Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
During the 1951 season, New York Giants coach Herman Franks set up a military field scope in the home clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, which was in center field. From that spot, Franks ran a sign-stealing operation that likely enabled one of the most famous home runs in baseball history.
In a playoff game against Brooklyn on October 3 of that year, Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca threw a fastball to Bobby Thomson.
Thomson took a comfortable hack, lined the pitch over the left field wall, and announcer Russ Hodges made the iconic call, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"
It was the "shot heard 'round the world," and it happened because of high-tech sign stealing (a septuagenarian Thomson finally admitted it in the early 2000s). Clearly, this is an issue that stretches back for generations -- although players and teams do believe that sign-stealing has increased over the past few seasons, along with rapid advancements in ballpark tech and cameras.
Aiming to counter this uptick in age-old gamesmanship, the Yankees devised a new strategy last offseason.
A fan watching closely might have noticed it already: Often with runners on base and occasionally with the bases empty, the pitcher will step off the rubber, remove his cap and flash a number at the catcher. Or, the catcher will glance at his wristband and signal a number to the pitcher.
When that happens, they are looking at a small laminated card, which typically features five different sequences of signs, and allows the battery to change them without discussion. Sequence number one is one group of signs for fastball, curveball, slider. Sequence number two is another. And so on. It's nearly impossible for opponents to keep track.
The card is larger than a matchbox and smaller than a playing card. The pitcher keeps it tucked behind the brim of his cap, the catcher in his wristband (all of this is perfectly legal).
We were not allowed to photograph the card, or look at it for more than a quick second. The Yankees are relatively guarded about this subject, for the obvious reason that it's meant to keep other teams guessing. But they do acknowledge the strategy itself is obvious to anyone watching closely enough.
"Well, what do you know about it already?" manager Aaron Boone said -- with a sly grin, we should add -- when we cornered him in the clubhouse to ask about the cards.
After that, he would only offer a quick confirmation: "It's something the organization came up with in the offseason," Boone said.
A few players elaborated further.
"It's a really easy system," James Paxton said. "Easy to switch what signs we've been using, which keeps them guessing on second base. And so far, so good. I don't think we've really had anybody stealing signs."
Paxton said that he usually uses it with a man on second base, to guard against the runner peering in and relaying signs to the batter.
"But sometimes [we'll do it] if there's a guy on first, a savvy guy who just trying to look in from first base," he said. "I think that's a harder place to give signs to the hitter from first, especially a lefty, but that's the idea. If you want to switch, you'll give each other some kind of signal."
Paxton, who has been in the league since 2013, believes that sign stealing is on the rise over the past two years or so.
"It's definitely part of the game now," he said. "You need to think about it. People are finding new ways to get themselves a competitive advantage."
Catcher Austin Romine agreed.
"I think it's absolutely necessary," Romine said of the new system. "Last year and the year before, stealing signs became a big thing in the game. It is what it is. People were getting signs. They've been doing it forever, but there was more emphasis on it.
"With our new system that we've created here with this club, it's not even a thought anymore. I went from paranoid to guys getting signs in two sequences to knowing there was no way they could get our signs. It's a good system that we have. They're going to get them anyway, but it allows us to change them at a more rapid rate with a lot of different things they can do."
Adds lefty J.A. Happ: "I've heard that there's teams out there who have hired people simply to steal signs."
Happ says the new system allows him to forget about sign stealing, which can disrupt his rhythm, and concentrate on executing the pitch. "It takes my focus off of it," he says.
As for exactly how the pitchers and catchers signal to one another to go to the card, Happ would not say. He, like his manager and most other players, were only willing to discuss the system to a point.
"I can't really tell you, but if you watch the game you can see," Happ said.