Andy McGeady: spy stories from the frontline and the backroom
Various not-so-sporting methods have been employed to smooth a path to victory
Tom Williams of Harlequins is replaced as blood pours from his mouth during the infamous Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
The famous tale from 2003 of the Gloucester gameplan left in a Limerick taxi always sounded too good to be true: the visitors’ strategy for a crucial game quietly passed on to the home team who would go on to get each and every one of the four tries and 27-point margin they needed in an improbable 33-6 win. The story was flat out denied by a Gloucester spokesperson but it lives on. Another addition to the Thomond Park legend.
Twelve years later across the Atlantic there is a case of sporting corporate espionage. The St Louis Cardinals are being investigated for the unauthorised access of a database owned by the Houston Astros. While an original leak of internal Houston emails and memos regarding trade discussions that came to light in 2014 had been a source of some embarrassment – imagine a Premier League club’s old internal notes about their signing targets being revealed – it had also triggered an FBI investigation that led to St Louis. Hacking (or, more accurately, successfully guessing that a former Cardinals employee might use the same password upon moving to the Astros) is not something the feds look upon kindly.
The sliding scale of deception and subterfuge in sport can be somewhat fluid with words like gamesmanship and cheating used interchangeably depending on whether the loser or victor is telling the story. NFL backroom teams used to carry out operations on the balls that would be used by kickers, for example, including putting them in a clothes dryer for ten minutes.
Pitching in a Pinch, the ghostwritten memoir of pitching great Christy Mathewson, contains his opinion of where one particular cheating line should be drawn: “Dishonest signal stealing might be defined as obtaining information by artificial aids. The honest methods are those requiring cleverness of eye, mind, and hand without outside assistance.”
Back in 1912, when that book was published, artificial aids might have included a fellow situated somewhere in the ballpark using binoculars to spy a catcher’s signs to the visiting pitcher and relaying those signs to the home team.
Similarly, the Atlanta Falcons piped fake crowd noise into their indoor stadium in 2013 and 2014 when the opposition had the ball. Mathewson might also have had a stern view of the work of Harlequins wing Tom Williams and boss Dean Richards, who used a blood capsule in a Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leinster in an effort to get their kicker back onto the field illegally.
Stealing signs is one thing, but theft from on official? In 1999 Jason Grimsley would finally admit that it had been he who been behind the theft, five years earlier, of a bat from the umpires’ locker room.
This bat had been confiscated by an official from Albert Belle, Grimsley’s Cleveland Indians team mate. As with all of Belle’s bats at the time, reported Grimsley later, it had been “corked” (wood bored out of the barrel and replaced with cork to lighten the lumber and increase bat speed).
Grimsley climbed out of the ceiling of the visiting clubhouse and crawled along the walls before dropping in to the officials’ room to replace the bat with a legal model.
When the White Sox and the MLB commissioner found out the Indians agreed to return the original bat on the condition that the person who committed the break-in (Grimsley) would never be named or prosecuted. Belle was suspended for 10 games, reduced to seven on appeal.
Secret agentMoe Berg
While doubt would later be cast on the efficacy of Berg’s intelligence career and his fluency in ten languages, it’s a tale that’s hard to top.