Get off your high horse about sign stealing

Get off your high horse about sign stealing

One week before Butte High opened the 2012 football season, the Bulldogs held their annual Purple and White scrimmage at Naranche Stadium.

For some reason, Butte High coach Arie Grey had a nervous suspicion someone from Great Falls Russell, Butte High’s Week 1 opponent, was in the crowd to attempt to steal the Bulldogs’ play-call signs.

Whether it was legendary coach Jack Johnson himself, one of his assistants or some other CMR spy, Grey was suspicious enough that he had his players and coaches huddle up before every play.

For a no-huddle offense, this was much different than what we had seen from Grey’s Bulldogs in his previous four seasons on the job. As a result, the scrimmage that usually lasts about 25 minutes took about 2 hours to complete.

With their signs not stolen, the Bulldogs beat the Rustlers 41-20 seven days later to start their championship season on a high note.

It has never been proven that CMR had a spy in the crowd for the Butte High scrimmage game, and we will give the Rustlers the benefit of the doubt and say they did not.

Why was Grey suspicious that they might have?

Well, Grey, like any good coach, is always operating with a healthy paranoia that the opposition is watching, so he made the appropriate adjustments.

The reason he feels that way is because the opposition is always watching.

Whether it is high school, college or professional sports, stealing signs and play calls from the opponent is the norm, so good coaches take every precaution to protect themselves.

In baseball, stealing signs is a practice that is literally older than the seventh-inning stretch.

Yet, when it came out last week that the Houston Astros apparently took sign stealing to an extreme level, the pious police of baseball came out firing self-righteous stones.

Suddenly, everyone started talking like they were James Earl Jones on Field of Dreams.

They were shocked — shocked — that such a thing could happen in the sacred sport of baseball.

In particular, fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees have jumped upon their high horses to scream from the mountain tops that they were cheated by the Astros and the Boston Red Sox.

The Red Sox are accused of using replay monitors to steal sign sequences from opposing catchers. That way, they can steal signs more easily when they get a runner to second base.

Major League Baseball dropped the hammer on the Astros for doing much worse.

The Astros apparently set up a camera focused on the catcher. From the camera, the Astros players and coaches would steal the signs and then bang on garbage cans with bats to signal the pitch to the batter.

This is taking it to a level that we have never seen before. Or is it?

The answer is no. The Astros are hardly the first team to use the highest technology of the day to steal signs.

In 1951, the New York Giants stationed a coach with a telescope in the outfield seats at the Polo Grounds. The coach would peer at the catchers’ signs and press a button to relay an electronic signal so the Giants batters which pitch was coming.

That cheating helped Bobby Thompson hit the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” to cap the Giants comeback against the Dodgers — several years before they were stolen by Los Angeles.

In 1900, a Philadelphia Phillies backup catcher would sit in the clubhouse and steal signs with opera glasses. Then he would use a telegraph to relay the signs through a wire running under the outfield to a buzzer in the third base coaches’ box.

Does any of this justify what the Astros did? Not at all.

Whether it is in sports or in life, cheating is wrong and should never be condoned. Those proven to have cheated should be punished severely.

However, I have as much sympathy for a team that has its signs stolen in the 21st Century as I do someone who is duped by the Nigerian price scheme.

Only a sucker would reply to that email. Likewise, only a complete fool would fail to change up his signs to the pitcher.

Signs, after all, can and are changed all the time. Little League teams even mix up their signs from game to game.

And how is it possible that opposing teams did not pick up on the Astros banging the garbage and completely reverse that on the Astros? The pitcher and catcher obviously can hear the banging, too.

Again, no sympathy for the victims in this case.

Since the scandal broke, so many fans have jumped on the “integrity of the game” bandwagon. Dodgers fans have been sharing memes of Dodgers World Series championship banners for 2017 and 2018, probably knowing deep down that fantasy land is the only place that can happen.

Before you could say “casting stones” and “glass houses,” respected 10-year veteran Logan Morrison posted the following statement on Instagram.

“I know from first hand (sic) accounts that the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros, and Red Sox all have used film to pick signs. Just want you guys to know the truth. I personally think it’s a tool in a tool belt to pick signs, but if we are going to be punishing people for it. Don’t half ass it.”

Just like that, the glass houses of Dodgers and Yankees fans shattered to the ground, even if many of them have not seemed to notice.

This is just the beginning of the scandal. Players, coaches and front-office executives from all 30 MLB teams are nervously waiting for the next shoes to inevitably drop.

Some fans, who probably think the Steroid Era is over, compared the sign-stealing scandal to the Black Sox. Others said it was the worst scandal in baseball history.

Remember, Jackie Robinson did not break baseball’s color barrier until 1947. It took another 12 years before a black player made the Red Sox.

Stealing signs ranks nowhere near that racial injustice.

These high horse riders point at a couple of teams for bad deeds as if they are isolated incidences. Then, they act like they watch their team play in a cornfield in Iowa.

Hey, Terrance Mann is my favorite writer, too, but I choose to look at baseball through big boy eyes.

Collectively, we have looked the other way during baseball’s long history of racism, cheating, illegal gambling, game throwing, bribery, greed, collusion, bean balls, spikings, steroids, Steinbrenners, strikes, corked bats, scuffed balls, juiced balls, hard slides, $12 beers and, yes, sign stealing.

The sins of baseball’s past and present have taken away the moral high ground from fans of every team, not just a few.

This latest scandal is just another in the long list of baseball blackeyes. It will sting and it will get uglier before it gets better.

It will most likely bruise your favorite team, too, before it is done. But the sport will survive.

Baseball, you see, has never lived up the perfection an innocence of a James Earl Jones speech, and it never will.

Those who are not sitting on their high horses should easily see that.

— Bill Foley, who rides a low horse, writes a column that appears Tuesdays on Email him at Follow him at 1 comment

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1 Comment

  • Richard W Sparks
    January 21, 2020, 8:38 pm

    This article makes me smile. You see I have a history with this spying behavior. It started in th fourth grade I had broke my arm the day before school started. Huz Jensen Butte central’s coach at the time was preparing for the big game against the Bulldogs. You should know in those days I was a die hard Bulldog. My father was a friend of all the coaches and I had been around football and coaching most of my life. Four a fourth grader I was pretty knowledgable. Now Huz was pretty paranoid about keeping his game plan away from the Dos so he would take the Maroons down to Father Sheehan Park to practice in secret. Little did he know that the little kid with the cast was taking mental of almost everything he did. After practice I would run home and tell my dad everything I saw and my dad would report it to the Butte High coaches.
    In 1975 the tables turned when I was hired as a teacher and coach at Butte Central. Bob Beers my old Griz teammate was the head coach and I think he was as paranoid as Huz. Prior to being hired at Central is was working as a bartender at Charlies New Deal. I talked Mike Judd into letting us go upstairs where the Judd family lived. We sat there looking out the deck window with our binoculars scouting the whole Butte High practice. Now you might ask, "Did this do us any good?" I sincerely doubt it but as a boy in the fourth grade a was proud to have aided my Bulldogs to victory. As a Maroon coach we got killed that year but had a ball believing we had cut a fat hog in the ass and then going downstairs and have a few beers with Mike.


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