Gamesmanship, Retaliation, Sign stealing

Taking Notes: Jays Upset By Rays’ Card Theft

It wasn’t going to be a thing. Kevin Kiermaier slid home against the Blue Jays on Monday, and in so doing managed to inadvertently knock loose the card on which Toronto catcher Alejandro Kirk kept his team’s game plan for Tampa Bay hitters. Kiermaier looked down, saw the thing, snatched it up as subtly as possible and returned to his dugout.

The Blue Jays weren’t pleased. They wanted their card back, and sent a bat boy to the Rays dugout to ask for its return. Why the bat boy and not an actual team member? Who knows? Did low-keying the personnel decision affect Tampa Bay’s response? Well, whoever had it on the Rays’ bench refused to give it up, so maybe.

From where I sit, this one is easy to legislate. Kiermaier stole Toronto’s signs in the truest sense of the word. His actions were pure gamesmanship, and if Toronto decides that it wishes to not have its signs stolen in the future, it should do a better job of protecting them. (Like, for real. My kid’s travel ball team wears wristbands with plays in them and has managed to not lose a single card in three years. It ain’t that tough. Then again, Kiermaier himself said that just last week he lost his own card while sliding into second, and Tigers infielder Niko Goodrum tried to grab it. So who knows, maybe this some sort of epidemic we’re just learning about now.)

At first, this appeared to be a non-issue. Keirmaier stumbled through a postgame monologue about how he didn’t even know what it was when he picked it up and then he gave it to the Tampa Bay equipment manager and boy golly it was all just so confusing at the time. Very little of what he said was believable, but still, Rays manager Kevin Cash met with Jays manager Charlie Montoyo before Tuesday’s game, apologized for the whole affair and returned the card. Montoyo called it “agua under the bridge.”

Fine. I wasn’t even gonna post about it. And then the Jays had to go and do something stupid like drill Kiermaier in response.

It happened in the eighth inning when, with Tampa Bay leading, 7-1, Ryan Bourecki planted a 93-mph heater into Kiermaier’s back. The pitcher was ejected (as was Toronto pitching coach Pete Walker, who just about lost his mind when Borucki got the thumb, despite that being the most obvious outcome). Benches emptied, though no punches were thrown.

Bourecki later called it a mistake, something that nobody in the Rays dugout—particularly Kiermaier or Cash—believed. Twitter agrees with them:

“I hope we play those guys [in the playoffs], I really do,” Kiermaier said. “I hope we play them. The motivation’s there.”

Just wait to see what happens if the Rays are eliminated and the Jays move on. Who wants to bet on some of Toronto’s state secrets being spilled to whatever team they end up playing? Even if the card is entirely specific to Tampa Bay, there are certainly things to learn for any willing opponent.

The Rays could have been chivalrous and returned the card immediately, and it would have been a nice story. This is the big leagues, though, where teams scramble to gain any advantage within the rules (and sometimes beyond). Thinking that Tampa Bay—or any team—would do otherwise is simply folly for Toronto.

Update 9/24: Borucki has been suspended for three games.

Sign stealing

Yaz Jazz Has Mound Man Mad

The Cardinals believed that Mike Yastrzemski was stealing signs from second base yesterday. Yastrzemski knew this because the pitcher, rookie right-hander Johan Oviedo checked the card in his pocket to make sure that he was on the same page with catcher Andrew Kinzner. Then he checked it again. And again.

At that point, Yastrzemski decided to play the part, shifting and shuffling in ways that could easily be construed as signaling the hitter. Which was the point. Oviedo, thoroughly rattled, finally spun and yelled at Yastrzemski to “shut the fuck up.”

Thanks to the Astros, baseball has dealt with a lot of sign-stealing drama over the last couple of years, but nobody, then or now, has taken too much issue with a guy at second picking up whatever he can from his unique vantage point.

The great part about this is that Yastrzemski denied everything, saying that he figured that the Cardinals were getting paranoid, and so played it up.

“I didn’t want it to get to that extent,” said Yastrzemski in his postgame press conference. “I just wanted him to throw a fastball down the middle so [the hitter, Wilmer Flores] could hit a homer.”

Sure enough, Oviedo threw a fastball about as down the middle as a pitch can be. Flores flied out to end the inning.

“You just got to sell it sometimes,” Yastrzemski said. “We’re in the entertainment business. It’s just another way you can impact the game.”

Whether or not Yaz was actually stealing signs, this is wonderful. It’s reminiscent of Gaylord Perry fidgeting like mad on the mound, going to his cap, to his sleeve, to his mouth, to his collar and to his cap again, pitch after pitch, even when he wasn’t trying to load up the baseball. Perry knew that every ounce of energy a hitter devoted to figuring out whether or not he was reaching for some grease was an ounce of energy not devoted to an optimal hitting approach. And damned if it didn’t work.

It worked for Yastrzemski, too. Sort of. Oviedo lasted four innings and the Giants won the game.

Chalk one up for the actors.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

That's One Way To Spend An Off-Day

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.

In one game in the early ’60s at Dodger Stadium, players on the Dodgers bench noticed Chicago pitcher Bob Buhl, on one of his off-days, sitting in street clothes in the bleachers. He was using binoculars to get signs, then signaling hitters by moving his scorecard around.

Before long, Buhl was approached by Los Angeles traveling secretary Lee Scott, who, friendly as could be, told him, “Bob, if the Cubs can’t give you better tickets than that, the Dodgers have one for you behind home plate.”

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

The Vast Potential Of Sign Stealing Via TV

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.

One of the first to use television to his team’s sign-stealing advantage was the Giants’ old sign-stealer, Herman Franks, when he managed the Cubs in 1977. Franks, temporarily barred from the dugout after being suspended for a particularly animated argument with an umpire, decided to watch the game from the WGN television truck outside the ballpark. It was at that moment, as he looked at a bank of monitors handling feeds from multiple cameras, that he truly understood the sign-stealing potential of TV. Franks called the dugout and spoke with his most trusted coach, Harry Lowrey, known as “Peanuts”—himself an aficionado of the sign-thievery arts—and quickly set up a system. Franks was to pass along the information he gathered from the TV truck to Lowery, who would then relay it to the hitter. But there were two flaws to the plan.

One was that Lowrey, involved with major league baseball for 35 years and a voracious sign decoder, was 60 years old and slowly losing his hearing. The other was that the terminology Franks used to quickly communicate the catcher’s signs—he simply called out the number of fingers dropped on any given pitch—was the same as the terminology used by Arne Harris, the television producer sitting next to Franks, to communicate with the broadcast’s three-man camera crew. “One!” shouted Franks into the phone to Lowery. “Three!” “Two!” As Franks increased his volume to compensate for Lowrey’s hearing deficiency, Harris was forced to get louder as well, just to compete. Soon, the two were in an unrelated shouting match, the entire vocabulary of which consisted of the repeated recitation of small numbers.

It would be the first and last day of Franks’ experiment.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

So The Astros WEREN'T The First Team To Send A Video Feed To A Room Near The Clubhouse And Then Audibly Signal Hitters From The Dugout?

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.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

Feller Frazzled By Tigers' Tendencies

It’s well known that Bob Feller brought home a military-grade gun scope from World War II, which his team used to pinch signs. Less known is why he was so passionate about the topic.

Feller was certain that he’d been beaten before by teams with similar schemes, specifically the Tigers. These feelings were spurred in part by a 1940 game in which Detroit torched him.

As it turned out there was a scope in the Tigers’ clubhouse that August, belonging to pitcher Tommy Bridges, a recently bought hunting tool he was eager to show off to his teammates. As soon as the lens was displayed, however, it didn’t take long for a secondary use to surface. “Someone suggested that we equip one of our bullpen pitchers … to zero in on the catcher’s signs,” said Hank Greenberg, the Hall of Fame first baseman, in The Complete History of the Home Run. “Then, by a hand signal, the catcher’s sign could be relayed directly to the batter.”

The spotter, stationed in the Tigers’ center-field bullpen, relayed his information to a team member leaning against the wall. For fastballs, the player rested his hand rested on the fence; for curveballs he did not.

That September, the Tigers offense sprung to life like never before, surging into the league lead in batting average and on-base percentage, finishing second in slugging and third in home runs. When Yankees manager Joe McCarthy became suspicious of uniformed Tigers personnel bearing binoculars, the team shifted its spy—usually a starting pitcher whose turn in the rotation had just passed—to the bleachers, where he sat in street clothes and signaled from the crowd.

In third place, four games behind Cleveland on Sept. 3, the Tigers—losers of 15 of their previous 23—went on an 18-7 run to close the season and take the pennant by a single game over the Indians. All but three of their final 25 games were at home. Said Greenberg, who won that season’s AL MVP Award, “I never had a more enjoyable month.”

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

'If The Light Was On, It Was A Fastball'

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.

Emil Bossard, the Indians’ head groundskeeper from 1932-68, regularly picked up the opposition’s signs with binoculars, according to his grandson, Roger, a third-generation expert who plied his trade with the Chicago White Sox.

“There was a yellow light in the far corner of the scoreboard,” he said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If the light was on, it was a fastball.”

The following season, Cleveland enlisted newly-acquired catcher Birdie Tebbetts—at that point 38 years old and rarely used—to sit in an alcove behind the dugout, where he spent games listening to a “mysterious voice at the other end” of a telephone receiver call each pitch.

Tebbetts didn’t like the scheme, and later came out publicly against such tactics, but he played along, relaying the information to someone on the dugout steps, who would, in turn, move his hand from one side of his knee to the other to indicate fastball or curve.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

Ty Cobb Was A Fan Of The Best Newspaper In The West

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.

In a 1952 article in Life Magazine, Ty Cobb admitted that the upper and lower halves of the “B” in a Tiger Stadium advertisement reading, “THE DETROIT NEWS: BEST NEWSPAPER IN THE WEST,” would alternately open and close, depending on what showed up in the binoculars of an scoreboard spy, whose lenses were strong enough, he said, “to bring out the fillings in the catcher’s teeth.”

“I don’t know whether the ad sold any newspapers,” Cobb added, “but it was a great thing for the Detroit batting averages.”

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

Always Pay Attention To The Highlanders Sign

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.

The Astros scandal is only the latest (and, of course, most egregious) among a long history of stealing signs from beyond ballpark walls. Let’s look first at the New York Highlanders, who in 1913 would adopt the name “Yankees.”

In 1905 the Highlanders rigged a hat-store advertisement on their outfield wall so that the crossbar in the “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. Though the scheme worked well when the sun was shining, it was useless on cloudy days, so Stallings placed a man behind the outfield fence, where he spied through a gap in a whiskey advertisement and manipulated a nearby slat (the crossbar in the “H” of a “Higlanders” sign) to signal pitches.

Using this system, New York (which finished the season 74-77) beat the powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics three out of four games in early September to virtually hand the pennant to Detroit, with the Tigers needing only to win a series of their own against the Highlanders in New York two weeks later to wrap things up.

Detroit manager Hughie Jennings, having heard of the Highlanders’ system, took steps to insure that his ballclub would not fall victim to similar tactics: He and some “friends” showed up to the ballpark early and tore down the scoreboard in which the New York spy had been hiding.

Sign stealing

Bauer Ensures That His Signs Won’t Be Stolen By Telling Opponent What’s Coming

For every pitcher-catcher combo trying to figure out the most effective method of circumventing the Astros Way to Play Baseball, Trevor Bauer is here to tell you that your endlessly cycled signs, no matter how complex or arcane, are still no match for the proven system he employed in the Cactus League yesterday.

Facing the Dodgers, Bauer decided to let the hitter know exactly what was coming. He did this via the standard glove signs that pitchers give to catchers during warm-ups. If everything’s public, there’s nothing to steal.

In the top of the fourth inning, Bauer fed Matt Beaty a series of pitches, each preceded by a glove flip. Why Beaty? Maybe because he was the first batter Bauer faced. Or maybe Because because he’d already homered, against Reds starter Sonny Gray, and one thing Bauer likes nearly as much as a soapbox is a challenge. (Bauer made his feelings about Houston’s shenanigans very clear in an interview with The Athletic about two weeks ago.) Beaty ultimately flied out to center field.

The pitcher’s rationale was explained by Derek Dietrich in an in-game interview.

“If you’ve followed baseball this off-season, there’s a little thing going on with sign stealing,” Dietrich said. “Trevor’s not too fond of it, so he figured he’s gonna try something new this season, and he’s gonna start telling batters what’s coming—just, here it comes, try to hit it.”

It’s not quite the same as Nolan Ryan’s strategy during a game in 1973, but it’s in the same ballpark. Unlike Bauer, Ryan didn’t reveal his pitch selection to Tigers in advance, but, concerned about Detroit spies, he devised his own system. Whatever sign Angels catcher Art Kusnyer put down, Ryan ignored it entirely. Instead, he touched the back of his cap to tell Kusnyer that he would be throwing a fastball, the bill if he was going to the curve. As an experiment in subterfuge it worked out okay: Ryan ended up with the second no-hitter of his career.

Would Bauer’s system work in extended use during a regular-season game? Of course not. But if anybody in baseball might try to figure out an efficient reverse-sign a la Ryan, Bauer’s the guy.