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Give me the sign

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published July 5, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - From his coaching box alongside third base, Tom Foley's hands are a flurry of motion, as if he's brushing away a pesky fly.

They touch the bill of his Devil Rays ballcap, his chest, his wrists, his legs, his ears, his belt in no discernible pattern. Or, they don't move at all.

It is the game within the game, the silent art of subterfuge and secret communication that is an intrinsic element of baseball and has been throughout its history.

The chief practitioners of the craft are third-base coaches, who get busy with their sleight of hand when a batter reaches base. The hidden messages they send to batters and runners - orders conveyed with equal stealth from the manager in the dugout - often dictate the flow and strategy of any given game.

Miss a sign and you may botch an at-bat or cost your team a win. Or maybe, as Foley once did while playing for Montreal, you dodge a bullet.

"I was in New York playing the Mets and facing Ron Darling," he said. "Man on first and second, nobody out. The bunt was on, but I missed the sign. Fortunately, I hit a three-run homer. When I came in the dugout and the manager, Buck Rodgers, said to me, "You were supposed to bunt!' I said, "Well, I saw the pitch pretty good. I thought I could hit it.' I was just joking around. But if you mess up and hit into a double play, well, man, that's a big mistake."

Given the importance of signs, it's no surprise that teams routinely look for ways to decode the hand and body language of third-base coaches - and why other teams frequently change signs to prevent them from being stolen. (Or, as legendary manager Casey Stengel was quoted in the Hidden Language of Baseball by Paul Dickson: "I ain't gonna change our signs. I'm just gonna change what they mean.")

But here's one trade secret to consider next time you watch Foley or one of his coaching counterparts with their hands flying rapid-fire:

Much of it means nothing.

"In the course of a game, say there are 100 pitches thrown or better, and of those 100 pitches, you only give signs when somebody's on base," Seattle third-base coach Jeff Newman said. "So if I give 40 signs a night, I'm really only giving probably no more than five real signs. The rest are decoys. So the key is making your decoys look like good signs.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," he added. "And there are only so many places they'll allow you to touch without it being obscene."

Foley echoes the deception theme: "I may touch eight or 10 spots every pitch. And I may not put a sign on the whole game."

There's a good reason to always touch every spot.

"If it's late in the game and all of a sudden you might want to put a hit-and-run on, and you go to that one spot you never touched before, it's a red flag to the opponent," Foley said. "Because the other dugout is watching you. Somebody is always watching."

It could be anyone from a wily coach or bench player to stars such as former Milwaukee teammates Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, who prided themselves on winning some games for the Brewers in the '80s by swiping signs, Dickson wrote. "If you are able to steal a bunt, a hit-and-run, get an out and win an inning, you can win a game that you otherwise might have lost," Molitor told the author.

So how do third-base coaches ply their sign craft? Naturally, systems vary from team to team. But one common element is the indicator: a sign or touch that means the real signal is coming right up.

Foley gave some examples, stressing that none was part of his top-secret repertoire. "You could have an indicator, where you touch a spot, and then it's not on unless you lock it in," he said.

And how do you lock in a sign?

"Well, if I give you a sign and put something on, let's say the left wrist is the lock-in," he said. "That means it is on if I touch it. If I put a sign on and I don't go to that left wrist, then it's not on. Then again, I could put no sign on and end up touching my left wrist - and nothing's on."

Or say that belt stands for bunt and Foley's indicator is touching his right ear. His hands get in gear, moving this way and that, and suddenly he touches his right ear. "Then I go to my belt, and the bunt is on," he said. Well, not quite. "I might still hit a couple of more signs after that," he added, "and then I lock it in with my left wrist."

Sometimes, third-base coaches designate certain touched areas as "hot spots." You could have four hot spots, said Foley, and the one that you don't touch is the key to signaling a certain play.

What if Foley messes up a sequence?

"Then I've got a start-over sign," he said. "And I'm sure some clubs have a repeat sign. In other words, if they put the bunt on, and they want to put the bunt on again but not have to go through the same sign to do that, then there's a spot where it's a repeat."

The job would be tricky enough if it just required giving signs to the batter and runners. But Foley and his third-base coaching colleagues have to make sure they get the signals correctly from the dugout, where they're sent - usually via a different set of signals - from the manager or his bench coach.

Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer was regarded as one of the game's great third-base coaches, but the job had its challenges.

"I had a manager who would relay the signs to me and I'd relay them to the players," Zimmer said. "So after we had just played this club for three days, he said to me, "You can keep your signs to the players, but I think so-and-so has stolen my signs to you. "'

So Zimmer went into the clubhouse and got new signs from his boss (whom he declines to identify). In the next inning, after one of his runners reached first, the manager signaled a hit-and-run. "But he gives me the old hit-and-run sign," Zimmer said. "So I go through some signs and don't put on any play. Pitch is in the dirt, runner don't run and the hitter don't swing. My manager throws his arms up and is screaming and hollering at me.

"So all the players think I missed the sign from the act that he put on. And I come in and he says something to me, and I says, "Lemme tell you something, I'm not trying to manage your team.' He says, "Well I put on the hit-and-run!' And I said, "You put on the old hit-and-run!' And he says, "Ohhh, I forgot.' But in the meantime, I looked like the dummy."

Zimmer said he has seen plenty of costly gaffes result from missed signs, most often from batters who overlooked the squeeze sign and left the runner trying to score from third a goner at home plate. "I've seen that 20 times or more," he said.

Picking up signs simply requires staying focused, says Rays utilityman Eduardo Perez. But it can take some getting used to. In his book, New Thinking Fan's Guide to Baseball , Leonard Koppett writes of how former A's owner Charley Finley made his manager, Alvin Dark, break down all the team's signs for him. Dark did so for an hour until Finley had them. But when the owner asked Dark to give signs as they would be relayed in a game, Finley missed each and every one.

There have been countless classic sign moments.

Former American League umpire and crew chief Jim Evans remembered how Billy Martin, when managing the Texas Rangers in the 1970s, tried a league-approved walkie-talkie system with third-base coach Frank Lucchesi.

"With a runner on third, Martin told Lucchesi to put on the squeeze play," Evans said from his home in Colorado. "Evidently, Frank didn't hear Billy the first, second or third time he tried to communicate from the first-base dugout. Each time he ordered the squeeze, Martin got louder and louder as his temper boiled. So in disgust, Martin threw the walkie-talkie onto the dugout floor and it burst into a hundred pieces. Luis Tiant, the Boston pitcher, stepped off the rubber and yelled at Lucchesi, "Hey, Frank! Billy wants you to bunt!"'

Mariners announcer and former Dodger first baseman Ron Fairly told the Seattle Times in 2003 about an old teammate who was befuddled by a signal for a squeeze bunt from third-base coach Preston Gomez. The player finally yelled to Gomez, "This pitch?" - forcing the coach to call off the play.

Fairly also told the newspaper about ex-first baseman Dick Stuart, who struggled to get signs from Gomez. One day, with Stuart on first, the frustrated coach moved his arms as if he were running and pointed to second. "That was his steal sign," Fairly said.

Other players, such as base-stealing great Rickey Henderson, had the green light in Oakland to run whenever he wanted, former first-base coach Jackie Moore said. "He didn't need any signs," said Moore, now manager of Houston's Triple-A team in Round Rock, Texas.

Baseball abounds with many more signs than those from the third-base coach and manager. There are the endless ones between pitcher and catcher, and the long tradition of stealing them to gain an edge - from spying in the scoreboard (a charge leveled against the '51 Giants in their amazing pennant-winning comeback) to eagle-eyed players and coaches on the field and in the dugout today.

As a batter, you can sneak a peek at the catcher to see how he's setting up for a certain pitch, but the consequence might be a mean brushback by the pitcher. Rays centerfielder Rocco Baldelli got an unintended lesson in the hazards of sign stealing shortly after being assigned to rookie ball in Princeton, W.Va.

"You know, I was so confused with what was going on in general, I had no clue," he said. "It was midway through the season and I got a hit, which was rare. So I was on second base. And the umpire called time and the opposing manager came out and pointed his finger at me and said, "If you keep doing that, you're going to get hurt, son.' Meaning, he thought I was looking in and giving the hitter the signs.

"Now, I'm going to tell you - I still didn't even know our signs, let alone trying to steal the other team's signs. But I was so nervous on base, freaking out a little from reaching base, I looked suspicious."

To Dickson, signs define the game. Among the nuggets in his book: In Indians manager Lou Boudreau's system, the same signs meant different things in each third of the lineup; and this Stengelism: "I have an ironclad system of signs. The other team can't steal 'em, and my fellows don't understand them."

"In one major-league game there are probably a thousand signs and signals," Dickson said by phone from his home in Maryland. "And that includes covert umpire signals, which there is a tradition of, besides the ones fans see. Sometimes the third-base coach isn't even giving the signs. There was a time when Billy Martin used to use a trainer to give the signs - the guy would use a tongue depressor.

"If you took signs and signals out of baseball, the game would fall apart."

[Last modified July 5, 2005, 01:33:21]


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