SPORTS WATCH

The grand old game of stealing signs

America is crawling with the owners of over-sized cerebellums who have found baseball an ideal escape valve from weightier ruminations

TRENT FRAYNE April 9 1990
SPORTS WATCH

The grand old game of stealing signs

America is crawling with the owners of over-sized cerebellums who have found baseball an ideal escape valve from weightier ruminations

TRENT FRAYNE April 9 1990

As so many pundits have done before him, George F. Will, whose forehead stops just this side of heaven, has come out with a book about baseball. This one is called Men at Work and contains a segment on Tony La Russa, some of whose darkest thoughts appear to be directed against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Towering intellects in the United States rarely settle upon football, basketball, hockey—or, as so many of them call it there, ice hockey—tennis, golf or even shipboard quoits as meaty topics for a tome. But the country is crawling with the owners of oversized cerebellums who have found baseball an ideal escape valve from their normal weightier ruminations.

The French-born historian Jacques Barzun once noted that “whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Other literary dynamos who have pondered the subject include Sherwood Anderson, Mark Harris, A. E. Hotchner, H. L. Mencken, Marianne Moore, Philip Roth, James Thurber, John Updike and Thomas Wolfe.

Canadian masters of fiction and fact are nowhere near as busy examining the infield-fly rule as the American thinkers who have been unable to stick to nuclear fission, the real meaning of Zen and the innermost thoughts of Mikhail S. Gorbachev as arrows for their quivers, but there have been a few in unlikely places. Morley Callaghan knows all about the reasonableness of the hit-and-run play and, back in October of 1985, the esteemed Margaret Atwood had an entire section page in The Globe and Mail to herself (apart from a couple of large pictures) for a discourse on the Blue Jays the day after they beat the Yankees and won the AL East.

“If someone had told me 35 years ago that I’d be paying any attention to a baseball team of any kind, anywhere, in 1985 I’d have reacted with sullen disbelief,” Ms. Atwood confessed. It turned out, though, that she had once played the game. “I stood as a rule on third base where everyone, including me, thought I would do the least harm.” Not vintage Cito Gaston stuff, perhaps, but she’s out there at the hot corner.

And now it’s George F. Will’s turn to cash in, a syndicated political columnist who also appears on the national networks in times of crisis peering at us through round, gold-rimmed spectacles in unshakable stoicism, fathoming the unfathomable.

He has done an admirable job on La Russa, who, as every barber, taxi driver, university professor and perhaps even an occasional newspaper publisher is aware, is the manager of the Oakland A’s, the world champions of the United States and Eastern Canada. Will plucks such kemels as: “A hit-and-run has three variables. La Russa wants at least two of them in his favor,” and “La Russa believes in taking risks precisely because baseball is all risks, the odds being against almost anything you try,” and “It’s not correct to sit and wait for extra-base hits. We want to establish an A’s style of play, a lot of effort and playing with an idea.”

And then, warming to his task, La Russa confesses that when a team such as the Blue Jays gets a runner on second base, “they work hard to steal signs and that really irritates me.”

This is a curious irritant because stealing signs is part of the grand old game and most pundits revel in the chicanery. But, apparently, swiping the catcher’s signals from second base galls La Russa, although author Will regrettably doesn’t explain why. But he further quotes the manager: “If I were a pitcher and I had to deal with all the changes of signs that the other team makes necessary by stealing signs, I would not put up with the disruption of my concentration.”

La Russa says what he would do is what Roger Clemens, the Red Sox fireballer, did once. “As Clemens came to the stretch, he looked back and saw that the runner at second was giving the location of the pitch. He stepped off the mound, walked back there and said to the runner, ‘If I ever see that again from you or anybody on your team, I’m going to bury the guy at the plate.’ La Russa says the runner gave Clemens some backchat, so Clemens returned to the mound and on the next pitch sent the batter sprawling.”

Upon reading this, your agent was soon on the line with Dr. Ronald W. Taylor, the team physician for the Blue Jays, the only medical man on earth who pitches batting practice to Blue Jay hitters. In his youth, Ron pitched to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in the World Series of 1964 and to Frank Robinson and Boog Powell in the World Series of 1969 and, other times, Willie Mays. He was a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964 and the New York Mets in 1969, worked seven innings in four appearances in those two series, had an earned-run average of 0.00, allowed no hits and fanned five.

“Why would Clemens be upset by a guy stealing signs?” I asked him.

“You got me,” he replied. “There was no point stealing my stuff. First pitch a fastball, 3-and-2 my slider, nothing mysterious about that. I threw five 3-and-2 sliders to Mantle one game, all away. Then I threw one a shade outside and walked him.”

Speaking of sign-stealing, Ron said that when a player is traded, the team he leaves usually changes its signals so they won’t become common knowledge. “When I was with the Mets, we traded Ron Swoboda to the Expos but the manager, Gil Hodges, didn’t bother changing our signs. ‘Swoboda could never remember ’em anyway,’ Gil told us.”

No fault will be found here with one area of the La Russa examination. In endorsing the designated-hitter rule, he says that handling pitchers is tougher in the AL than in the other league, whose adherents boast that the DH rule eliminates managerial strategy.

“What often is far from obvious is when to remove pitchers who never need to be removed for pinch hitters,” Will writes. In the National League, it’s practically rote that if his team is trailing late in a game, the manager will pinch-hit for the pitcher.

This is elementary stuff for Maclean ’s readers—old Maclean’s readers. Away back in September, 1979, your agent passed the word that if there is anything sillier than seeing a pitcher swing a bat, as he must in the NL, it is watching a manager think. I’ll bet even Margaret Atwood is up on that.