Smile! You’re on Candid Camera


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.


* 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.

Fiers burns a milestone

2019-05-07 MikeFiers

After spreading his wings to no-hit the Reds, Mike Fiers spread his wings to start the celebration . . .

You’d be hard pressed when asked to think of things baseball people love more than milestones. Except maybe excuses for puns clever and otherwise.

“A’s to Reds: You’re Fiered!” went one such posted on Facebook, after Mike Fiers threw a curve ball that took a swan dive below Eugenio Suarez’s bat to finish a no-hitter Tuesday night.

Imagine if that Facebooker and others in the moment knew it was the 300th no-hitter in major league history. Three hundred has a few magic connotations in baseball and otherwise.

Pitching wins are now overrated in evaluating a pitcher’s actual value, but even those who overrate them with cause like to ponder who’s likely to to be credited for 300 of them next. CC Sabathia’s out of that running since he plans to retire after this season and isn’t likely to earn 52 wins between now and then. Justin Verlander may have an outside shot if his arm obeys his known wishes and lets him pitch another five or six years.

But Fiers didn’t just pitch baseball’s 300th no-hitter but the second one of his otherwise journeyman major league career. With a 4.38 lifetime fielding-independent pitching rate (that’s your ERA when your defenses are removed from the equation, folks) so far in a nine-year career, to go with his 4.11 lifetime ERA, Fiers isn’t exactly a Hall of Famer in the making.

But modestly gifted men have been known to perform immodest deeds now and then. And fans of modest intelligence have been known to say that certain milestones “should” be reached by none but the proven absolute greats.

Such fans several generations ago said it about Roger Maris daring to chase, catch, and pass Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. You could almost hear the isolated harrumphing now: “Who the hell is this guy to pitch the 300th no-hitter? That’s supposed to be Max Scherzer! Or Justin Verlander! Or Clayton Kershaw! Mike Who?!?”

Unfortunately, baseball doesn’t always work that way, bless the game. If the guy you wouldn’t spot in a Grand Central Station rush hour throng can come up big in the biggest moments like the postseason (Howard Ehmke, Al Gionfriddo, Sandy Amoros, Don Larsen, Moe Drabowsky, Al Weis, Denny Doyle, Mark Lemke, and David Freese, anyone?), why can’t the guy you’d never mistake for Tom Seaver throw a milestone no-hitter?

There are 35 pitchers who’ve thrown more than one no-hitter in their careers and, not counting such still-active men as Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, 22 of them aren’t Hall of Famers.

Among those like Fiers who’ve thrown two, Cooperstown has seven: Pud Galvin, Christy Mathewson, Addie Joss, Warren Spahn, Jim Bunning, Randy Johnson, and Roy Halladay. Three men have thrown three and only one of those, Larry Corcoran, isn’t a Hall of Famer.

Fiers is also one of only eight men to pitch a no-hitter for more than one team. He’s done it for the Astros (in 2015) and now the A’s. The list includes Cy Young, Bunning, Johnson, and Ryan among the Hall of Famers and Ted Breitenstein, Adonis Terry, and Hideo Nomo otherwise.

Johnny Vander Meer (not a Hall of Famer) is still the only man to pitch no-hitters in back-to-back starts; Sandy Koufax is still the only man to throw no-hitters in four consecutive seasons, with his fourth proving literally that practise makes perfect. Nolan Ryan fell short of that streak by a season (he pitched two in 1973 and one each in 1974 and 1975) while working toward his record seven.

Fiers is in rather charmed company now. Especially since May is the month for milestone no-nos, and the two previous to his were also thrown by Hall of Famers. Carl Hubbell threw number 100 ninety years ago today; and, Dennis Eckersley threw number 200 on 30 May 1977. Anyone care to predict which May to come will feature no-hitter number 400?

And Fiers is another kind of outlier. No pitcher ever took a season’s 6.81 ERA to the mound before throwing a no-hitter.

“I’m just glad they got those lights working,” Fiers deadpanned after the 2-0 win.

He referred to three panels of lights failing above the left field stands in Oakland’s otherwise unloveable Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Game time was delayed a little over an hour and a half. Finally, the A’s and the Reds said let’s play ball and Joey Votto checked in at the plate to open.

Votto popped out to the infield to open. Suarez struck out to finish. Except for an error at third in the fourth, Suarez working out a leadoff walk in the seventh, and Yasiel Puig walking later in the inning, no Red reached base in any way, shape or form.

And, yes, Fiers needed a little help from his friends in the sixth inning, such as Jurickson Profar ambling out to shallow right to catch Kyle Farmer’s quail and, especially, Ramon Laureano—making a fresh reputation as an outfield acrobat—taking a home run away from Votto with a leap up the short end of left center field wall.

Not to mention Profar driving home both the runs in the game, first with a two-out double in the second with Stephen Piscotty aboard and then with a two-out launch over the right field fence in the seventh.

Maybe the testiest moment of the game came in the ninth with one out, when Fiers fell behind Votto 3-1 before throwing the Reds first baseman a changeup nasty enough to be worth nothing more than a ground out to first base.

For Laureano that play was an awakening. “That’s the first time I realized he had a no-hitter,” he said of Fiers’ performance. “Really, I didn’t know.”

“I think the stars aligned tonight,” said Farmer of the Profar and Laureano catches. “Once we saw those two plays happening, we said this might be his night.”

It wasn’t exactly a picnic for the last A’s pitcher to throw a no-hitter. “It was way more nerve-wracking then when I was doing it,” said Sean Manea, who threw his last year but who’s still working his way back from September surgery to repair a torn shoulder labrum. “I was shaking on the bench. I don’t know, it was crazy seeing him do it.”

It didn’t stop Manea from being the man to shower Fiers—who wouldn’t have pitched Tuesday at all if the A’s hadn’t shuffled their rotation on their off day, as things turned out—with the Gatorade tank.

“I remember when I was drafted, I wasn’t too high on the charts,” Fiers told reporters after surviving the mobbing he got on the mound when the game ended. “I was a guy throwing 88 to 90, down in South Florida. I’m one in a million down there.” And in more ways than one, his million-to-one shot came home.