Sign stealing

Spring Training Has Started, And The Astros’ Apologies Are Not Yet In Midseason Form. Also: Carlos Beltran

Yesterday was apology day in Astros camp, and the players’ reluctance to face music that they clearly did not want to face was palpable. Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve each stood at a podium and addressed their team’s sign-stealing scandal … barely. They spoke for less than 90 seconds combined, blurted out platitudes like “I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization and by me,” and took no questions.

Players, including Bregman and Altuve, did talk to reporters afterward, repeatedly apologizing for their own bad behavior and that of their team, but the lasting feeling was that they regretted getting caught more than actually doing what they did. (Just look back a couple of weeks to FanFest, when players either denied participation or clammed up entirely, claiming now that they were unprepared for such questions.)

Generally speaking, Houston players said that they regret not doing more to stop the system—without going into too much detail about what the system entailed—and vowed to do better next time. One topic that nobody touched was the idea that sign stealing helped the team to a championship in 2017. To that end, owner Jim Crane set a terrible precedent by actually saying that the team’s cheating “didn’t impact the game.”

“So then what are you guys apologizing for?” ESPN’s Marly Rivera asked. His answer: “We’re apologizing because we broke the rules.”

It’s all a very bad look, especially after The Wall Street Journal reported that members of Houston’s front office developed an Excel algorithm called “Codebreaker” that automated and enhanced much of the team’s video-based sign-stealing capabilities. Still, the reticence should not be surprising; Astros players are on their heels, and will be for some time. Until the day that somebody comes fully clean, our more interesting angles come from former Astros trying to separate from past associations.

At the center of that separation is Carlos Beltran.

As ballplayers have reconvened over recent weeks, multiple Astros have gone on the record about the outsized influence Beltran had on their clubhouse, both in setting up the sign-stealing program and in ignoring any misgivings his teammates might have had about it.

Take Pirates pitcher Joe Musgrove, a second-year player with the Astros in 2017. Speaking to MLB Network about the pressures facing a young player, he said, “You’re around guys like Beltrán and [Brian] McCann, some big names, and I’m not going to be the pitcher to walk up and tell ’em to knock it off.”

So powerful was Beltran in his 20th and final season that even McCann—then 33 years old and one of the most respected voices in the sport—had similarly little leverage when he suggested that his teammate had taken things too far. “[Beltran] disregarded [the advice] and steamrolled everybody,” said an anonymous Astros player in a report in The Athletic. “Where do you go if you’re a young, impressionable player with the Astros and this guy says, ‘We’re doing this’? What do you do?”

Of all the details to come tumbling out about the team’s sign stealing, this one makes the most sense. Veteran players invariably set the tone for a clubhouse, and young players want little more than to earn standing therein. Manager A.J. Hinch has expressed his own misgivings about Houston’s system, going so far as to damage not one but two video monitors in protest, but even he, without championship pedigree at the time and in only his third season at the helm, was sufficiently cowed to avoid putting his foot down too firmly. For a young player to do so would have taken an incredible act of courage. (Players like Carlos Correa and Bregman should hardly be immune from criticism, but they were 22 and 23 years old, respectively; to go up against somebody with the gravitas of Beltran would have been extraordinary. That said, continuing the scheme after Beltran had left and they themselves had achieved veteran status is something else entirely.)

Here’s where things get fun. Both McCann and Beltrán played for the Yankees from 2014 to 2016 before joining the Astros in ’17. It was Beltrán who, according to multiple sources, told the Astros that their sign-stealing methods were “behind the times.”

What hasn’t been fully explained is Beltran’s frame of reference for that claim. The Yankees, along with the Red Sox, are one of the primary teams mentioned frequently in conjunction with the Astros as pertains to sign stealing. The Athletic reported on New York’s own video-room decoding of signs back in 2015. That misstep has received less attention in part because the Yankees didn’t win the AL East let alone the World Series, and in part because, at the time, MLB hadn’t yet cracked down on its rules against electronic sign stealing.

Look no farther than Alex Cora—another former Astro who lost a managerial job for bringing Houston’s dark arts to the Red Sox—for a clue about what Beltran might have provided New York last year in his role as an adviser. After Boston gave up 29 runs in a pair of losses to the Yankees in London, Cora introduced Beltran’s name to the discussion.

What he said:

“I was joking with someone that [the Yankees’] biggest free-agent acquisition was Carlos Beltrán. I know how it works, you know? He’s helping a lot. They’re paying attention to details and we have to clean our details. It was eye-opening the last few days, from top to bottom. And I’m not saying devices and all that stuff, it’s just stuff that the game will dictate and will scream at people and is right there. Throughout the evening, I was looking and I saw it, you know? And right now, they’re a lot better than us, so we need to get better.”

One doesn’t disqualify Beltran’s use of devices from a monologue that’s otherwise devoid of insinuation about Beltran’s use of devices without some sort of reputation already being in place.

Beltran has that reputation, for good and for bad. He has long been known for having a superb ability to decode signs naturally, simply by looking at them, which is a boon to any team he’s on.

Now he has another sort of reputation. It’s already cost him his job as the Mets manager, and we’re likely to learn more as details emerge. MLB has taken a number of hits over punishment for the Astros that’s been consistently lambasted as ineffectual, which makes one wonder whether they might pull fewer punches if it becomes clear that Beltran had a steady hand in helping two clubs flaunt the rules. Other Yankees being dragged down with him is a possibility, not to mention whatever comes of the ongoing investigation into the Red Sox. (For what it’s worth, Yankees GM Brian Cashman said that he doesn’t think Beltran did anything wrong while working for his team.)

In the meantime, players are getting to spring training and speaking out. And suing the team. Soon we’ll see whether opponents are willing to drill Astros players in response to this whole mess. And maybe we’ll find out just how culpable Beltran was, not only in Houston but in New York … and beyond.

The Baseball Codes

Now That The Astros Are in the Capable Hands of Dusty Baker, Let’s Talk About Sign Stealing Again

With Dusty Baker hired to right the ship of the Houston Astros—the direct result of a sign-stealing scandal with the previous administration—I can’t help but think about the conversations I’ve had with him about that very topic, both for The Baseball Codes and in the years since.

To be clear, we’ve spoken exclusively about the “acceptable” variety—sign stealing from the basepaths, unaided by video feeds or other mechanical devices. So good was that portion of the interview we did for the book that I opted to begin the chapter called “Sign Stealing” with an anecdote from Baker’s days managing the Giants, which serves to encapsulate his opinions on the subject. It’s excerpted below. First, though, some kudos for Houston.

As an organization trying to move beyond a culture that is widely acknowledged to be damaged well beyond the public scandals of sign stealing and the botched cover-up of an executive’s tirade toward female reporters during the postseason, the Astros couldn’t have picked a better guy. Baker has earned die-hard loyalty from players across every team he’s managed, and commands respect from all corners of the baseball landscape. The guy is an institution based largely on his positive outlook, moral clarity and downright rational approach. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I haven’t encountered a more charismatic figure in my 25 years covering the sport.

Turns out there’s more than one way to win. Great move, Astros.

From The Baseball Codes:

It started with a thirteen-run sixth. Actually, it started with a five-run fifth, but nobody realized it until the score started ballooning an inning later. It was 1997, a sunshiny Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco. By the end of the game, it was 19–3 Expos, and the Giants—the team at the wrong end of that score—were angry, grumbling that the roster of their opponents was populated by thieves.

San Francisco’s thinking stemmed from the belief that it likely takes more than skill or luck to send seventeen men to the plate against three pitchers in a single inning. There was no disputing the numbers: Mon­treal had six players with three or more hits on the day, and in the sixth inning alone five Expos picked up two hits apiece, including a pair of Mike Lansing homers. Montreal opened its epic frame with eight consec­utive hits, two shy of the big-league record, and it was a half-hour before the third out was recorded.

San Francisco’s frustration boiled over when manager Dusty Baker spied Montreal’s F. P. Santangelo—at second base for the second time in the inning—acting strangely after ten runs had already scored. One pitch later, the guy at the plate was drilled by reliever Julian Tavarez. Two bat­ters later, the inning was over. “They were killing us,” said Baker. “F.P. was looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off, pointing with one arm. I just said, ‘That’s enough. If you are doing it, knock it off—you’re already killing us.’ ”

What Baker was referring to was the suspicion that Santangelo and other members of the Expos had decoded the signs put down by Giants catcher Marcus Jensen for the parade of San Francisco pitchers. From second base a runner has an unimpeded sightline to the catcher’s hands. Should the runner be quick to decipher what he sees, he can—with a series of indicators that may or may not come across as “looking one way and crossing over, hands on, hands off ”—notify the hitter about what to expect. Skilled relayers can offer up specifics like fastball or curveball, but it doesn’t take much, not even the ability to decode signs, to indicate whether the catcher is setting up inside or outside.

If the runner is correct, the batter’s advantage can be profound. Brook­lyn Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen, who was as proud of his ability to steal signs from the opposing dugout as he was of his ability to manage a ball club, said that the information he fed his players resulted in nine extra victories a year.

Baker sent a word of warning to the Expos through San Francisco third-base coach Sonny Jackson, who was positioned near the visitors’ dugout. Jackson tracked down Santangelo as the game ended and informed him that he and his teammates would be well served to avoid such tactics in the future. More precisely, he said that “somebody’s going to get killed” if Montreal kept it up. The player’s response was similarly lacking in timidity. “I just told him I don’t fucking tip off fucking pitches and neither does this team,” Santangelo told reporters after the game. “Maybe they were pissed because they were getting their asses kicked.”

The Giants’ asses had been kicked two nights in a row, in fact, given that the Expos had cruised to a 10–3 victory in the previous game. It was while watching videotape of the first beating that Baker grew convinced some­thing was amiss, and so was especially vigilant the following day. When Henry Rodriguez hit a fifth-inning grand slam on a low-and-away 1-2 pitch, alarm bells went off in Baker’s head. Former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper described the sentiment like this: “When you’re throwing a bas­tard breaking ball down and away, and that guy hasn’t been touching that pitch but all of a sudden he’s wearing you out and hanging in on that pitch and driving it to right-center, something’s wrong with the picture.” The Expos trailed 3–1 at the time, then scored eighteen straight before the Giants could record four more outs.

Baker knew all about sign stealing from his playing days, had even practiced it some, and the Expos weren’t the first club he’d called out as a manager. During a 1993 game in Atlanta, he accused Jimy Williams of untoward behavior after watching the Braves’ third-base coach pacing up and down the line and peering persistently into the San Francisco dugout.

For days after the drubbing by Montreal, accusations, denials, veiled threats, and not-so-veiled threats flew back and forth between the Giants and the Expos. Among the bluster, the two primary adversaries in the bat­tle laid out some of the basics for this particular unwritten rule.

Santangelo, in the midst of a denial: “Hey, if you’re dumb enough to let me see your signs, why shouldn’t I take advantage of it?”

Baker: “Stealing signs is part of the game—that’s not the problem. The problem is, if you get caught, quit. That’s the deal. If you get caught you have to stop.”

Signs have been stolen in major-league baseball for as long as there have been signs to steal, and players and managers generally accept that opponents will try to gain every possible advantage. It’s why signals from the catcher to the pitcher, from the dugout to the field, and from the third-base coach to the hitter can be so complex. And as Santangelo said, if the team from which they’re being stolen isn’t doing enough to protect them, whose fault is that?

Omerta Code, Sign stealing

The Fiers Quandary: How To Approach The Guy Who Spoke Up?

Whistleblower

In the aftermath of the Astros/Red Sox/Mets fallout, and in the wake of a spate of fan-fest interviews from around the country last weekend, we have gained some clarity about certain topics.

We are clear that the Astros needed to be punished, even if we’re still arguing about how much.

We are clear that by stepping down before he managed a single game for the Mets, Carlos Beltran made things easier for everybody.

We’re clear that the Red Sox, already down Alex Cora and waiting further word from the league, are pretty well screwed.

What we’re not clear about is what to make of Mike Fiers, the whistleblower who started it all with an interview in The Athletic last November.

In one camp (let’s call it the Jessica Mendoza Coalition), the party line is that baseball is an insular sport, and a player taking privileged information outside the sanctity of the clubhouse is unacceptable. In the words of Mendoza herself (via an ESPN radio show on Jan. 16):

“[What Fiers did] didn’t sit well with me. And honestly it made me sad for the sport that that’s how this all got found out. I mean this wasn’t something that MLB naturally investigated or that even other teams complained about because they naturally heard about and then investigations happened. It came from within. It was a player that was a part of it, that benefited from it during the regular season when he was a part of that team. And that, when I first heard about it, it hits you like any teammate would, right? It’s something that you don’t do. I totally get telling your future teammates, helping them win, letting people know—but to go public with it and call them out and start all of this? It’s hard to swallow.”

One joke making the rounds has to do with the ovation Fiers received at the A’s fan fest on Saturday. It was the first day of the Chinese New Year, after all, and 2020 is the Year of the Rat.

As somebody who wrote a book about baseball’s unwritten rules, I understand this mentality. Clubhouse culture is privileged, with ballplayers enjoying a degree of closed-door cohesion that in an ideal world builds camaraderie and allows them to better focus on their baseball duties.

The key to that notion, of course, is “closed-door.” The moment that issues leak is the moment that outside opinions begin to form, and things can easily snowball. I described this insular mentality in The Baseball Codes: “Generally speaking, the more fans know, the more they’re likely to misconstrue. So the wall effectively becomes its own set of rules: Don’t expect outsiders to understand baseball’s world, or even give them the chance to form a wrong impression.”

That mindset is the basis for a sign that has graced many clubhouses over the years, which reads, “What you see here, what you do here, what you say here, let it stay here.”

Mendoza’s point was clear: Had Fiers kept things internal, baseball might have had a chance to handle its business without a spotlight that it very clearly does not relish. Last week, Dallas Keuchel—Fiers’ Astros teammate in 2017, now with the White Sox—backed her up.

“A lot of guys are not happy with the fact that Mike came out and said something, or the fact that this even happened,” Keuchel said at the White Sox fan fest, adding that “It sucks to the extent of the clubhouse rule was broken.”

But there’s a twist. Much of the omerta ideal written into clubhouse culture has to do with players themselves: their interpersonal conflicts, their individual demons—the kinds of things that nobody wants aired publicly. When it comes to institutional malfeasance, though, we’re getting into tricky territory.

What happens when somebody feels that clubhouse culture has to change, and efforts to change it internally either aren’t working or are too daunting to even begin the conversation? Recently deposed Astros GM Jeff Luhnow claimed that he never knew about his team’s sign-stealing efforts. If that’s true, it means that Fiers never ran his concerns up the ladder, at least beyond the manager’s office. It’s easy to picture a scenario in which Fiers confided his discomfiture to A.J. Hinch and was subsequently talked down in service of team unity, not to mention winning ballgames.

Given that Hinch has admitted to knowing about the program and did nothing to stop it, this is entirely possible. If so—if Fiers’ own manager dismissed his quandary—what else should he have done? Going over Hinch’s head, directly to Luhnow, might have been the morally defensible position, but it might also have been career suicide. Fiers, after all, was 32 years old and essentially a spare part on that Astros team, somebody to plug into the back end of the rotation, who only a season earlier had barely earned $500,000.

I recently brought up the name Al Worthington in this space, for good reason. In 1959, Worthington was in a position similar to Fiers: a valued but expendable player who was decidedly uneasy about the sign-stealing habits of his team—in his case, the San Francisco Giants. Worthington took his concerns to manager Bill Rigney, with threats to go public if the team didn’t knock off its shenanigans. That began a cascade of increasingly urgent transactions in which the pitcher was dumped repeatedly. He played for three teams during the 1960 season alone, then couldn’t find a big league roster spot for the next two years. (Worthington’s fate was pretty much sealed when he called out a similar scheme in Chicago.)

Ultimately, however—especially in an age in which whistleblowers are so essential to corporate and governmental accountability—I have to side with Fiers on this. Being backed into a corner, nervous about the impact on one’s livelihood yet feeling urgency to act, must be terrifying.

Even in the face of critics who say that Fiers’ time to speak up was before he left Houston—critics whose words carry a great deal of weight—his decision to speak up after the fact nonetheless has merit. There’s no question that Fiers has branded himself one way or another in a way that will last for the duration of his career. That took bravery. That should be lauded.

At this point, let’s circle back to Mendoza’s comments. The part where she said, “This wasn’t something that MLB naturally investigated or that even other teams complained about because they naturally heard about and then investigations happened”—that part isn’t true.

Fiers did not start a single bit of reporting about this scandal. Word about the illicit habits of teams like the Astros and Red Sox have been circulating around baseball for years, both as rumors and as actual complaints from various teams to the league office. Hell, a search of this very blog will find copious information to that end. It was precisely MLB’s lack of action that spurred the pitcher to speak up.

Many of Fiers’ current teammates have come out in support of him, but things will be harder outside of his home clubhouse. Keuchel summed up the situation neatly, saying: “I don’t think anyone is going to come out from other teams. They see what happens now.”

Fiers has kept mostly mum since this story broke. Hopefully we’ll get to hear more about how he feels and why he did what he did, but if he’d rather keep that to himself, that’s his right. His work is effectively done. All that’s left now is to hope it makes a difference and that, for him, it was all worth it.

[Image credit: www.epictop10.com.]

Sign stealing

How Much Sign Stealing Is Too Much Sign Stealing? Never Mind, Heads Are Starting To Roll

We all knew this was coming, and still it’s shocking. Yesterday, the Astros fired GM Jeff Luhnow, the architect of their championship roster, and manager AJ Hinch, for their roles in last year’s video-snooping, sign-stealing, trash-can-banging shenanigans. This came shortly after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred released a nine-page report summary of MLB’s investigation into the affair, and suspended the pair until after the 2020 World Series—plus a $5 million fine for the Astros (the maximum allowable) and the loss of first- and second-round picks in each of the next two drafts.

Luhnow and Hinch, reads the report, failed to “establish a culture in which adherence to the rules is ingrained in the fabric of the organization, and to stop bad behavior as soon as it occurred.”

Still to come: punishment for Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who, as a coach with Houston during the time in question—the only uniformed non-player implicated, in fact—“was involved in developing both the banging scheme and utilizing the replay review room to decode and transmit signs.” It was Cora who had the monitor installed just outside the Astros’ dugout for easy access to the video feed from a center-field camera.

If that’s not damning enough, baseball is still investigating Cora’s role in similar activities after he took over the helm in Boston prior to the 2018 campaign. Last week, the Athletic reported confirmation from three members of Boston’s 2018 championship club that the Red Sox used the video replay room at Fenway Park in ways similar to the Astros, dedicating a video feed to decoding catchers’ signals, which were then passed to players in the dugout. Because those signs ended up being relayed to hitters the old-fashioned way—by baserunners peering in from second, mostly, and not from within the stadium tunnel by a guy in front of a monitor—it will probably be seen by the league as less egregious than Houston’s efforts. Then again, it’s effectively a second strike for Cora, the only person whose malfeasance spans both teams.

Given the precedent Crane set by firing Luhnow and Hinch—both more established than Cora—it wouldn’t surprise if the Red Sox followed suit and dismissed their manager outright. They have even more reason, in fact, given that in 2017, Boston was caught relaying information from a Fenway Park video room to a trainer via an Apple Watch. John Farrell was manager then, but cleaning house of all offending parties makes a good deal of sense for a franchise looking to divest itself from scandal.

The entire controversy helps to demarcate the differences between what management and players alike view as legitimate sign stealing, and behavior that most everybody agrees is out of bounds. To that end, when Manfred fined the Red Sox an undisclosed amount for its smartwatch violation in 2017, he clarified that “the attempt to decode signs being used by an opposing catcher is not a violation of any Major League Baseball Rule or Regulation” [emphasis mine], with the exception, he explicitly pointed out, of those signs stolen or relayed via electronic equipment.

That various degrees of cheating are acceptable in baseball is proving difficult for some people to digest. The sport brought this on itself has been a common theme among columnists recently, who have trouble conceding that simply paying attention on the field can pay off in myriad ways while remaining entirely above-board.

After all, baseball cannot legislate against a runner at second peering in toward the catcher, just as it cannot prevent him from tipping pitches or location to the hitter with as simple a cue as which foot he moves first when taking or extending his lead. It is not baseball’s place to determine what is intentional in this regard and what is happenstance.

If they’re getting my signs, goes the old catcher’s refrain, it only means that I need better signs. This is accepted by every big league ballclub, in part because every big league ballclub has players who steal signs from the basepaths. The model works—has always worked … or at least it did until 2014, when MLB implemented video replay challenges, at which point teams like the Astros figured out new ways to game the system. No matter how much care a catcher takes, should a camera be trained on him, opponents will crack his code. And with no need for a baserunner to relay the signal (which can be done via trash-can banging or, according to reports, finger buzzers worn beneath batting gloves), every hitter, not only those batting with a runner at second, is helped. This is why so many people are now questioning the legitimacy of Houston’s 2017 championship … and, pending the upcoming findings of the league, maybe Boston’s the following year, as well. 

There are legitimate questions about the degree to which such a system helps. Some players are steadfast about not wanting to receive stolen signs (even those pinched appropriately), for reasons that have nothing to do with morals. They feel that they hit better when left up to their own devices, and that advance information can override their instincts. Back in the ’50s, diminutive White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox refrained from his team’s potent scoreboard-based sign-relaying scheme because he felt that knowing what was coming would inspire him to muscle up … and hit a bunch of warning-track flyballs as a result.

There’s also the detail that the Astros discontinued their trash-can practice in 2018 because, reads Manfred’s report on the situation, “the players no longer believed it was effective.” This may have had to do with the advent of a better system (finger buzzers?) or an understanding that the rewards were not worth the risks. Houston’s stats improved against offspeed stuff after the system was implemented midway through the 2017 season, but only marginally. Hinch himself didn’t like it, to the point that he reportedly intentionally damaged the replay monitor. Then again, one reason he’s in trouble now is that he never instructed his players to avoid such tactics.

Regardless, there are ways for opponents to circumvent such espionage. The Nationals reportedly filtered through five full sets of signs per pitcher during the World Series, demarcated on notecards that could be swapped out at a moment’s notice to prevent the types of shenanigans that have since been so carefully detailed. This takes time, of course, which, in a league obsessed with shortening games, is not a good look.

People have talked about a system using flashing lights at the front of the mound that can be seen only by the pitcher, and wearable random-number generators to indicate which sign in a sequence is hot. There’s always the standby idea of earpieces for pitchers. (Ask Billy Martin how that turned out.)

Also feeling some heat is new Mets manager Carlos Beltran, who was in his final year as a player in 2017, and reportedly not only knew about Houston’s system but was active in its conception. Given that no players have been disciplined for this, Beltran will likely skate in that regard. It does, however, put him on thin ice before his rookie managerial season even begins.

MLB was initially reluctant to make a big issue of this—not until former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers came out in the Athletic as a whistleblower did the story gain landscape-shifting traction—and it’s easy to see why. Tainting championships is no fun for anybody. (The league went so far as to clear Houston during the 2019 and 2017 postseasons—mainly, it appears, to avoid controversy.) Also, the Astros and Red Sox were hardly working in a bubble in this regard. According to Sports Illustrated, the commissioner’s investigation includes Astros players detailing eight other clubs that were using technology-aided systems in 2017 and 2018. The Padres were accused of similar extracurricular activity in 2016, the Blue Jays in 2015 and 2012, the Tigers and Marlins in 2014. This list is hardly comprehensive. Now, to maintain credibility, Manfred will have to give due diligence to every incident that might arise.

In the meantime, the next head to roll is certain to be Alex Cora’s. How this affects the rest of the Red Sox organization is anybody’s guess, but one thing about which we can be certain is that Cora’s fate, whatever it is, will hardly be the final chapter of this saga.

Sign stealing

That Time When The Cubs Were Stealing Signs And The Giants Wanted To Mix Things Up But Couldn’t Because Their Pitcher Was Easily Confused

What with all the brouhaha surrounding the Astros’ banging of a trash can to alert hitters to upcoming pitches, I’m continually reminded about stories I researched for The Baseball Codes. One of them provides a cautionary warning even for teams who recognize when their signs are being illicitly pinched. That’s because no matter how precautious a team might be, they can only take as many preventative measures as their pitcher will allow.

Somehow, Giants ace Sam Jones—who finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1959—got lit up every time he pitched in Chicago that year. Against the rest of the league that season, Jones was 21-12 with a 2.54 ERA, and struck out a batter every 1.25 innings. At Wrigley Field he was 0-3 with an 8.53 ERA and struck out a batter every six innings. It wasn’t long before San Francisco players identified what was behind the discrepancy.

“We just got wise and looked up, and sure enough, in the scoreboard there was a big empty square,” said Giants pitcher Mike McCormick. “Same scoreboard they have today, where they hand-place the numbers. There was somebody sitting up there in an empty square—one foot in the window was a fastball, two feet was a curveball, no feet was a changeup. You let a major-league hitter know what’s coming and he might not hit it all the time, but it certainly makes him a better hitter.”

That somebody was Cubs traveling secretary Don Biebel, who earlier that season had been installed as the man in the center-field scoreboard. Armed with binoculars, he signaled hitters by sticking his shoe into an open frame used to post scores. Contrary to McCormick’s recollection, it was the placement of his foot, not the number of feet, that bore a message. To the left of the square meant fastball, to the right a curve. Just an inch or two of sole was all it took.

This system particularly affected Jones, who had trouble handling anything but the simplest signs. This kept Giants manager Bill Rigney from making the signals more complex in an effort to stymie would-be thieves. So he had to deal with it another way.

At age 42, Giants outfielder Hank Sauer was the oldest player in the National League and had spent almost seven of his 15 years in the big leagues as a member of the Cubs. He knew the sort of things that went on at Wrigley Field, and, at 6-foot-4 and 200 lbs., was one of the last guys a traveling secretary hidden in the scoreboard wanted to cross. As the Cubs continued to batter Jones, Rigney sent his slugger to the scoreboard to get some answers.

“Between innings, I saw (first base coach Wes) Westrum and Hank Sauer and Bill Rigney get over in the corner of the dugout, and they were chatting,” said Biebel. “Sauer went out of the dugout and up the ramp, and I told the groundskeeper, who was in the scoreboard with me, ‘You better lock that thing up—I think we’re going to have some company.’ About 10 or 15 minutes later, well, here comes Sauer along the back fence of the bleachers. He walks all the way out there and he starts pounding on our little door, shouting, ‘Let me in!’ He pounded for awhile, but when he finally knew he wasn’t going to get in, he turned around and left.”

Part of the reason that the Cubs were able to get away with something so blatant, reasoned Biebel in an MLB.com report, was that “Everybody knew we were getting the signs and we still finished in fifth place.”

The Astros are another story. Two World Series in three seasons will do that for a club. Every day brings new revelations about just how far they’ve been willing to go. Now we just wait for reaction from the league office.

Sign stealing

Astros Spy Scheme Outed By One of Their Own

Photo by Roy Luck.

Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of the Athletic have posted an enormous piece detailing illegal sign stealing within the Astros organization. According to their sources, the club placed a camera somewhere beyond the center field fence in Minute Maid Park to deliver a video feed of the opposing catcher to a monitor in the tunnel alongside the home dugout. When the signal for a breaking ball or offspeed pitch was given, spotters would bang on a trash can loudly enough for the hitter to hear it.

This is not the first we’ve heard of such things. During the ALCS, the Yankees complained about Houston players whistling signals from the dugout. During last year’s playoffs, the Astros placed a representative in a photographer’s well, who kept turning his phone toward the opposing team’s dugout. Neither of these activities is kosher.

We’ve covered the concept of sign stealing extensively in this space over the years, from players nabbing a catcher’s signals while leading off from second base (totally legal), to those like the Astros who (allegedly) utilize devices in their pursuit. (Totally not legal.) To me, the most interesting part of this story is a primary source for Rosenthal and Drellich: A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, who played for the Astros from 2015 to 2017.

“I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing,” he explained in the article. “Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s (B.S.) on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared, but most people don’t.”

Fiers said that he informed his teams subsequent to the Astros—the Tigers and A’s—what to look for when traveling to southeast Texas. Perhaps thanks in part to Fiers’ warnings, the A’s went 4-5 at Minute Maid Park in 2019—not bad against the putative best team in baseball, and a better mark than they had while playing the Astros in Oakland.

This all brings up a number of issues, primary among them being why, if Houston has been doing this so obviously for so many years, more opponents have not called them out. The easy answer is that the Astros are hardly alone in this type of pursuit, and if another club has its own skeletons to protect, the prospect of quid pro quo (the term of the moment, it seems) provides sufficient discouragement. It’s why teams so rarely cry about pine tar use from the opposing pitcher: They don’t want to invite examinations of their own staff.

In the early going, the A’s organization has backed Fiers … to a point. GM David Forst, contacted by the San Francisco Chronicle, said that he was aware of “concerns among our staff and players,” and that “our players have voiced concerns about what other teams are doing.” Even then, though, he hedged his bet.

“It’s not about it being Houston or a team in our division,” Forst said. “You want the playing field to be level. I have to trust the people in MLB will get involved and address it.”

A player like Fiers speaking publicly about underhanded dealings by a former team carries real risk. The pitcher is 34 years old and going into the second year of a two-year contract. He’s a nine-year vet coming off his best season, and has shown a willingness to sport the least conventional facial hair in big league history. If he puts up another solid campaign in 2020, it’s safe to assume that his services will be highly valued in the free-agent marketplace. Maybe.

It’s not difficult to picture a team that bears its own secrets—whether it’s pitchers loading up baseballs or something along the lines of the Red Sox Apple Watch scandal from 2017—wanting to avoid potential headaches from a do-gooder gumming up the works with something so silly as morality. Suddenly, Fiers’ ongoing ability to pitch a baseball is not the only consideration for teams that consider signing him.

Baseball has seen this happen before. In The Baseball Codes, there’s an entire chapter on sign stealing via things like spyglasses and cameras. It opens with a story about a pitcher named Al Worthington, whose Giants team was doing that very thing in the 1950s. Worthington disapproved, and took corrective steps by threatening to publicly out manager Bill Rigney if he didn’t correct course. Cornered, Rigney acceded, and it might have cost his team a spot in the playoffs. I spoke with Worthington some 50 years after the fact, and his stance hadn’t softened a bit. “Once [Rigney] quit stealing signs, I felt good about that, ” he told me. “I didn’t think he should be doing that anyway. That’s not honest.”

The resulting story is a great lesson about what can happen to players who place a higher premium on morality than on victories, guys who want only to win the right way. Below is the entire excerpt. It’s long, but it tells a great and very relevant tale.

Allan Worthington was a quality pitcher, a right-hander who came up with the New York Giants in 1953 and moved with them to San Francisco five years later. By 1959, he was not only one of their most trusted bullpen members, but one of the most reliable relievers in the major leagues.

Then, over the course of a single season, everything changed. He was traded twice within a span of six months, playing for three teams in 1960 alone, and shortly thereafter quit the game altogether, at age thirty-one. Worthington was neither a bad character nor a headcase. He was throwing as well as he ever had. In fact, he had only one problem, which was enough to sour him in the eyes of more than one ballclub: Al Worthington wasn’t a cheat.

At the tail end of the 1959 season, San Francisco was battling the Dodgers and Braves for the National League pennant, holding first place into the season’s final week. In an effort to gain an edge on its competi­tion, the club asked former coach and proven sign stealer Herman Franks, who had left the Giants the previous year, to return and set up an espi­onage system. His resulting handiwork had various members of the organization, armed with binoculars, placed in the far reaches of San Francisco’s Seals Stadium to pick up signs and relay them to the dugout. When Worthington first heard about the operation, he was appalled.

The pitcher had seen a similar system over the first four years of his career, when the Giants played in New York’s Polo Grounds before moving west. Although it bothered him, he was never certain enough about his standing on the team to speak his mind. In 1958, however, Worthington found religion at a Billy Graham rally at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, and from that point forward refused to tolerate inequities on the field.

When he found out about Franks’s scheme in ’59, Worthington pulled Giants manager Bill Rigney aside and demanded that the practice cease, threatening to abandon the team if it didn’t. Rigney was stuck: Worthington was a valuable member of the bullpen, and losing him would be a blow. The binoculars were shelved, and the Giants immediately lost three straight to the Dodgers (and seven of their last eight), to finish four games back in the National League.

At that point, of course, Worthington’s fate hardly hinged on the team’s success; when the season ended, the Giants couldn’t get rid of him fast enough, trading him to the Red Sox for spare parts prior to the 1960 campaign. Boston in turn shipped him to the White Sox that September. Chicago, only three games behind the Orioles, was looking to bolster its bullpen, but nobody in the organization bothered to ask the Giants about their new acquisition. This would have been beneficial, considering that the White Sox used a sign-stealing system even more complex than the one in San Francisco. When the team played at home, Chicago’s pitching instructor and former Tigers standout, Dizzy Trout, watched the opposing catcher from inside the recently installed Comiskey Park “exploding” scoreboard—a pyrotechnic exhibition unlike any seen in baseball up to that time. Trout then triggered a light hidden amid many others in the center-field display that signaled hitters to the type of pitch about to be thrown—blinking meant breaking ball, solid meant fastball. It could be seen from both the plate and the White Sox dugout along the third-base line, but not from the visitors’ dugout near first. The scheme was incredibly effective, helping the Sox build a 51-26 record (.662) at home that year, even as they struggled to a 36-41 mark (.468) on the road.

The benefit hardly outweighed the detriment in Worthington’s eyes. It was illicit behavior, and by the time he arrived in Chicago, the pitcher was already practiced in his response. Shortly after learning of the system, the right-hander informed manager Al Lopez in a hotel lobby in Kansas City that he wanted nothing to do with it, that he “didn’t want to play for a team that cheats.”

“As a player it was none of his business what we were doing,” said Lopez. “But I did say, ‘Show me in the rule books where it’s wrong.’ I told him I respected his religious beliefs. I said I hoped he would respect mine, and that my religious beliefs would not permit me to do anything I thought wrong.”

“Al Lopez said that it wasn’t cheating . . . ,” said Worthington. “I thought later, Well, if it’s okay to do it, why don’t they tell everyone?”

Lopez sent Worthington to speak with general manager Hank Greenberg, which only made things worse. Greenberg, after all, freely admitted to his own preferences for receiving pilfered signs during his Hall of Fame playing days with Detroit. “Baseball is a game where you try to get away with anything you can,” he said. “You cut corners when you run the bases. If you trap a ball in the outfield, you swear you caught it. Everybody tries to cheat a little.”

After less than a week with the White Sox, Worthington was fed up enough to quit, going home to Alabama and enrolling at Samford University. The team’s official explanation was that he left over a salary dispute. This was the first time the White Sox had been challenged about a system that had been in use for years. It had originally been implemented by Frank Lane, the team’s general manager four years before Greenberg came along, as a response to the abundant stories about other clubs’ use of similar schemes. According to Sam Esposito, a utility infielder with the Sox, it started when Lane brought his complaints to two of the team’s third basemen—future Hall of Famer George Kell and his backup, Bob Kennedy. Esposito said that the pair devised a system far more devious— not to mention effective—than the then-standard practice of having a coach peer at the opposing catcher through binoculars from the bullpen, and manually signal the hitter by placing (or removing) a towel atop the fence.

That type of system was easily identified. The way Esposito tells it, Kell and Kennedy’s plan to use the scoreboard light couldn’t have been more effective. “It was hump city . . . ,” he said. “You’d be sitting in the bullpen or dugout, the pitcher would be winding up, in his motion, and our hitter would still be looking up at center field, waiting for the light to come on. Sherm Lollar loved the light, Walt Dropo loved it. Nellie Fox wouldn’t use it. Nellie was a slap hitter, and he was afraid if he knew it was a fastball that he’d muscle up on the pitch and end up hitting a long fly ball, one of those warning-track outs.”

“I doubt if there is one club that hasn’t tried it at one time or another in recent years,” wrote White Sox owner Bill Veeck in his autobiography, Veeck—As in Wreck. “There is absolutely nothing in the rules against it.”

Though most ballplayers admit that the stealing of signs is pervasive within the game and accept it as an unavoidable facet of a complex sport, even those who embrace the practice have a difficult time defending those who go beyond the field of play to do it. Any sign deciphered via a mechanical device (usually binoculars or hidden video feeds) is roundly denounced. Don Lee, a reliever with the Los Angeles Angels in the early 1960s, could stand up in some well-placed bullpens and, with his naked eye, read the catcher’s signs from beyond the outfield wall. When he relayed those signs to hitters by placing his hand (or not placing his hand) atop the fence, it was generally considered acceptable because he was picking them up unaided. (“Sounds impossible, but he was able to do it,” said his teammate, catcher Buck Rodgers. “I was there. I was a beneficiary.”) Stick a telescope in Lee’s hands, however, and he’d have a roster full of enemies in the opposing dugout the instant he was caught. “Bootling information to the batter through a hidden observer equipped with field glasses is a dastardly deed,” wrote Red Smith in 1950. “But the coach who can stand on the third-base line and, using only his own eyes and intelligence, tap the enemy’s line of communication, is justly admired for his acuteness.”

Even Al Worthington was willing to admit as much. “Sign stealing is as old as baseball,” he said. “You watch a coach from the dugout and you try to figure out the signs he’s giving to the batter, but it’s the coach’s job to hide them from you. . . . There’s nothing wrong with that. But to spy with binoculars . . . that’s cheating.”

The White Sox, unable to trade Worthington after word got out about his moral stance, banished him to the minors for the next two years. The pitcher was claimed by Cincinnati in the Rule 5 draft prior to the 1963 season, and after being sold to Minnesota in 1964 spent six productive seasons with the Twins, leading the American League in saves in 1968, at age 39.

Here’s hoping that Fiers’ journey, whatever it might be, is smoother than that.

Umpire Relations

No Strike 3 For You: The High Cost Of Scuffing An Umpire’s Ego During the World Series

Game 5 of the World Series gave us a particularly interesting moment during the course of an otherwise dull blowout: After a host of questionable ball-strike calls, plate ump Lance Barksdale outdid himself during the sixth inning.

Nats right-hander Tanner Rainey threw a 2-2 fastball to Michael Brantley that should have been called strike three, after which catcher Yan Gomes popped up from his crouch to toss the ball around the infield. Apparently he did so a bit too quickly, preempting Barksdale’s official decision. To teach Gomes a lesson, Barksdale called the pitch a ball and kept the at-bat alive.

“You were taking off on me,” Barksdale said when Gomes asked what happened.

The catcher was incredulous, replying, “Oh, it’s my fault?”

A few things happened here. One, Gomes turned around to converse with the plate ump. In a world of sensitive egos and well-established rules of comportment, this is an absolute no-no. Catchers question umpires’ calls all the time, but they inevitably do so from the squat, while facing the pitcher. “You never show them up—that’s the worst thing you can do,” former Tigers catcher Jim Price said in an interview for The Baseball Codes. “Don’t ever turn around to talk to them.”

Occasionally, the umpire will walk around and dust off the plate in order to face the catcher and offer an eye-to-eye retort. It can be vocal and it can be personal, but it’s also private, done behind a mask. Nobody watching from the stands or on TV realizes anything is happening. This is time-tested baseball tradition.

“The best advice that I can give is to have a little dialogue with the home plate umpire throughout the game,” longtime catcher Michael Barrett told ESPN in 2007. “Break the tension a little bit. Realize that the home plate umpire is the authority and make sure to communicate with him during the game and as the game goes on. It’s important to understand that the umpire is human, he’s going to make mistakes like everyone else, and we are going to have a better relationship if we are talking.”

Who knows what Gomes might have already said to Barksdale over the course of the game, though in light of the umpire’s consistently shaky calls, some sort of dialog between them wouldn’t be surprising.

Former Yankees reliever George Frazier once found himself in a similar situation as pertains to prematurely reacting to what he believed to be strike three. As Frazier told it during an interview for The Baseball Codes, it was the ninth inning in Baltimore, and Len Sakata was at the plate with two strikes and two outs.  

“I painted a slider and took a hop toward the dugout,” he said. “I’m looking in [at plate umpire Durwood Merrill], and he’s looking at me. Then he comes out toward the mound. I’m from Oklahoma, and he was a big OU football recruiter—he recruited Billy Sims from Texas. He said, ‘What are you doin’, Okie?’ I said, ‘Man, come on! That ball was right there.’ He says ‘OK, put it there again and we’ll ring him up.’ ”

Frazier agreed … but didn’t execute.

“I threw a pitch that literally bounced a foot out in front of the plate,” he said. “Durwood had already started his wind to ring him up, and he’s walking off. The umpires had to go down our dugout steps, where I’m walking off too, and he’s growling, ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’ Sakata was right behind him, yelling, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’ ”

“Durwood said to me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘You shoulda rung him up on the other one!’ ”

(For what it’s worth, Frazier never faced Sakata in the described circumstance. As is the way with ballplayers telling decades-old stories, details are known to inadvertently blur.)

The difference between Frazer and Rainey was that Lance Barksdale was working the freaking World Series. Petty displays of ego shouldn’t be part of an umpire’s tool kit in the first place, but in the postseason they need to be put away entirely. Luckily, the call on Brantley had no bearing on the game’s outcome, but strikes are strikes and balls are balls and, sure, calls might get blown, but for a guy to try to teach a lesson to a veteran catcher on the sport’s biggest stage is downright shameful.