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Sometimes, they do see it coming

Insiders admit it: Stealing signs is still a part of baseball.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 8, 2001


Insiders admit it: Stealing signs is still a part of baseball.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The man at first was not particularly fast -- he hadn't stolen a base all season -- and there was power at the plate. No reason to expect the runner to take off.

"One of the things Timmy Salmon liked to do when he wasn't hitting good was to hit-and-run because it forced him to swing," Terry Collins said. "So I put the hit-and-run on and they pitched out."

Darin Erstad was thrown out by 30 feet.

"I couldn't believe it," Collins said. "They pitched out. They had to have stolen the sign."

Which is why, Collins said, "Once in a while Larry Bowa, my third-base coach when I was managing Anaheim, would come over and say, "I'm going to put the hit-and-run sign on but I don't want anybody going.' If we thought the other team had our sign, we didn't want to go confirming it for them."

Collins is in his first season as the Rays third-base coach, Bowa his first as manager of the Phillies. Collins managed the Astros from 1994-96 and the Angels from 1997-99. "We had another team's signs," he said. "I'm not saying whose; the guy's still coaching third in the American League -- but you can't go crazy. You've got to pick your spots."

Or your, umm, nose?

A non-existent steal sign

In 1980, Bobby Mattick managed the Blue Jays; Bob Bailor was one of his outfielders. Mattick's steal sign was simple: He'd scratch his nose. Bailor was on second base with two outs when Mattick got an itch. He scratched. Bailor stole third. No one was more surprised than Mattick.

"I was always looking for the steal sign; I always wanted to run," Bailor said. "I probably knew he was just scratching but it was a good chance, so I took it."

Then there's Chico Ruiz. In the sixth inning Sept. 21, 1964, at Philadelphia, the Reds rookie infielder stole home. That in itself isn't that remarkable. What is is that he did it with Frank Robinson, one of baseball's most feared hitters, batting.

The Phillies lost 1-0. It was the start of a 10-game losing streak that cost them the NL pennant. They swore Ruiz had picked up a non-existent steal sign.

Joe Garagiola, catcher-turned-broadcaster and raconteur, recalled: "When Pepper Martin was managing in Sacramento, they missed so many signs that he made up these big placards saying, "STEAL," "BUNT," and so on and held 'em up. Funny thing, the other team didn't believe him; he got away with it. ...

"And when I was with the Pirates," arguably the National League's worst team in the early 1950s, "we missed so many signs it didn't matter what they were. It probably loused up the other team more than us."

Tigers bullpen coach Lance Parrish remembered a 1984 World Series game at San Diego. "I'm catching and Aurelio Lopez is pitching. I gave Aurelio the pitchout sign, a fist. Now, Aurelio never did have real good eyes. I stepped out to catch the pitchout and he threw a fastball right down the middle."

It hit umpire Larry Barnett somewhere south of his navel. There was no steal on. "Barnett called it a strike," Parrish said, "and gave me a dirty look."

'Nobody really cared'

This year is the 40th anniversary of Roger Maris' 61-home run season, the 50th of Bobby Thomson's playoff home run for the Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Each may have known what was coming.

Yankees pitcher Bob Turley could sit in the dugout, watch the opposing pitcher and figure out whether a fastball or breaking pitch was coming, former teammate Tony Kubek said. "If he picked up a fastball, he'd whistle, a shrill whistle." Yankees third base coach Frank Crosetti studied Turley's system. On Maris' 61st home run, "He saw Tracy Stallard tip the pitch, whistled, and Roger hit it out," Kubek said.

Giants manager Leo Durocher had someone with a telescope in the team's centerfield clubhouse. The spy would use a buzzer to tell the Giants bullpen what was coming. That information could be relayed to the batter. Thomson admitted he used the signals -- but not, he said, on the Ralph Branca fastball he hit into the Polo Grounds' leftfield stands.

Collins, the Rays coach, batted .255 in 11 seasons in the minor leagues; he never made the majors. Asked if he ever got help from teammates who might steal the other team's signs, he burst out laughing. "I couldn't hit," he said. "They threw me fastballs down the middle; nobody really cared whether I knew the sign or not."

Some consider sign-stealing part of the game. Others call it cheating. In most cases, the man in the hand-operated scoreboard has become a victim of technology. Centerfield television cameras can pick up a catcher's signs; others can record a third-base coach's signals.

Giving signs is simple; the hard part is knowing the code, which one counts. In most cases, one motion is the "indicator," usually meaning the next one is the actual sign.

"When Gene Mauch was managing the Twins and Karl Kuehl was a coach," Mattick said, "they told me they could never figure out the indicator. That's because there wasn't one. Whichever sign we gave first, that was what we did. And some players, I won't say who, they still couldn't get it right."

A traded player takes his former team's signs with him. "If you play him a short time afterward," Collins said, "you always change the signs. But if you don't play him for a month or two, it doesn't matter. It's hard to remember the signs. Besides, when I was coaching at Pittsburgh, (manager) Jim Leyland used to change the signs twice a year anyway."

Preston Gomez had a better solution. "When he coached third base for the Dodgers," Kubek said, "he had 25 sets of signals, one for every player. That way he didn't care about trades. And you could go a whole season trying to figure out his signs."

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Associated Press.

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