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Learning the secret language of baseball
Blake Johnson nearly broke down crying the first time he missed a sign.
If getting tagged out after being caught in a pickle between first and second base wasn’t bad enough, the shameful return to the dugout surely was.
“I just remember walking off the field and coach screaming at me,” said Johnson, who played three seasons at Olympic High School before graduating in June. “I was almost crying, I was traumatized, I got embarrassed in front of everybody.”
Baseball’s silent language can be as simple or complex as coaches choose — sometimes secretive, always strategic.
Certain leaders of the dugout prefer a no-nonsense approach, creating systems of signs that are basic and rudimentary, easy for players to follow and remember. Others use signs within signs, decoys and fakes, tactics to fool the opposition, to prevent their messages from being intercepted.
No matter how and when they are used, signals affect the outcome of baseball games, allowing coaches and players to communicate without their opponent knowing what’s being said.
They date back more than 100 years, surviving wars, the color barrier, player strikes and steroid scandals. They have a place in baseball, and always will.
“There’s a lot going on that even people who consider themselves smart to the game don’t see,” said Nate Andrews, the coach who scorned Johnson after the player misinterpreted a sign and was tagged out in 2008. “Signs are intangibles to the game that are so precious.”
CREATING A SYSTEM
Never would a team take the field without first mastering a set of signs. Those signals may include interactions between coach and batter, coach and pitcher, catcher and pitcher, coach and base runner, infielder and catcher, and coach and outfielders.
Andrews, the head baseball coach at Olympic and a manager for the summer American Legion AA team Olympic Tigers, prefers to keep his system simple.
He believes players, especially at the high school level, have enough to learn already – basic skills, essentially – so he doesn’t burden them with learning an intricate system. Practice time is precious in high school ball, so he prefers to spend it teaching the game rather than signs.
“We spend our time learning the fundamentals of the game,” Andrews said.
Still, he has a system, and within the system, there are rules.
His catchers, for example, aren’t allowed to call pitches without first receiving a sign from the dugout.
Andrews believes at the high school level, few catchers — or pitchers — possess an understanding of the game that is deep enough to justify giving them full control of pitch selection.
And by calling pitches from the dugout, Andrews harnesses the blame in the event a play goes wrong.
“High school catchers might be good at the game and know what to do, but I don’t want them to have the stress of calling something and it being the wrong pitch,” he said. “I want that on me so they don’t have to feel bad. It takes a lot of stress away.”
In the college ranks and beyond, however, it is common for catchers and pitchers to make pitch selections.
The process plays out with catchers pointing and flicking and fluttering their fingers from the crouched position, then the pitcher either nods in agreement or shakes for a new call.
Although the coaches relay some cues from the dugout, catchers on the Kitsap BlueJackets collegiate baseball team must call pitches.
If they can’t do it, or don’t know which pitch is most appropriate in all situations, there’s a good chance they won’t play.
“Guys can lose their jobs over that,” said coach Matt Acker, whose team is made up of players from colleges and universities across the country. “When you get to this level they should have the ability to read what the guy is trying to do at the plate and what his strengths and weaknesses are.”
“If they can’t do that, they probably shouldn’t be catching."
SHIFT IN STRATEGY
Although hand signals have been a part of baseball since the early 1900s, some coaches are beginning to use verbal cues.
Rather than touching a finger to the nose, tipping the brim of their hat or tugging on an earlobe, they call out numbers that correspond with specific plays. This strategy, some believe, is simpler yet equally effective.
Like quarterbacks in football, infielders and outfielders under this strategy wear wristbands with numbers and plays.
When a number is yelled, players refer to the wristband.
“People have gone to it because there is less confusion,” Andrews said, estimating he sees this system once every five games. “But it’s more of a cutting-edge type thing. You’re not going to see the old-school guys yell.”
New-school thinkers believe that by wearing a “cheat sheet,” or keeping one in their pocket, players are less likely to confuse signs or miss them all together.
Like hand signals, verbal cues may be straightforward or intricate. Some coaches use “fake” numbers to confuse their opponents, others may change the meaning of digits mid-game.
Acker, formerly the head coach at Green River Community College, uses a system based on verbal cues and color-coded cards that players keep in their pocket or attach to a wrist band.
In his system, which he began using five years ago, there are 99 numbers on each card, and the cards vary in color — blue, red, yellow and so on. He uses different cards each game, sending players out with two cards if he feels the opponent is trying to steal signs.
“It’s sort of like football in the sense that I could call ‘Blue 57’ or ‘Red 22,’” he said. “It makes it a lot easier and it’s frustrating to other teams sometimes because they are waiting for a hand signal.”
But noise can be a problem.
There have been times, Acker said, when he was forced to combine the color system with hand signals because his players couldn’t hear his commands over the noise of the crowd.
When that happens, he uses a series of numbers between one and five — which he signals on one hand — to relay a call.
“It’s definitely an issue,” Acker said of crowd noise. “But I can literally signal, ‘five, two, one,’ and that’s a play.”
Acker created the color system five years ago after one of his players missed a suicide squeeze sign with the bases loaded in the ninth inning.
It was a complex sign, Acker remembers, and the batter failed to recognize it. The player on third base charged home, was tagged out and the Bluejackets lost the game.
“We had to kind of reinvent the wheel,” he said.
In May, the Philadelphia Phillies of Major League Baseball were scrutinized after assistant coach Mick Billmeyer was seen in the bullpen using a pair of binoculars, apparently studying the opposing team’s catcher and looking for signs.
During the same game, Philadelphia position player Shane Victorino was spotted in the dugout talking on a telephone that was wired to the bullpen.The Colorado Rockies, the opponent that evening, complained, saying the Phillies were stealing signs.
Intercepting signals has long been part of the game, always will be and there are no rules prohibiting coaches or players from doing it.
Thus, the challenge for coaches: Create a system their own players understand and follow, but give it enough complexity so that it’s disguised to the other team.
“Sometimes you’re giving a sign, but it doesn’t even mean anything,” Acker said.
Meanwhile, Andrews said it’s easy to change signs mid-game, which is why he doesn’t spend much time trying to intercept them. And it’s usually obvious when an opponent is successfully intercepting signs.
“We go by typical human behavior,” he said. “People aren’t secretive enough. If people get excited and start shuffling around, you know they have your signs.”
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
It would be infeasible to decipher the meaning of every twitch, shake or shrug, but some signs are commonly known, especially those between catcher and pitcher.
In general, when a catcher points to the ground with one finger, for example, the call is for the pitcher to throw a fastball. Two fingers, the pointer and middle, means curveball. Three fingers equals slider. Four fingers means changeup.
But there also are signs for batters to follow, relayed from the third-base coach.
There is the bunt, requiring a batter to tap the ball down the first- or third-base line, either to advance a runner or take advantage of a poor bunt defense; the hit-and-run, where the player on base steals and the batter swings no matter where a pitch is located; the “take,” meaning a player shouldn’t swing even if the pitch is down the middle; and the high-risk squeeze play, requiring the batter to bunt a player home from third base.
“Signs affect the outcome of the game all the time,” Andrews said. “A good coach understands that.”
For players, signs add an element to the game that require them to remain attentive for all nine innings.
Johnson, the Olympic grad who almost cried the first time he missed a sign, understands why they play an important role in the game. But he also acknowledged there were times when he wished they didn’t exist.
He never enjoyed being asked to “take” a pitch when he was ahead in the count, but he also was flattered when the coach signaled for him to execute a difficult play, like the hit-and-run.
“Some guys love them,” Johnson said. “Other guys hate them.”