Apparently, the Phillies Cheated. So What?

The Phillies have been accused of stealing signs, but did they do anything wrong? Sign-stealing isn’t exactly against the rules, but it isn’t exactly not. After reviewing the telecast of Monday night’s Rockies-Phillies game, during which Philly bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer was seen watching Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo through binoculars, Major League Baseball officially warned the Phillies not to cheat — while admitting, “We found the evidence inconclusive on what was being done.”

The rule against sign-stealing is generally more of an unwritten one. There’s nothing about it the Official Rule Book — in fact, there are no rules regarding signs at all. There was a 1961 rule banning sign stealing by means of a “mechanical device,” but no amendment was put in the modern rulebook. And then there’s a passage in a memo sent in 2000 by Sandy Alderson, then MLB’s executive VP of Baseball Operations:

Please be reminded that the use of electronic equipment during a game is restricted. No club shall use electronic equipment, including walkie-talkies and cellular telephones, to communicate to or with any on-field personnel, including those, in the dugout, bullpen, field and–during the game–the clubhouse. Such equipment may not be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a club an advantage.

Binoculars, clearly, aren’t forbidden.

So it’s more of a judgment call. Rob Neyer offers a harsh, but common-sense take: “Officially, it’s cheating if ‘electronic devices’ are used. I’ll take it one step farther, though. I say anything beyond the naked eye is cheating.” Charlie Manuel didn’t help matters with his denial: ““We were not trying to steal signs. Would we try to steal somebody’s signs? Yeah, if we can. But we don’t do that.”

Because sign stealing is prohibited more by gentleman’s agreement than by law, then it’s important to ask: does it work? A decade ago, Neyer examined one of the most famous sign stealing rings of all, during the 1951 New York Giants’ amazing 52-18 race to the World Series. An electrician named Abraham Chadwick installed a buzzer system in the Giants’ clubhouse; another Giant stationed himself out in the spacious Polo Grounds outfield with a powerful telescope and signaled each pitch as it was called.

However, looking at Retrosheet data, Neyer notices something remarkable: “The Giants actually hit worse at the Polo Grounds after they started cheating.” Half the team didn’t even want to know what pitch was coming. The whole team kept the secret, dutifully, for 50 years, but while it’s undeniable that they cheated — they kept it a secret, which means they had a sense it was wrong, and then finally admitted it — it’s awfully questionable whether it helped.

There’s certainly a major placebo effect to cheating. It makes the cheater feel confident and the cheated feel paranoid. According to the recent book The Baseball Codes, in 2005, Bob Wickman intentionally balked a runner to third because he feared that the guy was stealing his signs from second. So the fear of cheating — or thrill of not getting caught cheating — may be more tangible than its effect.

What should be done, then? Should the Phillies be punished? Or is the outrage misguided? My answers may seem contradictory: no and no. But baseball’s attitude towards cheating is deeply contradictory. The “if you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin'” mentality coexists with the righteous indignation of people who feel the game must be played “the right way.” Hence, the universal condemnation of steroids stands in stark contrast to the shrugs and muted praise for A.J. Pierzynski’s breaking up a perfect game by pretending he was beaned pretending to be beaned during a no-hitter. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jeff Schultz compared the Phillies’ binoculars to the 1951 Giants’ elaborate operation, writing, “I say: Give that spy a raise.”

The Phillies shouldn’t be punished, because they haven’t violated the letter of any law. But they’ve certainly violated the spirit, as Neyer says. They’re not the first, and won’t be the last, to steal signs. Still, the next time they come to your town, feel free to boo.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

80 Responses to “Apparently, the Phillies Cheated. So What?”

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  1. Bill Baer says:

    How could Major League Baseball reasonably outlaw sign-stealing? 80% of the signs before every pitch are shown on TV anyway; it’s not like teams need to call the CIA to acquire this information. And by outlawing sign-stealing, the “cheating” teams would actually be given a reward: Honest teams will stop while dishonest teams will continue. Few teams get caught anyway and, unless Selig wants to spend money to enforce these new rules, this trend will continue. Prohibition does not work and often ends up hurting exactly who the law is trying to protect.

    Teams who have their signs stolen deserve it because they made easily-breakable codes or were not cautious enough when giving signs. Think the Phillies are stealing your signs? Change your signs, dad gummit!

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    • Chris says:

      How do you defend against a guy watching everything your catcher gives to your pitcher with binoculars? In my mind they should fall under the ‘mechanical device’ clause as they enhance your vision. Regardless, there’s no reason for a bullpen coach to need binoculars period.

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  2. Dan says:

    You’re right, the Phils didn’t break any “actual” rules and they shouldn’t be punished by the league office, but they have broken one of “the codes”. Justice will probably be handed out on them the way that it usually is if they get caught doing it again – with beanballs.

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    • DavidCEisen says:

      As a Phillies fan, I hope that other teams ‘punish’ the Phillies by giving them free baserunners.

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  3. Steve says:

    I won’t know what to think until Dallas Braden weighs in.

    +17 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. joser says:

    “Officially, it’s cheating if ‘electronic devices’ are used. I’ll take it one step farther, though. I say anything beyond the naked eye is cheating.”

    So presumably contact lenses are cheating too?

    Still, the next time they come to your town, feel free to boo.

    We boo when the opposing pitcher throws to first to keep a runner on, and that’s definitely a legal move. There are lots of reasons to boo — and Phillies fans seem to come up with more reasons to boo the Phillies than anybody else, even when they’re winning.

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    • neuter_your_dogma says:

      You obviously don’t go to many Phillies games. They are deeply loved at CBP.

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      • RonDom says:

        Not all Phillies were. I went and though they were winning (by quite a handful) the entire stadium chanted “Eaton Sucks!”. Deeply loved? I find that hard to believe, because they are the most unknowledgable fans (tied with LA fans, both teams) I have ever met.

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    • B N says:

      Someone boo the Phillies? That’s unpossible!

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    • BR says:

      Maybe that was the case before the core has been in Philadelphia, but since they’ve arrived they haven’t given the fans many reasons to boo.

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  5. Llewdor says:

    The “spirit of the law” doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing.

    There’s no judgment call required. They didn’t break any rules, so no warning or punishment is warranted. Enforcing rules is a matter of simple arithmetic.

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    • oh Hal says:

      Binoculars are mechanical devices. They broke the rules. How did this evade you?

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      • Llewdor says:

        How are they mechanical? They have no moving parts.

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      • DL80 says:

        They obviously have SOME moving parts. They have parts that move to focus the lenses and adjust the width and whatnot. Just because they don’t move on their own doesn’t make them non-moving.

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  6. joser says:

    This is probably an appropriate spot to plug the entertaining Cheater’s Guide to Baseball (with which I have no involvement other than as a reader). I wish I could quote a relevant passage but I gave my copy to my father.

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  7. nmh says:

    Who’s to say Billmeyer wasn’t just doing some good ol’ fashion beaver shooting?

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  8. don says:

    How would he relay the signs from the bullpen to the batter in time for them to be useful?

    If the Phillies have a buzzer system set up at Coors, that would be pretty slick.

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  9. Tom B says:

    So what? When they start getting beaned, ask that question again.

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  10. Baron Samedi says:

    Most would agree that living in Philadelphia is punishment enough.

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  11. Travis L says:

    Agreed. so what. The only thing this means is that obnoxious Phillie fans can’t bring out the “and they play the game the right way…!” comment. Without looking stupid.

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    • For many baseball fans, the fear of looking stupid is clearly not an effective deterrent.

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    • Halibut says:

      As a phillies fan, I’m glad the team is stealing signs. I want them to win. I don’t want them to collapse while up 7 with 17 left to play. I want them to want to win so bad that they are willing to cheat, bend the rules, ignore unwritten rules, etc. I’ve seen the Phillies lose so many games in 25+ years that if stealing signs helps them win one game a year then I say GREAT. Keep doing it until the league starts suspending players. I want them to win, and then I want to hear to Mets and Braves players/coaches whine and complain about it, when the Mets and Braves whine and complain like babies I fell a little bit better about myself. So every time B.Cox complains about Citizens Bank Park being to small I smile a little bit more that week…

      I don’t think I’d even care if they use Steroids. General question, are there Yankee fans want to give back all those wins when Clemons and Pettite were pitching? Do Red Sox fans want to give back those WS games where Manny was not the zombie Manny we see now?

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. DavidCEisen says:

    If the Phillies were going to steal signs, why would they use their bullpen coach? Why not buy front row tickets in the outfield and place a ‘spy?’ Anyway they would need some really powerful binoculars to tell how many fingers a catcher put down from 400 feet away.

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    • Tom B says:

      because the spy doesn’t have a direct phone line to the dugout?

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      • really says:

        They have these things called cell phones nowadays. You can even send text over them. You should look into it.

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    • Chris says:

      Not to mention that any decent pair of binoculars will zoom in that much.

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    • A non-miss says:

      Creative ways Phillies have used fans to relay stolen signs this year:

      Fat man puking on little girl = changeup

      Kid getting tazered on field = fastball

      Adult with narcotics on field = curveball
      (I realize this happened when Hamels was pitching, but everyone knows that Hamels gets bullied/picked on by his teammates all the time. Uncle Charlie thinks its hilarious watching Hamels put on his “it’s just not fair” pouty face when the other team always seems to know what’s coming.

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  13. Todd Doug says:

    A.J. Pierzynski is a complete douche, no question, but he didn’t break up a perfect game by pretending to be hit. Romero had two BB before that.

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  14. TheUnrepentantGunner says:

    as a phillies fan, i reserve the right to boo when they visit our town 81 times a year. Thanks for giving me that blessing alex. I look forward it next time ibanez turns a double into a triple for the other team…

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    • joser says:

      Ah yes, the always-entertaining Raul outfield excursions.

      Has he reprised this for the Phillies yet?

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      • TheUnrepentantGunner says:

        the first one yes,

        the second one not yet. amazingly he hasnt been as horrific as burrell was (I am distantly related by marriage to burrell and can still acknowledge how horrifying it is to watch him).

        But the best part about booing Raul, is that it almost sounds like an ironic “Rauuuuullll” chant.

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  15. Baron Samedi says:

    If there wasn’t already enough reason to hate them, Phillies are also getting 84 home games this year.

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    • 198d says:

      I’ve been wondering if the FanGraphs team are going to use some e-ink on this. As a Jays fan, I’m super pissed, as this was *the* series of the season for us, but I wonder how the Mets, Braves, Nats and Marlins fans feel? Fans of the NL teams in general?

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    • Nick says:

      You act like the Phillies had some sinister plan to get 3 extra home games this year. It ain’t their fault they are getting them.

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      • Brian says:

        The Jays made this decision so they would not lose money. This series could have easily been held at a neutral location, but the Jays wanted the money from another sellout crowd in Philly.

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    • BR says:

      You come across as a jilted lover on here. What did the Phillies do to you? I’m assuming you’re a Mets fan who can’t shake the past few seasons, but hey at least you have 2 more seasons of watching KRod make 30 million dollars!

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  16. bowie says:

    Alderson’s memo said:
    “No club shall use electronic equipment, including walkie-talkies and cellular telephones, to communicate to or with any on-field personnel, including those, in the dugout, bullpen, field and–during the game–the clubhouse.”

    Is a coach not allowed to call the bullpen to tell a pitcher to warm up?

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  17. Evan says:

    I’m a Phillies fan and I don’t care. I am too biased for my home team to care. Can any non-Phillies fans please advise me on my level of outrage from 1-10, I can’t figure out what it should be for the life of me.

    Also can someone please tell me how this sign stealing could’ve impacted the game? Would runners on second have relayed the signs to the batter once they knew them? Do pitchers and catchers change their signs between innings?

    I really have no idea what the Phils intended to do with those signs.

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    • Chris M says:

      I’m sure they were just using them for bird watching. The same thing happened in a Royals home game against the A’s back in the 70’s or early 80’s. The A’s were caught with binoculars in their bullpen. Don’t think anything really happened to them though.

      Sure wish someone had a reason to cheat against us now…

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  18. Nate says:

    Am I the only one who sees the contradiction in these two phrases?

    …there are no rules regarding signs at all. There was a 1961 rule banning sign stealing by means of a “mechanical device,” …

    Not to mention Alderson’s memo. Clearly, there are some rules. And what’s the difference between a rule in the rule book and a memo from MLB? Is the memo not binding?

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    • The main difference is I can’t find the 1961 rule online anywhere. The major significance of the MLB rule book is that it’s a central reference. Other rules that happen to be passed along in memos are a whole lot harder to source.

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  19. pft says:

    As for the binoculars, well, didn’t anyone see that blond behind the plate.

    Seriously, it’s one thing to have a rule, but enforcement is an entirely a different matter. With wireless technology today, a batter at home could be having a vibrator strapped to his leg go off right before the pitch telling him location if not pitch. The visiting teams dugout and club house could be heard and seen. Of course, with players moving from team to team I have trouble believing any team could get away with it for long. But then, the baseball sports media and players didn’t really expose steroids, that came from others, so maybe stuff like this is happening and not getting reported on. Reporters get blackballed for reporting players are sleeping in the club house, so it isn’t like they can not be silenced.

    Binoculars have been around forever, if you are going to cheat, there are better ways to do so. At least use someone dressed in plain clothes in the stands to do this and call stuff in.

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  20. John Q says:

    The big problem with baseball compared to other sports is that there is a tacit nudge, nudge, wink, wink, approval of cheating. Basically if you can get away with it it’s not cheating.

    Whitey Ford, Gaylord Perry, and Don Sutton admitted to cheating and are in the HOF, and their cheating antics are celebrated in baseball.

    Grounds-crews used to slop infields to benefit their teams. The Dodgers used to screw around with the height and slope of the mound. The Giants stole signs in ’51.

    Mike Scott won a Cy Young scuffing the ball.

    Cork bats, Steroids, etc.

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  21. pounded clown says:

    So logistically it breaks down like this:

    1. Use binoculars to steal sign
    2. Relay sign to phone man or get to phone
    2. Make call from bull pen
    3. Receive call in dugout
    4. Go to top of dugout step or relay sign to on
    deck batter or to base coach
    4a] if batter is facing dugout or a man’s on 2nd then
    relay sign from dugout or on deck circle
    4b] if batter isn’t facing dugout relay sign to
    proper base coach
    5. Batter receives sign
    6. Repeat steps 1-5 if sign changes
    7. Disregard steps 2-7, if your bull pen pitchers are
    proficient with semaphore flag signaling

    If a pitcher is that insanely slow, they deserve to have their signs stolen.

    +9 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • pounded clown says:

      whoops for 4a] it should be

      4a] if batter is facing dugout then relay sign from dugout or on deck circle


      for 4b] it should be

      4b] if batter isn’t facing dugout relay sign to
      proper base coach or if there are any baserunner(s) then to baserunner the batter can see when in the batter’s box

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    • Hank says:

      Spitballing here… but maybe the bullpen coach relays the signal sequence to the dugout so that when they get a runner on 2nd, that runner doesn’t have to figure it out and can start tipping pitches right away?

      You also could have a variety of ways to signal the batter – someone standing in the bullpen, or having someone with their arms crossed, etc…

      You seem to think the phone was involved in realtime communication, when that obviously is not the case

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  22. Jamie says:

    of all the ways to steal signs, i’m pretty sure using binoculars in the bullpen is not the most efficient way of doing it

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  23. badlukk13 says:

    This whole situation kills me…

    Billmeyer, armed with only a pair of binoculars and a bullpen phone, would have to do the following to steal signs:

    1. Strain his eyes using the bino’s to see both signs and pitches.
    2. Decode the signs by comparing signs vs. pitches over a period of time, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility given that he’s a catcher.
    3. Call the dugout and tell the team which set of signs are being used.

    After that, it’s up to the team to get on base, peer in at the catcher’s signs, then relay the pitch to the batter. If you can do that, then good on ya… whether you’re the Phils or the team playing them. You’ve earned it. Now just pray that the opposition hasn’t changed the signs since the time you’ve stolen them, otherwise you’re batter might take a high and tight fastball to the head as he’s reaching over to hit the low and away change up that you told him was coming! But again, this all hinges on getting on base so you can peek in at the signs.

    Now, you could use the bino’s to see the sign, call the dugout on every single pitch, and have the manager relay the sign to his batters. Assuming you were good/fast enough to accomplish that feat, then congratulations… you’re a d**k.
    However, Victorino wasn’t on the phone all day, so that wasn’t the situation.

    Let’s just call this what it is: Scapegoating. The Rockies had a Cinderella season last year, and were projected to do great things this season; instead they’re floundering with a sub .500 record, and are sitting second to last in their division. They needed something to blame their woes on, so why not take advantage of the opportunity given to you by the big, bad powerhouse that killed your LCS dreams last year? I mean, those easy going Left-Coaster’s aren’t exactly known for taking their lumps and placing blame on themselves (say all you want about us Philadelphians, but we’re a rarity in that we can actually boo a championship home-team for not playing like one). The Mets have been on a rollercoaster ride of failure every year since the Subway Series… so why not blame the little city to the south for your team’s name becoming a synonym for choking? However, New Yorkers are usually known for their toughness, which leads me to believe that all the Met’s fanbase consists solely of transplants who root for the sh***ier team in an effort to seem like their actually from New York. Yankee fans have general sort-of “Who cares about you… kiss the 27 rings” type of attitude, which is far more in line with what a New Yorker should be.

    I guess what I’m saying is to stop whining, because jealousy’s an ugly b*tch!

    (Besides, what are you worried about? This is Philadelphia… we’ll suck again in a few years, and it’ll be another 29 more before we get better again!)

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    • Paul Thomas says:

      I hate to break this earth-shattering geographic concept to you, but Colorado is about a thousand miles from the West Coast.

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  24. Dustin says:

    In my opinion, if you aren’t mixing your signs up, then you deserve to be spotted. If you stick down a simple pointer finger, and the other team picks up on, “Oh crap..that means fastball,” then you deserve to be picked up on.

    Just my two cents..

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    • Chris says:

      And why would you mix up the signs when no one is on base to steal them? All that will do is end up in confusion.

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      • Hank says:

        Actually during the WS last year, I think there were a few times when the Yankees used multiple signs with noone on (or a runner on first), because of concern over the Phils stealing signs at CBP.

        This was also one of the supposed reasons for the endless Posada trips to the mound (but by no means the only reason)

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  25. Jeremy says:

    The whole concept of using binoculars to steal signs is farcical. The Phillies deserve no more punishment than embarrassment.

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  26. RodeoJones says:

    How can you tell from a telecast that Billimeyer was even looking at the catcher? If I’m not mistaken Roy Halladay started that game so he probably figured he didn’t have anything to do but check out girls in the stands.

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  27. nothingxs says:

    The Florida Marlins’ concept of using binoculars to steal signs is farcical.

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  28. nuhusky says:

    You guys are missing the easiest way that they were cheating. They weren’t “phoning” them it. It would take too long. The bullpen coach would simply either put his arms above his head, or stand up/sit down, SOME motion that would tip the hitter whether hard or soft, inside/out. It doesn’t take any more than that to convey a sign.

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    • bflaff says:

      So… did the sharp-eyed cameraman who filmed him using binoculars catch him signaling in any kind of fashion? No. But wait, you say. Maybe he was winking from behind the binoculars to signal inside/outside, and hitters’ eyes are so good they can see that 400 feet away.

      Or maybe it’s far, far more likely that Jim Tracy is losing the plot.

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  29. drunkin says:

    steal signs= okydoky
    steriods=go to hell

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  30. Matt says:

    After reading Fredi Gonzales’ comments I wouldn’t be surprised if the sign stealing was part of a longer-term effort by the Phillies to gain a slight competitive advantage over a 162 game season (one game won them back to back divisions). It’s roughly akin to the Patriots spying operation in Football. Their roster was probably good enough to win anyway, but in a game of inches even a slight advantage can make the difference. So do the Phillies fans also condone the Patriots?

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  31. dorsal says:

    Is there video of it? Or do I have to watch Monday night’s Rockies-Phillies game?

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  32. badlukk13 says:

    @oh hal: rules prohibit the use of electronic devices, not mechnical ones. Not tht it matters as binoculars are neither

    @Hank and others: if Billmeyer was relaying his own signs from 400+ feet away then A: the Phils players have bionic eyes, otherwise someone else would’ve noticed, and B: the Phils would simply be using the same tactics being employed by other teams: using secret gestures to relay information.

    @matt: how is using one’s brain to decode secret signals that are visible to the naked eye, and doing so without the help of computers in ANY way similar to tapping into private radio transmissions that are supposed to be, by rule, unavailble to you?

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    • Hank says:

      There are a ton of ways to relay stolen signals… it could be through a first or 3rd base coach (who is picking up some visual signal from the bullpen)….

      Again there is this naive belief that stealing signals from the bullpen requires a phone call to the dugout or the batter picking up something 400ft away… it could easily be a signal to say the first base coach (who doesn’t have a whole lot to worry about) who could then either visually or even verbally relay it to the batter… maybe a clap of the hands or a “let’s go” or something that could be fairly instantaneous….imagine that no bionic eyes from the batter needed!

      It also could be about picking up the pitch sign sequence, figuring it out and relaying that info to the players so that if/when someone gets on 2nd, they don’t need a few pitches to figure it out on their own. Some teams will change signs inning to inning to prevent something like this (as well as when someone’s been on 2nd base for a while)

      Three different teams have now directly accused the Phils of stealing signs in the last few years. While one may be chalked up as potentially just a bitter division rival (Mets), the other is an American league team (RedSox) and now we have the Rockies. This doesn’t count the various other people/teams who suspect it. Maybe everyone just has it in for the Phillies though?

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  33. badlukk13 says:

    Well, Hank, if that were the case then the Phillies have done nothing wrong. Stealing signs without the use of electronic devices is perfectly legal in baseball. Every team does it, including the Mets, the Sox, and Jim Tracy’s Rockies.

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    • Hank says:

      Clearly you are right,,, I mean it’s not like MLB issued a warning and told them to stop doing this.

      That’s pretty much standard operating procdure when you do nothing wrong… Apparently MLB wanted them to stop doing the ‘right’ thing?

      PS – The ‘everyone is doing it’ logic is pretty poor… just because a lot of folks do something doesn’t make it right. A lot of people took steroids way back when too…

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