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Stealing signs as an art form09/14/2004 11:41 AM ET
By Scott Merkin / MLB.com
The move can be almost imperceptible. To most average fans, it looks more like a nervous twitch from a player or a coach -- not anything significant. Maybe it's the second baseman opening or closing his glove in the direction of the shortstop. It could be the third-base coach simply clapping outside his box near the line, touching the bill of his cap instead of his left arm or shouting words of encouragement. It even might have been as miniscule as the way a pitcher tilts his glove from fastball to curve. It doesn't sound very telling, does it? To tried and true walking books of baseball knowledge such as Joe Nossek, Gene Mauch and Joey Amalfitano, those little movements provided an edge for their respective teams that often couldn't be delivered by a 95 mph fastball or a 40-home run slugger. The aforementioned coaches and managers were just a few of baseball's top sign stealers, a somewhat complicated process that resembles more of an art form than a common crime on the diamond. Some form of sign stealing has been part of the game since the first pitch was thrown. It's not exactly a skill taught at Spring Training -- but it's an unspoken psychological edge that most teams relish. "We don't have anybody like that, but it's definitely something I'd welcome," said Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez of sign stealers. "If for no other reason than it might freak the other team out. If you've got someone who's great at stealing signs, the word's gonna get out pretty quick. And when it does, teams will change what they do when playing you. It just gives them one more thing to worry about." "It's not an easy thing to do," added Detroit catcher/infielder Brandon Inge. "Since I've caught, I can tell different mannerisms they're doing. A lot of times, they'll use a hotspot, like touching your hat, or hands-off, hands-on, look to the left, look to the right. There's a thousand different ways you can do it. It's the art of stealing." A common belief is that signs actually began in the game during the late 1800s, when William "Dummy" Hoy first became a professional player. Profoundly deaf due to a childhood bout of spinal meningitis, Hoy had the third-base coach signal to him what call was made by the umpire so he wouldn't have to spin around and read the umpire's lips. This situation actually led to umpires making their calls with hand and arm gestures for everyone to witness.
"He's so afraid that someone will steal a sign that he changes them just about every day, it seems, and will have different guys on the bench give them. One day it's the trainer, one day it's the pitching coach, one day it's the batboy. What makes a good sign stealer is remembering all of the things you have used before, whether it's touches as an indicator, or counts or whatever."
"If you're doing it and the other team picks up that you're doing it, you're going to have to pay the consequences," Inge said. "It's just how it works. You'd better hide it well if you're doing it.""Don't whine. Play the game," said Rockies manager Clint Hurdle. "It's like a guy who doesn't have a very good poker face. It's not my fault he can't bluff."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.