The Signer = The Sign

Grandma, who had been contentedly reading her John Grisham and sipping ice tea in the shade, turned to her five-year-old granddaughter, who was wrist-deep in a concoction of mud and leaves and ill-concerned with anything baseball related, and said, “Something important is going to happen right now.” And it sure did.

Not so long ago in a galaxy very similar to this one, there was a freshman game played on a field identical to ours. The two teams were essentially evenly matched, and the ballgame was scoreless in extra innings. The visiting team was in the field, and though its starting pitcher had been dominant to that point, his pitch count was now well over a hundred. He was showing signs of tiring in his warm-ups. He stretched his shoulder after each throw and insisted he only needed three pitches to get loose. Uh, right.

The pitcher struck out the first batter of the inning and then walked the second on four straight pitches, so the catcher quickly called time and sprinted out to the mound for a conference to discuss the obvious need to not walk guys. Lots of serious expressions and nodding.

No one had reached second for the home team all game, mostly because the catcher had an arm so strong he could throw a ball all the way to the center fielder at belt height. Or so one could reasonably infer from the way he’d nonchalantly stand and flip the ball down to two on coming-down. Except it wasn’t a flip. The ball zipped a line as if taunting gravity, and to rub it in, the catcher would spit in dissatisfaction when the shortstop had to lift his glove an inconsequential six inches to nab the ball rocketing his way. The catcher had mastered the performance of being unimpressed with his own near-perfection, and though it was annoyingly contrived, it was more intimidating than anything else. The home coach shoved his stopwatch back in his pocket, the runners’ leads were shortened a handful of feet, and home fans in the stands prayed for a passed ball or wild pitch. Baserunners weren’t moving otherwise.

The runner at first to start the inning was the smallest and slowest runner on the team and had attempted only one stolen base all season. The visitors knew this, and so their coach moved the third baseman well onto the grass to prevent the bunt and encouraged the now discouraged pitcher to clear his head and remain focused on the hitter. “He’s all that matters right now. Throw a strike.”

Amateur Grandma, who had attended exactly one game a summer for each of the last ten years and still didn’t know how many outs were in an inning, eyed the home coach long enough to know something was up. What exactly she couldn’t say, but something was going down. Now.

On the next pitch, the baserunner attempted a delayed steal, and the middle-infielders were caught unaware. No one could blame them. It had been about three weeks and fifteen games since someone had been stupid enough to sacrifice himself like this. And this runner? This runner who was so slow a straight steal could be reclassified a delayed steal and a delayed steal reclassified a there’s-absolutely-no-way steal? Yet there he went. And by the time the middle infielders overcame their shock and got to the base–and they never really did because they hadn’t taken the time pre-pitch to sort out coverage at the base–the catcher had triple-pumped and sailed the ball deep into center field.

Safe. The runner was safe, and one passed ball and suicide squeeze later, the home team was dog-piling at home plate having pulled off the win.

So how did Grandma know when no one else apart from the runner did? Her baseball acumen was below average, and yet she was well ahead of the curve on this play.

Grandma knew not because she knew baseball. Grandma knew because she knew how to read people.

Throughout the game, this coach faked a myriad of signs to his runners and hitters, as many coaches often will, but always sent these signs from the far corner of the coach’s box. This particular sign–the sign to delay-steal in arguably the greatest act of genius/stupidity in the history of baseball–was sent instead from the corner closest to the baserunner. He leaned toward the runner as if preparing to grab him by the jersey and exclaim, “Hey, you! This matters! Pay attention or you’ll never play another inning!”

But that wasn’t his only tell that Grandma picked up on. Not only was he closer when he signed, he signed more slowly and made sure to establish eye contact with the runner before starting the sign sequence. It was so obvious to Grandma that she felt certain this coach would have his coaching license revoked for telegraphing his next move and costing his team an out. Of course, the visiting team didn’t bother to look his way, because they were resting in the certain knowledge that superman behind the plate was the best deterrent on this or any other planet. And that overconfidence was the team’s kryptonite.

Once you start thinking of the signer as the sign itself, like Grandma did, you’ll have fun recognizing and creating signer profiles in order to thwart opposing coaches’ plans, at least at lower levels. See if you can match these profiles to coaches we’ve already opposed this year:

The Surveyor. This type will look at the opposing coach while the opposing coach signs pitches to the catcher. If it doesn’t appear as if a pickoff or pitchout has been called, this coach will relay a steal sign to his runner. This attention shifting precedes every attempt to run, so that’s the tell, and it’s best to clue in the pitcher so he can pick off or pitch out based on the other coach’s surveillance of his coach. The surveyor may think he’s doing the reading, but his fresh, overeager interest always makes him more readable in turn.

The Cynic. This type won’t sign anything unless he’s putting on a play, and even then he’s sure there’ll be a breakdown in communication. He assumes kids can’t remember the signs or that they will imagine and act on signs he didn’t send.  Better to be conservative and send information only when it’s meaningful information. Sure, the other team may steal the sign, but then again, the other team is comprised of kids who make mistakes too. This type is the most likely to step toward the player receiving the sign, or call out his name, or wait for eye contact before signing, or sign slowly. Because players mess up unless everything is painfully explicit and easy to understand. And then they probably still mess up.

The Sleight of Hand Minimalist. He revels in long fake sequences in order to draw attention to himself and his runner and hopefully distract the defense and incite an overthrow, wild pitch, or called ball on a pitchout. He wants the other team on edge, overanalyzing, and creating unforced errors. When a play is called, he’ll do it with a discrete gesture, though this will usually require exact timing to ensure that the runner or hitter has in fact seen the sign, so ultimately the signs aren’t so discrete after all.

The Pacer. The frenzied type transforms from still and composed to uneasy and overactive when a play has been called. So long as he’s not in control, i.e. there’s no play on, he’s Joe Cool and relaxed and supports the hitter with cliches and reminds the runner to move on ground balls. But when he intervenes and potentially changes the course of a game with his own strategy, he tries to burn off his anxiety by roaming the coach’s box or the foul line. He’ll sometimes make his own hitters so uneasy that they’ll call time to make sure everything is okay and request the signs be sent a second time. Sometimes this request convinces him he’s received a sign. “Call it off!”superstition whispers to him.

You don’t need to be sold on the fact that this information is highly valuable in a game. If you’re a catcher clued in that a steal has been called, call for an outside and high location that allows you to get a head start on throwing out the runner. Or call a pickoff. Or a slide-step. Or some combination.  If the coach signs for bunt, a pitch up in the strike zone to force a double-play on a pop-out wouldn’t hurt. And the corner positions, assuming they’re clued in, can move in a step or two and pay extra attention to top-hand release, especially with a runner on third. The advantages go on and on. As do the plays you can pick. Certain knowledge is harder to come by as you play more competitive ball against better teams and better coaches, but even these coaches remain people, which means, Grandma reminds us, they can at least on occasion be read.

So while Grandma would benefit from learning a thing or to about baseball, we’ve certainly learned a thing or two from her. Thanks, Grandma!

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My maternal grandmother, Madesta Robinson