Mixed blessings. That was what Brett Lawrie’s debut at home in Toronto last week was. On the one hand, even I, as a diehard jays fan, am sick of the media fawning and overkill. The toronto Star even went as far as calling him the “Holy Grail” of baseball! Holy overkill, Batman– that’s quite a statement, and quite a burden to put on a young guy who’s so far still in the single digits when it comes to games played.
On the other hand, at least it did lessen the amount of coverage given to the flat out ridiculous “story” that ESPN ran accusing the Jays of not only stealing signs, but employing some sort of mysterious Mr Rourke (maybe I’m showing my age with a reference to Fantasy Island, but the comparison is all the more appropriate given that must be where the accusers are coming from) in the outfield to relay the pitches to the batter 375 feet away.
As I said here recently, stealing signs is apparently a common activity for base runners on most teams. And as I also said, Russell Martin of the Yankees explained it was his job as the catcher to change up signs to confuse those with roving eyes. Yet , according to both former catcher (and current Jays TV analyst) Gregg Zaun and to Mark Zwolinski of the Star, most catchers can’t be bothered. They stick to a simple system of one finger for a fastball, four for a changeup and two and three for the pitcher’s other options such as a slider. If that is the case one wonders why they even bother. Why not just yell at the mound “hey Juan, give me a heater right about belt high.”? It would have the same amount of effectiveness in surprising the batter.
But that notwithstanding, it’s supposed to be a sacred trust that the opponents won’t try to sneak a peak at the catcher’s signs. And someone, alledgedly the White Sox, noticed the Blue Jays were hitting a lot of home runs last season and also alledgedly noticed a man in a white suit in the right field stands in Toronto last year who’d suddenly thrust his arms heaven-wards before any pitch other than a fastball, thereby tipping off the hitter. They went on to point out that the Jays hit a staggering 146 home runs at home last year, compared to (an equally surprising) 111 on the road. Adam Lind hit nearly double the number at Rogers Centre he did in opposing parks. Case closed!!
Or is it? Numerically, there are a few flaws with the story. For example, assuming this mystery man was only working on behalf of the Jays, why then did Toronto pitchers also allow more home runs at home , in fewer games (*the interleague series against Philly was moved to Philadelphia resulting in only 78 home games) ? And why did other teams like the New York Yankees also outhammer the ball at home compared to the road (115 vs 86 in their case.) Even the accusers, the Chicago White Sox clipped 111 at new Comiskey and only 66 elsewhere, a difference of about 40% compared to 23% for Toronto. If their theory is to hold water, one must suspect they knew the reason since they too were employing a sign man in the outfield.
Of course, it’s all bunk. Some parks lend themselves to more home runs to do size and prevailing weather conditions. Apparently the Skydome as many of us still call it has good conditions for long fly balls when the roof is closed, it has fairly short dimensions down the foul lines and when the roof is open, it’s usually because the weather is fine which often means southerly winds blowing straight to centerfield. All help the stadium give up more home runs than most– last year 227 in total, four more than the similar boombox in the bronx. Minnesota gave up only 116, down from previous years in their old stadium, a fact which led Justin Morneau to whine about it being unfair to him and other hitters. Nothing sinister about it.
It’s ludicrous really. Just think of the logistics. The catcher puts down his sign, the pitcher goes into his windup…meanwhile someone with binoculars in the stands sees the sign, sends a message to the Man in White… hits a button on a phone to send a brief text message perhaps, the man in white sees message and throws his arms up like someone trying to be a one man wave. Meanwhile, pitch already on its way, the jays batter is apparently not watching the ball or pitcher, but scanning the outfield , 375 feet away , looking for one guy , amongst thousands , dressed in white, waiting to see if he puts his hands up or not. Perhaps the White Sox figure the Jays also employ 1000 other people to dress in black and sit all around the mystery fella, or else finding one white-clad person could be a bit tricky in summer. All the while, no one in the crowd ever complains to the stadium staff about some freak who keeps throwing his hands up blocking their view. No cameraman every gets a look at him on a slow night and focusses in on him while the commentators provide “zany” commentary … “hey John Travolta, 1978 called – it wants it’s suit back!”. No one, in fact, but a handful of White Sox relievers, ever saw the guy. As Alex Anthopolous said, perhaps they saw some UFOs fly across the stadium too. Bob Elliott of the toronto Sun wondered why, if it were true, none of the various players who left the team in bad grace over the past few years… Alex Rios, shea Hillebrand for instance… ever let the secret spill when they left town.
If anyone doubts the idiocy of the accusation, I’d just ask them to watch the next ten or so pitches they see in any game. Think about the logistics of pulling it off– getting the sign from the catcher, sending a message through the crowd to a man in the outfield, have him react and send a signal to the batter who would have to scan the bleachers and then somehow refocus on the ball before it hit the catcher’s glove. I think if the Jays were stupid enough to have tried such a plan, they would have hit about 146 fewer homers than the 146 they actually did last year in the ballpark.
On the subject of mixed blessings, that too is what the same company owning the team and the TV station broadcasting them is. On the one hand, Rogers’ has for the first time ever assured that all 162 Toronto games are televised, we don’t have to hunt around the dial for them (some years gone by as many as four different channels might air some of the games) and probably are more willing to invest in the team since it can improve its TV ratings and revenue.
On the downside, it also rather ensures an almost unbearable level of “homerism” among the broadcasters who are more reluctant to criticize the team or manager than Cubans talking about Castro. Every young player coming up is the next Willie Mays or Sandy Koufax in their eyes, every totally bungled play is a “very difficult bounce” or impossible due to the light conditions…you get the idea. Case in point, while people like me have been railing away about how the team erred in trading Roy Halladay, and then to a lesser degree ,Shuan Marcum, Buck Martinez and his crew are all agog about the “young” staff. On and on about how great it is to have such a young staff, learning together, years away from arm problems that are bound to plague oldies like Halladay, or Sabathia or Lee. Then in come the Angels who throw Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver at us and Buck quickly points out how its unfair for Toronto to be expected to contend against a team like that because of all the “experience” their pitchers have! He goes on to list the total number of games played for the Anaheim trio compared to Toronto’s and points to that, pre-emptively, as an excuse for the Jays to be swept. They in fact win two out of three. But the real point is … which is it Buck? Is it a plus to have young, developing arms or is it a definite flaw holding the team back?
As an interesting aside to that, last week they had Jim Palmer on as a guest one inning, and he was explaining why he preferred the idea of a four man rotation and if he could have any four pitchers, he’d start with Roy Halladay (he can pitch every fourth day, a no brainer), then go to Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia and either Jered Weaver or Justin Verlander. Hard to argue with that, or with a pitching legend, even if there is no sophomore with 25 games career experience on his list.