July 7, 2013


Baseball's little gestures mean a lot : Taps, touches, tugs and tips... they carry complex messages among pitchers, batters, coaches and managers. The wordless codes can be raised to an art level, and are protected as if they are state secrets. (KEVIN BAXTER, July 1, 2013, LA Times)

Signs came to baseball from the battlefields of the Civil War, where field generals sought to conceal their plans, according to historian Paul Dickson, author of "The Hidden Language of Baseball."

In one system known as "wig-wag," flags and torches were used to warn Confederate soldiers about the movement of Union troops. Two years later, at West Point, cadets tipped each other to secret inspections by tapping on pipes, and cheated on tests by wiping their lips or winking.

During a typical nine-inning baseball game, there are hundreds of sign sequences, each part of a distinct strategy -- telling the runner to steal, the batter not to swing at a pitch, or directing the fielders how to defend against a bunt. [...]

Rhythm can be just as important as repetition, especially in pressure-packed moments when a coach can be caught in the emotion and begin signing too quickly.

"I slow it down," says Ebel, who is in his eighth season with the Angels. "As a third base coach, you recognize it and try to develop that to give it back to the player. Going through it kind of fast speeds up the game."

Each player has his own set of signs for a couple of reasons. If a player is traded, he won't be able to understand the signs of his former teammates. Also, coaches don't want their own players unwittingly tipping the opposing team by reacting on the bench -- standing up to see better, motioning to a teammate to pay close attention -- when a surprise such as a squeeze bunt or double steal is in the works.

Just as the players take daily batting and fielding practice, they are also quizzed on signs by their coaches.

"If a player misses the sign, it's just like anything else -- you haven't spent enough time with that player," Ebel says. "If a guy has to take 100 ground balls a day to get the fielding mechanic down, everybody does that. Why can't you spend 10, 15 minutes every day for that player to understand the system and the signs? It's important."

Some players just never quite seem to catch on, though.

Former ballplayer Steve Lyons, now a member of the Dodgers' broadcast team, said that when he played in Boston, third base coach Rene Lachemann got so fed up with the Red Sox's missing signs that he made a dramatic change: Lachemann would go through an entire series of signals -- "He called them dummy signs because our guys were too stupid," Lyons recalls -- then clap once for a bunt, twice for a hit-and-run and three times for a steal.

"Hey, those are our signs," jokes Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly, having overheard Lyons' story. "Now we're going to have to change them."
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Posted by at July 7, 2013 6:57 AM

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