Buck Showalter points a finger during his dispute with Yankees… (Greg Fiume, Getty Images )
Who really knows whether New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi had a legitimate gripe when he called out Orioles coach Bobby Dickerson for allegedly stealing signs on Monday night, but thanks to Buck Showalter's mad dash onto the field at the end of the first inning, we're all getting a crash course in baseball's dark art.
Let's not be naïve. The reason each team has a complex system of signs to call pitches and various other plays is because it is understood that anybody worth two bags of Red Man is looking for an edge and isn't going to go to bed with a guilty conscience for cracking that code.
What Showalter was doing was standing up for his third base coach after Girardi gave Dickerson an earful from the Yankees dugout. What Girardi was doing was serving notice to the Orioles that he didn't appreciate whatever he thought Dickerson was doing, which might or might not lead to some on-field retaliation. What both of them were doing was engaging in some garden-variety gamesmanship that was magnified by the fact that it involved the always-controversial Yankees.
Throw in a little recent history and some dime-store psychology and it morphed into a pretty interesting little dust-up that — despite some tight lips after Monday's game — carried over into Tuesday when Showalter turned up on a New York radio station and accused the Yankees of being pretty good at stealing signs themselves.
"The Yankees actually are one of the better teams at it,'' Showalter was quoted as telling columnist Mike Lupica on ESPN New York's "Lunch with Lupica" radio show.
For the record, the Orioles denied Monday night and continue to deny that Dickerson was peeking at the fingers that Yankees catcher Austin Romine was putting down to call the pitches for Yankees ace CC Sabathia. There's nothing to stop someone from doing that if it is visually possible, though most accusations of that sort involve baserunners tipping pitch locations to their teammates from second base.
Showalter said before Tuesday's game that he didn't single out the Yankees, but was making the point that sign-stealing is commonplace and that it's the responsibility of teams to make their sign system indecipherable to the eyes fo the opposition.
"I said everybody sits there with multiple signs ... we change signs ... heck, Toronto, I could go through 15 teams,'' he said. "You should be conscious of that, and you should do it if you can get them. They're right there for everybody to see, if you can figure out the sequence. There's a lot of clubs that have people who do nothing else but watch the sequences every pitcher uses. It's very easy to camouflage it to keep them from getting them. That's part of the game. It's all part of it."
It also has long been part of the game's unwritten protocol that pitchers who suspect that a batter is being relayed that information may illustrate their displeasure by painting a black-and-blue mark on ahitter, which is why the umpires gave an official warning to both benches after the managerial altercation Monday.
Stealing signs from outside the field of play is clearly against the rules, and teams have been sanctioned for stationing personnel in the stands or other parts of the ballpark to gain unfair advantage over an opponent.
The most famous sign-stealing incident in baseball history may or may not have occurred in a playoff for the 1951 National League pennant when New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thomson hit the famous "Shot Heard Round the World." In 2001, several aging Giants players confirmed in a Wall Street Journal article that the team had an elaborate sign-stealing system that involved a telescope and an electric buzzer in the dugout at the Polo Grounds, but Thomson never admitted to getting any help when he homered off Ralph Branca to complete the Giants' miracle two-month comeback.
The practice of deciphering signs and relaying information solely among uniformed personnel on the field of play is not illegal, though any obvious manifestation of it is considered a violation of unwritten baseball protocol. That's what Girardi felt he was seeing on Monday night, and he voiced his displeasure to Dickerson, which set off the verbal altercation with Showalter.
Girardi had little to say about the incident afterward and did not specifically address Showalter's on-air comment about the Yankees on Tuesday, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the matter is settled.
There's a lot of baseball left to be played between the Yankees and Orioles and emotions run high at this time of year.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.