There's no place for a manager to hide in the visitors' dugout at Chicago's Comiskey Park. That is by design. So when the Minnesota Twins play there, two of their coaches are responsible for creating a human shield near manager Tom Kelly so he can be seen only by his third base coach, his hitter and his catcher. When the Texas Rangers play at Comiskey, the Rangers form a similar barrier around their manager, Johnny Oates. These teams are trying to thwart the ancient baseball practice of stealing signs—a practice admired by some as the epitome of heads-up baseball and reviled by others as one of the lowest forms of cheating in the game. "Stealing signs is part of the job," says Kelly, who enjoys the game within the game. "If you don't try, you're not doing your job." Says Twins DH Paul Molitor, "If stealing a sign can play a role in five games a season, it could definitely have an effect on where you finish in the standings."
This season a number of teams have nearly come to blows over accusations of sign stealing. On April 30 the Anaheim Angels claimed the Boston Red Sox were stealing signs from catcher Jorge Fabregas, and when Boston's Wil Cordero was hit by a pitch in apparent retaliation a brawl almost broke out. The Angels, in turn, were accused of stealing signs two weeks later after Anaheim hit three homers off Baltimore Orioles pitchers. The Orioles pointed the finger at Angels coach Larry Bowa, saying that he was sneaking out of the third base box to steal the signs flashed by Baltimore catcher Chris Hoiles. (The Angels actually were reading Hoiles's signs from the dugout because he was putting his fingers down too far in his stance.)
On May 5, Cincinnati Reds manager Ray Knight angrily accused Los Angeles Dodgers coach Reggie Smith of leaving the first base coach's box and peeking into the glove of Cincinnati pitcher Kent Mercker to see what grip he was using, then signaling the pitch selection to the batter. A shouting match ensued between Knight and Smith, raising the intriguing possibility that Knight, an amateur boxer in his teens, might duke it out with Smith, who dabbles in the martial arts.
Two days later, San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker charged the Montreal Expos with stealing signs, even after the Expos had taken a 15-run lead. He was incensed that Montreal runners at second base seemed to be tipping pitches as the Expos sent 17 batters to the plate and scored 13 runs in the sixth inning. To which Montreal manager Felipe Alou replied, "We had a meeting in San Francisco about our own signs. If we're missing our own signs, we certainly don't have time to worry about stealing somebody else's."
Stealing signs has been going on in baseball for more than 100 years, but it's more complicated today than ever because managers are taking greater control of the game and thus sending more signals. For example, most managers call every pitchout, pickoff attempt, step off (when a pitcher steps off the rubber in an attempt to get a read on the base runner's intentions) and hold (when the pitcher holds the ball for an inordinately long time, hoping the runner will tip his hand). Each of those calls requires a sign that goes from the bench to the catcher to the pitcher.
With more signs to steal there are more people on the opposing team trying to steal them, and the methods of intercepting signals have become more sophisticated, including the use of video cameras to spy on opposing dugouts. It's no secret, for instance, that the White Sox have cameras at Comiskey to tape the movements of visiting managers and third base coaches during the course of a season. The 1984 Chicago Cubs, who won the National League East title, were renowned for their ability to steal signs—in part because they had electronic help. "We knew the other teams' signs better than our own," says Oates, who was a coach on that team. The Cubs would station a player in the clubhouse to watch the centerfield camera view on TV, and when he had deciphered the sequence of the catcher's signs, Cubs base runners would then alert the hitters to the upcoming pitch. San Diego Padres coach Davey Lopes, who played briefly on that Cubs team, says that in nine years with the Dodgers he had no interest in getting tipped off about pitches because he didn't trust the information. But he trusted the Cubs' system because it worked. "Sometimes when a pitcher's getting hit, you'll hear someone say, 'It's like the hitters know what's coming,' " says Lopes. "That's because they do know what's coming."
In Chicago's old Comiskey Park, which was torn down after the 1990 season, there was a 25-watt refrigerator bulb in the scoreboard during most of the '80s. A member of the organization would sit in the manager's office and watch the TV broadcast, which had a view of the catcher from centerfield. There was also a toggle switch in the office. Flip the switch and the light in the scoreboard came on, telling the hitter if a fastball or an off-speed pitch was coming. That kind of espionage causes many baseball people to draw the line. Oates speaks for many of them when he says he has a problem with sign stealing when teams do it with hidden cameras, flashing lights in the scoreboard and the like.
The White Sox are probably the best in baseball at espionage these days, not because of hidden cameras but because they have bench coach Joe Nossek, the man generally believed to be the top thief in the game. "Stealing signs used to be much easier to do," Nossek says humbly. "I'm in a slump this year."
Nevertheless, Kelly says he has changed his signs as many as three times in one game against the White Sox to foil Nossek. The Detroit Tigers weren't that careful in a game against Chicago on April 13 at Tiger Stadium, and Nossek may have cost them a win. The White Sox were ahead by a run in the bottom of the 11th inning, when Detroit's Vince Coleman reached base with one out against Chicago closer Roberto Hernandez. Nossek had picked up the Tigers' sign to steal and saw it being flashed. Hernandez was given a signal to throw over to first, and he promptly picked off Coleman. The batter, Travis Fryman, homered two pitches later, but instead of the Tigers winning the game, they tied it. The White Sox scored three runs in the 12th to win, 11-8. Nossek helped steal that game, but he says he may go weeks without detecting a sign. "Most people think it's all I do, and that's probably right," he says with a grin. "Even if we don't have the signs, they think I might have them, so it works as a psychological advantage for us."
Nossek, 56, has been studying signs for 26 years, starting when he was a reserve player for several teams in the '60s. He's a good thief in part because he understands strategy, when steals and hit-and-runs are likely to be called. He usually sits in the corner of the dugout nearest to home plate and stares at the opposing manager and third base coach or anyone else who might give away a sign. When Nossek does steal one, he remembers it "because guys get comfortable with a certain sign, and two or three years later they go back to it."