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Until Current Baseball Season, Stealing Signs Was Hidden Art

THE SPORTING NEWS

“Man, you are talking to the wrong person,” Tony Gwynn says. “I am absolutely the worst guy to talk to about stealing signs.”

The worst guy to talk to about stealing signs is the best hitter in baseball. The best hitter in baseball claims to be the last guy who would steal a sign. Which makes Gwynn, despite his protestations, a pretty good guy to give perspective on the issue.

“I hate it,” Gwynn says. “I don’t even want to know. I mean, guys are always talking on the bench about how a pitcher is holding his glove, or his arm angle, or whatever. When I hear that, I have to get up and walk away because I just don’t want to know.”

More later on why Gwynn doesn’t want to know what’s coming when he steps into the batter’s box. First, let’s see if we can figure out how much sign-stealing really goes on in baseball. Is Dusty Baker right? Do Felipe Alou’s Expos steal signs? Were Montreal’s baserunners filching the type and location of pitches from the Giants’ catchers in their May series and then communicating that information to the hitters? How many other teams do it? How often does it happen?

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You have to ask as many as . . . oh, two people before you find much disagreement.

“I think it happens more than people realize,” says Scott Servais, the Cubs’ bulldog catcher. “That’s part of the game. It’s been a part of the game and it always will be part of the game. I don’t really have a problem with guys trying to do it. You know, they say if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

“I don’t think it goes on as much as people think it does,” says Bruce Bochy, the Padres’ hard-nosed manager. “I think the art of stealing signs was more popular a few years ago. And it is an art. Sure, you try to do it. But I think paranoia plays as big a part in it as actually doing it. Maybe you pitch out when a team is running, or maybe a guy hits a decent pitch. Now the other team thinks you’ve got their signs. So it happens, but not quite as frequently as people think.”

No one disputes that it’s a part of the game, universally accepted as such. Until your signs are the ones being stolen. Then, all of a sudden, it’s an objectionable transgression that has no place in baseball.

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“Oh, hell yes,” Servais says, moments after his suggestion that you aren’t trying if you aren’t cheating. The Cubs, his team, have been accused in years past of planting a mole in the scoreboard at Wrigley Field to pilfer a catcher’s signs. “If I see a team doing it against us, I’ll say something to them. I want them to know we’re aware of it. And if it continues, we’ll have to do something about it.”

The peculiar element in the San Francisco-Montreal escapade a few weeks ago isn’t that the Expos may have been stealing signs. Nor is it unusual the Giants took offense when they began to suspect it was happening. No, the surprising thing (other than Alou’s strange notion that race somehow is involved) is that the managers are playing out this little rhubarb in a war of personal words, away from the field. If one team is stealing signs from another, there are better ways to deal with it. Maybe change the signs. Maybe employ an even quicker, more direct manner of retaliation.

Mario Soto, a pretty fair pitcher for the Reds for a dozen years, had a wonderful changeup, but he also had a habit of telegraphing it. One day, Hal Lanier, the Cardinals’ third base coach, devised a verbal cue to pass along to his hitters when he saw the changeup coming. It worked, until the Reds figured out what was happening. Then the catcher called for a changeup, Soto went into his windup, Lanier gave the cue and Soto zinged high heat at the hitter’s head. The anti-changeup. After the pitch, he simply turned toward Lanier and wagged his finger at him.

That was the end of it. Not a word was spoken.

Once in San Diego a few years back, the Phillies’ Curt Schilling thought Gwynn was stealing signs from second base when Derek Bell, then a Padre, was at bat. Schilling’s response wasn’t directed at Gwynn, though. Instead, he threw at Bell. A year or two ago, the Astros’ Craig Biggio alleged that Gwynn’s teammates were tipping signs to him.

“Yeah, I’ve been accused of it,” Gwynn says. “And the truth is, I couldn’t even tell you what the catcher’s signs are. I mean, I get on second base, and a lot of times I’m looking in to see what the catcher is putting down. But I have no idea what any of it means. I know, I know. After 15 years in the major leagues, people are going to hear that and say, ‘Yeah, right, Tony. You can’t tell?’ But I couldn’t tell you. I honestly could not tell you.”

Gwynn has won seven National League batting championships, including the last three in a row. He has hit over .300 for 14 consecutive seasons. He began this year with a career batting average of .337, and he’s way above that so far in 1997. He is as close to a hitting machine as baseball has seen in decades, maybe since Ted Williams. He is able, according to Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund, to read pitches when he doesn’t know what’s coming better than other players can when they’ve been told what to expect.

He is a different animal. He doesn’t want to know.

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“I’ve got to hit what I see,” Gwynn says. “That’s the only way I can describe it. Even when guys know what’s coming, that doesn’t mean the pitch is going to be a strike. There have been many times when you see something that lets you know what the pitch is; and then, even if it isn’t a strike, you end up swinging at it just because you think you know what it is.

“The discipline, for me, comes in seeing it out of the pitcher’s hand and reacting to what I see. I would much rather trust what my eyes tell me than something else--even if it’s a guy I don’t hit well, like (Denny) Neagle in Atlanta. I don’t hit Neagle worth a nickel. I’m like 2-for-21 against him or something. And the guys on the bench are talking like, ‘Oh, he does this and he does that. Watch for it.’ And I still don’t want to know. I’d rather trust my own judgment. I just trust what I see.”

When you have trusted your judgment for 15 years and hit .337 for that long, it’s hard to see the game through somebody else’s eyes. Gwynn won’t. So the worst guy to talk to about stealing signs walks away.


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