There was a tempest in a teapot during Monday’s Yankees-Orioles game. Between innings, Joe Girardi screamed that Oriole third base coach Bobby Dickerson was stealing signs. Buck Showalter screamed back at Girardi so heatedly that umpires had to restrain him. Girardi claimed that Dickerson was stealing pitch signs from Yankee catcher Austin Romine, and signaling them to Oriole hitters. Showalter took umbrage, and the next day, he told ESPN’s Mike Lupica that the Yankees “are actually one of the better teams” at stealing signs. Others don’t think it’s a big deal. Trying to steal signs is fair, Lou Piniella told ESPN in an interview. “It is part of the game,” he said. If another team tries to steal your signs, “You just switch them.”
Sign stealing fascinates me. There is no rule against it, just an unwritten rule. Basically, the expectation is that teams should not try to steal signs, on the honor system. And yet that expectation seems nonsensical at first blush: after all, if you expected the other team not to steal your coded signs, then you wouldn’t need signs in the first place, and you certainly wouldn’t need elaborate fake signs and countersigns to fool the other team. As far as I can tell, the apparent logic works like this: I pledge that I will make a reasonable effort to disguise my communications with my teammates so that you will not be able to intercept those communications without a concerted effort of your own. I expect you to pledge not to intercept those communications. This is, essentially, the logic behind secret service code names for the president and the first family; the names themselves aren’t secret, but they provide a superficial level of secrecy.
The only rules against sign stealing are a 1961 rule that bans the use of a “mechanical device” for the purposes of sign stealing, and then there’s a line from a memo written in 2000 by Sandy Alderson that states that “electronic equipment… may not be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.” In 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies were accused of stealing signs after bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was seen watching Rockies catcher through binoculars, which isn’t prohibited by the rules but is clearly frowned upon. However, the actual advantages of stealing signs are far less clear, as I wrote at the time:
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…
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.”
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.