MLB

Behind the ethics of stealing signs

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Tracy Ringolsby

Tracy Ringolsby is a Hall of Fame baseball writer. He is in his 37th year covering Major League Baseball, is a co-founder of Baseball America, and is in his fourth year as pregame and postgame analyst for Colorado Rockies games on Root Sports.

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A year ago, the Philadelphia Phillies were caught spying on Colorado Rockies catchers during a game at Coors Field. Bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was accused of stealing signs and having them relayed to the Philadelphia hitters.

Later in the season, it was the Rockies who San Francisco folks suggested might be switching out baseballs at Coors Field, using the humidor balls when Rockies pitchers were on the mound and non-humidified balls for the visitors.

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During the 2009 World Series, the New York Yankees raised concerns that the Phillies were stealing signs, although it obviously didn’t do Philadelphia much good. The Yankees claimed the world championship in six games.

And now it’s the Yankees, who last week were accused by Texas catcher Yorvit Torrealba of stealing signs when the Yankees had runners at second base during a three-game sweep of the Rangers at Yankee Stadium.

Get the picture?

In baseball, it’s only cheating if the other team gets caught.

And those who protest are warned to be careful that they don’t complain too loudly.

They could well be the accused instead of the accuser the next time around.

Gene Mauch was managing the California Angels on Aug. 3, 1987, when Minnesota pitcher Joe Niekro, the starter for the Twins that night against the Angels, was caught using a nail file and sandpaper on the baseball. When umpire Steve Palermo informed Mauch of Niekro’s ejection, the veteran manager rolled his eyes.

"You threw him out for doctoring baseballs?’’ Mauch is remembered to have said. "What am I supposed to do? I’ve got (Don) Sutton pitching tomorrow.’’

Sutton, who is in the Hall of Fame, did just fine the next night, working six innings in a 12-3 Angels victory against the Twins.

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That’s baseball.

It’s called looking for an edge by the team that finds a way to exploit an opponent.

And it is rarely officially penalized.

Torrealba’s accusation — that Derek Jeter and Andruw Jones were stealing the catcher's signs to Rangers pitchers while Jeter and Jones were on second base, and relaying them to Yankee hitters — was considered more a blight on Torrealba than the Yankees.

He is, after all, the catcher who gave signs that were so easily picked up by the opposition that they could be stolen. And, at least in the old-school world of baseball, if Torrealba was so convinced that the signs were being stolen, there is a simple way to solve that problem. Reverse the signs.

Get a hitter leaning over the plate looking for a slider away, and bust him inside with a fastball that goes in the direction of his head, the message is quickly delivered.

Major League Baseball regularly gets complaints about sign stealing, and generally handles it by issuing the accused team a warning.

The explanations are usually humorous.

When Billmeyer was caught on video sitting in the bullpen at Coors Field with binoculars, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel explained that Billmeyer was simply trying to get a view of the set-up position for Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, who Billmeyer works with. Problem is the Phillies were hitting at the time. Miguel Olivo of the Rockies was catching and Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino was on the dugout phone to the bullpen.

It’s not like this is a new issue in baseball.

Ever since the game has been played teams have looked for an edge, trying to pick up plays that the opposition has on, or the pitch type or location a hitter is going to see.

In February 2001, in fact, the Wall Street Journal ran a detailed story claiming that the New York Giants not only stole signs when they rallied down the stretch from a 13-1/2-game deficit to overtake the Brooklyn Dodgers for the NL pennant in 1951, but actually stole the signs being flashed to pitcher Ralph Branca when he served up the home run to Bobby Thomson, known as the Shot Heard Round the World.

That three-run blast in the bottom of the ninth of the best-of-3 NL playoff allowed the Giants to advance to the World Series, and according to the report was set up by Giants coach Herman Franks sitting in the center field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, relaying the pitch that was going to be thrown through a buzzer that rang in the bullpen and was relayed to the hitter.

During the 1948 World Series, the Cleveland Indians allegedly picked up signs with a telescope at Cleveland Stadium. A member of the grounds crew would hold his legs together if it was a fastball, spread his legs if it was a curveball, and walk around if he was unsure of the pitch. It is worth noting that while the Indians won Games 3 and 4 at home, they were beaten by scores of 2-0 and 2-1, and they lost Game 5 by a score of 11-5.

Teams aren’t caught off guard by the efforts of espionage.

Joe Nossek, who was considered one of the greatest sign stealers in the history of the game, used to watch trainer Barry Weinberg when Tony La Russa was managing in Oakland. Nossek figured out that La Russa, aware of Nossek’s skills from when he was on La Russa’s staff with the Chicago White Sox, would have Weinberg relay signs to the third base coach in an effort to throw Nossek off guard.

When he managed the Texas Rangers, Bobby Valentine became convinced that the Minnesota Twins manipulated the ventilation system in the Metrodome so that the air from behind home plate blew out when the Twins hit and sucked in when the opposition was up. So to prove his point, Valentine tied ribbons to the screen covering the system.

It’s all about looking for an edge.

It’s the San Francisco Giants of the 1960s watering down the ground around first base for games against the Los Angeles Dodgers (ostensibly to prevent LA's stolen-base fiend Maury Wills from getting big jumps).

It’s all about not getting caught.

In 1981, Wills, during his brief tenure as manager in Seattle, ordered the grounds crew to expand the batter's box so hitters would be closer to the mound and ostensibly be able to swing at pitches from Oakland sinker ball pitcher Rick Langford before they dropped dramatically. Oakland manager Billy Martin noticed the adjustments and requested a measurement when lineup cards were exchanged at home plate.

Wills was suspended. He had tampered with a written rule, and paid a price.

But when it comes to stealing signs, whether it be from a coach or a pitcher, that’s an internal matter. It’s for the teams to settle amongst themselves.

It’s all a part of the game.

It has been since the first pitch was thrown.

And it will be until the final game is played.

Tagged: Angels, Twins, Yankees, Rangers, Phillies, Giants, Rockies, Yorvit Torrealba

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