The event, of course, was the home run hit by Thomson off Branca in the 1951 playoff to determine the champion of the National League played at the Polo Grounds. Even before Prager’s book, Thomson’s homer was one of those historical flashpoints where seemingly every movement had significance and was chronicled in some way. In fact, Don DeLillo’s epic novel, Underworld, opens with the ball disappearing into the left field stands and retrieved by a neighborhood kid who snuck into the ballpark. In reality, no one knows what happened to the ball.
Imagine that… the most famous home run ever hit and no one knows what happened to the ball. If Thomson’s homer happened in our age there would be a court injunction or an Amber Alert to have it returned.
Nevertheless, Prager painstakingly researched the length to which the New York Giants went to create an elaborate scheme to steal the signs from the opposition. First, a member of the grounds crew set up a line of buzzers and signals from the centerfield clubhouse to the bullpen, where coach Herman Franks had stationed himself at a window with a pair of binoculars. There, Franks buzzed the signal to backup catcher Sal Yvars in the bullpen that was actually located in the deepest part of center field on the playing field. When he got the signal, Yvars would tip off the hitter by positioning himself a certain way in the bullpen. If hitters wanted the sign, Yvars had it for them.
In the book Yvars admits that he signaled to Thomson to be ready for a fastball from Branca. The rest, as they say, is history.
Using technology, like buzzers and binoculars, is a violation of the spirit of the game and probably a whole bunch of good rules, too. However, if a player (or players)are able to decode the opposition’s signals through wits or another team’s negligence, then there is nothing wrong with that. Better yet, stealing signs is an art form in baseball. No one wants to admit that they do it for fear of retribution, but trust me… the Phillies have a guy on the team who is really good at stealing signs. This guy once told me that he could pick off most team’s signs just one cycle through the pattern, but later denied this a few years later.
Oh yes, I know what I heard and that Phillies player knows what he told me.
There is nothing wrong with that. A good sign stealers is one of those intangibles like the ability to take a good lead or knowing how to read a ball off the bat. Anyone who complains about that type of sign stealing is a whiner.
And that’s exactly what Charlie Manuel called those complainers before Wednesday’s game in Denver.
“Keep crying,” Manuel said.
Of course, the Phillies have been accused of stealing signs for years, which is something Manuel always greeted with a wary smile when asked about it. Good, old fashioned sign stealing is part of the game and something old salts like Manuel appreciate. However, the latest accusation has some legs to it with the photographic evidence of bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer with a pair of binoculars and sitting next to what could be the bullpen phone.
So the Phillies were caught red-handed, huh?
“Absolutely not,” Manuel said Wednesday. “Absolutely
[bleeping] not. In no way were we stealing signs. We don’t do that.
“I understand why they’d be concerned about it, but that’s the truth. We’re not trying to steal signs. That’s it. I didn’t know [Billmeyer] did that. He watches our catcher to help him where he’s setting up. It definitely had nothing to do with signs.”
That’s the Phillies story and they are sticking to it. But that didn’t stop Major League Baseball from issuing a formal warning to the team or the Rockies from piling on the accusations. At the same time, it’s OK to take Manuel at his word but that doesn’t mean anyone has to buy it. Knowing Billmeyer he very well might be checking out the catcher’s positioning, or scoping out girls in the stands. He is the catching coach, after all.
However, teams have access to tons and tons of video and if Mick wants to make a teaching point to Carlos Ruiz or Paul Hoover, he has all of those games and squats at his disposal.
Binoculars? It doesn’t look right.
Who knows if it is even possible to catch a sign and signal it back in to the hitter so that he can react accordingly. To do that, Billmeyer would have to be really good at deciphering the sign with a way to get his message across in seconds. That doesn't seem likely.
On the other hand, Billmeyer could spot tendencies and patterns to what the catcher and pitcher are doing and signal that in... but then again they can figure that out from any point in the ballpark.
So are the Phillies cheaters? Probably no more than any other team… besides, it’s not like they’re getting three extra home games or anything.