Crime pays! At least it does in baseball

Crime pays! At least it does in baseball
In baseball, crime can and often does pay: just don’t get caught! We had another great example this week when Captain Clutch himself, Derek Jeter, Mr. Yankee, put on a great performance fooling an umpire into believing that he had been hit by a pitch that actually struck the knob of his bat. The next batter, Curtis Granderson, then socked a home run that put the Yankees, albeit briefly, on top of their American League East rivals the Tampa Bay Rays.

Now you may be old enough to remember the margarine commercials with the tag line, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” Well, in this case it wasn’t nice to fool the Baseball Gods, those minor spirits that seem to mete out justice (or at least irony). The bottom of the inning the Rays re-took the lead and ultimately won the game.

While the media tried to whip up controversy surrounding Jeter’s persiflage, most people in and out of baseball didn’t buy it. Even Rays’ manager Joe Maddon cited Jeter’s presence of mind and convincing acting skills, although on the field his strenuous objections got him ejected from the game. Most fans, players, and commentators agreed; he got away with it. End of story. That ultimately righteousness prevailed no doubt took a good deal of steam out of the caboose, so to speak.

No sport is as dependent on semaphores as is baseball. Because of the wide spacing of the players and lack of huddles or anything like an actual “time out” despite frequent stoppages of play, hand signals are flashed across the diamond on both sides. The catcher signals the pitcher what kind of pitch and where he wants it thrown. The base coaches flash signs to the batter: take this pitch; you may swing away; get that bunt down! From the dugout the bench coach signals the defense: two steps to the left, go back, play in at the corners, let’s pitch out, walk this batter intentionally.

Baseball’s hand signals form a language unto themselves. Touching the nose, the left earlobe, right earlobe, brushing the bill of the cap, swipe across the letters, hands down the side, and so forth and so on. Sometimes signals are given that have absolutely no meaning at all, simply to attempt to confuse the opponent.

Frequently during the action you will see the catcher go out and conference with the pitcher when a runner is on second base. The purpose of this is to change the signals, or more precisely, the sequence of signals that the catcher flashes: It’s the third sign that counts, ignore the others. The most opportune sign-stealer is of course that man on second base, because he has an unobstructed view (you will frequently see catchers looking up at hitters to make sure they’re not peeking down to see what signs are being given), and because he is in line-of-sight with the batter. Not surprisingly, there are batters who don’t want the runner on second flashing them signs while they are trying to hit: too distracting. They can step out of the batter’s box to check with a base coach (usually the third base coach) for direct instructions, but don’t want an excess of information (especially if it’s wrong) or the visual distraction in their field of view.

We had the case earlier this season of Philadelphia Phillies’ bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer, who was caught using binoculars from his perch. There was of course a great hue and cry about the Phillies stealing signs (with that given as a reason for their recent and current success), while the players themselves joked that Mick was known more for being a keen spotter of pulchritude in the stands rather than signal thievery. No one could make a convincing case how Billmeyer could possibly relay any pilfered signs in an efficient way to the batter, but it’s baseball and rhubarbs are an activity, not a vegetable.

Stories of sign stealing by furtive spies with binoculars and telescopes in scoreboards at Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and other venues are legendary; and Hall of Famer Leo Durocher who managed the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs and Astros was famous for his sign stealing ability.

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