in that scoreboard, and back then the bleachers were pretty empty.” Biebel informed the dugout of his discovery, and ushers soon escorted the pair from their seats.

Those Cubs, of course, were terrible. Stealing signs, it seems, only served them to lose by a few fewer runs than they might have otherwise.

Are the Padres in that kind of company? Who knows? It sure is fun to think about it, though.

 

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