It's the bottom of the seventh, Tim Foli of the California Angels is at bat, Fred Lynn is leading off third, and Anaheim Stadium is still except for Preston Gomez, who's carrying on like a demented parrot in the third-base coaching box. Gomez flaps his arms, tugs at his nose, scratches his chest and squawks at Kansas City Third Baseman George Brett. "That Brett's a helluva hitter," Gomez yells. Brett pays Gomez no mind, and seemingly neither does Lynn. On the next pitch, Foli bunts, and Lynn scores. The Angels have just pulled off their seventh straight suicide squeeze of the season. And without realizing it, the Royals have been duped by the wiliest sign manipulator in the game. "Nothing I did out there meant anything until I said 'Brett,' " says Gomez.
The squeeze, as Gomez calls it, is the one play that requires an oral signal. Hundreds of other signs are flashed every inning. The manager signals the third-base coach. The third-base coach alerts the batter and any base runners. At the same time, the catcher asks for a pitch with a sign, the second baseman and the shortstop pick up the catcher's signs and relay them to the other fielders. All this is accompanied by espionage and counter-espionage as complicated as that in a John Le Carré novel.
Gomez, 59, is the master of this arcane trade. Players praise him as a daring and aggressive coach with excellent judgment and a remarkable knowledge of the capabilities of base runners and the shortcomings of the opposition. Angel Rightfielder Reggie Jackson calls him "the best third-base coach I've ever seen."
Certainly he's the most inventive. Whereas most coaches get by with one standard set of signs, Gomez has a separate set for every batter and base runner. When the bases are loaded, he emits more signals than a communications satellite. But hidden among these gestures, and the odd shout, are four basic messages: take, steal, hit-and-run and bunt.
Over the years coaches have devised all kinds of elaborate systems. They use decoys. They dance, jiggle and jerk in the coaching box. They practice psychological warfare. Sometimes they defeat themselves with their own intricacy. "You can tell if a coach's signals are too complicated when a batter steps out of the box and his eyes are turning around like roulette wheels," says Gomez. "Then he and the coach get together for a little conference." When Gomez sees that happen—from the Angels' dugout—he has been known to shout, "Send him a telegram!"
"The key is to make the signs as simple as possible," says Gomez. "You have to know your players—which ones are quick, which ones are likely to have doubts about the sign you've just given them. I ask my players daily if they know their signs. Some need more time, so I keep flashing the sign over and over."
Gomez even tailors signs to individual players. As third base coach for the Dodgers in the '60s, he gave the take sign to playboy Outfielder Al Ferrara by covering his crotch. Gomez also devised a special steal system for Maury Wills the year he stole 108 bases. "Preston and I had a different sign on every pitch while I was on base," says Wills. "We rotated around the face; the left ear might have meant go on the second pitch, the chin the third, the nose the fourth. We went an entire season without either of us getting mixed up."
The infinite variety of Gomez' signs makes it practically impossible for opponents to intercept them. Kansas City Third Base Coach Joe Nossek, a noted sign stealer, says Gomez' system is virtually impenetrable. "It makes you want to quit before you start," he says.
Gomez runs his system as if he were director of the CIA. "Tim Foli knows only his own signs," Gomez says. "Foli doesn't know Rod Carew's signs." In fact, Foli was on third one game last month watching Gomez perform his sign ritual for Bobby Grich on first. "Hey, Preston," Foli whispered, "you just gave my steal sign. Is he going to take off?" "Don't worry," Gomez replied. "That sign doesn't mean anything to him."
Because Gomez has so many different sets, his players can't take his system to another team, if they are traded. Gomez also flashes decoys all the time. "He might give me my hit-and-run or steal sign with nobody on," says Foli. As manager of the Padres, Gomez once routed his signs through the team trainer, who wigwagged them to the third base coach by crossing and uncrossing his legs.
Occasionally Gomez' decoys aren't decoys at all. One day while with the Dodgers he walked toward the plate. "Squeeze on the second pitch," Gomez told batter Nate Oliver loud enough for San Francisco Catcher Dick Dietz to hear. The Giant infield stayed deep, Oliver squeezed on the second pitch, and the run scored. "I guess Dietz thought I was kidding," says Gomez.
A native of Cuba, Gomez was brought to the U.S. by the Washington Senators in 1944, when major league rosters were depleted because of World War II. A shortstop, he appeared in only eight games. He spent the next 20 years in the minors, 10 as a player and 10 as a manager, and became a Dodger coach in 1965. In 1969 he was named the first manager of the Padres, but was fired in 1972. He managed the Astros in 1973, '74 and '75 and the Cubs in 1980, but his teams never finished higher than fourth.
As a coach, Gomez has an international following. Shigeru Makino, the third-base coach for the Tokyo Giants, has taken lessons from him. Makino, who considers himself a deshi, or disciple of "Gomez-san," has invented 2,000 signs of his own. Security-conscious Japanese teams sometimes change whole systems every three innings.
Gomez also has mentors, who helped instill in him a kind of Zen and the Art of Signery. "I spent a lot of time talking to men like Charlie Dressen, Frank Crosetti and Walt Alston," he says. "They told me about the importance of not thinking in the coach's box, of being blank. You're a funnel between the manager and the player."
Sometimes the signs Gomez gives aren't his own. Earlier this year, Seattle Manager Rene Lachemann watched the Angels thwart one base running strategy after another before he finally figured out that Gomez was stealing his signals and relaying them to the Angels. Lachemann was using a system Gomez had taught him in the Venezuelan League four years earlier. At that time, Gomez was the manager and Lachemann a coach.
But Lachemann shouldn't feel too bad. It happens to everybody. Gomez analyzes sign languages as closely as a scholar ponders Finnegans Wake. And he claims that after scrutinizing a hurler's delivery for an inning or two, he can call the next pitch. "Preston is very unassuming," says California Manager Gene Mauch. "He finds ways to beat you very quietly."
Gomez says he steals signs wherever he can find them. He's so intimidating that opposing managers sometimes conceal themselves in the dugout to escape his detection. "But 99% of the time, it's the base runner who gives away signs," says Gomez. A runner can inadvertently telegraph the sign by leaning or shifting his feet. "The best player to have is a good actor," he says. "He'll always act the same way regardless of the sign."
Many coaches consider it improper to ask players acquired through trades to divulge their previous team's signs. Gomez, however, interrogates a new arrival if the player looks smart enough to read signs without moving his lips. "Some of these guys don't even know what city they're in," he says. But then Gomez probably has a sign for that, too.