No Tipping, Please

The New York Times

May 5, 2009

By Doug Glanville

Alex Rodriguez is in a horrible spot.

Where do you go when, having focused your life on that one thing you can be the best at, you realize that because of choices you made things will never again be the same in anyone else’s eyes? After a decade of the world seeing Alex as the likeliest candidate to be the next “legitimate” home run king, it all went out the window.

And the bad space he is in just got worse. The latest bomb was dropped in Selena Roberts’ new book, “A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez”: an allegation that he was tipping pitches to friends on other teams.

Tipping pitches involves watching your opponent like a well-trained code-breaker. It most often happens when there is a runner at second base, where he is in a unique position to steal any signs the catcher is relaying to the pitcher — so well positioned, in fact, that catchers and pitchers have a special set of signs for that situation. We all know the basic signs — one finger for fastball, two fingers for curve. But with a runner on second, the real sign may be the one right after an indicator: for example, it could be the first sign after the catcher puts down three fingers, or the second sign after he wiggles all of his fingers.

Apart from the pitcher and the runner on second, the two people who can see those signs best are the middle infielders — the shortstop and the second baseman. They are both busybodies, moving around, trying to pick off the runner, giving signs to each other regarding who should cover on a steal or a double play started from a ball hit back to the pitcher.
As a centerfielder (which I was for part of a season behind Alex, who played shortstop then), I also had a pretty great seat for what the pitcher was about to do. I couldn’t see the catcher’s signs, but I could see where the catcher was positioned. Combined with a mental (and sometimes physical) notebook of information containing the patterns and tendencies of our pitching staff and the opposing hitters, this vantage point resulted in a great sense of what pitch is coming at what time. This also allows a centerfielder to get a head start (ironically called “cheating”) by leaning or moving a step or two one way or another as he anticipates where the ball may end up.

A savvy opponent may in turn start paying attention to those key defensive players who are most prone to “tip” off the plan of the pitcher. Should they move too soon, they might clue in the other team as to what is coming (which is why catchers are taught to set-up “late”). While the tip might not be as specific as, say, “fork ball,” it could be enough to know whether the next pitch is going to be slow or fast. But rarely is there time for the discoverer of these tips (he could be a coach, or anyone on the bench paying close attention) to relay this new information to the batter or any runners to benefit.

Unless, somehow, the hitter at the plate decodes your system. He has a bat in his hand, and can clearly see the shortstop and second baseman. He can inflict instant damage.
So, according to the latest story, Alex is connected to some pitch-tipping scheme in which he relayed signs to the opposing hitter (if he was a friend) or for someone who would return the favor when he was hitting. This was supposedly done in one-sided games where, in theory, one team had no chance of catching up. Alex was said to be in cahoots with a lot of middle infielders. Allegedly, there was some sign he would relay to the hitter — a movement with his glove or his feet — to let the hitter know what type of pitch was coming and where.

Although I have never heard such a rumor about Alex, this may be one of the most egregious charges one can make against a player, and a rare one at that. Should a player know that someone in his own dugout is helping the opposing team, I would venture to say that all-out Armageddon would ensue. Imagine if a pitcher knew that his pitches were being given away to the opposing hitter by his own teammate no less. This spy would have to watch his back.

How would this scheme have been missed for Alex’s entire career? We all know that every time he plays, the camera zooms in on him. Opposing teams watch him obsessively, studying film endlessly. The “A-Rod cam” is on full tilt all the time. So, over a period of years, did the best in the business, the brightest analysts and teammates, miss that he was doing this for his roommate from the year before, or maybe for his cousin’s favorite player? Or did they know it but were afraid to come forward? Is it possible that all of these experts had their heads in the sand?

A more likely scenario for how he may have been tipping pitches: he was sending signals to his own team, something that could easily be stolen by a sage opponent. Just as we knew when certain pitchers were throwing a curveball (based on their glove habits, or the way the catcher crouched), or throwing home instead of picking off to first (the pitcher may have turned his front foot inward, or widened his base).

As players, we know a lot that we aren’t supposed to know.

There is no question that Alex Rodriguez has disillusioned a generation of fans. He strikes me as disillusioned himself — understandably lost over the fragmentation of his family, from worrying endlessly about what everyone thinks of him, lost because, after all he has done on the field, his accomplishments will always have a terrible footnote attached. And lost, more recently, because precisely when he wanted to put aside all these distractions and just play baseball, he found himself on the disabled list, kept away from focusing on the one thing he was trying to preserve.

If in fact there was a pitch-tipping scheme, I would expect a full investigation, not just of Alex but of any player who would share information with his opponent. It is that serious.
Still, we have to be careful not to make Alex Rodriguez our personal pin cushion, where we stick everything bad about baseball (or our lives) on the one person who we wanted to be everything good. I hope these allegations prove to be a misinterpretation of a benign act: a player trying to help his teammates by advancing information. Because this type of charge should never be taken lightly — it affects not just Alex’s reputation, but the game’s. So let’s make sure we uncover what we need to uncover before we rush to conclusions. Without some patience, the game can’t move forward.

And let’s acknowledge that we may never know the truth. That is, if we are actually, genuinely looking for it.

New York Times 05/05/2009


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