For baseball fans, one of the most appealing aspects of the sport is the so-called “game with a game,” and the use of signs and signals is a longstanding staple of this.
Clandestine communication abounds everywhere on the field—between pitchers and catchers, hitters and third base coaches, managers and catchers, infielders signaling defensive positioning, and on and on.
The diamond is often a beehive of signals, and being able to “crack the code” is a seminal part of success on the field and enjoyment of the fans who love the game.
The caveat? These signs and signals can often seem beyond bizarre to the uninitiated.
Catchers will drop a preset number of fingers between their legs and wiggle those fingers to indicate the pitch, while base coaches will go through a strange ritual of touching different body parts to tell hitters what to do.
There are also indicators that tell players which signs are valid, and a “wipe” gesture will end a particular sequence and start the whole process all over again. And just to complicate matters even more, some coaches and managers use verbal signs, words or expressions that indicate what actions or preventive measures they want to follow.Given how complicated all this is, it was perhaps inevitable that an equally complex system for stealing signs would evolve.
Despite efforts to differentiate signs, most teams use similar gestures as signals, and because of this some players and managers became incredibly adept at intercepting these signals and using them to gain an advantage.
Let’s take one hypothetical example: A hitter steps to the plate with a man on third and less than two outs, and the game is so close that getting the run home is absolutely paramount.
One small problem—the hitter at the plate isn’t much of a stick man, but he is a superb bunter. So the third base coach signals a so-called “suicide squeeze,” starting the runner in motion and relying on the bunter to put the ball in play on the ground as the runner races home.
Now the fun starts. If the opposing manager “steals” the sign, his pitcher may throw a high, hard one at the bunter, making it impossible for said bunter to employ his considerable skills.
Dozens of moments like that take place in virtually every game, although they may not all be quite that dramatic. They constitute perfect examples of “the game within the game,” and they’re an integral part of baseball history.
To wit: One of the most famous moments in baseball’s storied past is Bobby Thompson’s so-called “shot heard round the world,” i.e., the home run he hit off the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca to win the National League pennant in 1951.
Fifty years after that storied event, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Giants used an elaborate sign-stealing system to relay what the pitch would be to Thompson, who was able to send the delivery that followed out of the park.
The system was the brainchild of Giants manager Leo “The Lip” Durocher, who was also legendary for his contentious arguments with umpires.
According to the Journal story, the Giants had a coach with a telescope their clubhouse, which allowed them to steal the signs of the Dodgers’ catcher.
Said coach would then relay the pitches to the hitter, using buzzer system that was installed so that the coach could relay the sign to a Giants player in the bullpen, which was in the outfield.
The signal would then be relayed to the hitter, and it was up to the likes of Thompson to do the rest, although Thompson denied receiving the most important signal of his career for years.
As this example shows, the endless game of “spy vs spy” in baseball can be both elaborate and labyrinthine. But one thing is banned when it comes to sign stealing, despite attempts to get around the rule:
The use of electronic equipment of any sort to get an edge
Several investigations are currently underway regarding this latest example of skullduggery, but players and managers throughout the game have a special form of disdain for those who employ it.
“Cheating” by stealing signals using guile and experience to intercept signs is considered both legal and admirable, but using tools like Apple watches and cell phones is both frowned upon and strictly forbidden.
This may not make much sense to an outsider, but it is part of what makes baseball so fascinating, not to mention arcane and Byzantine in many ways.
The next time you’re watching a game, take in the system of signals that’s being used by both sides, and see if you can steal a couple of signs here and there to figure out what’s going to happen next!
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