Stolen signs of the times

2019-11-29 HiddenLanguageOfBaseballDepending upon your point of view, the freshly published second edition of Paul Dickson’s The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime is either a blessing or an intrusion. Its timing—arriving shortly before Astrogate broke—couldn’t possibly have been scripted better.

Especially considering Chapter 9, “Devious Digital Devices—From the TV Camera to the Digital Watch.” Which begins with Leo Durocher, perhaps appropriately, performing a deed people not named Durocher would have deemed inappropriate enough.

The Lip, of course, was the mastermind behind the off-field sign-stealing (with a hand-held spyglass in the Polo Grounds center field clubhouse, a buzzer to the bullpen, and relayed stolen signs to those men at the plate who wanted them) —that enabled the 1951 Giants’ staggering pennant race comeback (from thirteen games down) to force the once-fabled playoff.

Now, Dickson described Durocher in the broadcast booth, which he joined for ABC’s Game of the Week after leaving the Dodgers as a coach in early 1965. “The American Broadcasting Company was banking on Leo to say and do outrageous things to boost ratings on the show,” Dickson wrote. “They were hardly disappointed.”

Durocher premiered on 8 May 1965, for a game between the Yankees and the second edition of the Washington Senators in D.C. Stadium (the future RFK Stadium). When the network spotted Vice President Hubert Humphrey (a Twins fan, as it happened) in the ballpark, they managed to invite him to join Durocher in the booth.

And the Lip simply couldn’t resist giving Humphrey an on-the-air tutorial in the fine art of baseball espionage. “With the aid of cameras placed by ABC in the dugout and outfield,” Dickson writes, “Leo gave the vice president a quick lesson in how to pick up signs and decode them.”

The cameras were live and real time, not on today’s eight-second delays. Humphrey wasn’t exactly thrilled, “clearly nervous about being put in this position as an accomplice and [he] observed flatly that there were no secrets anymore.”

How you accept that depends on your point of view otherwise considering Humphrey’s boss, then-president Lyndon Johnson, a man to whom chicanery wasn’t exactly alien. But then-commissioner Ford Frick wasn’t exactly amused, either, rebuking both Durocher and ABC publicly “for both the cameras and the live larceny.”

Lest you think the Yankees and the Senators had any cute ideas about the cameras, be advised that they were then managed by two men (Johnny Keane, Gil Hodges) who’d sooner be caught chasing skirts other than those wrapped around their wives than sanction high-tech cheating.

But thanks to Durocher, for the first time real high electronic baseball cheating as opposed to on-the-field gamesmanship or even mere telescopic cheating hit the press past the sports pages. It almost figured that it would be Durocher who was responsible. “[He] had not only willfully gotten himself into a jam,” writes Dickson, himself a Durocher biographer, “but also used the vice president of the United States as his foil.”

Dickson’s book is a remarkably entertaining travelogue through sign-stealing history, which only begins with its development based on flag signaling by soldiers in war and premiered in baseball near the Civil War, through the apparent courtesy of a team known as the Hartford Dark Blues. And, Dickson does an engaging job of discussing those whose on-field gamesmanship was more sophisticated and tougher to decipher than you might expect.

Perhaps his classic example is Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. Dickson writes that he was not only the best in his league at keeping his signs secret (his tricks included, especially, adding numbers on the scoreboard to those shown his pitchers with his fingers) but taught himself to pick signs based on the opposing catcher’s hand shadows he saw from the on-deck circle.

Berra once said he “wouldn’t take [a stolen sign] if their own catcher sent it to me Western Union,” but he was also adept at catching pitch tipping—especially his own pitchers, helping them correct accordingly. And fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle swore the Yankees knew, among other things, when Hall of Famer Early Wynn would go to his knuckleball: it was the only pitch on which Wynn wouldn’t rear all the way back behind his head before throwing it.

That sort of thing was gamesmanship. Slipping people into things like the old-fashioned hand-operated scoreboards above or behind the actual playing field? A whole other thing, and more rampant than you may remember or know. “Periodically,” Dickson wrote, “someone would complain that they were being spied upon by men out of uniform hanging out in the scoreboard, and they would be answered by the official equivalent of a shrug and a scowl.”

Not even the New York Times could help. Dickson cited a story in that paper in 1956, when then-Orioles manager Paul Richards filed a formal complaint with the American League over the White Sox stealing signs with a telescope from the scoreboard. Both then-league president Will Harridge and a few more in the sporting press “mocked Richards.” Sports Illustrated even ran a piece including “a pictorial on signs and how one might learn to pick them from one’s seat.”

They missed the larger point, and that was in the aftermath of the 1951 Giants when their pennant-comeback spyglass-to-buzzer plot was still whispered but didn’t lead to arraignments. The larger point: Decoding signs from the on-deck circle based on a catcher’s hand’s shadow isn’t the same thing as decoding them through an off-field telescope. Or from a hot live real-time off-the-field camera feed.

Which is exactly what Sean Doolittle, the likeable and never-at-a-loss relief pitcher for the world champion Nationals, said in a tweet, two days after The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich reported former Astro pitcher Mike Fiers’s revelation about that team’s 2017 center field camera-to-clubhouse television set-to-bang on a can stolen sign transmission:

Sign stealing is part of baseball. It’s gamesmanship. A runner picking up signs from 2nd base or looking for how a pitcher might be tipping his pitches based on how he comes set is fair game. If you can do it using your eye balls it’s ok. If you’re using technology it’s cheating.

The TVs in the clubhouses and bullpens are on AT LEAST an 8 sec delay. MLB posts employees in the video room to prevent messages being relayed to the dugout. It’s impossible to use those feeds to pick up signs and relay them in real time.

Almost a full week has passed without new Astrogate revelations. Such silences don’t seem likely to become the exceptions. But Molly Knight, another writer for The Athletic, has a thought for you: the news may have infuriated pitchers the most.

Comments from players haven’t exactly flooded the joint since Fiers first blew the whistle on and the covers off the Astro Intelligence Agency. But Knight has mulcted comments from pitchers around the circuit. And they’re no more amused than Hubert Humphrey was over Leo Durocher’s live lecture in applied espionage.

“If a team is using cameras and decoding your sequences for live relays,” Knight quoted an unidentified pitcher who faced the Astros in 2017, “you’re losing a war that you weren’t informed of your own participation.”

You know that with a runner on second you have to be careful because they see the signs and decipher them. You know that you can’t have an obvious tip because the other team will find it and pounce. Those are known battlegrounds. But this isn’t a fair fight because you weren’t aware the fight existed.

We’ve come a long way, seemingly, from the days when field glasses, spyglasses, and even telescopes off the field and through the scoreboards actually did have baseball people both alarmed and amused. Enough so that by 1961-1962, Dickson writes, the issue actually threatened to become a full-fledged scandal.

First, an unidentified former player turned manager and coach told Baseball Digest he didn’t think that kind of espionage was present “for a long time.” But he kept his identity secret because it “might give me a bad reputation with the coaches who like people to think they’re always swiping signs.”

Then Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby wrote an article for True called “You’ve Got to Cheat to Win.” In which among other things he had words for Al Worthington, the relief pitcher who quit the White Sox rather than acquiesce in their sign-stealing operation inside Comiskey Park’s fabled exploding scoreboard. “[M]ost of the newspapers said [Worthington’s] was a salary argument,” Hornsby wrote. “In my book, it wasn’t. In my book he was a baseball misfit—Worthington didn’t like cheating.”

That and other Hornsby pronouncements—including what Dickson paraphrased as “a massive Indian head with moving eyes in an ad for Uneeda Water in the Detroit outfield,” the moving eyes used by the Tigers to relay stolen signs—cause a spring training uproar in 1962. Especially when the True article was expanded into a delicious portion of Hornsby’s freshly published memoir, My War with Baseball.

At about that time, Jay Hook—taken off the ’61 pennant-winning Reds by the expansion Mets—told United Press International that those Reds had “scoreboard spies swiping the rival catchers’ signs” from Crosley Field’s walk-in, hand-operated scoreboard. Leonard Shecter—then a New York Post writer, eventually Jim Bouton’s Ball Four editor—called such a spy “the fiend abroad in the ballpark with a pair of field glasses . . . [like] the driver who knocks down an 89-year-old pedestrian. It’s easy but unsporting.”

Then, the Associated Press sportswriter Joe Reichler wrote maybe the first story for publication charging the 1951 Giants with high tech-for-the-time sign stealing down that stretch. Between several emphatic denials and the anonymity of the accuser, who may or may not have been associated with the Giants later on, the story’s noise life wasn’t very long.

Jimmy Piersall, the acrobatic outfielder who’d suffered a nervous breakdown while with the early 1950s Red Sox, wrote a Baseball Monthly article that spring ’62 in which he said, as Dickson phrased it, every part of the ballpark could be and often was rigged. The article was called, “How the Home Team Cheats.” Bill Veeck’s charming memoir Veeck—As In Wreck, was published at the same time, the maverick owner admitting he wasn’t above a little chicanery himself.

Even authorising the White Sox’s exploding-scoreboard spy network. The one that compelled Al Worthington to take a hike. The hike that compelled Rogers Hornsby to dismiss Worthington as a baseball misfit.

All that hoopla died its death in due course, though not without its ironies. The very name of Dickson’s chapter about it says it all: “1962—the Year of the Revisionist Finger Pointers.” Including Birdie Tebbetts, managing the Braves in June 1962, now telling Times columnist Arthur Daley that all that telescopic cheating just had to stop if “you believe in the integrity of the game the way I do.” The way he did when his 1940 pennant-winning Tigers used pitcher Tommy Bridges’s rifle scope to swipe signs from the stands behind the Briggs Stadium outfield.

Leo Durocher tutoring Hubert Humphrey to one side, high-tech sign-stealing charges tended from 1962 forward to be low-keyed and dispatched swiftly enough. Before such things as Mick Billmeyer’s bullpen binoculars, the Blue Jays’s Man in White, the Padres’ TV well spy, the Red Sox’s Apple Watch, and, of course, the Astro worker near the Red Sox dugout who claimed he was trying to be sure the Red Sox weren’t up to no good during the 2018 American League Championship series, wink wink, nudge nudge, suuuure he was.

“Baseball doesn’t have a sign stealing problem,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Dave Sheinin, as cited by Dickson, when the Brewers hinted that the Dodgers were doing it the electronic way during the ’18 National League Championship Series. “It has a technology problem.”

No longer is it just the runner on second base with a clear view of the catcher’s signs to thwart. Now it’s that guy in the center field seats with the telescoping camera or the strength coach in the dugout with the smart watch or the dude in the camera well with the tablet.

An old gag from the hippie era used to hold, “Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean someone isn’t watching you.” And just because baseball in 1962 or 2018 got paranoid about high-tech cheating, it didn’t mean that people weren’t doing it, either. Mike Fiers exposed the Astros doing it. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s investigation is certain to turn up more.

And don’t think fans don’t have the occasional hand in it. Bob Buhl and Joey Jay were exposed by Cub fans who recognised them and warned the Cub bullpen. Days after the Red Sox were caught taking a bite of the Apple Watch, a Yankee fan decided to do Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez a favour at the plate. Dickson tells it better:

[A] fan with a good view of the catcher and a strong set of lungs bellowed out information to . . . Sanchez while he was hitting in the eighth inning of his team’s game with the Tampa Bay Rays. Sanchez heard the voice, but so did Rays catcher Wilson Ramos and the home plate umpire, Dan Bellino, who pointed out the man to stadium security and had him removed from the stadium . . . “You could definitely hear the guy screaming, ‘Outside, outside,’ but you don’t know if it’s going to be a slider or a fastball,” Sanchez said afterward. “You got to stick to your plan, whatever plan you have, regardless of what people are screaming.”

That, Dickson wrote, may have been the first time a fan was thrown out of a game for sign stealing. By the way, Sanchez’s plate appearance ended with a bloop single to send home the fifth Yankee run in a 6-1 win.

Dickson has added a chapter around the Red Sox’s Applegate: “It would appear, at least at this writing near the end of the 2018 season, that the specter of electronic sign-stealing has not raised its head.” I wonder if he wishes now that he’d waited until next year (no pun intended), when Astrogate will be resolved one way or the other, to bring forth The Hidden Language of Baseball‘s second edition. I know I do.

Spy vs. spy?

SpyVsSpyDuring the World Series, the eventual world champion road rats—er, the Nationals—reminded themselves that the Astros, whom they finally vanquished, have a Show-wide reputation for sign stealing and for catching on quick if and when opposing pitchers tip their hands. And, the Nats did something about it.

Sign stealing on the field by the men on the field is old fashioned gamesmanship. The Nats, according to The Athletic, simply met gamesmanship with gamesmanship: “They instructed their catchers to utilize a more complicated system communicating the signs to the pitchers, behaving in every situation as if there was a runner on second base.”

A sound proposition, that. Nats relief pitcher Sean Doolittle told the magazine Nats coaches handed out cards with five different sign sets, with Nats pitchers “rotat[ing] through those if there was a hitter on base for more than one at-bat.”

They also paid such close attention to pitch tipping that Game Six winner Stephen Strasburg was caught and corrected tipping early in the game, and Game Seven starter Max Scherzer “altered the way he manipulated his glove when there were runners on base, as there were in all five of his innings.”

The Nats elected not to meet gamesmanship with gamesmanship by going high tech about it, though. The Astros may well have. And baseball’s government is investigating the prospect. Seriously.

The Red Sox were caught redhanded and disciplined accordingly when they were caught using cell phone cameras to try a little sign stealing in 2017. When the Red Sox accused their accusers, the Yankees, of starting it, the Yankees were disciplined concurrently. And while such espionage is spread wider around the game than fans like to think even now, the Astros are believed almost as widely to be two things when it comes to high-tech heists: 1) Expert at it. 2) Shameless about it.

Baseball’s rules ban technological theft formally, but as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Dillich now write, “[T]he commissioner’s office hears complaints about many different organizations—everything from mysterious people in white shirts sending signals from center field to elaborate systems involving television cameras and tablets.”

And there are former Astros either singing now or preparing their arias. One is former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who pitched baseball’s 300th no-hitter for the Athletics in May. Another is purged assistant general manager Brandon Taubman. This may or may not prove to be baseball’s version of the Watergate tapes, pending the emergence of baseball’s Alexander Butterfield, but it may prove that cheating is still baseball’s oldest sub-profession.

Rosenthal and Dillich concentrate on 2017 because that’s the only Astro espionage they can confirm—for now. Fiers has told Rosenthal and Dillich that, that regular 2017 season, the Astros stationed a real-time camera behind center field to steal signs. We’ve come a very long way from Wollensak spy glasses and buzzers to the bullpen from the center field clubhouse, the technique Leo Durocher applied for his 1951 Giants’ legendary pennant race comeback.

The two writers say that, early that season, a struggling hitter who’d been helped by sign stealing before he became an Astro, and a uniformed Astro coach, “started the process” for the James Bonding ritual. “They were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good,” write Rosenthal and Dillich.

The system is believed to involve the aforesaid camera trained on opposing catchers’ signs and a television screen planted just before the steps from the clubhouse to the dugout, which players and team workers would watch to decipher the opposing signs. Then, write Rosenthal and Dillich, the decoded signs would be sent to the dugout with loud noises, usually a bang on a trash can.

White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar, now a minor league pitching coach, apparently caught on during two September 2017 appearances in Minute Maid Park. “There was a banging from the dugout, almost like a bat hitting the bat rack every time a changeup signal got put down,” he’s quoted as saying. “After the third one, I stepped off. I was throwing some really good changeups and they were getting fouled off. After the third bang, I stepped off.”

“That’s not playing the game the right way,” they quote Fiers, who didn’t pitch in the 2017 postseason and was non-tendered by the Astros after their 2017 World Series win. “They were advanced and willing to go above and beyond to win.”

Some of the Twitterpated accuse Fiers of “bitterness.” Others tried suggesting his 2015 no-hitter as an Astro was suspect. Shades of the old Soviet Union when it came to dissidents and defectors from Mother Russia and her satellites, too. Except that the Astros aren’t likely to try having Fiers or his wife assassinated. We think.

A man might be less than thrilled about being left out of the postseason fun and sent on his merry way to follow, but bitterness isn’t the only reason whistleblowers choose to reveal their purgers had their own Navajo Codetalkers in place. Especially those willing to attach their names to their public whistling. Rosenthal and Dillich cited four Astro-connected people thus far, but Fiers was the only one willing to be named as a source so far.

Rosenthal and Dillich think the real cause of any bitterness between Fiers and the Astros, which Fiers acknowledged to them, comes from his having told his teams to be—he pitched for the Tigers in 2018 and the A’s this year—all about the Astro Intelligence Agency:

I just want the game to be cleaned up a little bit because there are guys who are losing their jobs because they’re going in there not knowing. Young guys getting hit around in the first couple of innings starting a game, and then they get sent down. It’s (bovine excrement) on that end. It’s ruining jobs for younger guys. The guys who know are more prepared. But most people don’t. That’s why I told my team. We had a lot of young guys with Detroit trying to make a name and establish themselves. I wanted to help them out and say, “Hey, this stuff really does go on. Just be prepared.”

Taubman was purged after his disgrace supporting domestic violence-attached reliever Roberto Osuna, after the American League Championship Series triumph, in earshot of women reporters one of whom wore a domestic violence awareness bracelet. And, after the Astros’ public relations mess when they first tried to smear the Sports Illustrated reporter who revealed Taubman was just so fornicating glad they got Osuna.

Baseball government may want to question Taubman about more than just the Astros’ initial doubling down on smearing Stephanie Apstein. (For which Astros owner Jim Crane apologised—a week later, in a personal note.) They should want to question him about what and how much he knew about the AIA. They should also want to dig deeper enough to discover just how alone the Astros aren’t when it comes to electrotheft.

The Astros are frisked often enough but have yet to be arraigned, never mind indicted. Either the evidence is too scant to send a baseball grand jury, or the Astros have become as good at burying the evidence as their accusers say they are at electrotheft in the first place.

Taubman himself has bumped up against baseball’s spy wars before. In May 2018 he confronted a Yankee Stadium worker when he suspected the Empire Emeritus was up to no good. The bad news is that Taubman was accompanied by Kyle McLaughlin—an Astro worker both the Indians and the Red Sox suspected was up to no good with his photography during the early 2018 postseason rounds.

And Astroworld’s memory won’t soon forget Chris Correa, who hacked into the Astros’ computer data base while he ran scouting for the Cardinals a few years ago. Correa got nailed, tried, convicted, jailed, and banned from baseball over that one.

There’s another factor in play that must not be overlooked: It’s one thing to catch then-Dodger pitcher Yu Darvish tipping pitches in Game Seven of the 2017 World Series and to slap him silly accordingly before he gets out of the second inning alive. But even the Astros’ staunchest accusers don’t believe every Astro player accepts stolen signs.

When Durocher implemented his 1951 telescopic espionage, he was amazed that at least two players—Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Willie Mays—refused outright to accept stolen signs. And Irvin plus “Shot Heard Round the World” pennant-winning hero Bobby Thomson denied that either the Wollensak spyglass and buzzer were used in the fateful third playoff game or that Thomson accepted a stolen sign.

Even Ralph Branca, whose post-career friendship with Thomson may have been soiled by the confirmed revelation, could never be entirely sure the fateful three-run homer wasn’t hit fair and square. “He still had to hit the ball, ” Branca reflected ruefully.

But the Dodgers suspected enough down the stretch that they took a pair of binoculars into the dugout in a bid to catch the Giants in the act—which was confiscated by an umpire. As Thomas Boswell snorted upon the final affirmation of the Giant plot, “Why, it would be unfair for the victims to use binoculars to expose the telescopic cheaters!”

Just as was the case with Durocher’s ’51 Giants, the Astros aren’t suspected of sending their AIA on missions on the road. If they were trying anything cute at Minute Maid Park during last month’s World Series, it failed miserably: the Nats beat them there by a combined 30-11 score over those four games.

And it isn’t likely that they could have gotten away with their camera-to-TV electrotheft during the postseason in general or the World Series in particular for one very sound reason: You have to be able to hear the trash can banging through the stadium racket.

The last I looked, the Astros didn’t send a pack of Labrador retrievers onto the field. Or was that the reason why, as some Yankees suspected, if any Astros wanted stolen signs during this year’s ALCS, all they had to do was just whistle?

If the Astros are actually guilty of electrotheft, they may be the least embarrassed about it but they’re probably not even close to alone. The Red Sox and the Yankees proved that in 2017. For openers, possibly.

Just as when those in the political (lack of) class caught with their fingers in the cookie jars cry “whatabout” because “the other guys” did it before, the proper response is, “Whatabout stopping it, already?” Murder’s been done since Cain but it doesn’t mean we stop prosecuting freshly minted murderers.

The Astros may be as admired for their winning on the field as they seem to be loathed for their front office culture. They’re right when they say—as Rosenthal and Dillich mulcted from an unidentified Astro source—that they shouldn’t “become the poster child for sign stealing,” but that doesn’t mean it’s kosher for them to do it in the first place.

The Black Sox weren’t the only players trying to throw games for profit in 1919; Cincinnati fans weren’t (by a long shot) the only fans who ever thought of stuffing All-Star ballot boxes; and, the Astros probably aren’t the only team playing Spy vs. Spy. Thinking they’re the only ones in baseball continuing to prove that boys will be boys is thinking inside a very tiny box.