Don't Peek, Pandemic Baseball

Say Hey, What Was That Pitch?

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. Today’s theme: Peeking (batters subtly glancing backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs or location).

Some notable names have been named as possible peekers. In 2003, an anonymous coach told the Seattle Times that Ken Griffey Jr. had a curious habit of calling time once the pitcher came set, at which point he’d look down to see the catcher’s location. Bob Gibson said that Hank Aaron used to do it, and that Willie Mays was “one of the great peekers of all time.”

“Mays was peeking at [Cardinals catcher Tim] McCarver and saw something he didn’t understand,” wrote Gibson in Stranger to the Game. “So he stopped his warm-up swings, stepped out of the box, and said to McCarver, ‘Now, what was that pitch? What in the hell are you doing back there?’ I couldn’t believe the guy.”

Don't Peek, Pandemic Baseball

Crime Dog Did Some Digging Of His Own

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. Today’s theme: Peeking (batters subtly glancing backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs or location).

In 2001, Members of the Red Sox claimed that videotape proved Tampa Bay first baseman Fred McGriff peeked backward prior to hitting a home run … in a game that didn’t even involve Boston.

McGriff’s homer came off a pitch from Toronto closer Billy Koch, and the Red Sox-based allegations ended up in Peter Gammons’ notebook on ESPN.com. One member of the Blue Jays said in the Toronto Globe and Mail that the complaint came from pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, “who is paranoid as hell. He’s the same guy who thought we had a camera over the outfield fence (at the SkyDome) to steal signs.”

Toronto catcher Darrin Fletcher offered a more reasoned take on the matter, saying that it can be difficult to discern peeking from innocent head movements. “A lot of guys, if you watch them, they’re usually just glancing back at the position of their hands and bat,” he said. “You might think they’re peeking, but they’re not.”

Don't Peek, Pandemic Baseball

‘If It’s Really That Blatant, You Have To Say Something’

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. Today’s theme: Peeking (batters subtly glancing backward in an effort to pick up the catcher’s signs or location).

Television cameras have caught the likes of Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, among others, casting backward glances during at-bats. After Game 1 of the 2000 NLCS, Jerry Grote, who had been a catcher for the Mets more than two decades earlier, informed team personnel that, while watching the game on television at home in San Antonio, he came to the conclusion that Cardinals first baseman Will Clark had been peeking at catcher Mike Piazza. (Clark went 1-for-3 in a 6-2 defeat.) Clark had already once been accused by the Mets of peeking, as a member of the Giants in 1993.

Whatever Grote saw, however, managed to escape Piazza. “I think I would notice,” said the Mets backstop in a Newsday report. “Some guys try to mix it into their routine. You just have to try to disguise it. And if it’s really that blatant, you have to say something.”

Perhaps in response, the Cardinals leveled accusations of their own, asserting that Mets third baseman Todd Zeile was tipped to pitch location by whistling from the New York bench.

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.”