The Phillies have been accused of stealing signs, but did they do anything wrong? Sign-stealing isn’t exactly against the rules, but it isn’t exactly not. After reviewing the telecast of Monday night’s Rockies-Phillies game, during which Philly bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was seen watching Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo through binoculars, Major League Baseball officially warned the Phillies not to cheat — while admitting, “We found the evidence inconclusive on what was being done.”
The rule against sign-stealing is generally more of an unwritten one. There’s nothing about it the Official Rule Book — in fact, there are no rules regarding signs at all. There was a 1961 rule banning sign stealing by means of a “mechanical device,” but no amendment was put in the modern rulebook. And then there’s a passage in a memo sent in 2000 by Sandy Alderson, then MLB’s executive VP of Baseball Operations:
Please be reminded that the use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted. No club shall use electronic equipment, including walkie-talkies and cellular telephones, to communicate to or with any on-field personnel, including those, in the dugout, bullpen, field and–during the game–the clubhouse. Such equipment may not be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.
Binoculars, clearly, aren’t forbidden.
So it’s more of a judgment call. Rob Neyer offers a harsh, but common-sense take: “Officially, it’s cheating if ‘electronic devices’ are used. I’ll take it one step farther, though. I say anything beyond the naked eye is cheating.” Charlie Manuel didn’t help matters with his denial: ““We were not trying to steal signs. Would we try to steal somebody’s signs? Yeah, if we can. But we don’t do that.”
Because sign stealing is prohibited more by gentleman’s agreement than by law, then it’s important to ask: does it work? A decade ago, Neyer examined one of the most famous sign stealing rings of all, during the 1951 New York Giants’ amazing 52-18 race to the World Series. An electrician named Abraham Chadwick installed a buzzer system in the Giants’ clubhouse; another Giant stationed himself out in the spacious Polo Grounds outfield with a powerful telescope and signaled each pitch as it was called.
However, looking at Retrosheet data, Neyer notices something remarkable: “The Giants actually hit worse at the Polo Grounds after they started cheating.” Half the team didn’t even want to know what pitch was coming. The whole team kept the secret, dutifully, for 50 years, but while it’s undeniable that they cheated — they kept it a secret, which means they had a sense it was wrong, and then finally admitted it — it’s awfully questionable whether it helped.
There’s certainly a major placebo effect to cheating. It makes the cheater feel confident and the cheated feel paranoid. According to the recent book The Baseball Codes, in 2005, Bob Wickman intentionally balked a runner to third because he feared that the guy was stealing his signs from second. So the fear of cheating — or thrill of not getting caught cheating — may be more tangible than its effect.
What should be done, then? Should the Phillies be punished? Or is the outrage misguided? My answers may seem contradictory: no and no. But baseball’s attitude towards cheating is deeply contradictory. The “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin'” mentality coexists with the righteous indignation of people who feel the game must be played “the right way.” Hence, the universal condemnation of steroids stands in stark contrast to the shrugs and muted praise for A.J. Pierzynski’s
breaking up a perfect game by pretending he was beaned pretending to be beaned during a no-hitter. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jeff Schultz compared the Phillies’ binoculars to the 1951 Giants’ elaborate operation, writing, “I say: Give that spy a raise.”
The Phillies shouldn’t be punished, because they haven’t violated the letter of any law. But they’ve certainly violated the spirit, as Neyer says. They’re not the first, and won’t be the last, to steal signs. Still, the next time they come to your town, feel free to boo.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.