Stealing Signs – So What?

The First Essential Scary Truth


Later today, the Minnesota Twins will host the Detroit Tigers for a one game playoff to determine the winner of the American League Central Division for the 2009 season.  This is just the fourth such playoff in the 100+ history of Major League Baseball.  The last playoff game was played in 2008 between the Twins and the Chicago White Sox.  The Pale Hose won the game 1-0 on a Jim Thome homer run. 


The Tigers are in the midst of an historic late season collapse.  They led the second place Twins by 7 games in early September only to go 11-15 down the stretch.  Minnesota, on the other hand, has had no margin for error and has gone 16-4 in the last 20 games. 


Fans are looking to place to place the blame for the Tigers failure to clinch the division last week wherever they can.  A lousy schedule, the team’s best player getting hammered and fighting with his wife at 6am, streaky play by superstars, all valid points. SI.Com and the Detroit News, however, are claiming Joe Mauer, the Twins catcher and arguably the best hitter in the American League was stealing the pitchers signs.


My reaction as a lifelong (rabid) Tiger fan: so what?  Who cares?  Mauer is a freaking stud who hits .340 in a bad season while playing the most physically demanding position on the diamond.  The accusations of sign stealing might send a soccer mom or dad from Royal Oak into a righteous frenzy about cheating, lying and good sportsmanship but this is baseball.  Everybody steals signs and has since Abner Doubleday codified the rules of baseball in the 1800’s.  It doesn’t mean you’ll win.


In 1940, the Tigers won the American League pennant by stealing the opposing batteries signs using a rifle scope positioned in the centerfield bleachers.  In the World Series, the Cincinnati Reds catcher held his signs so low to the ground, the whole stadium KNEW what pitch was coming.  The Tigers lost the Series in 7 games.


The 1951 New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a best of three playoff series to decide the National League champion.  Although best known for Bobby Thompson’s home run called ‘the Shot Heard ‘Round the World,’ evidence has recently come to light that the Giants were stealing signs.  The Giants won 37 of 44 games from August 11 until the end of the regular season; erasing a 13 ½ game Dodgers lead.   Did the Giants win so many games because they knew what pitches were coming?  The entire lineup, save for Thompson, saw their numbers decline during this stretch and Bobby Thompson refused to take the signs.  Perhaps the Giants were able to force that famous playoff because the Dodgers were barely able to play above .500 ball while the Giants were beating up on the rest of the NL.


That is the beauty of baseball: you can know what pitch is coming, where it will be, fast ball curveball etc.  You still have to be able to put your round bat on that round ball.


Is Mauer a great hitter because he knows what pitches are coming?  No.  He is a great hitter because he has a rarified skill.  The Tigers are in this one game playoff because they couldn’t win one game 5 days ago to clinch their first division title since 1987.  Not to mention the games closer Fernando Rodney blew or the multitude of one run games the Tigers lost during the 162 game regular season. 


If the Tigers win tonight, whatever Joe Mauer did or didn’t do will be a moot point.  If they lose, they will be consigned to the ‘if we only could have won one more game’ file, along with the 1951 Dodgers.  But someone will complain the Twins cheated.  Take it to the bank.

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