Binoculars, Charlie Manuel, Mick Billmeyer, Philadelphia Phillies, Shane Victorino, Sign stealing

Accusations Against Phillies Nothing New

Even as the Phillies were denying efforts to steal signs against the Colorado Rockies on Monday, people started to dig back a bit to look at their history with the subject.

They didn’t have to dig far.

Just last October, rumors of Philadelphia’s extra-curricular sign stealing swirled during the World Series, when, during Game 4 of the World Series, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada visited pitcher CC Sabathia six times in the first inning, then eight more times in the fifth. This didn’t do much to improve the quality of the product for those watching at home, but it might have been enough to thwart would-be sign thieves.

During the game, Posada also went into dexterous sign gymnastics with nobody on base, throwing down complex sequences normally utilized to stymie a runner on second.

Those rumors hit a head when Dodgers coach Larry Bowa went on ESPN950 radio in Philadelphia, and said this:

There’s rumors going around that when you play the Phillies, there’s a camera somewhere or bullpen people are giving signs, and catchers are constantly changing signs. That’s the rumor. Now is it [proved]? No. I’ve had three people come up to me, ‘Watch center field, they’ve got a camera. Some guys stand up by the fence and if their arms are up it’s a breaking ball.’ I didn’t see it, but other teams swear by it.

So I’m sure the Yankees personnel said, ‘Heads up, these guys like to give signs from second, they’ve got people in center field. So they were constantly changing signs. Posada was paranoid about it. CC was paranoid about it so they kept going out. They might have changed signs four times on one hitter. That’s the reason he went out. It wasn’t to say to him, ‘Settle down.’ It was, ‘Go to this sign.’

Bowa, a Philadelphia icon for his years with the team during his playing days, had no direct inside knowledge of the system (that he admitted to, anyway), but his speculation was enough to send Shane Victorino into a tizzy.

“I guess he knows something that I don’t know about, obviously,” Victorino said shortly after Bowa’s comments aired. “We play between the lines, and that’s what it’s about. For Bowa to come out and say something like that, if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, if he doesn’t have cold, hard facts, he shouldn’t say something like that. It’s just not something that should be said. For you to pop off like that, I’m not happy.”

Victorino, of course, has been fingered as complicit in the most recent allegations against his team, largely because he was seen on the dugout telephone in conjunction with Mick Billmeyer’s spyglass proclivities from the Philadelphia bullpen.

Last October, Victorino backed up his statement by pointing to the fact that Philadelphia lost the first two of the first three Series games, saying, “Obviously if we’re stealing signs we would be doing better than what we’re doing right now.”

Well, okay. Except that sign stealing doesn’t guarantee victory, especially against a team as good as the Yankees; it merely massages the odds. One of the most notorious sign-stealing-from-beyond-the-outfield-wall teams of the 1960s was the Chicago Cubs—and look where it got them.

Another statement that didn’t hold much water came yesterday, when Phillies manager Charlie Manuel opted to go on the offensive and accuse the Mets of vague improprieties.

“Somebody maybe ought to check the Mets if they did that,” he told the New York Daily News, possibly in retaliation for the Mets leveling similar accusations against the Phillies in 2007. “Their (—-ing) home record is out of this world (14-8), and they’re losing on the road (4-8). Sometimes that’s a good indicator of getting signs and (crap). I’m not accusing them, but you look at that and—damn. We’re about the same home and road. I’m just saying their record is much better at home and they hit better.”

It’s nice that the Phillies are equally dominant at home (10-6) and on the road (10-7), but it must be pointed out that the recent controversy came on the road. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to pull that off, no matter what the Phillies’ actual intentions might have been.

Between Colorado, last year’s World Series and the 2007 Mets, it might be time for the Phillies to give it a rest.

You know, just in case they’re doing anything improper.

– Jason

Binoculars, Mick Billmeyer, Philadelphia Phillies, Sign tipping

Break Out the Binocs—There’s Thieving to be Done

The thing about the overwhelming majority of unwritten rules is their nebulous nature—the gray area in which acceptable behavior becomes entangled with less palatable fare, essentially creating a murky stew in which bad blood can reasonably fester on both sides.

Today’s news is much more clear-cut. Tracy Ringolsby reports for Fox Sports that the Philadelphia Phillies have been warned by Major League Baseball about their alleged tendency to steal signs from other clubs.

But wait a minute—this blog has consistently touted the propriety of sign stealing, with the caveat that once caught, the activity is halted. So why the big deal?

The Phillies, if one believes the rumors, were using binoculars to aid their cause. According to the unwritten rules, this is never okay. (It’s also prohibited by the written rules, which is why the league stepped in.)

The specific accusation points at bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer, alleging that he trained his lenses on Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo; Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino was subsequently seen on the bullpen phone, ostensibly receiving stolen signs to relay to the Phillies hitters.

Ringolsby reported that the New York Mets might have made a similar accusation after the Phillies battered Johan Santana for 10 runs in 3.2 innings on May 2.

The league called the evidence “inconclusive,” but has warned the Phillies and alerted the umpiring crew to pay close attention to the situation.

Billmeyer seems a perfect choice to run such a scheme. He knows catchers and their signs, having worked as Philadelphia’s minor league catching coordinator from 2000-03, and as the major league catching instructor from 2004-08.

Philadelphia’s excuse: Billmeyer wasn’t looking at Olivo, but at his own catcher, Carlos Ruiz. The only problem with that reasoning is that the Phillies were up to bat when the situation was brought to light on the game telecast, and Ruiz was in the dugout.

Assuming that the allegations are correct—that Billmeyer was picking off signals and relaying them via telephone to the Philadelphia dugout—how difficult would it be to then get word to the hitter?

Not very.

In the 1960s, New York Yankee Bob Turley would whistle from the bench when the upcoming pitch was different from the one that preceded it. (Had the previous pitch been a fastball, for example, Turley would whistle if the next pitch was to be a curve.)

Tigers manager Del Baker signaled Hank Greenberg with a system of “all right”s and “come on”s. (“All right, Hank, you can do it” indicated that a fastball was on the way, whereas “Come on, Hank” meant curve.)

The possibilities are limitless.

Similarly, it’s hardly the first time that a team has used foreign assistance to peek in on the opposition. In the late 1950s, the Milwaukee Braves stationed pitchers Joey Jay and Bob Buhl in the Wrigley Field bleachers, shirts off and dressed like fans. They’d train binoculars on the catcher, and signal the pitch with a rolled-up program.

In the 1970s, Cubs manager Herman Franks once stationed himself inside the WGN television truck outside the ballpark, using their feed to relay signals to coach Harry Lowrey via the dugout phone. (The experiment lasted all of one game, after Franks’ instructions interfered with the WGN producer’s instructions for his crew, and vice versa, serving mostly to screw everybody up. It was, after all, the Cubs.)

During the 1976 World Series, three scouts for the Yankees were spotted in the ABC-TV booth, huddled around a television and talking into walkie-talkies. Although no formal charges were filed, they were quickly removed from the premises.

If the Phillies are to accede to any piece of the Code now, it’s clear which part they should heed: They’ve been caught, and it’s time to stop.

Update: Watch the video as part of an MLB Network panel discussion here.

Update II: The accusations against Philadelphia were nothing new.

– Jason