In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.
During the 1995 World Series, members of the Atlanta Braves were convinced that the cameras in center field and in the visiting bullpen at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field were being used to steal signs, specifically for the Game 5 home run Albert Belle hit against Greg Maddux. Jacobs Field had a number of such robotic cameras positioned around the stadium—the one in center-field was aimed at the plate—which ran through a limited-access control room near the home dugout. It can be enough to drive a suspicious mind batty.
Then again, the Braves were so worried about having their signs stolen on the field by Indians third-base coach Jeff Newman that they enlisted clubhouse man John Holland to stand in front of manager Bobby Cox and obstruct intruders’ views.
Years after the fact, Cleveland reliever Alan Embree was noncommittal on the subject, saying that he “wasn’t part of that”—a statement acknowledging a “that” to be part of. Embree did point out that his team didn’t need much help offensively. “The fact of the matter is that ’95 team hit everywhere—it didn’t matter where they were,” he said. “You look at the numbers in that lineup going into the postseason, and it was like Nintendo. Teams were thinking, ‘Gosh, they can’t be this good.’ But they were that good that year. It’s the best lineup I’ve ever been a part of.”
Indeed, Cleveland led the American league in home runs (the only club to top 200), batting average (their .291 team mark was a ridiculous 11 points higher than the next-best team), stolen bases and runs. More telling was the fact that their road numbers were comparable to those at home; in fact, there were six ballparks around the league in which the Indians hit better than they did at Jacobs Field.
That still doesn’t explain the nearly identical complaints of each of the teams Cleveland faced in the playoffs that year. In the Division Series, Boston manager Kevin Kennedy carped about the Jacobs Field bullpen camera after Game 1, which was won by Cleveland on Tony Pena’s 13th inning homer, spurring the team to cover the camera for the next game. In the Championship Series, Seattle Mariners officials made similar requests.
In the mid-1990s, Royals manager Bob Boone was so suspicious of the Jacobs Field bullpen camera that he had his relievers cover it with a towel. In 1997, said Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar, the Royals once changed signs so many times that a nearly complete breakdown in communication between reliever Jose Rosado and catcher Mike Sweeney led to a wild pitch, a passed ball and eight Cleveland runs in a single inning.
Four years later, Red Sox manager Jimy Williams leveled another round of charges against Cleveland, going so far as to deliver a videotape to the umpiring crew that he said proved his allegations about the camera. “I think we’ve got something,” he told reporters. “I just want it fair for both sides. That’s all you ask.” Boston catcher Jason Varitek claimed in the Boston Globe that someone in the Cleveland dugout whistled—an ages-old signal to hitters—during at-bats late in the late-season game, including on what he described as a “500-foot foul home run on a very good pitch” to Jim Thome.
Cleveland said the camera was used to evaluate its own players, but it ended up covered for the final game of the series, which the Indians lost, and for the next series, against the Yankees, in which Cleveland lost three of four.