The New England Region Champion Little League team from Barrington, R.I., rides in the Little League Grand Slam Parade in downtown Williamsport, Pa., on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. The Little League World Series baseball tournament, featuring 16 teams from around the world, starts on August 15, 2019 in South Williamsport, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Sign stealing is as old as baseball itself. It’s a wily act of espionage, generally tolerated as part of baseball’s famous “unwritten rules.”

But in Little League baseball, the practice is, in fact, part of the rule book. It’s strictly illegal.

Now a manager of a team that came up just short of reaching the nationally televised Little League World Series is accusing a rival team of violating those rules.

Pat Dutton, who coaches the New Hampshire champion Goffstown Little League, said players from Rhode Island’s Barrington Little League stole signs during the New England regional final last Saturday. He called the alleged reconnaissance “unsportsmanlike,” “dishonorable” and “disgusting” in an article published this week in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Barrington Little League denied the accusations and said they were “unfortunate” and that the article’s premise was “false.”

“We hold our coaches, players and teams to the highest standards, and do not coach or condone unsportsmanlike behavior of any kind,” the Rhode Island group said in a statement (via Boston.com).

Little League International did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dutton alleged that Rhode Island players on the base paths were peeking in at the catcher’s signs and relaying them to hitters before pitches.

The home plate umpire did once stop play to warn the Rhode Island coaches that such a violation would lead to ejections for the offending players as well as the manager.

“You can see (runners on second base) leaning in, looking in and they’re doing hand gestures to their kid (at the plate) indicating what kind of pitch it is and where it’s located,” Dutton told the Union Leader. “You can do that in big league ball, but in Little League it’s unsportsmanlike, it’s dishonorable and it’s disgusting. They did it the whole tournament and got away with it, and now that’s what’s representing New England in the Little League World Series. It’s just a bad look.”

Sign stealing is an age-old tradition and loosely accepted at most levels of competitive baseball. Runners on second base commonly peer in at a catcher’s signs to tip off hitters as to what pitch is coming next. Coaches and fielders study opponents to decipher whether a base runner is stealing or a batter is bunting.

But even Major League Baseball officials have tried to force teams to cut back on the practice. Commissioner Rob Manfred circulated a five-page memo ahead of spring training to emphasize the league’s existing sign-stealing rules and outline new ones governing the use of technology and replay systems.

Team replay assistants, who help notify managers when to challenge a call on the field, are monitored by a security expert to prevent them from misusing game tape to search for an opponent’s signs.

Paranoid coaches over the years, though, have devised intricate systems to relay signals all over the diamond. Even without runners on base, catchers will use an entire series of signs to call a pitch. Managers and base coaches have dozens of dummy signs to fool defenses. Baseball has even developed the “wipe off” sign, where a coach can call for a specific play, then cancel it just to throw an opponent off the scent.

Dutton said he suspected Barrington of stealing signs during a regional semifinal, which New Hampshire won, 2-1.

But Rhode Island defeated Connecticut in the losers’ bracket to force a rematch with New Hampshire in the title game.

In that matchup, Rhode Island jumped out to a 5-2 lead after a four-run rally in the fourth inning (Little League games are played to six innings) and hung on for a 6-4 win to represent the region in the Little League World Series, which begins this week.

The New England champion will face Southeast region champion South Riding, Virginia, on Thursday.

“It’s just frustrating to see teams and kids having to go about it that way when clearly they were playing better than we were,” Dutton said. “They didn’t have to do that. That’s something these kids don’t learn on their own. That’s something that they’re taught. They’re coached to do that.

“Obviously, the team condones it, they coach it, and, personally, that’s something that I’m completely against. Little League is supposedly against it, but you wouldn’t know it this week.”

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