Sign stealing

Red Sox and Binocs and Smart Watch, Oh My

Them Apples

Three facts as pertain to today’s news:

  • Sign stealing in baseball is ages-old. It’s why signs exist in the first place: Teams constantly attempt to get the drop on the opposition’s communication.
  • Sign stealing in baseball is tolerated. Pretty much every team does it to some degree, with the understanding that if somebody breaks your code, the appropriate response is more or less to simply change your signs.
  • Sign stealing in baseball, as meets the above definitions, is a pursuit undertaken strictly from the field of play, with the naked eye. When teams branch out to video feeds and spyglasses in scoreboards it becomes an entirely different beast. At that point, the thievery is breaking not just the players’ unwritten code, but actual MLB rules.

As detailed in The New York Times, the Yankees recently filed a complaint with the league office—complete with video evidence—which began an inquiry into Boston’s sign-stealing practices at Fenway Park. What investigators found: the Red Sox had a clubhouse-bound employee pick up opposing catchers’ signals via a video feed, then transmit them to assistant trainer Jon Jochim in the dugout via an Apple watch. Jochim relayed the information to players.

The first piece of evidence New York cited occurred during the first game of a series in August, when Boston went 5-for-8 with runners at second base. Whereas players in that position are generally seen as having a good vantage point to peer into a catcher’s signals on their own, in this case they were relaying signs from the bench.

Where this story takes a turn away from the legions of similar such pursuits across baseball history is that the Red Sox admitted culpability (while insisting that manager John Farrell and GM Dave Dombrowski knew nothing about the scheme).

For those who might interpret this as a symbol of illegitimacy to Boston’s lead in the American League East, well … it’s complicated. Stolen signs haven’t helped Chris Sale or Drew Pomeranz become dominating starters, and they didn’t help Rick Porcello win the Cy Young Award last year. Without knowing exactly when the Red Sox started the practice (the Times reported that it had been in place for “at least several weeks”), they are just about league average when it comes to batting average, and are dead last in home runs. They actually average more runs on the road than they do at home (4.79 per game vs. 4.66). There’s also the fact that, even though Boston went 5-for-8 with runners at second on Aug. 18 to arouse New York’s suspicions, Red Sox hitters subsequently went 4-for-16 in identical situations over the series’ final two games, hardly the stuff of intrigue.

My own lingering question is that, with New York’s signs available in the dugout, why the Red Sox waited until a runner was at second base to relay them. Not only did this limit Boston’s opportunities, but placed the Red Sox at far greater risk of being caught. Much simpler would have been a verbal system such as the one Hank Greenberg enjoyed in Detroit in the 1940s, in which “All right, Hank” indicated a fastball, and “Come on, Hank” meant a curve. Other iterations have included shouts of encouragement using either a player’s first name or last name to mean different things, or a simple whistle, which Yankees pitcher Bob Turley used to notify his teammates that an upcoming pitch would be different than the one preceding it.

The Red Sox responded by filing their own complaint against the Yankees, who they claimed were stealing signs at Yankee Stadium via a TV camera from the YES Network.

The history of such pursuits is legion:

  • In the 1950s, the “exploding scoreboard” at Comiskey Park housed not only a platform from which an employee with binoculars could spy on the opposing catcher, but a hidden light—visible from the plate and the home dugout, but not from the visitors’ side of the field—that flashed in accordance with the upcoming pitch.
  • Pitchers Bob Feller and Bob Lemon, Hall of Famers both, helped set up a relay system in Cleveland in 1948 using a military-grade gun sight that Feller brought back from World War II. With it, the Indians won 19 of their final 24 games (all but four of them at home) to force a one-game playoff with the Red Sox for the AL pennant (which the Indians also won, even though it was played in Boston).
  • In 1959, the Cubs placed traveling secretary Don Biebel and a pair of binoculars inside the Wrigley Field scoreboard. Biebel would signal hitters by placing his feet into an open frame.
  • Also, of course, the Shot Heard ’Round the World.

More recently, the Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

 

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