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Paul Hagen: Stealing signs as old as baseball itself

SO THE PHILLIES got caught. Busted. Bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer captured on video tape with binoculars, apparently looking at the signs being put down by Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo. Outrage and denials ensue.

Mick Billmeyer was caught by television cameras using binoculars during Monday's game. (FSN Rocky Mountain/AP)
Mick Billmeyer was caught by television cameras using binoculars during Monday's game. (FSN Rocky Mountain/AP)Read more

SO THE PHILLIES got caught. Busted. Bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer captured on video tape with binoculars, apparently looking at the signs being put down by Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo. Outrage and denials ensue.


Let's get real here. It happens. The Mets, one source said with a laugh, were so convinced that the Phillies were using cameras at Citizens Bank Park to steal signs that they asked Major League Baseball to investigate. They did, but only after telling the Phillies they were coming. In a stunning development, no evidence was found. But they're far from the only ones.

In his classic autobiography, the legendary Bill Veeck wrote: "I doubt if there is one club that hasn't tried [stealing signs] at one time or another." "Veeck As In Wreck" was published in 1962.

A decade ago, the Wall Street Journal wrote a story documenting how the 1951 New York Giants, who stormed from 13 1/2 games behind to capture the pennant, used a telescope in their centerfield clubhouse to pick up the opposing teams' signs. That information was transmitted by a buzzer to the bullpen, which then signaled to the hitter.

Years after the fact, Hall of Famer Bob Feller admitted that the Indians stole signs using the telescopic sight he had utilized as a gunnery mate in World War II. An arm dangling out of an opening in the scoreboard meant a curveball was coming, according to an article in Baseball Digest.

In 1956, the White Sox are said to have used Sherm Lollar's No. 10 as the tip-off. If the 1 flocked, fastball. If the 0 flickered, curve. Four years later, the Sox changed it up by having different colored lights in the scoreboard indicate pitches. In 1940, the Tigers used binoculars in the bullpen and a relief pitcher shifted positions to let the hitter know what was coming.

In other words, there really is nothing new under the sun. Or even the bright night lights of modern stadiums.

Look, cheating has no place in sports. But there's a difference between cheating and gamesmanship. "Who doesn't try to steal signs? If you can do it, God bless you," one National League baseball man said.

The line can be thin, however. Most baseball people tacitly approve of any decoding that is done with the naked eye. Use of electronic surveillance, such as cameras, is frowned upon. Binoculars seem to fall into a bit of a gray area, although using the bullpen phone to get the information back to the dugout probably violates the unwritten rules.

Really, there are only two surprises here. One is that the Phillies weren't a little more subtle about what they were doing. The other is that the Rockies complained to the umpires about it instead of just handling it the old-fashioned way. Which would have been to wait for the crucial situation with a batter they thought was using the information, call for a pitch outside and then throw it to the inner part of the plate instead. That generally puts a quick stop to such shenanigans.

Everybody-does-it isn't an excuse. It's just a fact. In Milwaukee, mascot Bernie Brewer has been accused of relaying information to the home hitters from his perch in left-center. In Kansas City, there has been suspicion that the outfield fountains at Kauffman Stadium have been used for more than ambience.

In 1999, Red Sox manager Jimy Williams accused the Indians of stealing signs with a camera in the scoreboard at Jacobs Field.

The Tribe's hitting coach at the time: Charlie Manuel.

Around the bases

Amazing stat of the week: The Nationals have been a better team than almost anybody expected so far, and their schedule gives them an excellent opportunity to make up even more ground. Beginning next Wednesday, when they open a homestand against the Mets, they play 62 straight games against teams that didn't make the playoffs last season. Sixty-two! The streak doesn't end until July 30 when they play the Phillies.

Questions and answers: Astros first baseman Lance Berkman was asked if his slow start means he might be done. Berkman: "No way. That's ridiculous. Unless my parents lied to me and I'm really 40."

Astros manager Brad Mills was asked if he's having trouble sleeping as the losses pile up. Mills: "I've gone through Excedrin PM, Tylenol PM, NyQuil. Now I'm to Sleepytime Tea. I'm not saying everyone should do that."

Fish tale: The Marlins are off to a disappointing start. Owner Jeffrey Loria gave manager Fredi Gonzalez a vote of confidence this week. But the real tension seems to be about when management will promote superprospect Mike Stanton, who hit a home run in Montgomery last week that was estimated to have traveled over 500 feet. He's hitting .349 with 15 homers and 35 RBI in his first 30 games at Double A Jacksonville.

"These games could be the difference later," one veteran pointedly told the Miami Herald.

All-Star aspirations: The Diamondbacks removed a 2011 All-Star sign from the leftfield wall at Chase Field recently, but CEO Derrick Hall said that's only because the space was sold for a Dial soap ad. Hall added that he remains optimistic MLB won't pull the plug despite criticism of the requirement that police check the papers of anybody who might be an illegal immigrant.

"I've had absolutely no indication we'll lose the game," he said. "In fact, I'm confident it will stay here. I think it's a difficult precedent for any league to set, making decisions based on controversial state bills."

Commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday he won't give in to pressure to move the game.

Getting the message: With the team off to a 9-24 start, Orioles president Andy McPhail picked a thoroughly modern way to rally the fan base. He taped a 3-minute state-of-the-team video and had it posted on the team's website Wednesday.

The speech was pretty standard, although he did use the words "terrifically horrendous" to describe the club's start. But it was at last an innovative way to get his message across. And, later, the O's became the last team in the majors to reach double digits in wins.

Phair and phoul

* Stop, thiefs: A final word on the whole huzzah about sign-stealing. In talking about the accusations, Charlie Manuel turned right around and pointed a finger at the Mets. He noted as proof the Amazin's dominance at Citi Field but trouble winning on the road. Mets manager Jerry Manuel acted amused. "Tell Charlie our bullpen is a little far," he told the New York Daily News. "He likes to keep the rivalry going, I guess."

* Perfect quote: Athletics righthander Braden Dallas, who pitched the 19th perfect game in history against Tampa Bay last week, was asked in one of the innumerable media availabilities about a certain 47-year-old Phillies lefthander. "Jamie Moyer played catch with Jesus and he's still getting it done," Dallas said.

* Phormer Phillie Phile: There is some speculation in Tampa Bay that the first-place Rays might consider releasing slumping DH Pat Burrell. The trigger would be that Hank Blalock, on a minor league contract that allows him to opt for free agency if the team doesn't promote him by a specified date, is threatening to exercise that right.

Burrell is hitting .213 with two homers and 13 RBI in the second year of a 2-year contract. Blalock is .362-4-24 at Triple A Durham.

But the most staggering stat is this: Burrell, a righthanded slugger, hasn't hit a single homer against a lefthanded pitcher while wearing a Rays uniform. That's just hard to believe.

* OK, Blue Jay: Moving the June 25-27 Phillies-Blue Jays series from Toronto to Philadelphia because of conflicts with the G-20 Summit is far from ideal, but was probably the best solution to a thorny problem. It will seem odd to see the Phillies wearing their road grays at Citizens Bank Park, though.

* Home cooking: No makeup date has been announced for Wednesday's night's postponement in Colorado, but there don't appear to be any mutual off days between the Phillies and Rockies that would be convenient for both teams.

The Rockies could ask to have it played after the regular season ends, if it impacts the standings, but see themselves as a contender and might prefer to have their pitching as set as possible.

It's unlikely, but they could play it in Philly when the Rockies visit in late July. That would give the Phils 85 games in their home park, which has to be some kind of record.