Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Apple-Gate: Red Sox Caught Cheating?

By Jeff Kallman

There are two unwritten baseball rules that may never be rescinded. Rule 1: Boys will be boys and grown men will often be boys. Rule 2: Never mind the church ladies of or around the game, cheating is baseball's oldest profession.

It didn't begin with Reds coach Tommy Corcoran getting his spikes caught in dirt on the Philadelphia first base coaching line one fine day in 1898, and discovering his spikes caught onto a telegraph wire running to the Phillies clubhouse, giving the Phillies the nineteenth century version of high-tech chicanery to abet sign stealing.

It merely continued with the 1951 Giants' planting reserve catcher Herman Franks in the Polo Grounds clubhouse behind straightaway center field with a telescope and a button to buzz the bullpen, where another reserve catcher, Sal Yvars, would relay them to hitters (if Yvars did nothing, the hitter understood to look for a fastball), in service of the stupefying stretch drive comeback and the three-game pennant playoff nobody forgot.

And it won't end just because the Red Sox were caught with their pixels down, with assistant trainer Jon Jochim using an Apple Watch to send pitch signs — gained, apparently, from other team personnel scanning instant replay video, according to the New York Times's Michael S. Schmidt last week — to Red Sox hitters during a recent set with the Yankees, while the two teams wrestle to own the American League East.

Gumshoes for the commissioner's office confirmed Applegate. Without exactly denying what their personnel were up to, while insisting manager John Farrell and general manager Dave (How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm) Dombrowski had no idea about it, the Red Sox filed a counter-charge that the Yankees' YES cable television broadcast network had a camera dedicated to sign stealing on their behalf. They also got some hard evidence while they were at it, video showing a YES camera trained upon their bench coach, Gary DiSarcina, which prompted DiSarcina to change his own dugout positions.

Wherever he is, Leo Durocher, the '51 Giants manager who instigated their elaborate intelligence operation down that stretch, must be giving a wink.

But Farrell knows his players try to steal signs. There isn't a manager in baseball who doesn't know his players are trying to steal signs and the other guys are trying, too. It's the high tech heists where Farrell says he'd have drawn the line. "I would have shut that down," Farrell insists about things like smartwatches and other hand-held or foot-activated relayers.

It isn't cheating just to try stealing signs, no matter what baseball's church ladies and moral majoritarians might try to argue, it's gamesmanship. Runners on second do it all the time, trying to get a glance at the catchers' signs to their pitchers and give their hitters a little advanced intelligence. People on the benches thrive on stealing a third base coach's signs to his hitters or to his runners, the better to defend against what might happen on the hitter's contact.

Once in awhile you'll hear someone on the receiving end of the sign theft squawk. Maybe you'll see a pitcher throw a suspected petty thief a knockdown pitch. Sign stealing by itself is probably as old as the curve ball. But smart-watching, smart-phoning, camera-relaying, text messaging? That's felonious grand theft, as implied by the formal directive that's been in place in MLB since approximately 2001.

The underground telegraph wire in ancient Baker Bowl didn't do the 1898 Phillies a buzz of good; they still finished sixth, 24 games behind the pennant-winning Boston Beaneaters. (Today, the Beaneaters are known as the Atlanta Braves.) Nobody was disciplined for it once Corcoran tripped upon it, but Phillies backup catcher Morgan Murphy — who'd use opera glasses to read opposing catchers' signs and then buzz them in code to the third base coach — was released after the wire was crossed. Marginal at best as a player, he'd outlived his usefulness.

The cloak-and-dagger telescoping and buzzing from the clubhouse to the bullpen probably worked wonders for the '51 Giants' comeback, which including a stupefying sixteen-game winning streak. But if you truly believe crime doesn't pay, be advised that those Giants went from breaking Brooklyn's heart to getting their own hearts broken in the 1951 World Series, where the Yankees destroyed them in five games to win the third of manager Casey Stengel's still-record five consecutive World Series rings.

Bobby Thomson, who hit the pennant-winning home run in the playoff tiebreaker, denied for the rest of his life that he actually took one of the stolen signs. Ralph Branca, the pitcher who served the ball that got lined into the left field seats with the pennant attached, and bore the burden of throwing it with uncommon grace, came to begrudge the '51 Giants' pennant and strained not to let it compromise the sweet friendship he and Thomson struck over the decades after their playing days ended. (Branca made success in the insurance business before becoming the first president of the Baseball Assistance Team; Thomson became a successful sales executive.)

"He still had to hit the ball," said Branca, who died last November.

The Wall Street Journal's Joshua Prager exposed the '51 Giants' chicaneries in a landmark 2001 article that formed the basis of his book The Echoing Green. Their discoveries only began, Prager wrote, when a teenager opened a leather case to find a Wollensak telescope and said to his mother, "Papa used it to spy on the Germans." No, replied Mom, "an opposing baseball team."

"Papa" was Giants utility infielder Henry Schenz, who'd once stolen signs by telescope as a Cub. But when he struggled to decode opposing catchers' signs in the Giants clubhouse, he was replaced by Franks. "If I'm ever asked about it," Franks told Prager in 2001, "I'm denying everything."

You'd think the Red Sox wouldn't have to graduate from mere everyday, pedestrian sign-stealing to high-tech electro theft considering their 21st Century bragging rights (the 2004 American League Championship Series overthrow, their 3-1 advantage in World Series rings) on the Yankees. But then nobody thought the New England Patriots needed to videotape opposing defense signals, either. And, for better or worse, the once-vaunted Red Sox/Yankees rivalry hasn't been this ticklish since the year between Aaron Boone's 2003 pennant-winning bomb off Tim Wakefield and the finish of the Red Sox's staggering 2004 upending of the Yankees after being down to the final out of an ALCS sweep.

As of this writing, Commissioner Rob Manfred has yet to decide just how to discipline the Red Sox or the Yankees over Applegate. "Some in baseball," Schmidt writes, "would like for Mr. Manfred to take away some of Boston's victories, a move that would be highly unusual. Others believe that a significant fine and the docking of draft picks would be sufficient." Most seem to expect the punishments to be light, particularly with the Red Sox actually cooperating with MLB's probe before the Yankees blew the whistle to the Times.

Some of us might think to restrict the Red Sox — and every other major league team — to non-tech wristwatches on ballpark grounds, and maybe impose a security guard from MLB offices in the Yankees' and other broadcast booths. But remember that boys will always be boys. They'll take a licking but keep on ticking. Or anything else to gain an edge. (Drones over the ballparks?) And they always will.

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