Tired: Dealing with an opposition’s tendency to pitch inside by having your pitchers offer warning shots of their own, risking a beanball war and cyclical escalation.
Wired: Complaining about it publicly.
On Sunday, New York’s Jordan Montgomery hit Austin Meadows. Twice. A day earlier, Yankees reliever Justin Wilson hit Joey Wendle. On Friday, Nick Nelson drilled Rays catcher Mike Zunino.
At which point, Rays manager Kevin Cash leveraged the power of the press, saying after the game that this pattern “continues to roll over,” and was “so grossly mishandled by Major League Baseball last year.”
Cash was talking about a lot of things.
Bad blood has been flowing between these teams since 2018, during which time a series of Yankees pitchers has drilled a series of Rays hitters, results of which include a fractured foot for Kevin Kiermeir. In response to it all, Tampa Bay reliever Andrew Kittredge threw a fastball at the head of New York catcher Austin Romine, and it was officially on. (Whether Kittredge was aiming for Romine’s helmet is up for debate, but the batter was a clear target.) CC Sabathia then drilled Rays catcher Jesus Sucre (costing himself $500,000 in the process), and things have tumbled downhill from there.
Most notable among those moments was when Masahiro Tanaka drilled Joey Wendle with an extra-oomph fastball last September, and Aroldis Chapman nearly hit Mike Brosseau in the head with a 101-mph fastball later in that same game. (Chapman was suspended, but not until this season, and Tanaka wasn’t disciplined at all. Thus Cash’s “mishandled” comments about MLB’s response.)
Since 2018, the Yankees have hit 24 Rays (not wildly out of line with their numbers against other AL East opposition), while Tampa Bay has drilled 16 Yankees.
“Do I personally think [Montgomery] was trying to hit [Meadows]?” said Cash. “I do not. But this continues to roll over.”
To make matters worse, Montgomery nearly hit Montgomery in the head, a pitch sketchy enough to earn immediate warnings for both dugouts from plate ump Marty Foster. (Despite the warning, Montgomery was not tossed after hitting Meadows again four innings later.) Toward the beginning of this run, it was actually the Yankees complaining that Tampa Bay was coming up and in with far too much frequency. Things change.
Give Cash credit for forcing the issue. His protestations will likely have no impact on MLB’s official position, but whoever umpires the remaining games between the teams this season will certainly be on notice.
The Yankees and Rays meet again in New York on Friday.
Yankees great Whitey Ford, one of the final remaining ties to New York’s amazing championship teams of the 1950s, has passed away at age 91.
The guy is all over The Baseball Codes, partly because he was so darned good, but mostly because he was so open about the various ways he tried to game the system during his career. As a young man, Ford had no need for cheating, but as he got older and began to lose his stuff, he realized that a little extra-curricular help would benefit him greatly.
Some of this help came courtesy of a stainless steel ring he wore, which featured a small rasp—about a half-inch long and a quarter-inch wide—welded onto one side. Ford put a Band-Aid on top of it to make it less visible, and wore it on his glove hand to escape notice. He kept the rasp turned toward his palm so that when he rubbed up the ball, he could easily gouge the surface. “One little nick was all it took to get the baseball to sail and dip like crazy,” he wrote in his book, Slick. (Catcher Elston Howard would do similarly for him, using a sharpened shin-guard buckle, prior to returning the ball to the mound.)
Ford would also use tacky substances to lend extra spin to his breaking pitches. His go-to was a concoction he came up with himself, made of turpentine, baby oil and rosin, which he said looked like white glue. Ford stored it in a roll-on deodorant container so as to freely brandish it in the dugout during games. (One story has Yogi Berra mistakenly trying to use it under his arms after emerging from the shower, necessitating that his armpit hair be cut away to free him from the stuff.)
Ford’s chicanery was not limited to ball doctoring. He would, on occasion, pitch from several inches in front of the rubber in order to get closer to the plate. “If you covered the rubber up with dirt, it was easy to do,” he wrote in Slick. “It’s just something nobody’s ever looking for. When I coached ﬁrst base for the Yankees, I never remember checking to see if the pitcher had his foot in contact with the rubber when he delivered the pitch. Sometimes you could stand with both feet on the rubber, get your sign, and then when you pitched, your ﬁrst step could be about three feet in front of the rubber. Talk about adding a yard to your fastball.”
My favorite Ford story, however, leads off Chapter 7 of The Baseball Codes, Don’t Show Players Up:
It was a simple question. From the batter’s box at Candlestick Park, Willie Mays looked at Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford and, pointing toward Mickey Mantle in center ﬁeld, asked, “What’s that crazy bastard clapping about?”
What that crazy bastard was clapping about only tangentially concerned Mays, but the Giants superstar didn’t know that at the time. It was the 1961 All-Star Game, and Ford had just struck Mays out, looking, to end the ﬁrst inning. The question was posed when Ford passed by Mays as the American League defense returned to the dugout—most notably among them Mantle, hopping and applauding every step of the way, as if his team had just won the World Series. There was a good story behind it, but that didn’t much matter in the moment. Willie Mays was being shown up in front of a national baseball audience.
Under ordinary circumstances there is no acceptable reason for a player to embarrass one of his colleagues on the ﬁeld. It’s the concept at the core of the unwritten rules, helping dictate when it is and isn’t appropriate to steal a base, how one should act in the batter’s box after hitting a home run, and what a player should or shouldn’t say to the media. Nobody likes to be shown up, and baseball’s Code identiﬁes the notion in virtually all its permutations. Mantle’s display should never have happened, and Mays knew it.
Mantle had been joyous for a number of reasons. There was the strikeout itself, which was impressive because to that point Mays had hit Ford like he was playing slow-pitch softball—6-for-6 lifetime, with two homers, a triple, and an astounding 2.167 slugging percentage, all in All-Star competition. Also, Ford and Mantle had spent the previous night painting the town in San Francisco in their own inimitable way, and Ford, still feeling the effects of overindulgence, was hoping simply to survive the confrontation. Realizing that he had no idea how to approach a Mays at-bat, the left-hander opened with a curveball; Mays responded by pummeling the pitch well over four hundred feet, just foul. Ford, bleary and already half beaten, didn’t see a downside to more of the same, and went back to the curve. This time Mays hit it nearly ﬁve hundred feet, but again foul. It became clear to the pitcher that he couldn’t win this battle straight up—so he dipped into his bag of tricks.
Though Ford has admitted to doctoring baseballs in later years, at that point in his career he wasn’t well practiced in the art. Still, he was ahead in the count, it was an exhibition game, and Mays was entitled to at least one more pitch. Without much to lose, Ford spat on his throwing hand, then pretended to wipe it off on his shirt. When he released the ball, it slid rotation-free from between his ﬁngers and sailed directly at Mays’s head, before dropping, said Ford, “from his chin to his knees” through the strike zone. Mays could do nothing but gape and wait for umpire Stan Landes to shoot up his right hand and call strike three.
To this point in the story, nobody has been shown up at all. Ford may have violated baseball’s actual rules by loading up a spitter, but cheating is fairly well tolerated within the Code. Mays’s reaction to the extreme break of the pitch may have made him look bad, but that was hardly Ford’s fault. But then came Mantle, jumping and clapping like a kid who’d just been handed tickets to the circus. It didn’t much matter that the spectacle was directed not at Mays but at Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who immediately understood the motivation behind Mantle’s antics.
Stoneham had gone out of his way to make Mantle and Ford feel at home upon their arrival in town a day earlier, using his connections at the exclusive Olympic Club to arrange a round of golf for the duo, and went so far as to enlist his son Peter as their chauffeur. Because the pair of Yankees had failed to bring golf equipment, their ﬁrst stop was the pro shop, for shoes, gloves, sweaters, and rental clubs. The total came to four hundred dollars, but the club didn’t accept cash. Instead, they charged everything to Stoneham, intending to pay him back at the ballpark the following day.
That night, however, the three met at a party at the chic Mark Hopkins Hotel. Ford attempted to settle his tab on the spot, but Stoneham’s response wasn’t quite what he anticipated: The owner told him to keep his money . . . for the moment. Stoneham then proposed a wager: If Ford retired Mays the ﬁrst time they faced each other the following afternoon, he owed nothing. Should the center ﬁelder hit safely, however, Ford and Mantle would owe Stoneham eight hundred dollars, double their original debt. Ordinarily, this sort of bet would be weighted heavily in favor of the pitcher, since even the best hitters connect only three times out of ten, but Ford was aware of his track record against Mays. Nonetheless, the lefty loved a challenge even more than he loved a drink, and quickly accepted Stoneham’s terms.
Mantle, however, wasn’t so cavalier, telling Ford frankly just how bad a deal it was. “I hated to lose a sucker bet,” he said later, “and this was one of them.”
That didn’t keep Ford from sweet-talking him into accepting Stoneham’s terms. In center ﬁeld the next day, Mantle found himself signiﬁcantly more concerned about the potential four-hundred-dollar hole in his pocket than he was about the baseball ramiﬁcations of the Ford-Mays showdown. So, when the Giants’ star was called out on the decisive spitter, it was all Mantle could do to keep from pirouetting across the ﬁeld. Said Ford, “Here it was only the end of the ﬁrst inning in the All-Star Game, and he was going crazy all the way into the dugout.”
“It didn’t dawn on me right away how it must have looked to Willie and the crowd,” said Mantle. “It looked as if I was all tickled about Mays striking out because of the big rivalry [over who was the game’s pre-eminent center ﬁelder], and in the dugout when Whitey mentioned my reaction I slapped my forehead and sputtered, ‘Aw, no . . . I didn’t . . . how could I . . . what a dumb thing.’ ”
Whitey Ford was a 10-time All-Star, the best pitcher on baseball’s best team for well over a decade, and, in one of baseball’s most remarkable records, took the hill for Game 1 one of the World Series eight times.
After Gleyber Torres stole second base last night with Yankees leading Tampa Bay, 9-3, in the ninth, some people, including Pedro Martinez on the TBS broadcast, intoned that he was disrespectfully trying to run up the score. In order to determine whether this is actually the case, we must first identify a key component of the play: Was Torres just playing hard, was he being a boor or was he sending a message? All three options are in play.
Playing hard Tampa Bay went 8-2 against the Yankees this season, accounting for nearly all of their seven-game division lead at season’s end. None of those eight wins were laughers, though the Rays scored the winning run in the eighth two times, and once in the ninth. Late-game comebacks are possible, and in a five-game series, every run counts.
Could Torres have stolen the base because he doesn’t like the Rays? Of course. Did the fact that he did it against Shane McClanahan, a guy making his major league debut, serve to further roil the Tampa Bay dugout? Could be.
Sending a message The game was tight until the ninth, when Giancarlo Stanton’s grand slam off of Rays reliever John Curtiss gave the Yankees their six-run cushion. Curtiss—who by that point had given up two singles, two walks and Stanton’s homer, five runs in all, while recording only one out—threw his second pitch to the next hitter, Gio Urshela, high and tight. Torres, batting next, got a similar treatment.
Were those pitches intentional, borne of frustration? Given Curtiss’ struggles, that’s a strong possibility. The right-hander is coming off the finest season of his short career, during which he issued three walks all year. It’s reasonable to think that walking two guys in the span of four hitters during his first-ever playoff appearance, followed by a back-breaking homer, might have jumbled his emotions at least a little bit.
It’s also reasonable to think that Torres might have taken it precisely that way.
On the broadcast, Martinez did not hide his feelings, calling the steal “a terrible mistake” and intoning the maxim about “respect the opposition because you expect them to respect you.”
For that notion to hold water, Torres’ motivation would have to fall under one of the first two headings above. If what he did was actually a response to those inside pitches, however, the idea of respect is muted. Martinez, one of baseball’s prime intimidators during his Hall of Fame career, understands this as well as anybody, though he speaks from the perspective of someone who dished out far more in this regard than he took.
Should Torres ever decide to talk about why he did what he did, then perhaps we’ll know more. Until that point, it’s mainly a matter of waiting to see if the Rays respond, and how.
It’s a funny thing, this COVID baseball. Some guys can’t seem to remember to wear a mask or stay within the perimeter of the team hotel, but when it comes to responding to past injustices they’re a bunch of goddamn elephants. Never forget a thing.
That is why, when Masahiro Tanaka pitched inside to Joey Wendle with two outs in the first inning of yesterday’s Yankees-Rays game, then drilled him with his next pitch (which, at 95 mph, was the hardest he threw all night by a considerable margin) nobody had to question what was happening.
The intent was clear. Tanaka has walked fourbatters this season over six starts. Wendle was the first one he’s hit. The question was, why?
Well, a day earlier the first pitch thrown by Tampa Bay starter Tyler Glasnow had been up and in to D.J. LeMahieu—the latest in a pattern that has seen Rays pitchers working the Yankees, and LeMahieu in particular, inside all season long. That might have been it. Or maybe somehow the Yankees are still sore about the time late in 2018 when Rays reliever Andrew Kitteridge threw a retaliatory fastball at Austin Romine’s head (and missed). That seems like old news, especially given that C.C. Sabathia responded in spectacular fashion the following day, but people keep talking about it so maybe it’s still a thing.
Something that almost undoubtedly contributed is the fact that Tampa Bay has kicked the snot out of the Yankees this year, winning seven out of eight games prior to Tuesday night. Is that the difference in the American League East? Hell yeah, it is.
Maybe Tanaka just wanted to change the tone.
To his credit, Tanaka went by the unwritten rulebook and plunked Wendle in the backside. Wendle took it well, smiling in recognition as he trotted to first base—as did the rest of the Rays, who didn’t force the issue as the game progressed.
That’s where things stood until the ninth, when Aroldis Chapman, in to protect a 5-3 lead, threw his second pitch to Wendle up and in, at 95 mph. After Wendle grounded out to first, Chapman’s second pitch to the next hitter, Austin Meadows, was also up and in, this time at 99 mph. Meadows eventually lined out. This seemed like a message. It’s also where things took a turn.
With two outs and nobody on base, Chapman’s first pitch to Mike Brosseau was a 101-mph fastball that barely missed the batter’s head, Brosseau ducking out of the way in the nick of time. Chapman stalked down the mound toward the plate, all but daring Brosseau to respond. The umpires quickly intervened, warning both benches.
After Chapman struck out Brosseau to end the game, the Yankees dugout did a bit of yelling (much of it from third base coach Phil Neven, as is frequently the case). Yelling, in fact, seems to be a theme between these teams this season. Last month at Tropicana Field, reports had Nevin shouting “Get him out of there” every time a Rays coach visited the mound. Yesterday, Tampa Bay’s Mike Zunino shouted something similar after James Paxton gave up back-to-back homers to tie the score in the seventh. With no fans in the stands, sound carries this season. Maybe that set Chapman off.
Brousseau responded to the chirping and dugouts quickly emptied, even as “New York, New York” blared over the Yankee Stadium PA. At least nobody actually came into contact with the other team. Some players even remembered to wear masks.
There are obvious questions about what this all means going forward. After the game, Rays manager Kevin Cash amplified them with the biggest megaphone he could find, calling the situation “ridiculous,” “mishandled by the Yankees” and “mishandled by the umpires.”
“They hit Joey Wendle intentionally in the first inning,” he fumed. “It was clear as day. Chapman comes in, he throws three different balls up and in. I get it—they don’t like being thrown up-and-in. But enough’s enough. We’re talking about a 100-mph fastball over a young man’s head. It’s poor judgment. Poor coaching. It’s just poor teaching, what they’re doing, and what they’re allowing to do. The chirping from the dugout.”
Strong opinions, to be sure, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Then Cash said this: “I’ve got a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph. Period.”
Threat registered. “It sounds like they’re going to try to throw at us tomorrow,” LeMahieu said. “We’ll be ready.”
The teams meet today for the final time this regular season. Even with umpires on high alert, given what we’ve seen so far, this confrontation is far from finished.
Update 9/2: Punishment has been levied: Chapman docked three games plus a fine for throwing at somebody’s head; Boone suspended one game because Chapman is an idiot; and Cash suspended one game for his postgame threat.
Update 2, 9/2: Brosseau got his revenge on Wednesday, hitting two homers and doing this:
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: showboating and celebrations These old stories help show just how far baseball has come.
In 1981, Reggie Jackson was already on edge from a number of brushback pitches he’d been forced to avoid a week earlier. So when, in Yankee Stadium, Cleveland Indians pitcher John Denny threw a fastball up and in, again making the New York star duck and cover, then compounded the frustration by striking him out two pitches later, it did not sit well with the star. Jackson ran toward Denny, clearing the benches, though though no punches were thrown. Jackson was carried from the fray by teammates Oscar Gamble and Bobby Brown.
Jackson exacted the best possible revenge in his next at-bat, taking Denny deep in the fourth inning with a man aboard to give New York a 6-1 advantage. That was only the beginning.
Reggie was already known for admiring his home runs, but he took things to the next level. He flung his bat and watched the ball, then pumped his fist in Denny’s direction before starting a slow trot around the bases. After rounding third he tipped his cap to the crowd.
Denny was not enthralled by this, glaring as Jackson circled the bases, then descending the mound to yell at his antagonist. Once Reggie crossed home plate, instead of turning for the dugout he spun and charged the mound for the second time on the day, this time pulling Denny to the ground, sparking a multiple-player fracas. Gamble and Brown again had to drag Jackson from the field, literally picking him up off the ground to do so. Never one to pass up attention, Jackson began clapping and inciting the fans as he was borne away.
He wasn’t done for the night, however. Moments later he reemerged from the dugout, this time with his jersey removed, to take another crack at the Indians. Cleveland catcher Ron Hassey took up the challenge but was intercepted by security guards, who maintained order.
Both Jackson and Denny were thrown out of the game.
Irv Noren died over the weekend, just shy of his 95th birthday. He played for 11 big-league seasons, notably winning World Series with the Yankees in 1952, 1953 and 1956, and earning a spot on the American League All-Star team in 1954.
He was significant to me as the third base coach for the Oakland A’s in the early 1970s under Dick Williams, and, for a time, Alvin Dark. I visited his home in Southern California as part of my research for “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic,” and he regaled me with detailed stories of his time in the Bay Area. (As I departed, he handed me a copy of an old photograph, taken during his minor league days with the Hollywood Stars, alongside a teenage batboy named Sparky Anderson.)
From the book:
“Noren was Dick Williams’ guy. The two had grown up together in Pasadena, and though they were separated by four years as schoolkids, they stayed close through their professional lives. Both were signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, Noren in 1946 (following a one-season stint in the National Basketball League, a precursor to the NBA) and Williams a year later. When Williams was assigned to Fort Worth of the Texas League in 1948, he moved into Noren’s house. Noren advanced to the big leagues with Senators and then the Yankees, where he was an All-Star and won three World Series. After four more stops as a player, he became player-manager of the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League (where he implemented a $50 fine for any player irresponsible enough to show up too sunburned to play). After Williams was fired as manager of the Red Sox in 1969, he promised Noren that he would reserve a spot for him on his next coaching staff. Sure enough, when Finley hired Williams in 1971, Noren was one of the manager’s first calls.”
Actually, only part of the above made it into the final copy. I detailed a fair amount of Noren’s journey with the A’s, but much of it—mostly having to do with the team’s transition from Williams to Alvin Dark—was cut for reasons of length. Noren’s tenure in Oakland ended with a mid-season dismissal in 1974, and the old coach was insistent on making sure the record was correct when it came to his perception of things. So I give you an unpublished excerpt from “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic”:
Despite having played with Noren on both the Cardinals (1957-58) and the Cubs (1959), Dark got off to a rocky start with him at the beginning of the [1974 season]. Noren had been one of the front-runners to replace Dick Williams, and it was assumed that Dark’s hiring would not sit well with him. (The reality, of course, was that Noren’s long friendship with Williams virtually eliminated him from the competition before it even started.) Noren’s case was not helped when he was nowhere to be found upon Dark’s arrival in Mesa for spring training. It was easy to leap to conclusions, but Noren said that hurt feelings had nothing to do with his absence.
“I was really sick the day that spring training opened,” he said, looking back. “The doctor didn’t want me to fly or drive. I called Alvin and [A’s owner Charlie Finley] and said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t report—I’m in bed.’ Alvin thought I wanted his job, and that I was pissed off because I didn’t get it. I had no inkling at all about wanting his job. I was just sick. I had the doctor write me out a note and reported three days later.”
Over the season’s first six weeks, Dark’s suspicions of his third-base coach ballooned to the point that he thought Noren was ignoring signs in order to make the manager look bad. Dark’s instructions for bunts and stolen bases were summarily overlooked to such a degree that he took the problem to Finley. The Owner, seeking solutions, theorized that perhaps Dark’s signs were too complex. He asked for a demonstration.
Dark explained to him about things like the indicator sign, before which everything else is subterfuge, and the complex methods with which the indicator can be utilized. Finley asked for the entire routine. Alvin did it, wiping across his chest, tapping his way down his arms, touching his wrist, his chin, his ear. It was all standard fare—but not for Finley.
“No wonder he misses signs,” said the Owner. “Your signs are too complicated. Make it simple. Touch your hat for a bunt. Touch your earlobe for a steal.” With a sigh, Dark explained that signs—his and every other manager’s—must be complex lest they be too easily deciphered.
Noren’s explanation, offered decades after the fact, was a bit different.
“Alvin came in and wanted me to use his signs, not my signs, so I had to learn a whole new set in a very short amount of time,” he said, looking back at Dark’s crash-course introduction to the club. “He also wanted me to relay signs to the guy on deck, which made things especially complicated. I missed the sign on the hit-and-run one time, and Alvin got mad. I said, ‘Alvin, I’m doing the best I can.’ ”
Noren paused to think about the lunacy of it all. “I’m going to do that to players?” he said, referring to the reports that Dark thought he’d been missing signs intentionally. “These guys won two World Series and I get along great with them. I’m going to screw them up because I don’t like the manager? Come on.”
Nonetheless, Dark was so disillusioned with the coach that he eventually tried to shift first base coach Jerry Adair to Noren’s position on the third base line. Adair demurred, pointing out that he was not a third-base coach, never mind that the team had won two straight championships with Noren giving the signals.
Noren appeared doomed from season’s start. He was popular with the players—a number of whom, including Bando, Hunter, Rudi and Lindblad, came out for a promotion at his liquor store in Arcadia, Calif., timed to coincide with an A’s trip to nearby Anaheim—and many were upset by his sudden departure. (The fact that he owned a liquor store may also have soured him in the eyes of the teetotaling Dark, despite the fact that Noren did not drink, either.)
The coach knew something was wrong before the game, when sportswriter Jim Street of the San Jose Mercury News, who was married to Noren’s daughter, Debbie, informed him that he had seen A’s minor league coach Bobby Hofman getting off a plane at the Oakland airport that afternoon. Throughout the game, Noren said, Dark refused to so much as glance in his direction. “Every pitch I’d look into the dugout for a sign, and he’d just look away,” he said. After the bottom of the seventh inning, Noren’s wife beckoned him to her seat in the stands. She was sitting with Debbie, whose husband had just confirmed the news. “It’s you,” she said. “You’re getting fired.” Noren’s rage was given two innings to build, and when Dark called him into his office after the game to deliver the news, the coach unleashed a bitter tirade. “I’m not a fighter, but I was ready to fight,” he said, looking back. “I tore into him. Alvin just sat there and didn’t say a word.”
Sure enough, Noren (who was fired along with fellow coach Vern Hoscheit) was replaced by Hofman. It was his last big league coaching job.
The Yankees, it was reported yesterday, took exception to some whistling emanating from the Houston dugout during Game 1 of the ALCS. It was, they felt, an ongoing signal to hitters about either the type or location of the upcoming pitch. According to SNY, a Yankees coach—who didn’t come forward directly, but was outed to the network by three sources—called out the Astros about the practice during the game, leading to some back-and-forth yelling across the field.
“The whole dugout was pissed,” SNY’s Andy Martino quoted one of the sources as saying. “Everyone was chirping.”
On one hand, sign stealing is a long-accepted practice around the league, with the clear-cut caveat that it not be technologically aided. A runner relaying signs to the hitter from second base might be viewed by opponents as annoying, but his presence means mostly that the victimized team needs better signs.
Take the practice beyond the fences, however, and real issues arise. Never mind that spying on an opponent’s signals via a ballpark video camera is against the actual rules—it’s also seen as below-board chicanery by people who would otherwise harbor a soft spot for thievery of a more legitimate (ie: non-technically aided) persuasion.
Which is where things grow hazy about New York’s accusations. If the Astros were whistling from the dugout, it almost certainly means that they were getting their information from someplace else within Minute Maid Park. Unless New York catcher Gary Sanchez was dropping his fingers so far below his squat that his signs could be read from the sideline, folks in the Houston dugout would have no legitimate way to figure out what to signal and when.
Then, a team employee named Kyle McLaughlin was stationed in a dugout-adjacent photographer well (without appropriate credentials, it should be noted) and caught aiming a cell phone into the dugouts of both Cleveland (Houston’s opponent in the ALDS) and Boston (during the ALCS). The Astros claimed that McLaughlin was placed there to insure that their opponents were not spying on them, using then-recent allegations of Apple Watch sign-stealing impropriety lodged against the Red Sox. (Why McLaughlin was snooping on Cleveland remains unclear.)
Last year, it wasn’t whistles that the Astros used to signal their hitters, but claps or audible whacks of a trash can. That info that came from the A’s and Dodgers, both of whom aired similar suspicions about Houston’s shenanigans, the latter during the World Series.
This is hardly the first time that a team has whistled signals to hitters. In The Baseball Codes, I recount an instance in which the Yankees, in a turn, did some whistling of their own. It happened during the late-1950s and early 1960s, and began with pitcher Bob Turley, an extremely proficient practitioner when it came to stealing signs. Turley was so good, in fact, that he was occasionally utilized as a first-base coach for that very purpose. From the book:
Turley’s relay system was simple—he’d whistle whenever a pitch was different from the last one. Hitters would start every at-bat looking for a curveball, and if a fastball was coming, so was Turley’s whistle. He’d then stay silent until something else was called. The pitcher was so good that when he went on the disabled list in 1961, manager Ralph Houk wouldn’t let him go home, instead keeping him with the team to decipher pitches. (Roger Maris, in fact, hit his sixty-ﬁrst home run of 1961 on a pitch he knew was coming because third-base coach Frank Crosetti, doing his best Turley imitation after watching the pitcher for years, whistled in advance of a fastball.)
Eventually, people began to catch on. Among them was Detroit Tigers ace Jim Bunning, who grew increasingly angry as Turley whistled and the Yankees teed off during one of his starts. Finally, with Mickey Mantle at bat, Bunning turned to Turley in the ﬁrst-base coach’s box and told him that another whistle would result in a potentially painful consequence for the hitter. Sure enough, Turley whistled on Bunning’s ﬁrst pitch, a fastball at which Mantle declined to swing. With his second offering, Bunning knocked Mantle down. The on-deck hitter, Yogi Berra, could only watch in horror. When it was his turn to bat, Berra turned toward the mound, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Jim, he’s whistling, but I ain’t listening.”
Positioning a sign thief in a coaching box is the primary non-technology-aided method the Astros might be able to employ if they are indeed stealing signs. It seems like a longshot, but, needless to say, nobody in that clubhouse is talking about it.
I collected more recent examples of illicit, beyond-the-field-of-play sign-stealing accusations from around the league for my post on the Red Sox smartwatch controversy:
Last year, MLB responded to the allegations from and about the Astros by sending an additional nine staffers—three from baseball ops and six from security—to monitor the next game, including placing somebody in each team’s video-review room. Ultimately they declared that Houston did nothing wrong.
This year, we’re getting more of the same. Suspicions about Houston’s use of surveillance technology in its home ballpark has continued unabated. “They are NASA,” said a major league coach in the SNY report. “If a pitcher is tipping and the players can see from the dugout, no biggie. If they get it from somewhere else, that’s dicey.”
Ultimately, all this subterfuge didn’t help the Astros. New York starter Masahiro Tanaka pitched six shutout innings, and the Yankees pounded Zack Greinke and four relievers in a 7-0 victory.
In Game 2, we saw New York starter James Paxton and
catcher Gary Sanchez changing signs throughout the game, even with
nobody on base, which is as clear a sign as one can get that a team is
harboring some nasty suspicions.
This affair is just getting started. If the series makes it back to Houston and the Yankees suspect that the practice is still going on, expect some bloody hell to be raised.
In the meantime, the Nationals have a good long while to figure out how to handle the situation should the Astros advance. The spy game, it seems, is alive and well in baseball.
I want to take a moment to remember Charlie Silvera, best known as Yogi Berra’s backup on the Yankees, but known to me as the crusty old scout who I loved talking to over the years in the press box of Oracle Park. Charlie, who was already a notably old man when I first met him nearly 20 years ago, died on Saturday at age 94. On one hand, this is longer than any reasonable human could hope for, but on the other it is still shocking for a guy who I assumed would live forever.
“They hated the Yankees,” he once told me. “They respected us, but they hated us.” That hatred might have had something to do with the fact that New York won six championships during Silvera’s tenure with the team, including five straight from 1949 to 1954. (He was the final survivor of the dozen men who played on all five clubs.) He spent nine years with the Yankees, during which time he started only 114 games, accumulating 484 plate appearances and a single home run. (Berra, after all, rarely took days off.) After a single season with the Cubs (and 13 more games started), Silvera followed Billy Martin to three teams—the Twins, the Tigers and the Rangers—where he served as a coach under his former teammate.
Charlie was at the center of a wonderful story about friendship, which involved growing up in San Francisco and playing against two men at rival high schools who would one day be teammates in New York: Jerry Coleman and Bobby Brown. Their relationship ended up spanning 70-odd years.
Charlie once told me the amazing story of Ralph “Pine Tar” Buxton being recruited for the Yankees by Casey Stengel based at least in part on his ability to teach pitchers on the staff how to cheat. That ended up in The Baseball Codes, as did Silvera’s classic quote about backup players receiving less-sought-after positions in the train’s sleeper car: “The stars, the starting lineup would have the middle of the car, and Charlie Silvera would spend his lifetime over the wheels. Bobby Brown says that anybody that rode over wheels for his whole career deserves whatever he got.”
Charlie also told a host of stories that didn’t make the final copy. Among them;
“I remember when Allie Reynolds hit Chico Carrasquel with a curveball. It was probably Chico’s first year, and he got all upset. Allie said, ‘You think that’s bad, I’m gonna hit you next time with a fastball.’ ”
“The only guy who ever threw at me was Early Wynn, and he would throw at his mother. But that was a way of testing you, to see if you hung in, if you were scared. And with no helmets!”
“Whitey Ford didn’t like to switch signs. He had the same signs—one finger for a fastball, two for a curve—with a man on second, or not. He wanted to get the ball and throw. He didn’t want to lose his concentration. [Vic] Raschi used a scoreboard sign: If [the numbers of the count, added together] were even, it was a fastball, odd was an automatic curveball. If you flapped, it changed them. They were tough signs to use, but Raschi wanted to use them.”
“[Eddie] Lopat, he had one sign, ‘wiggle finger,’ because he could see when he got to the top of the mound if the batter was going to move up. He was a slowball pitcher, but he could ride his fastball in. It was limited, but it was effective. That was it. Wiggle finger.”
“In Chicago, they had a light in the scoreboard, in the circle of the zero [in Sherm Lollar’s #10], that would flash for a curveball. In Cleveland, they would put guys out in center field. Eddie Bockman used to go out there and get the signs from center field. Dean Chance went out there. They used binoculars or a telescope. Chance said he was going to go out and be inconspicuous, then wore the brightest red shirt he could find. In the playoffs in Baltimore, when Minnesota was playing there, [George] Mitterwald was catching and [Johnny] Roseboro was out in our bullpen with binoculars, trying to get the signs, and they caught him. One of our pitchers turned him in, one of our own, because he said that was cheating.” [That pitcher, Al Worthington, is featured prominently in The Baseball Codes.]
[Under the heading of professional courtesy]: “Lew Brissie was shot up in World War II, had a bad leg and wore a protector over his shin. Phil Rizzuto still bunted on him, and Brissie would throw at Rizzuto because of this. He went after Phil, threw at his head. He felt that this was taking advantage of a wounded veteran. He was one guy we all knew not to bunt against.”
“When you joined the Yankees, you were told the do’s and don’ts about what to do and what not to do. When I joined the club, Red Ruffing, Joe Gordon and Joe DiMaggio were in the service, so the four policemen on the team, the disciplinarians, were Tommy Henrich (age 33), Johnny Lindell (27), Snuffy Stirnweiss (29) and Billy Johnson (27). They were the ones that said, ‘You don’t get ’em tomorrow, you get ’em today.’ They said ‘Don’t fuck with our money’ to anybody who might be messing up during games.”
“[Catcher] Clint Courtney had been in the Yankee farm system, went to spring training with us, and then was traded to the Browns. [Gil] McDougald had played with him at Beaumont, and Courtney had him out in a play at the plate but McDougald kicked the ball out of his glove for the go-ahead run. So Courtney is the first hitter up in the bottom of the ninth, and he hit the first pitch off the screen, kept running and he jumped feet first into Rizzuto, who had the ball at second. Well, that’s the last time Courtney saw anybody friendly from our team, because he was just clobbered from all over. The retribution went on and on and on. Billy Martin tagged him on the face and knocked his glasses off. And Whitey Ford was jumping up and down, stomping on his glasses. Courtney had a little trouble finding his way home.”
“I was catching, with Ted Williams hitting and Bill McGowan umpiring. They called McGowan ‘Number One.’ He was a grouchy old bastard, but he was a good ball-and-strike umpire when he wanted to be, and generally, Yankees vs. Red Sox was something big. So we go to a two-and-one count, and the next pitch caught a lot of the plate. I said, ‘Jeez, Bill, that was a pretty good pitch.’ He said, ‘Throw the ball back, you bush bastard. They came here to see him hit, not you catch.’ ”
That was Charlie in a nutshell. Humble, endearing, and salty enough to remain forever intriguing. It was at his house that I got to hold a game-used Ted Williams bat, one small piece among a wondrous array of memorabilia collected over a career spent paying attention to that kind of thing in ways that I wish more ballplayers would have done.
The guy was never a star, but he was baseball, through and through. He will be missed.
Finally, we’re seeing retaliation for something other than bat flipping and the like. Agree with it or not, at least the reason feels somehow tangible.
On May 11 in Tampa, Rays pitcher Yonny Chirinos drilled Yankees first baseman Luke Voit on the left arm with a 95-mph fastball, one batter after DJ LeMahieu had homered. Even if it was unintentional, the optics were terrible. It didn’t help that Chirinos hit Gary Sanchez two batters later, or that Gleyber Torres had been drilled the previous night. “It’s the same thing,” said CC Sabathia in the aftermath. “We hit a home run and they throw up and in. It’s stupid.”
Still, Sabathia’s ire didn’t seem to spread to his teammates. The Yankees had a small opening to respond later in the game, after the Rays opened up a 7-2 lead in the ninth, but did nothing. They had another chance the next day after New York scored four in the top of the ninth to build a 7-1 lead. Again, no action. This would likely have gone unnoticed for the fact that Sabathia has a long memory and a thirst for justice.
On Friday, in the series opener against the Rays at Yankee Stadium, the lefthander threw a pitch that forced Rays DH Austin Meadows to jackknife out of the way. Afterward, Romine said that he didn’t think it was intentional—a stance that lasted until he saw the video, which left little to doubt: While walking back to the dugout after ending the inning, Sabathia shouted, “I definitely was trying to hit his ass.” During a tie game.
An inning later, the pitcher yelled at the Rays dugout some
“You know CC, he’s been around a long time,” Meadows told
reporters after watching the video. “He’s a competitor. He obviously wanted to
take a shot there, but it is what it is. Obviously, we had a beef back and
forth. It’s part of the game, honestly. Luckily I didn’t get hit. But it is
what it is.”
Things continued in Sunday’s series finale, when New York starter Chad Green drilled Daniel Robertson in the head after giving up back-to-back homers. Chance Adams later hit Yandy Diaz in the wrist, knocking him from the game. Robertson said afterward that he did not believe Green’s pitch was intentional, but Diaz was not so certain, saying, in the New York Post, “Maybe it was because I hit two home runs off them [on May 11].”
During the 2000s, the Rays had an extended beef with Boston, eight years’ worth of back-and-forth sniping that led to multiple brawls (all of which was dissected in The Baseball Codes). Now it seems like they’ve picked a new AL East opponent with which to do this particular tango. (Take a look at the above link about Sabathia drilling Sucre to see a rundown of some thorough short-term HBP detritus.)
The teams next see each other June 17 in New York. It would be surprising if things ended here.
We have the season’s second incident of a pitcher being too brazen for his own good. In April, it was Noah Syndergaard. On Wednesday it was Seattle left-hander Yusei Kikuchi. Their problem: not hiding pine tar well enough.
For Kikuchi, there was so much stuff slathered beneath the
bill of his cap that fans in the second deck of Yankee Stadium were screaming
for the umpire to check him. Fans, however, don’t have the power to make that
request. Yankees manager Aaron Boone did, and opted against it.
Meanwhile, Kikuchi had a no-hitter through five innings and
pitched into the eighth as the Mariners won, 10-1.
Pine tar, of course, adds grip for a pitcher. Where a slippery substance like Vaseline lends movement by removing spin from the baseball, pine tar can help (to lesser degrees) by increasing snapability. For somebody like Kikuchi, whose success depends on placement of breaking pitches, it can make a difference. The result of Wednesday’s game is evidence. (Whereas somebody like Syndergaard may have been tempted to use it during a frigid game in April, the Seattle Times informs us that Kikuchi might use it because he sweats a lot.)
So why didn’t the Yankees make a stink? Because, as we know by now, pitchers on virtually every team use pine tar—if not more nefarious substances—and rare is the manager who wants to get into an escalating battle of if-you-check-my-pitcher-then-I’ll-check-yours.
From my post about Syndergaard a few weeks back:
That’s hyperbole, but probably not by much. When Detroit’s Mike Fiers tossed a no-hitter against Los Angeles in 2015, he did so with a shiny substance that many took for pine tar adhered to his glove. Dodgers players knew all about it and didn’t say a thing. When Kenny Rogers was caught with pine tar on his hand during the 2006 World Series, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa didn’t even have him ejected, wanting only to make sure that the pitcher’s hands were clean (literally and figuratively) and that the cheating stopped. When Clay Bucholz was caught with slick stuff loaded onto his arm in 2014, his opponents—despite what seemed like the entire mediasphere piling on—refused to indict him. Bucholz was never checked, and everything proceeded more or less apace. Even the instances in which players are called out tend to back up this mindset. After Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez had Brewers reliever Will Smith tossed from a game in 2015, all he said afterward was, “Every pitcher does it—just hide it better next time.”
MLB didn’t even comment on the matter, let alone take action. Yankees outfielder Cameron Maybin may as well have been speaking for everybody when he said after the game (via NJ.com). “Nobody noticed it, nobody said anything. We’ve got a lot bigger worries, trying to manufacture runs, trying to get on base, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it.”
Kikuchi has been in the big leagues for less than two
months. He clearly knows how to cheat. Now he just has to learn to be more
subtle about it.