Sign stealing

Yaz Jazz Has Mound Man Mad

The Cardinals believed that Mike Yastrzemski was stealing signs from second base yesterday. Yastrzemski knew this because the pitcher, rookie right-hander Johan Oviedo checked the card in his pocket to make sure that he was on the same page with catcher Andrew Kinzner. Then he checked it again. And again.

At that point, Yastrzemski decided to play the part, shifting and shuffling in ways that could easily be construed as signaling the hitter. Which was the point. Oviedo, thoroughly rattled, finally spun and yelled at Yastrzemski to “shut the fuck up.”

Thanks to the Astros, baseball has dealt with a lot of sign-stealing drama over the last couple of years, but nobody, then or now, has taken too much issue with a guy at second picking up whatever he can from his unique vantage point.

The great part about this is that Yastrzemski denied everything, saying that he figured that the Cardinals were getting paranoid, and so played it up.

“I didn’t want it to get to that extent,” said Yastrzemski in his postgame press conference. “I just wanted him to throw a fastball down the middle so [the hitter, Wilmer Flores] could hit a homer.”

Sure enough, Oviedo threw a fastball about as down the middle as a pitch can be. Flores flied out to end the inning.

“You just got to sell it sometimes,” Yastrzemski said. “We’re in the entertainment business. It’s just another way you can impact the game.”

Whether or not Yaz was actually stealing signs, this is wonderful. It’s reminiscent of Gaylord Perry fidgeting like mad on the mound, going to his cap, to his sleeve, to his mouth, to his collar and to his cap again, pitch after pitch, even when he wasn’t trying to load up the baseball. Perry knew that every ounce of energy a hitter devoted to figuring out whether or not he was reaching for some grease was an ounce of energy not devoted to an optimal hitting approach. And damned if it didn’t work.

It worked for Yastrzemski, too. Sort of. Oviedo lasted four innings and the Giants won the game.

Chalk one up for the actors.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

That's One Way To Spend An Off-Day

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

In one game in the early ’60s at Dodger Stadium, players on the Dodgers bench noticed Chicago pitcher Bob Buhl, on one of his off-days, sitting in street clothes in the bleachers. He was using binoculars to get signs, then signaling hitters by moving his scorecard around.

Before long, Buhl was approached by Los Angeles traveling secretary Lee Scott, who, friendly as could be, told him, “Bob, if the Cubs can’t give you better tickets than that, the Dodgers have one for you behind home plate.”

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

The Vast Potential Of Sign Stealing Via TV

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

One of the first to use television to his team’s sign-stealing advantage was the Giants’ old sign-stealer, Herman Franks, when he managed the Cubs in 1977. Franks, temporarily barred from the dugout after being suspended for a particularly animated argument with an umpire, decided to watch the game from the WGN television truck outside the ballpark. It was at that moment, as he looked at a bank of monitors handling feeds from multiple cameras, that he truly understood the sign-stealing potential of TV. Franks called the dugout and spoke with his most trusted coach, Harry Lowrey, known as “Peanuts”—himself an aficionado of the sign-thievery arts—and quickly set up a system. Franks was to pass along the information he gathered from the TV truck to Lowery, who would then relay it to the hitter. But there were two flaws to the plan.

One was that Lowrey, involved with major league baseball for 35 years and a voracious sign decoder, was 60 years old and slowly losing his hearing. The other was that the terminology Franks used to quickly communicate the catcher’s signs—he simply called out the number of fingers dropped on any given pitch—was the same as the terminology used by Arne Harris, the television producer sitting next to Franks, to communicate with the broadcast’s three-man camera crew. “One!” shouted Franks into the phone to Lowery. “Three!” “Two!” As Franks increased his volume to compensate for Lowrey’s hearing deficiency, Harris was forced to get louder as well, just to compete. Soon, the two were in an unrelated shouting match, the entire vocabulary of which consisted of the repeated recitation of small numbers.

It would be the first and last day of Franks’ experiment.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

So The Astros WEREN'T The First Team To Send A Video Feed To A Room Near The Clubhouse And Then Audibly Signal Hitters From The Dugout?

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

During the 1995 World Series, members of the Atlanta Braves were convinced that the cameras in center field and in the visiting bullpen at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field were being used to steal signs, specifically for the Game 5 home run Albert Belle hit against Greg Maddux. Jacobs Field had a number of such robotic cameras positioned around the stadium—the one in center-field was aimed at the plate—which ran through a limited-access control room near the home dugout. It can be enough to drive a suspicious mind batty.

Then again, the Braves were so worried about having their signs stolen on the field by Indians third-base coach Jeff Newman that they enlisted clubhouse man John Holland to stand in front of manager Bobby Cox and obstruct intruders’ views.

Years after the fact, Cleveland reliever Alan Embree was noncommittal on the subject, saying that he “wasn’t part of that”—a statement acknowledging a “that” to be part of. Embree did point out that his team didn’t need much help offensively. “The fact of the matter is that ’95 team hit everywhere—it didn’t matter where they were,” he said. “You look at the numbers in that lineup going into the postseason, and it was like Nintendo. Teams were thinking, ‘Gosh, they can’t be this good.’ But they were that good that year. It’s the best lineup I’ve ever been a part of.”

Indeed, Cleveland led the American league in home runs (the only club to top 200), batting average (their .291 team mark was a ridiculous 11 points higher than the next-best team), stolen bases and runs. More telling was the fact that their road numbers were comparable to those at home; in fact, there were six ballparks around the league in which the Indians hit better than they did at Jacobs Field.

That still doesn’t explain the nearly identical complaints of each of the teams Cleveland faced in the playoffs that year. In the Division Series, Boston manager Kevin Kennedy carped about the Jacobs Field bullpen camera after Game 1, which was won by Cleveland on Tony Pena’s 13th inning homer, spurring the team to cover the camera for the next game. In the Championship Series, Seattle Mariners officials made similar requests.

In the mid-1990s, Royals manager Bob Boone was so suspicious of the Jacobs Field bullpen camera that he had his relievers cover it with a towel. In 1997, said Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar, the Royals once changed signs so many times that a nearly complete breakdown in communication between reliever Jose Rosado and catcher Mike Sweeney led to a wild pitch, a passed ball and eight Cleveland runs in a single inning.

Four years later, Red Sox manager Jimy Williams leveled another round of charges against Cleveland, going so far as to deliver a videotape to the umpiring crew that he said proved his allegations about the camera. “I think we’ve got something,” he told reporters. “I just want it fair for both sides. That’s all you ask.” Boston catcher Jason Varitek claimed in the Boston Globe that someone in the Cleveland dugout whistled—an ages-old signal to hitters—during at-bats late in the late-season game, including on what he described as a “500-foot foul home run on a very good pitch” to Jim Thome.

Cleveland said the camera was used to evaluate its own players, but it ended up covered for the final game of the series, which the Indians lost, and for the next series, against the Yankees, in which Cleveland lost three of four.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

Feller Frazzled By Tigers' Tendencies

It’s well known that Bob Feller brought home a military-grade gun scope from World War II, which his team used to pinch signs. Less known is why he was so passionate about the topic.

Feller was certain that he’d been beaten before by teams with similar schemes, specifically the Tigers. These feelings were spurred in part by a 1940 game in which Detroit torched him.

As it turned out there was a scope in the Tigers’ clubhouse that August, belonging to pitcher Tommy Bridges, a recently bought hunting tool he was eager to show off to his teammates. As soon as the lens was displayed, however, it didn’t take long for a secondary use to surface. “Someone suggested that we equip one of our bullpen pitchers … to zero in on the catcher’s signs,” said Hank Greenberg, the Hall of Fame first baseman, in The Complete History of the Home Run. “Then, by a hand signal, the catcher’s sign could be relayed directly to the batter.”

The spotter, stationed in the Tigers’ center-field bullpen, relayed his information to a team member leaning against the wall. For fastballs, the player rested his hand rested on the fence; for curveballs he did not.

That September, the Tigers offense sprung to life like never before, surging into the league lead in batting average and on-base percentage, finishing second in slugging and third in home runs. When Yankees manager Joe McCarthy became suspicious of uniformed Tigers personnel bearing binoculars, the team shifted its spy—usually a starting pitcher whose turn in the rotation had just passed—to the bleachers, where he sat in street clothes and signaled from the crowd.

In third place, four games behind Cleveland on Sept. 3, the Tigers—losers of 15 of their previous 23—went on an 18-7 run to close the season and take the pennant by a single game over the Indians. All but three of their final 25 games were at home. Said Greenberg, who won that season’s AL MVP Award, “I never had a more enjoyable month.”

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

'If The Light Was On, It Was A Fastball'

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

Emil Bossard, the Indians’ head groundskeeper from 1932-68, regularly picked up the opposition’s signs with binoculars, according to his grandson, Roger, a third-generation expert who plied his trade with the Chicago White Sox.

“There was a yellow light in the far corner of the scoreboard,” he said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “If the light was on, it was a fastball.”

The following season, Cleveland enlisted newly-acquired catcher Birdie Tebbetts—at that point 38 years old and rarely used—to sit in an alcove behind the dugout, where he spent games listening to a “mysterious voice at the other end” of a telephone receiver call each pitch.

Tebbetts didn’t like the scheme, and later came out publicly against such tactics, but he played along, relaying the information to someone on the dugout steps, who would, in turn, move his hand from one side of his knee to the other to indicate fastball or curve.

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

Ty Cobb Was A Fan Of The Best Newspaper In The West

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

In a 1952 article in Life Magazine, Ty Cobb admitted that the upper and lower halves of the “B” in a Tiger Stadium advertisement reading, “THE DETROIT NEWS: BEST NEWSPAPER IN THE WEST,” would alternately open and close, depending on what showed up in the binoculars of an scoreboard spy, whose lenses were strong enough, he said, “to bring out the fillings in the catcher’s teeth.”

“I don’t know whether the ad sold any newspapers,” Cobb added, “but it was a great thing for the Detroit batting averages.”

Pandemic Baseball, Sign stealing

Always Pay Attention To The Highlanders Sign

In lieu of actual baseball, I’ll be posting snippets that were cut from The Baseball Codes as a way of amusing myself and, hopefully, you. The theme this week: Sign stealing from beyond stadium boundaries, pre-Astros era.

The Astros scandal is only the latest (and, of course, most egregious) among a long history of stealing signs from beyond ballpark walls. Let’s look first at the New York Highlanders, who in 1913 would adopt the name “Yankees.”

In 1905 the Highlanders rigged a hat-store advertisement on their outfield wall so that the crossbar in the “H” could be manipulated in accordance with the upcoming pitch.

In 1909, Highlanders manager George Stallings rented an apartment behind the right-field fence of the team’s Hilltop Park, from which he had someone relay signs by flashing a mirror at the batter. Though the scheme worked well when the sun was shining, it was useless on cloudy days, so Stallings placed a man behind the outfield fence, where he spied through a gap in a whiskey advertisement and manipulated a nearby slat (the crossbar in the “H” of a “Higlanders” sign) to signal pitches.

Using this system, New York (which finished the season 74-77) beat the powerhouse Philadelphia Athletics three out of four games in early September to virtually hand the pennant to Detroit, with the Tigers needing only to win a series of their own against the Highlanders in New York two weeks later to wrap things up.

Detroit manager Hughie Jennings, having heard of the Highlanders’ system, took steps to insure that his ballclub would not fall victim to similar tactics: He and some “friends” showed up to the ballpark early and tore down the scoreboard in which the New York spy had been hiding.

Sign stealing

Bauer Ensures That His Signs Won’t Be Stolen By Telling Opponent What’s Coming

For every pitcher-catcher combo trying to figure out the most effective method of circumventing the Astros Way to Play Baseball, Trevor Bauer is here to tell you that your endlessly cycled signs, no matter how complex or arcane, are still no match for the proven system he employed in the Cactus League yesterday.

Facing the Dodgers, Bauer decided to let the hitter know exactly what was coming. He did this via the standard glove signs that pitchers give to catchers during warm-ups. If everything’s public, there’s nothing to steal.

In the top of the fourth inning, Bauer fed Matt Beaty a series of pitches, each preceded by a glove flip. Why Beaty? Maybe because he was the first batter Bauer faced. Or maybe Because because he’d already homered, against Reds starter Sonny Gray, and one thing Bauer likes nearly as much as a soapbox is a challenge. (Bauer made his feelings about Houston’s shenanigans very clear in an interview with The Athletic about two weeks ago.) Beaty ultimately flied out to center field.

The pitcher’s rationale was explained by Derek Dietrich in an in-game interview.

“If you’ve followed baseball this off-season, there’s a little thing going on with sign stealing,” Dietrich said. “Trevor’s not too fond of it, so he figured he’s gonna try something new this season, and he’s gonna start telling batters what’s coming—just, here it comes, try to hit it.”

It’s not quite the same as Nolan Ryan’s strategy during a game in 1973, but it’s in the same ballpark. Unlike Bauer, Ryan didn’t reveal his pitch selection to Tigers in advance, but, concerned about Detroit spies, he devised his own system. Whatever sign Angels catcher Art Kusnyer put down, Ryan ignored it entirely. Instead, he touched the back of his cap to tell Kusnyer that he would be throwing a fastball, the bill if he was going to the curve. As an experiment in subterfuge it worked out okay: Ryan ended up with the second no-hitter of his career.

Would Bauer’s system work in extended use during a regular-season game? Of course not. But if anybody in baseball might try to figure out an efficient reverse-sign a la Ryan, Bauer’s the guy.

Sign stealing, The Baseball Codes

Why Does This Scandal, Among All Scandals, Have Legs? Let’s Start At The Top

Spring training has brought with it a PR shitstorm for baseball the likes of which was all but unimaginable only a few months ago. Despite Astros owner Jim Crane once feeling that the scandal surrounding his team would “blow over” by the time players reported, the opposite has been true. The opening of training camps has meant widespread engagement with reporters for the first time since Mike Fiers sparked this particular tinder last November. As it happens, the players aren’t too happy with how things have gone down. And as long as players continue to talk, controversy continues to reign.

It’s been a nightmare for the sport, and particularly for commissioner Rob Manfred, who would like nothing more than for this particular news cycle to dry itself out. That’s not going to happen any time soon, maybe for the rest of the season and maybe beyond that. There are a number of reasons for this, and Manfred himself is at the center of it all.

Let’s start with the fact that rumors and accusations concerning the Astros have been swirling for years. As I wrote in this space in 2018, first reported by Jeff Passan: “Members of the Oakland A’s ‘noticed Astros players clapping in the dugout before pitches and believed they were relaying stolen signs,’ with the Dodgers airing similar concerns during last year’s World Series. Other players noted various Astros banging a trash can in the dugout during games as a supposed method of communicating pinched signs.”

Let that sink in. The trash-can banging has been on MLB’s radar at least since 2018 and probably since it began, not to mention other accusations concerning an Astros employee literally filming opposing team’s dugouts, and the Yankees crying foul about Astros players whistling from the dugout to signal their teammates at the plate. Rather than react, Manfred cleared the Astros of wrongdoing. His statement at the time:

Before the Postseason began, a number of Clubs called the Commissioner’s Office about sign stealing and the inappropriate use of video equipment. The concerns expressed related to a number of Clubs, not any one specific Club. In response to these calls, the Commissioner’s Office reinforced the existing rules with all playoff Clubs and undertook proactive measures, including instituting a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, increasing the presence of operations and security personnel from Major League Baseball at all Postseason games and instituting a program of monitoring Club video rooms.

With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee [filming the dugouts of the Red Sox and Indians], security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules. All Clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed.

“We consider the matter closed.” It may as well be the epitaph on Manfred’s tombstone.

In the mind of the commish, the less attention he granted Houston’s misdeeds, the less play they’d eventually receive in the press, and the sooner it would all go away. He’d done something similar when the Red Sox were accused of using an Apple Watch in the dugout for nefarious purposes, and it had more or less worked out. Hell, it had been a proven strategy for Manfred and his predecessors alike. I pointed this out back in 2017, during the Red Sox investigation:

More recently, 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.

All of which is to say that this is nothing new. If you haven’t heard about repercussions from those other incidents, you likely won’t remember the fallout from this one either. Assuming that the Red Sox knock it off, you can expect it to quietly disappear.

In fact, those other incidents did disappear, more or less. What was different about this scandal?

For one thing, the Astros did not knock it off. For another Manfred did not respond with requisite gravity. Let’s examine those things one at a time.

Houston was accused of video snooping, and signaling stolen signs with claps, whistles and trash-can banging—not once, but year after year—and Manfred still considered the matter closed. This despite the Astros having either won the World Series or coming very close to doing so for three seasons straight. Which, for many players who have spoken out, is a large part of it.

Should the Dodgers retroactively be crowned the champions of 2017? Should Altuve’s AL MVP Award from that same season be vacated and given to runner-up Aaron Judge? Regardless of your opinion, the fact that these questions are being asked at all, in serious circles, indicates the depth of discontent surrounding this scandal. Manfred’s response—do nothing and hope, followed by comparatively superficial suspensions of GM Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch; a docking of two years’ worth of Houston draft picks and a monetary fine—was so wildly insufficient that people can not help but discuss what kind of penalty might actually be deserved. Those discussions help keep this scandal alive.

***

Another key to the longevity of the Astros’ drama are the Astros themselves. It begins with sheer arrogance, and it ends largely the same way.

Despite accusations—widespread, continuous accusations, lasting years—Houston appears to have done little to correct its ways. So pervasive is the impression that the Astros have left, that even after the trash-can banging stopped, popular opinion pivoted to the team having simply shifted to more discreet tactics rather than decide to actually play by the rules. Did Jose Altuve really prevent teammates from shredding his jersey because he was wearing a buzzer taped to his chest? In no other context could a player’s allegedly malformed tattoo garner so much attention.

It’s the same arrogance shown when the team gathered for spring training and offered perfunctory apologies, more because they had to, it appeared, than because they believed anything they were saying. Since-ousted GM Jeff Luhnow set the tone last November, shortly after the scandal broke, when he called the existence of the controversy “disappointing.”

I did an interview with a French news agency a couple of days ago (which illustrates exactly how big this scandal has grown) that got me thinking deeply about this topic. Baseball has relatively little context in France, and the reporter’s questions seemed to be aimed at understanding Americans at large as much as what is currently happening within the sporting landscape.

The conclusion I drew is that the United States is by and large a forgiving place. Within most contexts, should somebody mess up in a major way, all it takes for public absolution is a genuine act of contrition and a verifiable change in behavior.

Within this context, Astros players coming clean about what they’ve done and expressing actual remorse, not some half-baked facsimile of it, would have gone a long way toward helping their cause. Instead, fed little but indignation and excuses, and eying what many feel was insufficient punishment, we’re left feeling that Houston brazenly cheated, mostly got away with it, and will brazenly cheat again at the next possible opportunity. Bringing in Dusty Baker to run herd on the clubhouse was a step in the right direction, but giving him only a one-year pact (even while new GM James Click received a three-year deal) smacks of simply trying to ride out the storm.

Even for those who want to forgive them, the Astros are offering precious little with which to work.

***

We must also look at Manfred himself. His desire to minimize Houston’s actions has been pervasive, and not only with his shortsighted clearing of the Astros against espionage charges back in 2018. Over recent weeks we also have his frequently ridiculous comments on the matter.

First, he issued a report that focused primarily on Luhnow and Hinch while omitting the players entirely (Carlos Beltran aside). Manfred said that blanket immunity was necessary for eliciting honest feedback, but in the end he is left looking like he let the cheaters off the hook.

Then he said that “You’re never 100-percent sure in any of these things” when it comes to the testimony he received from Astros players in exchange for said immunity. As concerns the viewing public, 100-percent certainty is a prerequisite for belief that games are played fairly.

In an ESPN interview Manfred denigrated the World Series trophy as “just a piece of metal” and suggested that the simple shame of the matter was punishment enough for the team: “I think if you watch the players, watch their faces when they have to deal with this issue publicly, they have paid a price.” 

So bungled was his response that outraged players have been piling on, to the point that Manfred had to backtrack with an apology about his trophy crack. Which brings us to the final factor in the sustained outrage this scandal continues to generate: Players themselves.

Baseball is known for its insular culture. I discussed this at length in The Baseball Codes. Now, however, we have player after player piling on, to the point that oddsmakers are taking bets about how often Astros players will be drilled this season, and Mike Fiers feeling the need to publicly state that he’s able to take care of himself when facing potentially angry opponents.

The Yankees are discussing Judge deserving the MVP. The Dodgers are discussing their own claim to a title that they never won. We’ve heard players come out in defense of Fiers’ decision to blow the whistle, and also against it. Players in virtually every camp are expressing emotions ranging from displeasure to downright disgust over the scandal and its aftermath.

Opinions vary, but I’ll turn to Trevor Bauer, an original thinker who’s unafraid to speak his mind, to distill some of this. “Personally I think that what’s going on in baseball now is up there with the Black Sox scandal, and that it will be talked about forever—more so than steroids,” he wrote in the Players’ Tribune. “Like the steroid era, you can say what you want about it, but steroids weren’t really illegal at the time. The sign-stealing that was going on in Houston, though, was blatantly illegal. And with the rules that were implemented last year and the year before—that, by the way, were then still broken—it was very clear.”

The tide does not appear to be abating, and the moment that an Astros player is drilled under even remotely suspicious circumstances, it will be ignited anew.

Like Bauer said, this has the potential to be the steroid era and the Black Sox scandal all wrapped up into one. It’s going to take a deft touch, some earnest reactions and a visionary approach not only to punishments but to preventative measures for this to die down.

Early returns are not promising. Let’s play some baseball.