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SIGN LANGUAGE HIDDEN CAMERAS, PHONY SIGNALS, DOUBLE-DEALING ESPIONAGE. NO THIS ISN'T THE CIA--WE'RE TALKING ABOUT THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME OF BASEBALL

July 28, 1997
July 28, 1997

Table of Contents
July 28, 1997

Faces In The Crowd

SIGN LANGUAGE HIDDEN CAMERAS, PHONY SIGNALS, DOUBLE-DEALING ESPIONAGE. NO THIS ISN'T THE CIA--WE'RE TALKING ABOUT THE GAME WITHIN THE GAME OF BASEBALL

There's no place for a manager to hide in the visitors' dugout
at Chicago's Comiskey Park. That is by design. So when the
Minnesota Twins play there, two of their coaches are responsible
for creating a human shield near manager Tom Kelly so he can be
seen only by his third base coach, his hitter and his catcher.
When the Texas Rangers play at Comiskey, the Rangers form a
similar barrier around their manager, Johnny Oates. These teams
are trying to thwart the ancient baseball practice of stealing
signs--a practice admired by some as the epitome of heads-up
baseball and reviled by others as one of the lowest forms of
cheating in the game. "Stealing signs is part of the job," says
Kelly, who enjoys the game within the game. "If you don't try,
you're not doing your job." Says Twins DH Paul Molitor, "If
stealing a sign can play a role in five games a season, it could
definitely have an effect on where you finish in the standings."

This is an article from the July 28, 1997 issue Original Layout

This season a number of teams have nearly come to blows over
accusations of sign stealing. On April 30 the Anaheim Angels
claimed the Boston Red Sox were stealing signs from catcher
Jorge Fabregas, and when Boston's Wil Cordero was hit by a pitch
in apparent retaliation a brawl almost broke out. The Angels, in
turn, were accused of stealing signs two weeks later after
Anaheim hit three homers off Baltimore Orioles pitchers. The
Orioles pointed the finger at Angels coach Larry Bowa, saying
that he was sneaking out of the third base box to steal the
signs flashed by Baltimore catcher Chris Hoiles. (The Angels
actually were reading Hoiles's signs from the dugout because he
was putting his fingers down too far in his stance.)

On May 5, Cincinnati Reds manager Ray Knight angrily accused Los
Angeles Dodgers coach Reggie Smith of leaving the first base
coach's box and peeking into the glove of Cincinnati pitcher
Kent Mercker to see what grip he was using, then signaling the
pitch selection to the batter. A shouting match ensued between
Knight and Smith, raising the intriguing possibility that
Knight, an amateur boxer in his teens, might duke it out with
Smith, who dabbles in the martial arts.

Two days later, San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker charged
the Montreal Expos with stealing signs, even after the Expos had
taken a 15-run lead. He was incensed that Montreal runners at
second base seemed to be tipping pitches as the Expos sent 17
batters to the plate and scored 13 runs in the sixth inning. To
which Montreal manager Felipe Alou replied, "We had a meeting in
San Francisco about our own signs. If we're missing our own
signs, we certainly don't have time to worry about stealing
somebody else's."

Stealing signs has been going on in baseball for more than 100
years, but it's more complicated today than ever because
managers are taking greater control of the game and thus sending
more signals. For example, most managers call every pitchout,
pickoff attempt, step off (when a pitcher steps off the rubber
in an attempt to get a read on the base runner's intentions) and
hold (when the pitcher holds the ball for an inordinately long
time, hoping the runner will tip his hand). Each of those calls
requires a sign that goes from the bench to the catcher to the
pitcher.

With more signs to steal there are more people on the opposing
team trying to steal them, and the methods of intercepting
signals have become more sophisticated, including the use of
video cameras to spy on opposing dugouts. It's no secret, for
instance, that the White Sox have cameras at Comiskey to tape
the movements of visiting managers and third base coaches during
the course of a season. The 1984 Chicago Cubs, who won the
National League East title, were renowned for their ability to
steal signs--in part because they had electronic help. "We knew
the other teams' signs better than our own," says Oates, who was
a coach on that team. The Cubs would station a player in the
clubhouse to watch the centerfield camera view on TV, and when
he had deciphered the sequence of the catcher's signs, Cubs base
runners would then alert the hitters to the upcoming pitch. San
Diego Padres coach Davey Lopes, who played briefly on that Cubs
team, says that in nine years with the Dodgers he had no
interest in getting tipped off about pitches because he didn't
trust the information. But he trusted the Cubs' system because
it worked. "Sometimes when a pitcher's getting hit, you'll hear
someone say, 'It's like the hitters know what's coming,'" says
Lopes. "That's because they do know what's coming."

In Chicago's old Comiskey Park, which was torn down after the
1990 season, there was a 25-watt refrigerator bulb in the
scoreboard during most of the '80s. A member of the organization
would sit in the manager's office and watch the TV broadcast,
which had a view of the catcher from centerfield. There was also
a toggle switch in the office. Flip the switch and the light in
the scoreboard came on, telling the hitter if a fastball or an
off-speed pitch was coming. That kind of espionage causes many
baseball people to draw the line. Oates speaks for many of them
when he says he has a problem with sign stealing when teams do
it with hidden cameras, flashing lights in the scoreboard and
the like.

The White Sox are probably the best in baseball at espionage
these days, not because of hidden cameras but because they have
bench coach Joe Nossek, the man generally believed to be the top
thief in the game. "Stealing signs used to be much easier to
do," Nossek says humbly. "I'm in a slump this year."

Nevertheless, Kelly says he has changed his signs as many as
three times in one game against the White Sox to foil Nossek.
The Detroit Tigers weren't that careful in a game against
Chicago on April 13 at Tiger Stadium, and Nossek may have cost
them a win. The White Sox were ahead by a run in the bottom of
the 11th inning, when Detroit's Vince Coleman reached base with
one out against Chicago closer Roberto Hernandez. Nossek had
picked up the Tigers' sign to steal and saw it being flashed.
Hernandez was given a signal to throw over to first, and he
promptly picked off Coleman. The batter, Travis Fryman, homered
two pitches later, but instead of the Tigers winning the game,
they tied it. The White Sox scored three runs in the 12th to
win, 11-8. Nossek helped steal that game, but he says he may go
weeks without detecting a sign. "Most people think it's all I
do, and that's probably right," he says with a grin. "Even if we
don't have the signs, they think I might have them, so it works
as a psychological advantage for us."

Nossek, 56, has been studying signs for 26 years, starting when
he was a reserve player for several teams in the '60s. He's a
good thief in part because he understands strategy, when steals
and hit-and-runs are likely to be called. He usually sits in the
corner of the dugout nearest to home plate and stares at the
opposing manager and third base coach or anyone else who might
give away a sign. When Nossek does steal one, he remembers it
"because guys get comfortable with a certain sign, and two or
three years later they go back to it."

Kelly tells a story about how, in 1983 and '84, when he was the
Twins' third base coach and Billy Gardner was the manager,
Gardner would tap his fingers against his leg--one tap for a
bunt, two for a hit-and-run and three for a steal. Several years
later, Kelly was managing the Twins against the New York
Yankees' Billy Martin. He watched Martin tapping his fingers the
same way and remembered that Martin had worked with Gardner
years earlier. Late in the game Martin gave two taps, Kelly
called a pitchout, and the Twins got the runner stealing.

There are giveaways that a play is on, even if a manager hasn't
stolen a specific sign. Kelly says that he looks for a change in
the tempo of signs coming from the third base coach; if he
quickens the pace of his signs, usually something is about to
happen. Kelly looks at the reactions of the third base coach; if
a sign has been missed by the batter or runner, the coach's body
language can give it away. So can a hitter's reaction. "I've
seen guys get the take sign, and they look like they've just
lost their firstborn child,'' says Marlins third base coach Rich
Donnelly. In 1985 in Baltimore, Rangers DH Cliff Johnson got the
take sign on 3 and 0 and was so disgusted that he gave the
middle-finger salute to third base coach Art Howe.

With all this theft going on, teams go to elaborate lengths to
protect their signs. The third base coach will go through his
usual gyrations, touching every part of his body, but the signs
mean nothing unless he uses an indicator--say, tapping his belt
or standing in a specific place in the coach's box. There's also
a wipe-off sign, meaning the signs will be flashed, but they are
to be ignored if, say, the third base coach tugs on his ear. If
a manager suspects an opponent is stealing his signs he might
tell his leadoff hitter, "If you get on, we're going to give you
the hit-and-run sign. Ignore it." Or if the 3-4-5 hitters in the
lineup are coming to bat, the manager might tell his team that
no signs are alive with those three players at the plate, even
though the third base coach will still be flashing away. Or the
manager won't relay the signs at all, he'll have a coach do it.
St. Louis Cardinals skipper Tony LaRussa has been known to let
his trainer give the steal sign, figuring no one from the
opposition would bother watching the trainer. "If he takes out
his tongue depressor," says Donnelly, "it's a steal."

Some managers get so obsessed about keeping their signs secret
that they make them almost too complicated to remember. Preston
Gomez, the former Padres and Houston Astros manager, had a
different set of signs for every player on his team. At times
former Philadelphia Phillies manager Danny Ozark had different
signs for infielders, outfielders, and pitchers and catchers; if
he called for a hit-and-run with an outfielder on second, an
infielder on first and a catcher at the plate, he had to run
three different sets of signs.

Stealing signs from the catcher is not simple either. When a
runner is on second, the catcher changes his signs. Instead of
one finger for a fastball, two for a curveball, etc., the signs
with a runner on second are more intricate. For instance, the
catcher might put down 1-2-2-1-5. The pitcher is looking for the
second number after 2, which would be 1, a fastball. Or the
pitcher is looking for the first number to repeat, so if the
catcher puts down 1-2-3-4-4, the pitch is 4, a changeup.
Catchers are always changing the signs, sometimes in the middle
of a count, which can be done with a tap of the shin guard or a
tug on the mask. Or they'll use different signs depending on the
inning or the number of outs.

The master decoder of sequential signs was, of course, a
catcher--Ted Simmons, who played for 19 seasons in the majors
with the Cardinals, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta
Braves. "I'd come back from second base and tell him what I
saw," says Molitor, a former Milwaukee teammate of Simmons's.
"He'd put the information in the computer, Simmons-style
[meaning in his head], and he'd determine that the sequence I
saw meant slider."

Two years ago Brent Mayne was catching for the Kansas City
Royals in a game against the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field.
Cleveland scored eight runs in the first inning, sending the
Kansas City dugout into a panic wondering if the Indians were
stealing Mayne's signs. "So I told every pitcher after the
inning that there'd be no more signs that game," says Mayne.
"Just throw whatever you want, and I'll catch it." Cleveland
scored only two runs the rest of the game.

Surprisingly, many hitters--including some of the best
ones--don't want to know what pitch is coming. Most have heard
stories about batters who, having gotten the signal that a
breaking ball was coming down and away, leaned out over the
plate and were hit by fastballs up and in. Padres rightfielder
Tony Gwynn, a seven-time National League batting champion,
doesn't like to be tipped off because he just doesn't hit that
way. "I go by what I see," he says. "I don't want anyone else
clogging up my thinking up there. Guys on our bench talk about
all that stuff, and I move to the other end of the dugout." Two
years ago, Phillies pitcher Ben Rivera thought Gwynn was
stealing signs from second and relaying them to the hitters.
Gwynn says that Rivera yelled at him from the mound to stop.
Gwynn, who says he wasn't tipping off the pitches, yelled back
at Rivera, "When you start getting the ball down, you'll get
people out."

No matter how hard teams work to perfect their signaling system
or crack the enemy's code, there's always the chance something
will get lost in the translation. Orioles pitching coach Ray
Miller tells a story about Marlins skipper Jim Leyland managing
in the minors in the early '80s. Leyland gave a player named
Kirby Farrell the bunt sign three times, and Farrell missed it
each time. Finally, Leyland cupped his hands and from the dugout
yelled, "Bunt!" Farrell cupped his hands and yelled back,
"What?"

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH [Drawing of baseball game with players and coaches using various spying and communications devices]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH There are more signs to steal than ever now that managers call nearly all the shots. [Drawing of baseball players and managers using various communications devices in dugout]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH If a catcher isn't careful, he could tip off a pitch to just about anyone. [Drawing of batter bending over to watch catcher's signal]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH Some managers get so obsessed with their signs, they make them too complicated to remember. [Drawing of manager lecturing baseball players]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH When all else fails, the simplest signs can sometimes be the answer. [Drawing of third base coach holding up sign reading TAKE]