Tony Faust does not play baseball, nor is he a scout. He is a 28-year-old graphic designer who loves the Minnesota Twins. So when he saw video that he believed shows Twins catcher Joe Mauer(notes) stealing signs from the Detroit Tigers, Faust decided to annotate it, upload it and let the world witness just how slick his favorite player really is.
One problem: The Twins say it’s a bunch of malarkey.
As they prepared for the finale of a pivotal four-game series against the Detroit Tigers on Thursday, the Twins had to confront something positively 2009: a fan, one with a minimal baseball background at that, accusing the likely American League MVP of standing on second base and blatantly relaying signals to home plate to give batter Jason Kubel(notes) an idea of the next pitch.
Kubel laughed at the implication that Mauer was tugging at his helmet as a means of subterfuge. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire denied it, saying with such obvious sign-stealing “somebody would get killed.” First baseman Justin Morneau(notes) insisted on talking to the media to underscore the ludicrousness of the allegations.
And yet across the field, in the Tigers’ clubhouse, Gerald Laird(notes) – the catcher for the game in question, a 6-5 Detroit victory Tuesday night – said the Twins’ reputation for stealing signs is no secret.
“They’re known for it over there,” Laird said. “I know they’ve done it in the past. I don’t know if it’s signs or location. They’re really good at stealing signs. It’s a skill. There’s nothing bad about it; they’re just well prepared.”
Sign-stealing is nothing new in baseball. The most famous hit in history, Bobby Thomson’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World in 1951, came off a Ralph Branca fastball he knew was coming. Players, coaches and managers consider it part of the game rather than cheating. If a catcher can’t deceive the opponents, he’s not trying hard enough. Because every team – Twins included – attempts to decode signals.
“I’m not saying we’re out there trying to steal signs, but I hope we are,” Gardenhire said. “I hope that they’re out there trying to steal signs. Because that’s the game. Everybody does it.”
It’s just … well, there’s an elegance to it that perhaps Faust didn’t capture in his breakdown of the 4-minute, 23-second clip, which Major League Baseball may soon take down for copyright violation. The theft of signs takes a keen ability to decode indicators, secondary signals and all of the other tricks catchers use. Relaying them is generally a subtle trick – an exaggerated lean that looks natural, or a hand tap that is familiar between only two players. They generally indicate pitch location instead of pitch type.
Something as remedial as putting a finger in the earhole for a breaking ball and touching the face for a fastball, as Faust interpreted, would be mighty dim of Mauer, generally regarded among the brightest players in baseball. Getting caught stealing signs invites the opponent to throw at the hitter. It’s like a public-urination rap. The cops aren’t chasing leads on a random puddle, but if you do it in front of them, they’re going to arrest you.
“It’s absolutely what they were doing,” Faust said. “It was such an urgent situation, they had to do something. There’s no question that was it.”
Actually, the entire Twins clubhouse questioned it. The video spread virally throughout the morning. At one point, a half-dozen Twins surrounded the locker of pitcher Kevin Slowey(notes), who sat in his chair with a computer on his lap. The video played, and the Twins critiqued it like a group at Cannes watching the worst film of the year.
“What an idiot,” one player said.
“Can we write notes to this guy?” another said. “And tell him that his explanation of tipping the signs was atrocious?”
Their biggest beef came from the first pitch. Faust said that Laird put down two fingers, signaling a curveball, and that Mauer touched his helmet to indicate the pitch to Kubel. The pitch was actually a changeup. Mauer, who was unavailable for comment before the game, often tugs at his helmet, according to teammates.
“What else are they gonna say?” Faust said. “I don’t know. That was the one weird thing. It was a changeup. Maybe he was just tipping offspeed overall.
“I’m just a fan who noticed it.”
Whether it was legitimate thievery, only the Twins know. Their denial was quick and vehement. They were perturbed that hours before the biggest game of their season, they had to address something manufactured – literally, and perhaps in his head as well – by a graphic designer from Maple Grove, Minn., about 20 miles northwest of Minneapolis, and simultaneously amused that it had taken on life so quickly with such sparse underpinnings.
“I wish we could steal signs,” Gardenhire said.
“We don’t do it around here,” Kubel said.
“I’ve been hitting behind Joe for five years and haven’t gotten a sign from him yet,” Morneau said.
That’s fine, Faust said. He still loves the Twins even if he doesn’t believe them.
“I know what I saw,” Faust said.
And he won’t be convinced otherwise.