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The hidden art of stealing signs


The footage was unmistakable. A camera for FSN Rocky Mountain, the television home of the Rockies, had found Phillies bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer sitting on the visiting bullpen bench in the second inning of a game on May 10, looking through a pair of binoculars in the direction of home plate.

The network also showed Philadelphia center fielder Shane Victorino chatting on the dugout phone, seemingly engaged in conversation with someone in the bullpen.

The natural assumption of the Rockies' broadcasters was that the Phillies were engaged in some kind of sign-stealing subterfuge, whereby Billmeyer was relaying the signals of Colorado catcher Miguel Olivo to the Philadelphia hitters.

What was actually happening is unclear. The Phillies have denied trying to steal signs, but Billmeyer himself has declined to comment. Victorino has said he was merely passing along a message from manager Charlie Manuel to tell Billmeyer that he had to put the binoculars away. Major League Baseball investigated but found no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing against the Phillies, issuing only a warning instead.

Regardless of what Billmeyer was doing at Coors Field -- two major leaguers recently said it's not uncommon for bullpen constituents to use binoculars, but never for stealing signs and only for scouting attractive women in the crowd -- the accepted but unspoken world of sign-stealing had been brought to the forefront of the baseball conversation.

How does it work? Where's the line between what's acceptable and what is not? And why all the big fuss?

Until baseball installs radio earpieces inside players' helmets, akin to the high-tech communication systems employed in football, communication around the diamond will remain a form of coded sign language. There are two common types. A catcher flashing multiple pitch calls to his pitcher and third-base coaches going through a complicated series of hand gestures -- a tap of the nose, a rub of the sleeve, a touch to the belt buckle -- before nearly every pitch. But even those are simply the final chains of communication, after the original call is made from the dugout.

The two most common points of interception occur when a runner on second base peers between the catcher's legs at the signs being given to the pitcher or when a manager signs his intentions to the third-base coach, for relay onto the batter and runners.

"If your club is smart enough to pick up on what another club's signs are, that's just using your head," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

The consensus among players and coaches is that any code deciphering by uniformed personnel is part of the game, but when outside equipment -- electronic, mechanical or otherwise -- is used, that's crossing the line. The official MLB rulebook does not address sign-stealing, though a memo was distributed in 2001 telling clubs that technology "could not be used for communications or for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage." In that category fall the use of binoculars from the bullpen and the system employed by the 1951 Giants, a few of whom have admitted to using a complicated system of flashing lights from the center field scoreboard to tip which pitch was coming.

"Look at what happened in football when the Patriots got caught," Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard said, referring to the so-called Spygate incident in which the Patriots were caught filming the Jets' coaches' signals. "That was a pretty big deal. They had a draft pick taken away. This is the same deal when you're using cameras and technology to gain an advantage on your opponent. It's no different in baseball and should be taken just as seriously."

There are degrees of acceptability. Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson explained that for some reason one set of signs -- the ones given by the catcher -- are more sacred than the ones given by a coach. "The funny thing is that not too many people complain when you steal the hitting signs," Granderson said. "It's always a complaint when they steal the pitching signs."

That's why overt attempts at a runner sending a signal to the hitter will often draw a high-and-tight fastball from the pitcher. And several pitchers agree that having a pitch tipped (i.e. fastball versus breaking ball) is more acceptable than tipping the location of that pitch. If that happened, "I think someone would be delivered a message," Bard said.

Players are loath to talk specifics, of course, fearing fastball retribution or a loss of a competitive advantage. Granderson conceded that he's benefitted from a stolen sign at least once. Early in his career he was facing a tough left-handed pitcher, received a sign from a teammate on the basepaths that the next pitch would be a fastball and promptly smacked a base hit. But he also said that having the signs doesn't always help.

"I played in a game one time when we had the pitcher's signs perfect," Granderson said. "We were relaying them to the hitter, and we still had about 14 strikeouts as a team. We lost and scored one run. We were onto him, and it still didn't matter."

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Joe Nossek was baseball's sign-stealing guru for nearly 40 years. He played parts of six seasons in the major leagues and then coached or scouted for 33 more years, 16 of them with the Chicago White Sox before retiring after 2003. Nossek majored in business at Ohio University and says he always had an aptitude for math, codes and word scrambles, which he put to use in major-league dugouts.

He only averaged about 100 plate appearances per season and so he thought, "Maybe I can help from the bench." While with Oakland in 1969 he began intently watching the interplay between manager and third-base coach. In the first game of a series Nossek was convinced the opponent had called a hit and run and approached his manager, Hank Bauer.

"Hank was an ex-Marine, and back then if managers said 'hi' to you four times during the year, that was a big deal," Nossek said. "I got my nerve up and went to Hank when I thought I had something. I said, 'Hank, I think the hit and run is on here.' He gave me that gameface Marine look and said, 'Oh yeah?' I said, 'Yeah.' But he didn't do anything. Basically I got a look to go sit down and watch the game. Sure enough it was on."

In the final game of the series Nossek saw the sign and again approached Bauer

"This time he believed me," Nossek said. "We pitched out and got the guy. I gave him a little assurance that maybe I knew what I was talking about every once in a while.

"I got hooked on it too. A little success makes you want more."

Nossek grew such a reputation for being adept at stealing signs during his coaching days that he said it seemed to have a psychological effect on the other team. At times they were more reticent to put on a hit and run or steal for fear the signal would be intercepted; at other times the team would make the signs so complicated that a player would miss them.

In one game when Billy Martin was the opposing manager, Nossek said he had figured out the third-base coach's signs so well that he "knew them as well as their players." Nossek saw the sign for the squeeze play come on, so he alerted his manager, who called for a pitchout. Martin saw the manager's communication with the catcher, so he alerted his coach, got the hitter to step out and took the squeeze off. Nossek then told his manager the call was off and took the pitchout off. Martin then put the squeeze back on.

"That went back and forth for three or four times," Nossek said. "Finally Billy left the squeeze on. We pitched out and got the guy. It was fun to get Billy irritated every once in a while."

For as much success as Nossek had, he said that in the average year he only deciphered the signs of four or five teams. In his best season he estimated that his team only gained an advantage of pitching out at the right time or picking off a runner about to steal maybe 30 times.

He said the game has changed, with less emphasis on the small-ball playing style of sacrifice bunts and hit and runs. More runners are free to steal bases without a signal, meaning there are fewer signs to give and protect. And not all batters even want to know the pitch ahead of time.

"You'd be shocked at the minimal number of hitters that really want to know what's coming," Nossek said. "A 95-mile-per-hour fastball coming at your head is no fun, if you've ever experienced it. What they're worried about, I think, is that whoever's relaying the sign might miss a pitch. If they're looking for a breaking ball and here comes a fastball up and in, that can really be a problem for a hitter. For that reason they just can't convince themselves that this is going to be 100 percent accurate."

The simple mantra managers should employ, according to Nossek, is this: "If you think someone's getting 'em, change 'em." But routine is hard to break. One manager, he said, had a tendency to remove his hat anytime he called for a squeeze.

"One thing I learned is that coaches get comfortable with a certain set of signs," Nossek said. "They don't stray too much from it, because they're comfortable doing it from all those years. There may be adjustments in the touches and where they are, but they'll be the same type of basic sign they've always used, so I'd have a starting point."

Still, even a small change in signs can be a deterrent, which is why many clubs don't emphasize sign stealing. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Twins right fielder Michael Cuddyer are among those who insist their clubs don't spend much time breaking codes.

"Maybe the whole league knows our signs, and we just don't know about it," Cuddyer said. "Some guys come over from other teams and say, 'Lets start paying more attention to that.' We just don't, I don't know what the reason is."

Still, an amateur video was posted on YouTube near the end of the 2009 regular season suggesting that maybe the Twins were engaged in sign stealing. The video showed an at bat the Twins' Jason Kubel was having against the Tigers' Justin Verlander in which Joe Mauer, while leading off second base, kept touching his right ear flap, potentially in an effort to signal what pitch was coming. Mauer denounced the video, saying he had not stolen any signs -- but said he would have if he could have. His teammates supported him, insisting that touching the helmet the way Mauer did would be too obvious; starter Kevin Slowey watched the video and said, "It was pretty laughable."

The incident between Colorado and Philadelphia earlier this month ignited a verbal barrage through the press. Rockies manager Jim Tracy said the Phillies were "out of line." Manuel returned the volley by telling the Rockies and other teams who have made such accusations -- the Mets have reportedly suspected the Phillies multiple times in the past three years -- to "keep crying" and even dragged the Mets into the mix by pointing out their favorable home record (14-7 at the time) when compared to their road record (4-8 then), apparently implying that New York had some sort of advantage built into Citi Field. Mets manager Jerry Manuel laughed at such insinuations, noting his club's below-average hitting performance at home and saying, "We need to stop stealing signs if that's what we're doing."

No team, of course, will ever candidly admit they're stealing signs, nor will any team completely stop trying to break an opponent's codes. The game within the game will forever continue, with a subtle nod and a delicate touch. But probably not with binoculars.