The baseball edition of "Grumpy Old Men" opened Saturday night in Denver, when Jamie Moyer challenged Chipper Jones over the Braves veteran's alleged sign-stealing while on second base.
The oldest pitcher in baseball had a 6-1 lead in the fifth when he gave up a double to the fourth-oldest hitter in the National League. With two out and Brian McCann at the plate, Moyer fell behind 3-0, came to the stretch position and turned to check on Jones at second. He evidently saw something he didn't like, because he stepped off, yelling at Jones. Chipper, now standing on the bag, yelled back.
McCann took the next pitch for a strike, then grounded a single up the middle, driving home Jones. Moyer struck out Dan Uggla to retire the side, but after the Rockies tacked on two runs in the bottom of the fifth, he allowed back-to-back homers and a single to start the sixth and was removed from the game. Atlanta scored five in the sixth and four in the seventh and won 13-9.
"That was all on Jamie Moyer," Jones told Mark Bowman of mlb.com, referring to the comeback and his own five-RBI night. "He woke a sleeping giant tonight. He started chirping, and it went all downhill from there. ... I have never relayed a sign to anyone while I'm on second base."
Jones said he was having a conversation with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki when Moyer turned and yelled, "I see what you are doing."
"To be honest with you," Jones said, "every pitch he throws is 78 [mph]. So it's not like we really have to relay signs."
Braves beat writer David O'Brien (@ajcbraves) tweeted Sunday, "#Braves Chipper said Moyer came to bat and told McCann, ‘That (stealing signs) is how people get hurt.' #Braves were p'd off by that." Moyer made the second out in the bottom of the fifth. Matt Diaz and Jason Heyward greeted him in the sixth with the home runs Jones estimated later at a combined "900 feet."
It's hard to decide what's sillier, a verbal dustup between two men who total 89 years of age and 44 seasons in the major leagues or the subject of the dispute.
Sign-stealing has been around as long as there have been signs, and there's nothing illegitimate about it. The signals flashed from dugout to coach to hitter and runner, or from catcher to pitcher and relayed to the rest of the fielders, represent communication efforts in hostile territory and are protected and encrypted as such.
The third-base coach goes through a series of gestures and gyrations, most of which are meaningless until an indicator is given to alert his side that the next sign, or perhaps the one after that, is the real one. The codes are changed frequently enough to keep opponents from cracking them, but not so often that your own players can't remember them.
In the specific circumstance Saturday night - runner on second, with a direct view of the catcher's hands - every team in baseball changes its signals between the plate and the mound. Still, there are runners who crack the code or flash signs to the batter to let him know if the catcher is setting up inside or outside.
On Sunday's Mets broadcast, Ralph Kiner recalled a simple method in which the runner would take his lead with his right hand away from his body toward third if a coming fastball would be inside, his left hand back toward second if it was going to be away. Kiner also reflected on the shadier forms of sign-stealing, those involving the aid of binoculars and props. In Cleveland, he recalled, someone in the center-field stands would read the catcher's sign, then hold up one white sneaker if the pitch was a fastball, two gray ones if it was a curve.
"It goes way back," said Kiner. "Paul Revere was the first sign-stealer."
Verbal confrontation is unnecessary when a team wants to warn an opponent it suspects of relaying pitches to a hitter. All it takes is a signal for a slider low and away when the pitcher and catcher know the pitch will really be a fastball up and in. End of problem - and possibly the hitter, depending on his reflexes.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia was once on the receiving end of an even more direct message. Cincinnati reliever Norm Charlton was sure that Scioscia was relaying signs to the batter while he was on second, and the next time he faced the Dodgers catcher, he hit him with a pitch. "I threw at him," Charlton said. "I hit him on the arm. But I didn't mean to hit him on the arm. He'll be lucky if I don't rip his head off the next time I'm pitching." Charlton was suspended and fined for his comments.
A dozen years later, Charlton, then coaching in the Mariners organization, told Seattle baseball writer Larry Stone about the elaborate methods one pitcher uses to keep his signals private. "He's got first sign, second sign, third sign, a sign on odd days, even months, odd years, when it rains outside, when he drove his truck to the park. You're basically not going to steal his signs."
The pitcher's name was Jamie Moyer.