BALTIMORE – Stealing signs probably became an integral part of baseball culture hours after an inventive catcher first decided to use his index finger to call for a fastball.
Knowing the kind of pitch that's coming, along with the location, is an invaluable advantage to the batter. That's why baseball teams have been stealing signs for well over a century.
In a book entitled, "Pitching in a Pinch, Baseball from the Inside," Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson wrote about an intricate system in which someone in the clubhouse with a pair of field-glasses stole the sign and pressed a button that worked a buzzer under the third-base coaching box. The coach would then inform the batter what pitch to expect.
Mathewson was describing a scheme used in 1899. Here we are, 114 years later, and baseball teams are still trying to gain an advantage by stealing signs.
New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi accused Orioles third base coach Bobby Dickerson of doing just that during Monday night's game at Camden Yards. Baltimore manager Buck Showalter stormed out the dugout to confront Girardi over the assertion, and in the aftermath, the dark-side art of baseball was thrust out in the open.
Showalter denied the Orioles were stealing signs, but insisted every team — including the Yankees — looks for that kind of advantage.
"They're right there for everybody to see, if you can figure out the sequence," Showalter said. "There's a lot of clubs that have people who do nothing else but watch the sequences every pitcher uses."
With the exception of the rare times when telescopes or binoculars are used, swiping signs is really not an art but rather a matter of accepting an open invitation. If someone leaves a $500 bicycle unlocked in his driveway, it's probably going to be stolen. Similarly, if a catcher isn't careful about shuffling his sign sequence or hiding his fingers when asking for a certain pitch, there's a good chance the other team is going to take advantage of it.
"It's been part of the game since the beginning of time and it will be 'til the end of time," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "If you have a problem with people stealing your signs, hide your signs better. That's the best advice I could give you."
Girardi knows this. It doesn't mean he has to tolerate it when he sees it.
"It's been going on for years. It went on when I played, and I'm sure it went on well before that," the former catcher said. "And because you play so much now and you see teams so much now and they're very familiar with what you do, you need to be creative and you have to protect things."
Dickerson was accused of stealing signs from Yankees catcher Austin Romine, who was certain he was doing all the right things to prevent that from happening.
"Everybody wants to steal signs, and we've got to do our best to hide them," Romine said. "I asked someone to go out and see if they could see my signs, and they said no. So I knew I was doing my job and not letting them see my signs."
Preventing the theft isn't difficult, even if there's an opposing runner on second base.
"You've just got to keep your knees facing the pitcher," Romine said. "Pretty simple."
There are intricate ways of stealing signs, and then there's the simple way. Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker recalled a time during his playing days when he was blushingly caught in the act.
"Johnny Bench caught me peeking," Baker said. "I looked back and saw him looking right up at me. He said, 'Merry Christmas, Dusty.' I thought, 'Uh, oh.' I said, 'Merry Christmas, Johnny.' He didn't have to bust me, but he could've set up outside and made me dive outside and then get me drilled in the side of the head."
Now, as a manager, Baker has a simple philosophy on sign stealing: Take measures to prevent it and you won't have to worry about it.
"This comes up every time something happens," Baker said. "My feeling is, if you're dumb enough to let the other team steal your signs without making adjustments, that's your problem. It's simple. If you think the other team is stealing signs, change them. Once you got caught and the other team changed it up, that would stop that."
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley in San Francisco and freelancer Mark Schmeltzer in Cincinnati contributed.