ESPN is reporting that last night's dust-up between manager Joe Girardi and Buck Showalter came about because Girardi thinks that the Orioles were stealing the Yankees' signs and that third-base coach Bobby Dickerson was relaying them to Oriole hitters. (For the tale of the tape on that bout, see Michael Brown's article today).
It's surprising that Girardi, an old-school catcher, reacted as he did. Stealing signs has been part of baseball forever. Besides, there are other ways to deal with it. In 2011, Girardi seemed to take a different view. At that time, the Toronto Blue Jays were stealing catcher Russell Martin's signs. Girardi saw nothing wrong with this and, in fact, said the onus is on the defense to protect its signs. "People have been stealing signs since the beginning of time," Girardi told CBS at the time. "It's your job as a club to protect signs."
The common-sense solution is simple: change your signs and change them often. The old-school solution is even simpler. With a left-hander like C.C. Sabathia on the mound, wait for the Orioles' next left-handed hitter to come up. Have catcher Austin Romine signal for a breaking ball but have Sabathia throw a fastball high and tight. The hitter, leaning in to wait for the ball to break, will get the crap scared out of him when the ball doesn't break. Repeat as necessary. Pretty soon, the Oriole hitters will lose faith in their sign-stealers.
There is nothing new about stealing signs. When Bobby Thompson hit his shot heard ‘round the world to win the pennant in 1951, the Giants were routinely stealing the Dodgers' signs and relaying them to batters. It has been reported that Thompson knew what was coming when Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca delivered the home-run pitch.
There is nothing expressly illegal about stealing signs. No specific major-league rule prohibits it, although many in baseball see it as violating baseball's unwritten codes. The objectors are usually those whose signs are being stolen.
If Sabathia was tipping his pitches and the Orioles picked that up, Girardi had no reason to complain. As Girardi said in 2011, "Guys have found how pitchers tip pitches forever. Is that cheating? If you know it, are you not going to use it?"
Few Yankees fans will forget Game 6 of the 2001 World Series, when the Diamondbacks hit Andy Pettitte as if they knew what was coming. They did. Pettitte was tipping his pitches from the set position. When Pettitte found out, "It made me sick," he said.
There are many ways to steal the catcher's signs. Sometimes, the catcher is sloppy in how he uses his mitt to shield the signs. Other times, the batter will peak back to read the sign. (If caught, the batter can expect the next pitch to be in his ear). A runner on second base has a clear view of the signs and can steal them and relay them to the batter.
When electronic devices are used, things get more questionable. For example, a coach with binoculars sitting in the stands or inside the scoreboard, can relay signs to the dugout via cellphone or walkie-talkie. MLB takes a dim view of this. In 2001, Sandy Alderson, who was then MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations, sent a memo to all teams forbidding the use of all electronic devices "for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage."
There are ways to deal with that, too. Many years ago, the Yankees gave Gene Michael a walkie-talkie and assigned him to sit in the stands, either to position outfielders or steal signs. When White Sox owner Bill Veeck found out about it, he hired a clown to trail Michael, sit next to him and, in general, make a spectacle.
Before cellphones, the electronic ways of relaying stolen signs ranged from the weird to the bizarre. In the 1980s, the Chicago White Sox allegedly used a light bulb in the scoreboard to relay stolen signs. If the light was turned on, it meant a fastball or curve was coming. If it was off, it meant the other was coming. In 1951, the Giants relayed stolen signs from their centerfield clubhouse to the dugout with an electric buzzer.