Jack TenneyExtra Point

by Jack Tenney, Publisher

October 2007

Stealing Signs

Stealing signs in football can cost you big-time; ask the Patriots. But stealing signs in baseball is still a part of the game. I mean stealing, period, is a big part of baseball — steal a base, steal a sign, double steal — all way cool.

You can’t balk or, at least, you can’t get caught balking, but just about every other deception is not only permitted ... it’s practiced. And better than basketball, there are no “fouls to give” in baseball.

Consider sign-stealing. Beginning in Little League, catchers give hidden signs to pitchers (one finger down for the fast ball, two fingers down for that wicked change-of-pace, etc.) Managers and coaches have elaborate gestures to tell runners when to steal; batters when to take, bunt or swing away.

In Little League, the trick for the coach is to get the team to: a.) look for signs; and b.) remember what the signs mean. Later, of course, the signing becomes quite sophisticated and sign-stealing becomes an art often referenced but seldom accomplished.

I was a skinny — once I was skinny, really — high school catcher when my grizzled veteran coach — he was almost 30 but prematurely balding — told me I had to wear a long-sleeved undershirt beneath my uniform because opponents’ coaching staffs could tell what pitch I was calling by reading the muscles in my forearm.

“I got muscles in my forearm?” I proudly wondered.

The steal sign was usually something like a wipe across the letters after a tug on the cap and two claps. It could be called off with a hitch of the belt buckle. To keep opponents from cracking the secret code, the coach would go through any number of claps, yells, spits, cap resets, buckle tugs.

If you were at bat and looking for the take sign, you’d stare at a coach, either at a base or on the bench, until you figured out that, in all his actions, there was no take sign. Then you would nod, whirl around, and swing at anything the pitcher threw. Maybe the kid on first thought he saw a steal sign and took off. Hey, big deal, we were just learning the game.

In the bigs, you’d better catch the signs you’re given or you’ll be catching buses in the bush leagues soon. When a runner reaches second, the pitcher and catcher get together and decide how to switch signs around so the runner can’t signal the batter, or better, how to get the runner to signal the batter the wrong pitch. So there are experts on catcher-sign-stealing as well as runner-to-batter sign-stealing.

Some batters watch outfielders, who presumably subtly change their positioning based on the pitch that’s been called. So of course, expert outfielders try to misdirect batters by moving against the sign.

Because baseball signs are so prevalent and sign-stealing is so widely practiced, there’s a lot of elaborate hiding and shielding of communications. Watch the next pitcher-catcher meeting to see both guys mumbling into their mitts. The second baseman hides his face from opposing benches and coaches as he signals, with either an open or shut mouth, to the shortstop on who is to cover second in case of a steal. Why not just yell across and agree the yell, “I got it!” means he gets it during odd innings at away games, while, “You got it!” means the opposite, except during even-numbered innings at home. Then, of course, change it for the next game.

Got it?