FORT MYERS, FLA. -- Phil Roof is in uniform for a big-league spring training for the 60th year. The first was as a young catcher with the Milwaukee Braves when they were in Bradenton, Fla. in 1961. He had 17 more as a player, many as a coach or minor league manager, and has been a “special instructor’’ for the Twins for the past decade.
“The Babe’’ came to the big leagues to stay during the 1965 season and stayed an oft-used backup catcher through 1975. The final five of those seasons were with the Twins, and later, he was a minor-league manager in the organization for 16 years.
Roof is one of my all-time favorites and, on Wednesday, he was walking through the home clubhouse at Hammond Stadium before the first pitchers-catchers workout.
We exchanged a greeting and, as usual, Phil had an excellent tale to tie-in with the topic of the moment in major league baseball. This time, it was the scandal over video-room sign stealing.
“It’s been going on for a long time, with the most up-to-date method available during that era,’’ Roof said.
For instance? “I was a 20-year-old kid and had played three years in the low minors, when the [Milwaukee] Braves called me up for September 1961,’’ Roof said. “I got in one game and didn’t get an at-bat.
“Del Crandall was hurt that season, and Joe Torre was the 20-year-old catcher, and Charlie Lau and Sammy White were the backups. They had me there to hang around Crandall, learn some things, and help warmup pitchers in the builpen.
“One of the first days I’m out there, in the home bullpen at County Stadium, I’m walking to the other end of the pen and almost tripped over Charlie Lau. He’s laying on his stomach, sort of hiding, and I wonder, ‘What is he doing? Is there something wrong with Charlie?’ ‘’
The mystery was solved within a few seconds, when Roof noted that Lau was peering through a set of large binoculars, like General Patton looking for Rommel’s tanks.
“Charlie was stealing signs from the catcher and Whitlow Wyatt, the pitching coach, was standing next to him, holding his arms straight up,’’ Roof said. “If Whit kept his arms in that postion … ‘fastball.’ If Whit took his arms down, folded them in front of him so there would be no confusion … ‘offspeed,’ change or curve.’’
Roof smirked and shook his head. His audience of one laughed.
“Sneaky sign stealing has been going on for a long time,’’ The Babe said. “Since they invented strong binoculars, for sure.’’