Smile! You’re on Candid Camera

PoloGroundsClubhouse

The Polo Grounds clubhouse behind center field. Leo Durocher’s coach Herman Franks sat in one of the windows with a spy glass buzzing stolen signs to the Giants bullpen down the 1951 stretch and possibly in the fabled pennant playoff.

Once upon a time there was a major league catcher whose eventual biography was called The Catcher Was a Spy. But Moe Berg took up his life with the old Office of Strategic Services after his baseball career expired.

Other than possible on-field gamesmanship, Berg wasn’t exactly known for applying advanced surveillance techniques to baseball when he played. The well-educated catcher about whom it was said he mastered a dozen languages but couldn’t hit in any of them waited until World War II to practise intelligence.

After that life ended for him, Berg lived as best he could as a nomadic shadow man who preferred the company of those who’d ask him anything except about himself. And his is the only known baseball card on display at the headquarters of the CIA.

There may be some now who think a few more ought to join Berg’s card there. A few Astros, a couple of Red Sox and Yankees, a Phillie or three, a couple of Braves and Tigers, a Giant or three yonder, and maybe a few more elsewhere.

That, of course, would depend on whether baseball’s government is serious about investigating espionage in the ranks, now that former Astros/current Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers has, shall we say, pulled some of the deep cover away from an apparent high-tech sign-stealing operation by the Astros Intelligence Agency.

An ESPN writer, Buster Olney, advises one and all not to hold their breaths. Partially because the Astros say they’re investigating their own cheating, which some might compare to a police department investigating its own corruption:

It probably took longer for the Astros to generate the statement about the forthcoming investigation than the actual investigation should require — that is to say, two phone calls, to ask two questions.

Astros owner Jim Crane can call Jeff Luhnow, Houston’s general manager and head of baseball operations, and ask: What happened?

And if Luhnow doesn’t know, he can call his video operator and ask: What happened? That’s all it should take.

As Groucho Marx once said, it’s so simple that a child of five could do it—now, somebody send for a child of five. All things considered, that might not be a half bad idea. But this isn’t five-year-old children playing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. These are (it is alleged) grown men playing all’s fair in baseball and war.

Fiers told The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich that the 2017 Astros had a camera in center field tied to a large television set stationed adjacent to the steps from the clubhouse to the dugout. Assorted Astros (Fiers didn’t name names) would see the catcher’s signs on the set, decipher them, and relay them to Astro hitters in two shakes of a tail feather.

Runners on base or coaches on the lines catching, deciphering, and relaying stolen signs merely with their eyes and hands are guilty only of gamesmanship. Aided by technology off the field, it’s grand theft. And before anyone gets the brilliant idea that the Astros invented it, let it be said that they’ve taken it to its technologically logical 2010s extreme but they weren’t exactly the first to even think about it.

“Every team with a scoreboard in center field has a spy inside at one time or another,” wrote Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby in his memoir—called My War with Baseball. Longtime catcher/coach/manager Birdie Tebbetts once told a Boston newspaper the 1940 Tigers didn’t have a spy in center field but a pitcher in the seats with binoculars—helping those Tigers lead the league in runs and win the pennant by a game.*

Two decades later, the Braves were caught playing The Riddle of the Stands, when two presumed fans in the Wrigley Field bleachers turned out to be pitchers Bob Buhl and Joey Jay, posing as bleacher creatures but relaying signs stolen by binoculars to the Braves dugout.

But the 1951 Giants had a spy in the center field clubhouse of the Polo Grounds. When Leo Durocher discovered a former Cub now a Giant (Hank Schenz) owned a Wollensak spy glass—which he used to steal signs from Wrigley Field’s center field scoreboard—Durocher couldn’t resist, deploying coach Herman Franks to the clubhouse, spyglass in hand.

From there, Franks would catch the opposition catcher’s signs through the spyglass darkly and relay them to the Giants bullpen, from whence quick flashes of tiny but visible light would tell Giant hitters who wanted the purloined signals what was coming up to the plate. Yes, children, the Giants stole the pennant! The Giants stole the pennant!

The 1951 Dodgers suspected Durocher was up to something down that stretch—the Giants came back from thirteen games out to force the pennant playoff—but when they thought about catching his surveillance cold with their own pair of binoculars an umpire confiscated the field glasses post haste. Can’t have the cheated playing tit-for-tat against the cheaters, you know.

In due course, and after the Giants moved to San Francisco, an infielder on the 1951 pennant cheaters (er, winners), Bill Rigney, now managing the team, fashioned a simpler system in 1959 to keep the Braves at bay while two games ahead with ten left in the season: the spy would simply close and open certain scoreboard slats to relay pilfered signs.

Rigney also found a player objecting to that bright idea, relief pitcher Al Worthington. A man of deep Christian beliefs, Worthington persuaded Rigney to knock it off unless he wanted Worthington to walk off the team. Rigney knocked it off. The Braves ended up in a pennant playoff with the eventual winning Dodgers.

“I told Bill that I had been talking to church groups, telling people you don’t have to lie or cheat in this world if you trust Jesus Christ,” Worthington told a magazine writer. “How could I go on saying those things if I was winning games because my team was cheating?”

But when Worthington was traded to the White Sox, after their 1959 American League pennant, he was slightly surprised to discover general manager Hank Greenberg’s crew had a binocular sign-stealing system in full swing. And that he couldn’t discourage Greenberg quite the way he discouraged Rigney.

“Baseball is a game where you try to get away with everything you can,” Greenberg told the stolid relief pitcher. “You cut corners when you run the bases. If you trap a ball in the outfield, you swear you caught it. Everybody tries to cheat a little.” Worthington took a hike. Trying to trade him, the White Sox discovered Worthington now had a reputation as a nutbag.

Let’s see. Greenberg couldn’t quite enunciate the distinction between corner cutting on the bases, ball trapping in the outfield, and spying, buzzing, and binocularity. And Worthington needed psychiatric attention? (In due course, Worthington returned to the Show, first with the Reds, and then with the pennant-winning 1965 Twins.)

Sometimes teams have been caught red Octobered. In 2010 a Phillies bullpen coach, Mick Billmeyer, was caught on camera sitting on the bullpen bench with binoculars up to his eyes. Billmeyer claimed he was only monitoring Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz’s positioning, but the Rockies television broadcast caught Billmeyer training his binoculars on Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo.

Charlie Manuel, then the Phillies’ manager, gave a beauty of an explanation afterward. “We were not trying to steal signs,” he told a reporter. “Would we try to steal somebody’s signs? Yeah, if we can. But we don’t do that. We’re not going to let a guy stand up there in the bullpen with binoculars looking in. We’re smarter than that.” Don’t ask.

Billmeyer may only have acted upon the impulse of franchise history. The 1899 Phillies got caught red handed with high tech for the time sign stealing, in which a buzzer under the third base coaching line would give a tiny shock to third base coach Pearce Chiles standing atop it—while it was hidden under wet grass.

Reds catcher Tommy Corcoran suspected the coach’s leg twitches and dug his spikes until he hit the board under which the shocker was tucked. Thus was spiked the Phillies’ prehistoric electrotheft, which began with third-string catcher Morgan Murphy hiding behind a center field ad using binoculars to get the opposing signs and relay them by buzzer to Chiles. As if that was liable to be the end of it.

The same year Billmeyer got bagged, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina caught on to someone in Petco Park’s center field camera well, in a Padres’ sport shirt, brandishing binoculars and clutching a walkie talkie while he was at it. If you think he was chatting between innings with his kids in the grandstands, I have a cane .45 to sell you cheap.

In this decade, maybe the second most suspected of baseball intelligence operations was the Blue Jays, mostly around their once-infamous Man in White—believed to be sitting behind center field in Rogers Centre relaying signs. There were those who believed he was in business up to and including the 2015 American League Championship Series.

And while last year the Indians (eliminated in the division series) warned the Red Sox (who won the pennant and the World Series) to beware Astro infiltration, the previous year a Red Sox trainer was caught deploying an Apple Watch to steal Yankee signs. Which may have been the pot dressing the kettle black: the Red Sox complained the Empire Emeritus used cameras of their YES broadcast network to spy on the Olde Towne Team in-game.

That provided the only known instance in which current commissioner Rob Manfred has punished anyone for espionage, fining the Red Sox and harrumphing that “all thirty clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

Lest you think baseball’s high-tech black bag jobbers get away with murder entirely, be advised. The 1899 Phillies finished third behind the National League pennant-winning Brooklyn Superbas (the Dodgers to be). The 1940 Tigers lost the World Series in seven to the Reds. The 1951 Giants were flattened by the Yankees in five in that Series. The 1960 Braves finished second and seven back of the pennant and World Series winning Pirates; the 1960 White Sox finished ten back of the pennant-winning Yankees.

The 2010 Phillies won the National League East but lost the National League Championship Series to the Giants; the 2010 Padres finished second to the Giants in the NL West. The Blue Jays still haven’t been seen anywhere near the World Series since the Clinton Administration. The 2017 Red Sox got pushed to one side by the Astros in the division series.

And, if you assume the Astros didn’t quite put the AIA out of business this year, it did them no favours in this year’s World Series. They had the postseason home field advantage, but the Nats won the Series on the road entirely. If the Astros were stealing signs electronically this time around, it qualifies as maybe the single most inept case of spy-ops since the Watergate burglary.

Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer is known as a drone builder and lover. Before the 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland—and before the Indians traded him to the Reds—Bauer deployed one of his mechanical flying pets to tour the empty park taking footage, demonstrating potential television broadcast advancement. On another occasion, a Bauer drone followed Indians outfielder Tyler Naquin running out a game-winning inside-the-park home run.

How large a jump would it prove to be from Bauer’s hobbying to a team developing enough drone expertise to hover them over the park on behalf of a new kind of in-game intelligence operation? Would baseball’s next great technological development then be not robot umpires but teams developing strategic defense initiatives? (Will we spend the seventh-inning stretch singing, “Take me out to the spy games?”)

If Mike Fiers has hit the buzzer properly, and if baseball dicks perform the genuine investigation the Astros may not prefer to do, Manfred isn’t long before having the chance to do something more than harrumph that he’s going to . . . be very, very angry at anyone caught playing “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” again.

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* CORRECTION—It wasn’t binoculars the 1940 Tigers used—it was the telescopic lens of pitcher Tommy Bridges’s hunting rifle. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg—playing first for those Tigers, of course—owned up and described the idea in his eventual memoir, Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life.

Wounded cops and battered Cubs

2019-08-17 BryceHarperRhysHoskins

Bryce Harper gives Rhys Hoskins props after Harper’s first-inning bomb started a Wednesday night Phillies blowout . . . unaware, likely, that six Philly cops were wounded in gunfire with a barricaded suspect.

A self-barricaded narcotics suspect in a home on the north side of Philadelphia. A standoff with police involving over an hour’s worth of gunfire exchanges, maybe more, and six  officers wounded.

The standoff began shortly before the Phillies faced the Cubs at Citizens Bank Park Wednesday night. It was still ongoing after the Phillies delivered a far less fatal kind of gunfire at the Cubs good for ten runs before the third full inning expired. It was still ongoing after Bryce Harper hit his second home run of the night.

And it was still ongoing, apparently, after the Phillies finished what they started, an 11-1 blowout of the National League Central leaders.

None of the six wounded cops was injured gravely, thankfully, though the city’s police commissioner Richard Ross said several of the cops who responded to the barricader and got into the house had to escape by jumping through windows. At one point the standoff that began late in the Philadelphia afternoon had nearby Temple University’s Health Sciences Center on lockdown.

Cole Hamels made his third start since returning from the injured list and his first in Philadelphia since leaving the Phillies in a then non-waiver trade deadline deal with the Rangers four years earlier. The audience cheered him appreciatively when he batted in the top of the third, but it was hard to tell whether it was thanks for the memories past or thanks for the clobbering the Phillies were giving him this night.

While police continued trying to resolve the standoff without any further injury or damage, and word emerged that there was a second narcotics suspect in the house aside from the shooter, the Phillies came to bat after starting pitcher Aaron Nola rid himself of the Cubs in the top of the first with a ground out sandwiching a pair of swinging strikeouts.

They didn’t give Hamels a chance to settle into any groove remotely similar in the bottom of the first. Rhys Hoskins singled with one out and an old nemesis named Bryce Harper stepped up to the plate. It’s not that Harper has that impressive a set of past performance papers against Hamels, it’s that Hamels knocked Harper down notoriously during Harper’s rookie season in Washington.

But this time Harper delivered the knock. After looking at a changeup on the low inside corner for an opening strike, he drove a fastball away into middle of the left center field seats. Just like that the Phillies had a 2-0 advantage. Hamels had no way of knowing what was to follow from there. By the time he learned, he must have been shaking his head in the clubhouse muttering, Wha’happened?

Wha’happened was the opening result of Charlie Manuel, returning to the dugout as the Phillies’ hitting coach for the rest of the season, taking the Phillies by the horns and all but ordering them to lighten up, inhale at the plate. Sort of.

They had all the data they could possibly need to help them. But unless they could relax while measuring the situations and the pitches, they weren’t going to hit anything but the pine after returning to the dugout.

“We have to get back to enjoy playing the game and enjoy situational hitting, do things correct, move the runners, have a lot of fun,” said Manuel, taking over for John Mallee, a hitting coach who knew and delivered the data but couldn’t seem to marry it to the hitters properly.

“I think the environment can be different as far as talking to the guys and letting them talk to me,” Manuel continued. “We need to get better. We have a talented team.”

They’d beaten the Cubs 4-2 on Tuesday night to begin Manuel’s sort of homecoming. But what they did to continue the celebration Wednesday night defied practically everything else attached to the Phillies this year. Logic was only the first victim of that defiance.

Hoskins and Harper wasted no time proving Manuel right in the first. More Phillies saw and raised in the bottom of the second. When Roman Quinn led off taking a full-count walk and Cesar Hernandez hit Hamels’s first service for a double to the back of center field. When Nola himself, following a swinging strikeout, shot an arrow through the left side of the infield to send Quinn home. When Hoskins sent home Hernandez with a sacrifice fly and J.T. Realmuto doubled Nola to third.

The bad news was Harper working out a walk to load the bases but the Phillies stranding the ducks on the pond when Jean Segura struck out. The good news was the Phillies wasting no time atoning for that in the bottom of the third.

Three straight pitches from Hamels—who got a nice ovation from his former home fans when he batted in the third—and it was a double off the left center field padding by Scott Kingery, Quinn dropping a clumsy looking bunt but still beating it out for a base hit, and Hernandez dumping the proverbial quail into center to score Kingery.

With Adam Haseley at the plate the Phillies got a little more daring, executing a flawless double steal to set up second and third. And Haseley thanked his mates for their derring-do by beating out a grounder to first allowing Quinn to score and Hernandez to third.

Hamels’s Philadelphia homecoming ended almost before it began, and Alec Mills came in for the Cubs with Nola himself coming to the plate.

And despite showing bunt briefly Nola walked on four pitches to load up the pads once again. Hoskins slashed a hard enough grounder that Cubs shortstop Baez could throw home to force Hernandez at the plate for the first out. But there was no defense for Realmuto fouling himself into an 0-2 count before launching a cruise missile into the left field seats, just past the foul pole.

Almost out of nowhere, the Phillies jumped all over the Cubs for ten runs before three full innings were in the books. The Citizens Bank Park crowd began chanting Manuel’s first name gleefully.

If you can’t have fun while you’re dropping ten on the other guys, you’ve got problems even Manuel can’t fix. The Phillies broadcast team was having even more fun after that than they already had stationed behind the Phillies’ dugout for the evening. They even let the Phillie Phanatic plop Village People-like headgear onto their domes as the sides changed for the eighth as “Y.M.C.A.” pounded around the ballpark.

After two comparatively quiet innings during which Nola stayed in cruise control and Mills gamely held fort for the Cubs since Realmuto’s salami, Harper—who’d singled near the end of the third, before being wasted by a followup Area Code 6-4-3—looked at two high and outside pitches before sending a middle low fastball into the second deck behind right field to lead off the bottom of the sixth.

For the most part Nola cruised his way through the first six innings. He blended his breaking balls and his fastball into a cocktail all but guaranteed to send the Cubs into a stupor at the plate. About the only thing close to a real battle came to open the top of the seventh, when Kris Bryant wrestled him to a full count, including three straight foul offs, before sending a slightly hanging breaker to the near rear of the lower left field seats.

Nola could afford to be generous by then if that was his mood. That was only the third Cub hit off him all night long. The first one, a leadoff single by Anthony Rizzo in the top of the second, turned into Javier Baez forcing Rizzo at second and deciding rather futilely that it was worth challenging Realmuto’s throwing arm, Realmuto springing out of his crouch faster than a jack-in-the-box to throw a dead-on tracer, nailing Baez with the reply, “Ain’t worth it, bro.”

You felt sorry for Mills. Mop-up relief? Mills had to clean up a chemical spill, comfortable perhaps only in the thought that it wasn’t his bright idea to have ducks on the pond when Realmuto drilled him in the third. He was a one-man hazmat team for the Cubs otherwise, if you didn’t count Harper’s sixth inning-opening smash, and it went for so little there must have been moments when he felt like the last man standing on the planet.

It was both the tenth time the Phillies scored in double figures on the year and only the second time Hamels didn’t get past three innings on the year. But somehow, some way, it seemed to mean a lot more to both the Phillies and the home audience this time.

Before Juan Nicasio came on to pitch the top of the ninth as rain began hitting the ballpark and the field, the news came that the final two Philadelphia police still inside the north side house were now out of the house alive and reasonably well, considering, extracted by S.W.A.T. team members “with stealth,” Ross told reporters near the scene.

The rain came down a little more firmly as the Cubs’ trade deadline acquisition Nick Castellanos rapped a one-out base hit to right center. But Nicasio struck Bryant out while Castellanos took second on defensive indifference. Castellanos then took third on further defensive indifference as Rizzo looked at ball two. But then Rizzo flied out to the left field corner to put the blowout firmly in the bank.

The six wounded cops, meanwhile, were reported treated and released from a hospital about half an hour after the game ended.

On the assumption that very few if anyone in the ballpark knew what was happening on the north side of town, both the Phillies and their fans were going to walk from a house of pleasure through a not so gentle, not so good gray night, into news about which the most positive thing to say was thank God it wasn’t far worse. So far.


UPDATE: The suspect who stood off and exchanged gunfire with Philadelphia police, identified as Maurice Hill, was finally apprehended around midnight Eastern time. Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross himself took the unusual step of joining Hill’s attorney in trying to negotiate Hill out of the house in which he barricaded himself.

News reports indicated the standoff began at 4:30 Eastern time, when police attempted to serve Hill with an arrest warrant on narcotics related charges. The Phillies and the Cubs were preparing to play Wednesday night’s game at the time.