Boston Sports Forum Special Feature
Del N. Jones
Any casual observer of major league baseball has seen this: a runner reaches first base and triggers an array of hand signals from the third-base coach that the on deck batter doesnít seem to understand.
After a delay the batter walks down to the third-base coach, who verbally explains what the manager wants done, at the expense of mild embarrassment.
This exchange often compels many viewers to wonder: Just how difficult could it be for professional baseball players to discern simple hand motion messages for a sacrifice bunt or hit-and-run?
The truth is hand signals and the correct execution of them in baseball can be the difference between congratulatory high-fives and accountability meetings.
This stealth language is, in fact, complex, historic and crucial.
"What you are trying to do is communicate with your players as easy as you can without the other team knowing," Red Sox manager Terry Francona simplified. "Different teams have different philosophies. Some get pretty intense or pretty difficult, but the idea is to let your players know what you want to do and have the other team not know."
Hand signals have evolved over the years for different purposes. Umpires have hand signals that some baseball historians date back to the early 1940s, while nonverbal communication between the pitcher and catcher is as old as the game itself.
Factor in messages from the manager in the dugout, the flashing signs from the third and first base coaches, the defensive cues to the infielders and outfielders before every pitch, and it can get quite loud on the diamond without saying a word.
"I think some people would be surprised to really find out how easy the signs are," said Oakland Aís manager Ken Macha, who was a third base coach with Montreal in 1987 before spending four years managing in the Red Sox farm system. "The idea of the signs are to make them easy so you can get them, but make them difficult enough that the other team is not going to get them."
In a game that the casual sports fan often deems too slow for regular consumption, the strategies within the lines move very quickly for those involved and those paying close attention. They begin with the isolated competition between pitcher and batter and extend to the mini dramas that often take place on the base paths.
It can be a fastbreak in strategy between two teams.
"You have to know the number of outs," said centerfielder Johnny Damon, who when on base, works with the coaches for the proper time to use his base-stealing speed. "My whole thought process is to try to get a good lead so I can break up a double play or even score on a double to the outfield. My whole idea is to keep moving forward."
The third-base coach and the signs that he is relaying from the dugout very often have a lot to do with whether that gets accomplished. His rhythmic motions back forth from head to knee (and everything in between) can either guide or confuse his baserunners before the pitch with his judgement and decisiveness solely relied upon when the baseball is put in play.
Itís a role that can get quite hefty in a hurry.
"Theyíre a lot of things that you have to take into consideration," said Red Sox rookie third-base coach Dale Sveum. "What it really comes down to is just using your baseball instincts. You put yourself through all of those scenarios, because you have to be accountable but you also use your instincts which is what we do everything on in this game."
Still there can be trip-ups and foul-ups where connections arenít made. No one likes them, but they do happen.
"Dale has done a terrific job at third base," Francona complimented. "There are times to be aggressive. There are times to not be aggressive. Fortunately, Dale sees the field real well. As a player sitting on the bench with him I knew he did, and I watched him as a Double A manager. The gameís not too quick for him.
"Every good third base coach is going to get a guy thrown out at home. Itís not an easy job."
For that reason even the most stringent leader does not demand perfection Ė not that he would get it anyway. If youíve ever been a player or base-coach itís not hard to relate to the occasional brainlocks.
"Itís very easy to miss signs," said Francona, who made his major league coaching debut at third with the Detroit Tigers back in 1996. "The gameís going fast and you have a lot on your mind. We may switch signs in the middle of an atbat. The hitters, they get so wrapped into the game."
Thatís when a little support from the left side of the diamond can be helpful when a baserunner needs to literally told his assignment when he canít decipher the hand signal.
"The third-base coach helps out a lot, but the first-base coach is huge too," Damon said. "A lot times you are like ĎI think I saw that right.í The steal sign or the hit-and-run sign, but the first-base coach helps out a lot."
According to Macha, you just donít want to be consumed by that athletic espionage.
"I try not to (attempt to steal signs)," Macha said. "Iíve got more important things to think about. For me, if Iím trying to look at a third-base coach and get his signs Iím distracted a little bit.
"Sometimes as a coach Iíd watch, but I think really you can pick up sometimes the body language of the hitter, sometimes body language of the first base runner and see what theyíre doing. So, I think itís more important to look at those guys."
Then there are "codes-of-conduct" if signs are successfully stolen or believed to have been. Tip-off a power pitcher that you are hacking his pitch selections and be ready for retribution of the very aggressive kind.
"If we figure out that they are stealing our signs weíre knocking the hitters down," said former Red Sox star pitcher Luis Taint. "What I used to do is if the catcher asks me for a breaking ball and I know the hitter has been given the sign, Iíd do a cross and throw a fastball in. Boom. Knock your ass down. Then you cure that. The hitters donít want anymore signs then."
The aged strategy continues...
Features and columns by Del N. Jones can also be read in The Patriot Ledger or at patriotledger.com.