It was one of those warm afternoons in Atlanta and the huge fan down the far end of the dugout droned on in a loud manner.
Members of the Braves infield worked on grounders as the grounds crew slowly went about other business. In this setting, the Phillies dugout had a dream quality to it as everything moved slower and no one was really paying attention to each other.
Charlie Manuel sat on the lower level of the bench and watched the Braves work on defense. Chase Utley sat on the higher level a few feet away, sunglasses in place with his chin resting on the knob of his bat also peering out on Turner Field.
After several minutes, Jimmy Williams appeared. The veteran bench coach was never much on words when the media was around, but on this day, one lone scribe didn’t seem to matter and off he went about the doves walking on the track around the field.
“We used to kill those doves when I was younger,” Williams said. “We’d hunt them. Right there, those doves are good eating.”
First off, those weren’t doves. Well, maybe for this particular California native, but not for Utley who tilted his head ever so slightly to look at Williams. Before a game, a head tilt for Utley is tantamount to a Southern Baptist preacher on Sunday morning talking about sin.
Meanwhile, Manuel just nodded his head and looked out on the field.
Now, how the topic changed is anyone’s guess. Maybe the thought of eating pigeons was just too much to handle when all of your energy has been drained by the afternoon conditions, but change it did as the television screens in the Phillies dugout came into question.
Turner Field has bullpens that are out of view of the dugouts. The former Olympic Stadium was restructured for baseball and the bullpens, the visitors in particular, are hidden from view. To that end, screens showing both bullpens are in place to see who is and who isn’t warming up.
“You know, the home dugout in Cleveland has extra TVs,” Williams said. “I wonder why that is?”
Manuel shook his head. He knew where his bench coach was going with this.
“Whatever,” Manuel said with that trademark smile. “You keep talking.”
See, Williams believed when Manuel was with the Indians, cameras were used to steal signs from his Red Sox. Manuel denied it but Williams kept at it for several minutes.
Back-and-forth it went with Williams hinting something was amiss in Cleveland, Manuel brushing him off and Utley’s head tilting back-and-forth. No big deal and in fairness, it was one of those beautiful subtle baseball moments.
Binoculars, eh, not so much.
Early on Wednesday word spread that the Phillies, in particular bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer had used binoculars to steal Colorado’s signs. The Phillies denied it and after an investigation were issued a warning by Major League Baseball.
“Keep crying,” Manuel said to reporters when asked.
“Absolutely not. Absolutely [bleeping] not. In no way were we stealing signs. We don’t do that.
“I understand why they’d be concerned about it, but that’s the truth. We’re not trying to steal signs. That’s it. I didn’t know [Billmeyer] did that. He watches our catcher to help him where he’s setting up. It definitely had nothing to do with signs.”
Granted, it doesn’t look good when your bullpen coach is watching from the outfield with binoculars. The fact is no one knows for sure what Billmeyer was looking at because it could have been Rockies catcher Miguel Olivo, hitter Carlos Ruiz or some hottie in the stands. It definitely could have been some hottie in the stands, but the reality is it’s not that big of a deal.
First of all, signs change on a constant basis. The indicator changes from batter to batter and if not shame on the battery. Baseball has always been about getting the upper hand, from spit balls, to sign stealing all the way to phantom tags. This isn’t about steroids, it’s about gaining an advantage and if the Phillies are able to steal signs, the opponents should change them.
Secondly, in this era of video – which brings us all the way back to Utley and his obsession with game film – can anyone honestly say that Billmeyer had an easier chance to steal signs than Utley? No.
Of course there is also this one little tidbit everyone seems to forget. If stealing signs was so wrong and so evil and against everything baseball is about, why use multiple signs in the first place?
In the end, baseball is about seeking an advantage and stealing signs is a part of the fabric of the game. It’s part of the strategy that no one things about as the Phillie Phanatic pelts them with a hot dog in between innings. If the Phillies are able to steal signs, well good for them. It’s up to their opponents to do a better job of disguising their plays.