July 20, 2011
Hoping for a Sign
TORONTO—Looking back on it now, more than three decades later, Buck Martinez can't remember a better group of sign stealers than his teammates with the Milwaukee Brewers. The former big-league catcher and manager, who practiced the black arts of sign stealing with the Brew Crew teams of the late 70s, said without hesitation last week: “We were the best at it.”
Even from the on-deck circle, with Martinez down on one knee waiting to hit, he found a way to make an opposing catcher pay the price for setting up too early. On those Brewers teams, when the man on deck called the man at the plate by his first name, the opposing catcher was set up for a pitch inside. If he was called by his last name, the catcher was set up for a pitch outside.
And of all of his teammates on those Brewers teams, Martinez said he couldn't remember a player who made more out of stolen signs than Sal Bando.
“I played with guys that did it the whole time,” he said. “Sal Bando was as good as anybody I saw if he knew what was coming.”
Yet, for as skilled as Martinez and the Brewers became at picking up on the signs of their opponents, they weren't perfect. Standing at second base, Martinez thought he had figured out his opponents' signs, and he signaled appropriately. He expected a slider away only to get fastball inside. In the dugout between innings, Martinez felt compelled to apologize.
All of it begs the question: even if a team successfully steals signs, is the payoff worth the effort?
“They think they're stealing,” Martinez said. “You know what? Most of the guys don't want to know.”
By the time Martinez took over as manager of the Blue Jays in 2000, he noticed that players who were adept as sign stealers were more the exception than the rule. Even if teammates or coaches figured out an opponents' signs, Martinez said it was no sure thing that his players would want the information.
“I'd say, 'You know what, we've got something on these guys,'” Martinez said. “And they'd say,‘I don't want to know. I'm better off if I don't know.’Then we had guys that thought they had them that were a mess. Guys would come in and say,‘I've got his pitches.’I'd say,'I wish you didn't,because you're not very good when you think you know what's coming.'”
Some players feared getting crossed up, a potentially dangerous situation depending on how badly the signs were botched. Some preferred to hit with a clear mind, shielding themselves from information overload. And some simply didn't want to feel the embarrassment of making outs despite knowing what was coming.
“You don't want to look like a dog,” Martinez said.
But in his playing days, Martinez said,he was never the type to turn down some helpfrom a teammate who could see the opposing catcher's signs from second base, or from a base coach, who could peer down and quickly relay pitch type or pitch location. He suspects that a few in the game are still the same way.
“I'm sure there are guys who are doing it,” said Martinez, who is now a broadcaster for the Blue Jays. “I'm sure there are veterans who are doing it. I know there are a handful of guys who say, ‘If you get on base and you find anything, let me know.’I was like that.”
Without knowing exactly when hitters knew what was coming, the impact of stealing signs will probably defy any kind of meaningful measurement. But Martinez believes, through first-hand experience, that having the signs can make a difference. During his 17-year career with the Royals, Brewers,and Blue Jays, Martinez was a .225 lifetime hitter. He developed a reputation as a strong defensive catcher who wouldn't provide much with the bat.
Still, Martinez remembers a handful of pitchers whomhe felt confident facing because he “had their pitches.” Whether it was simply watching closely for them to tip their pitches, or whether it was easy for teammates to figure out their catchers’signs, Martinez reeled off a list of five pitchers whomhe thought he had figured out:
Clearly, Martinez may have benefited. Still, he wonders whether sign stealing ultimately remains a worthwhile endeavor. “It's too much effort,” he said.
Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.