Sunday, July 17, 2005 

Signs

Here's an interesting little article. and it actually has to do with baseball.



July 17, 2005 -- When Luis Sojo received the phone call in 2003 that he would be the Yankees' new third-base coach, he was in his native Venezuela playing in a winter league. As soon as he hung up with GM Brian Cashman, Sojo knew what he had to do.
Before celebrating or calling friends and family, Sojo sought out his team's third-base coach to learn how to give signs, the lifeblood of any good third-base coach.
It may look to most observers like a third-base coach has either lost his keys or is being bothered by a fly, but their motions are actually an intricate system of bluff and language that can win or lose baseball games.
"The signs and the signals are the glue that holds the whole thing together," said Paul Dickson, the author of "The Hidden Language of Baseball."
Some teams go to great lengths to camouflage their signs with complex systems, while others keep it as simple as they can - while the specter of the opposing team figuring out your signs always looms. The degree of the manager's paranoia usually determines how complicated their system will be.
"I've been on clubs that you had to be a Harvard graduate to get the sign," veteran coach Don Zimmer said.
Most teams operate with the same set of signs for everyone in every instance. Others are more complicated. Some might change their signs every three innings, or change them depending on the number of outs. Former Padres and Astros manager Preston Gomez had a different set of signs for every batter.

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Former Yankee Bobby Murcer remembers when he was with the San Francisco Giants in 1975, hearing the system manager Wes Westrum - a noted sign stealer - wanted to use. It was the end of spring training and third-base coach Joe Amalfitano gathered the team in center field.
"He went through a set of signs and there was adding, subtracting and multiplying," Murcer said. "I spoke up, like I usually do, and said, 'Joey, not only will the opposing teams not get our signs, we won't get our signs.' "
Casey Stengel once said of his difficult sign structure, "The other teams can't steal 'em and my guys can't understand them."
DOESN'T ADD UP
With just 20-30 seconds between pitches, it usually behooves teams to keep the system simple. Still, the threat of stolen signs makes coaches get creative. The Red Sox had a system in the 1970s based on adding and subtracting the number of touches by the third-base coach to determine the play. When outfielder Bennie Carbo once was caught stealing a base, manager Darrell Johnson angrily asked him why he had run.
"Two plus two," Carbo said.
"That's four - the take sign," said Johnnson. "The steal is five."
"Damn," said Carbo. "I added wrong."
Most teams don't do anything quite so complicated. Usually a third-base coach will run through a number of touches - to his hat, arm, chest, etc. Almost all of this means nothing. In the most common system, a team will designate one area as an indicator and the true sign will be the next touch. So if the indicator is the belt, once a coach touches his belt, the next sign will tell the base runner and batter what play is on.
"Ninety-five percent of the time it's a bluff because during the game, how many times does the manager actually put on a bunt or a hit-and-run play?" Mets third base coach Manny Acta said. "You can go games without any of that, but I still have to do it pitch after pitch because I still have to keep the other team guessing."
After each pitch, the third-base coach will look to the dugout to see if the manager wants to call a play - a steal, bunt, squeeze or hit-and-run. Besides signs for those calls, the coach also has a "take off" sign to kill the play.
Besides the indicator, some teams use certain touches to mean plays (a hat touch means hit and run, for instance). Murcer remembers minor-league manager Rocky Bridges using the simplest system. Bridges would mimic a bunt with his hands when he wanted the batter to bunt and wave his arm when he wanted a runner to steal.
Both Acta and Sojo said they are believers in keeping it as simple as possible, something that players appreciate.
"Luis does a good job of not trying to trick you, I think is the best way to put it," said Yankees catcher John Flaherty. "I've had third-base coaches so concerned about the other team getting their signs that they'll put signs on, take them off and put them back on again. As a player, you get confused."
ART OF THE STEAL
The key for a third-base coach is to make sure every set of signs looks like a real play call.
"You have to do the same thing when you are putting on a play and when you're not," Sojo said. "You don't want them to look at you and say, 'Wow, when he puts on a sign, he's a lot quicker.' "
Zimmer, noted for his ability to pick up an opposing team's signs, said he would look for slight changes.
"I think sometimes when you're watching the third-base coach, it's the rhythm," Zimmer said. "You see a guy give four different touches really slow and then you see him the sixth time [and] the rhythm changed, the first thing I think is, 'Oh boy, something might be on.' "
Stealing signs from the third-base coach is generally accepted as part of the game, not regarded as derisively as stealing a catcher's signs from second base or peeking from the batter's box.
Former Giants manager Roger Craig used to assign one player to watch the third-base coach, one to watch the batter and one to watch the base runner. Then they would report what they saw. He even used to have pitchers throw to first in order to give his spies more time.
Former White Sox coach Joe Nossek developed a reputation as the best sign stealer in the game. Nossek reportedly kept notes on every third-base coach in the league and grilled newly acquired players about their former teams. Twins manager Tom Kelly once changed his signs three times in a game because of Nossek.
"Joe Nossek had everyone psyched, thinking he's the best sign stealer in the universe," Dickson said. "They would watch him more than they would watch the game."
In 1997, the Phillies accused Mets manager Bobby Valentine of having a camera on their third-base coach, which Valentine denied.
COUNTER MEASURES
Teams go to varying lengths to thwart would-be sign stealers. When they played the Mets this season, the Yankees changed their signs so Willie Randolph, who coached third for 10 years in The Bronx, and former Yankee Miguel Cairo would be unable to steal them. Tony LaRussa used a team trainer to send signs to the third-base coach, figuring no one would be watching him.
Sometimes, this subterfuge backfires. When he was the manager of the Texas Rangers in 1974, Billy Martin got league approval to use an electronic transmitter. He had a microphone and each coach had an earpiece to listen to his instructions. In one game against the Red Sox, Martin wanted Cesar Tovar to lay down a suicide squeeze. But the transmitter did not work and third-base coach Frank Lucchesi could not hear what Martin wanted. Martin grew angry and screamed, "Suicide squeeze" into the microphone. Boston pitcher Luis Tiant stepped off the mound and yelled, "Frank, Billy said he wants the suicide squeeze." That ended that experiment.
The theft of signs is almost as old as signs themselves. According to Dickson's book, signs evolved out of the Civil War from signal flags used by ships and hand signals used by soldiers during battle. The first reports of a professional team using them came in 1869, when the Cincinnati Red Stockings were on a barnstorming tour in the west. Seven years later, the Hartford Dark Blues were the first team accused of stealing signs.
Sometimes no thievery is needed. Players often give things away - usually when they're given the "take" sign. Some step out of the box, others sigh. In 1985, Rangers DH Cliff Johnson was so miffed when third-base coach Art Howe gave him the take sign on 3-0 that he returned a sign of his own - one that everyone could understand: the middle finger.