BOSTON -- Dave Dombrowski has worked in baseball for four decades. When he started in 1978, as a 22-year-old administrative assistant with the Chicago White Sox, the Milwaukee Brewers were in the American League, Montreal still had a team, and Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. were trailing their fathers around a clubhouse.
Oh, and teams were trying to steal each other's signs.
So after the New York Times published a report Tuesday that the Boston Red Sox used an Apple Watch to read and relay signs given by New York Yankees catchers in games earlier this season, Dombrowski failed to see what all the fuss was about. He responded to questions with verbal shrugs, smiles and a few chuckles -- not at all like the president of baseball operations of a team that is under investigation by Major League Baseball.
"Do I think sign stealing is wrong? No, I don't," Dombrowski said. "I guess everybody in the game has been involved with it throughout the years. People are trying to win however they can. It's an edge they are trying to gain. I guess it depends how you do it, but no, I never thought it was wrong."
Ah, yes, it's that last part that put this issue in the hands of the commissioner's office.
Dombrowski estimated that he has been involved in "maybe 10" sign-stealing disputes in his career. In each case, he said, the situation was resolved when one general manager told the other to put an end to the espionage, which typically consisted of a runner on second base peeking at the catcher's signs and surreptitiously relaying them to the batter.
In a piece for ESPN in 2004, Tim Kurkjian relayed a story from Dombrowski’s days with the White Sox in the '80s. A member of the organization would sit in the manager’s office, watch the center-field camera angle on the TV broadcast and flip a switch that would light up a 25-watt refrigerator bulb on the scoreboard to indicate whether a fastball or an offspeed pitch was coming.
If the Red Sox had simply done it the old-fashioned way, the Yankees likely would have simply changed their signs and moved on. But the Sox's hitters seemed to be getting the intelligence too quickly. During an Aug. 18-20 series in Fenway Park, the Yankees aimed cameras at Boston's dugout, and assistant athletic trainer Jon Jochim was spotted looking at an Apple Watch and passing information to various players, a source confirmed.
It worked, too. The Red Sox went only 14-for-112 (.125) with a runner on second base in 19 games against the Yankees this season. But in the series in which they were watched by the Yankees, they went 9-for-24 (.375). The Yankees filed their complaint to MLB, and in a recently completed four-game series at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox went 0-for-22 with a runner on second base.
Sign stealing isn't against MLB rules, commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday. But using binoculars or electronics to spy on an opponent is prohibited. Manfred indicated that he will take into account using a potential punishment to serve as a deterrent for teams that try to do what the Red Sox reportedly did, though Dombrowski sounded confident that the Sox won't have any of their eight victories against the Yankees revoked, a penalty that would impact a tight AL East race.
Red Sox players and staff declined to comment on the Times report. Even Dombrowski, who took pleasure in noting that Hall of Fame pitcher-turned-broadcaster Dennis Eckersley nodded affirmatively when Dombrowski mentioned the longstanding prevalence of sign stealing, suddenly clammed up when it came to the use of electronic devices.
"I'm not going to get into the specifics of that," he said. "I really don't have any additional comment."
But Dombrowski wasn't above a not-so-veiled accusation that the Yankees leaked the story to the Times on a day they knew Manfred would be in Boston. After all, Dombrowski said, he has known about MLB's investigation for "10 to 12 days." The Yanks also won three of four games against the Sox last week in New York. Unless they meet in the playoffs, the teams won't play again until next season.
Dombrowski was quick to note that the Red Sox have filed a counter-complaint against the Yankees that alleges that New York used YES Network cameras to spy on the Red Sox. What he failed to say was that the Red Sox's complaint was filed Tuesday, a timely response to the Yankees' decision to go public with their accusation.
In other words, if the Yankees want to get into an old-fashioned spitting match with the Red Sox, Dombrowski is perfectly old-fashioned enough to spit back -- with a smile, of course.
"I've been involved in different things, and I've talked to other general managers, and I know that [the Yankees] have been involved in those things, too," Dombrowski said. "I'm not really sure why [it was handled this way]. Everybody has to do what they think is the right thing to do."
To Dombrowski, the right thing isn't always ethical. He seems to believe sign stealing falls into that category, and it stands to reason that the practice of snooping on the opponent would get more sophisticated with the times.
"We probably do something wrong every once in a while," Dombrowski said. "I've had my wrist slapped a few times throughout my career -- not just with the Red Sox. Sure, we do things wrong at times."
Dombrowski was asked point blank if he believes this was one of those times.
"I never felt like [sign stealing] is wrong," he said. "Put it this way: I was never brought up that it was wrong."
Forty years in the game appear to have cemented that opinion, regardless of the commissioner's verdict.