Free agent Nolan Ryan signed with the Texas Rangers on December 7, 1988, making him the first major leaguer to play for all four original expansion teams. (The Rangers organization had played their first 11 seasons as the Senators in Washington, D.C.) Ryan first broke into the big leagues with the Mets in 1966, then went to the Angels in a trade in 1972 before signing with the Astros, who were originally known as the Colt .45s.
With the Houston Astros’ sign stealing scheme making the news these last couple weeks, I find myself reminded of one of my own experiences with stealing signs. While my own venture into sign stealing didn’t make any headlines, I can certainly identify with the advantage that it provides.
One summer, when I was playing in a girls’ softball league, the coach of one of the other teams invited me to join his team for a tournament (an experience I also mention in this post). This tournament was external to the league in which we played against one another, and it’s no small compliment when another coach thinks enough of your ability to invite you to join his own team, so I naturally jumped at the opportunity.
While I don’t remember all the details of that particular tournament, there are a couple things that continue to stick out to this day. The first was the birth of my ballplayer nickname, Duke. The second revolved around learning the signs for this team I played with for the duration of the tournament.
Naturally, in order to be an effective part of the team, I needed to know all the signs that might get flashed at me from third base whenever we went on offense: bunt sign, steal sign, take a pitch, etc. I learned the signs, and I played pretty well throughout the tournament. One would also naturally assume that once we all returned to regular league play and I was back on the opposing side, this coach would change his own team’s signs.
The next time my league team faced off against this other coach’s team, I found myself playing third base. Out of curiosity, I found myself watching the team’s coach, who would also serve as the third base coach, out of the corner of my eye. I wouldn’t turn and stare, of course, but I used my periphery vision to the best of my ability to watch what signs he flashed to hitters and runners.
The first time he flashed what I recognized as the bunt sign, I was still wary. If the other team did change their signs, in anticipation of playing against me, I certainly didn’t want to creep up too close to the plate, lest I find myself on the receiving end of a hard line drive to the face. So I took half a step forward, but also made sure to stay on my toes in anticipation of a bunt.
Much to my surprise and delight, the hitter squared around and lay down a bunt that happened to roll up the third baseline. Anticipating the possibility, I was able to get on top of it quickly and threw her out. I couldn’t believe my luck.
The rest of the game, I didn’t hesitate to move up any time I saw that bunt sign flashed. I couldn’t believe that this coach didn’t stop to think about the fact that the opposing third baseman knew their signs because he had given them to me himself. On a couple of occasions, I found myself tempted to yell, “Watch the bunt!” to my teammates, but I knew that would be a dead giveaway, so I kept my mouth shut. I just continued to watch the coach, and they didn’t have a successful bunt attempt all game.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not condoning what the Astros are accused of doing. Even by Major League Baseball standards, what I did was perfectly legal, since I used no technology to steal signs and take advantage. If anything, it was the other team’s blunder in not changing their signs once we returned to regular league play. And I definitely wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity my situation presented.
Congratulations to the Washington Nationals on winning their first World Series championship in franchise history! That certainly made for a thrilling Game 7.
Congratulations to the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals on winning their respective pennants and advancing to the World Series! Here is how this year’s World Series schedule looks to shakeout. All times are Eastern Time.
Tuesday, Oct. 22
Game 1: Nationals at Houston, 8:08 p.m. on FOX
Wednesday, Oct. 23
Game 2: Nationals at Houston, 8:07 p.m. on FOX
Friday, Oct. 25
Game 3: Astros at Washington, 8:07 p.m. on FOX
Saturday, Oct. 26
Game 4: Astros at Washington, 8:07 p.m. on FOX
Sunday, Oct. 27
Game 5: Astros at Washington, 8:07 p.m. on FOX
Tuesday, Oct. 29
Game 6: Nationals at Houston, 8:07 p.m. on FOX
Wednesday, Oct. 30
Game 7: Nationals at Houston, 8:08 p.m. on FOX
I came across this graphic quite accidentally, but now that I’ve found it, I’m thinking it’d be fun and interesting to see if there are more like it for other Hall of Famers. Craig Biggio never won a World Series with the Astros (though they appeared in one in 2005), but he was still a player worth talking about. Biggio was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.
The Eighth Inning of Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us into the 1960s. In this decade of the American Pastime, we find that it is being recognized less and less as such. Football has risen to prominence, and a lot of folks come to argue that football, not baseball, has now become the true national game. Additionally, the sixties were quite a stormy and unstable period in American history, filled with race riots, activism, anti-war protests, hippies, and Woodstock.
The game of baseball also finds itself experiencing some changes. In 1961, Babe Ruth’s single season home run record is threatened, then broken, by a man who is far from being a fan favorite. Roger Maris is described as moody and sullen, avoids talking to the press, and starts losing his hair as a result of the pressure he is under as he inadvertently finds himself chasing Ruth’s record.
Pitching sees a rise in dominance as the decade progresses, thanks to commissioner Ford Frick’s commandment that the strike zone be expanded to counter the explosion of home runs. Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson are among those who rise to preeminence from their positions on the mound. As pitching becomes the ruling force in the game, there comes a decline in home runs being hit. This, in turn, contributes to the decline in fan interest in the game.
This time period also sees changes as far as the growth of the league. The success and profitability of the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the west brings the league to consider other ways in which to spread the game throughout the country. Four new teams were added to Major League Baseball. We see the birth of the California Angels, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins, then a newer Senators team moved to Arlington and became the Texas Rangers. The New York Mets and the Houston Colt .45s (later the Astros) also joined the National League. The Braves would move from Milwaukee to Atlanta and the Athletics moved to Oakland. After just one season, the Seattle Pilots left for Milwaukee and became the Brewers, and towards the end of the decade the Royals were established in Kansas City and the Expos in Montreal. (I’m sure I must be missing one or more others here, and for that, I apologize.)
At the beginning of the decade, Ebbets Field met its fate with a wrecking ball painted to resemble a baseball. Jackie Robinson, who had once played at Ebbets, now worked and fought for civil rights, and Branch Rickey, who was the force behind integration in Major League Baseball, passed away in 1965. The Polo Grounds became the home of the New York Metropolitans, led by the one and only Casey Stengel, now getting along in years. Suffices to say, the Mets weren’t very good in those early years. Eventually, Stengel would retire from baseball. After that, the same wrecking ball that took out Ebbets Field would also bring down the Polo Grounds. The Mets moved into Shea Stadium, and by the end of the decade transformed into the “Miracle Mets,” winning the 1969 World Series.
In this inning, we meet Pete Rose and see bits about Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski, Whitey Ford, Roberto Clemente, and many, many others. Sandy Koufax seemingly retires almost as quickly as he broke into the league and became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. In Baltimore, Earl Weaver became manager of the Orioles. One of the greatest managers of all time, the Orioles became the dynasty of the decade under Weaver.
In this decade, we also meet Marvin Miller. Miller became the Executive Director of the Major League Baseball Players Association in 1966. The players loved having Miller speaking on their behalf, but baseball owners, unsurprisingly, hated having Miller around. He was a man who Red Barber would call “one of the two or three most important men in baseball history.”
By the end of the disc, we learn about Curt Flood’s battle against the reserve clause, which at this point is only just beginning. Flood learned that he was to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, and in the face of the racism he knew he would face in Philadelphia, he decided to oppose the trade. This flew in the face of the entire history of baseball business.
I think my favorite feature of this disc comes in all the arguments defending baseball. In spite of George Carlin’s comedy routine that makes baseball seem like a slow, sissy sport, baseball continues to be referred to as America’s National Pastime for good reason. Sure, football is faster and perhaps more suitable to the 30-second attention span that now dominates our culture (though, more recently, football also seems to be declining in popularity). But baseball’s place in the American psyche runs deep, and in a lot of ways, it is the very nature of its leisurely pace that makes it so appealing.
Congrats to the Houston Astros on their first-ever World Series title. To be honest, I had no stake in this Series and so felt mostly indifferent over who would win it. The fact that it went seven games and resulted in a team’s first franchise championship does make for a fun tale, however.