RIP

RIP Irv Noren

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 So I give you an unpublished excerpt from “Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic”: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.

Baseball lost a good one this weekend.

Sign stealing

Astros Whet Their Whistles While Yankees Fume

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.

There’s also the not-insignificant detail that the Astros were accused of this very thing just last season.

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:

The Blue Jays were accused repeatedly, by numerous opponents, of similar activity at the Rogers Centre, to the point that ESPN commissioned an expansive expose on the practice.

The Phillies drew the ire of multiple teams—including the Yankees, in the World Series—for their alleged ballpark shenanigans. It didn’t help that, in 2010, their bullpen coach was caught on the field with binoculars.

In 2014, Chris Sale accused Victor Martinez and the Tigers of having somebody in center field.

The Padres have had (probably baseless) accusations thrown their way, as have the Marlins.

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.

Update 10-18: According to Ken Rosenthal, baseball has cleared the Astros of wrongdoing.

RIP

RIP Charlie Silvera

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 five 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.

Retaliation

Yankees-Rays Blood Feud Continues, With CC Sabathia At The Helm

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.”

Sabathia, of course, has some history with the Rays. He’s already been suspended this season for the way he closed the 2018 campaign, by drilling Tampa Bay’s Jesus Sucre in response to a Rays pitcher throwing behind the head of Austin Romine a half-inning earlier. Some grudges die hard.

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 more.

“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.

Cheating

More Pine Tar Found In New York. It Continues To Not Be Much Of An Issue

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.

Retaliation

One Pitcher From Last Season’s Yanks-Rays HBP Flap Spared, And It’s Not Sabathia

CC yells

It was kind of a big deal last September when, in his final appearance of the regular season, CC Sabathia responded to a head-high fastball thrown at one of his teammates by drilling an opponent of his own. It was kind of a big deal because warnings had already been issued, and Sabathia knew that he’d be ejected for the action, two innings from triggering a $500,000 bonus clause in his contract. He considered it money well spent.

At the time, a number of critics (myself included) suggested that the Yankees should pay him anyway. In December, they did.

Now the other half of the equation—Rays reliever Andrew Kittredge, whose head-high fastball to Austin Romine, itself a response to various teammates being tagged by Yankees pitchers, initially triggered Sabathia—was similarly relieved of a burden. MLB suspended him for three games at the time, a penalty that it rescinded yesterday. This is especially pertinent since Kittredge has been outrighted off Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster, and a suspension—to be served whenever he returns to the big leagues—would obviate the necessity to call him up for short-term help.

Sabathia, meanwhile, is still saddled with a five-game suspension, which doesn’t mean much to a starter who can easily be slotted behind Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ. Sabathia will likely get his first start bumped back by a day or two, and that will be that. At the very least, it will serve as a tangible reminder of the lengths he’s willing to go to to stand up for his teammates.