Kelly tells a story about how, in 1983 and '84, when he was the Twins' third base coach and Billy Gardner was the manager, Gardner would tap his fingers against his leg—one tap for a bunt, two for a hit-and-run and three for a steal. Several years later, Kelly was managing the Twins against the New York Yankees' Billy Martin. He watched Martin tapping his fingers the same way and remembered that Martin had worked with Gardner years earlier. Late in the game Martin gave two taps, Kelly called a pitchout, and the Twins got the runner stealing.
There are giveaways that a play is on, even if a manager hasn't stolen a specific sign. Kelly says that he looks for a change in the tempo of signs coming from the third base coach; if he quickens the pace of his signs, usually something is about to happen. Kelly looks at the reactions of the third base coach; if a sign has been missed by the batter or runner, the coach's body language can give it away. So can a hitter's reaction. "I've seen guys get the take sign, and they look like they've just lost their firstborn child," says Marlins third base coach Rich Donnelly. In 1985 in Baltimore, Rangers DH Cliff Johnson got the take sign on 3 and 0 and was so disgusted that he gave the middle-finger salute to third base coach Art Howe.
With all this theft going on, teams go to elaborate lengths to protect their signs. The third base coach will go through his usual gyrations, touching every part of his body, but the signs mean nothing unless he uses an indicator—say, tapping his belt or standing in a specific place in the coach's box. There's also a wipe-off sign, meaning the signs will be flashed, but they are to be ignored if, say, the third base coach tugs on his ear. If a manager suspects an opponent is stealing his signs he might tell his leadoff hitter, "If you get on, we're going to give you the hit-and-run sign. Ignore it." Or if the 3-4-5 hitters in the lineup are coming to bat, the manager might tell his team that no signs are alive with those three players at the plate, even though the third base coach will still be flashing away. Or the manager won't relay the signs at all, he'll have a coach do it. St. Louis Cardinals skipper Tony LaRussa has been known to let his trainer give the steal sign, figuring no one from the opposition would bother watching the trainer. "If he takes out his tongue depressor," says Donnelly, "it's a steal."
Some managers get so obsessed about keeping their signs secret that they make them almost too complicated to remember. Preston Gomez, the former Padres and Houston Astros manager, had a different set of signs for every player on his team. At times former Philadelphia Phillies manager Danny Ozark had different signs for infielders, outfielders, and pitchers and catchers; if he called for a hit-and-run with an outfielder on second, an infielder on first and a catcher at the plate, he had to run three different sets of signs.
Stealing signs from the catcher is not simple either. When a runner is on second, the catcher changes his signs. Instead of one finger for a fastball, two for a curveball, etc., the signs with a runner on second are more intricate. For instance, the catcher might put down 1-2-2-1-5. The pitcher is looking for the second number after 2, which would be 1, a fastball. Or the pitcher is looking for the first number to repeat, so if the catcher puts down 1-2-3-4-4, the pitch is 4, a changeup. Catchers are always changing the signs, sometimes in the middle of a count, which can be done with a tap of the shin guard or a tug on the mask. Or they'll use different signs depending on the inning or the number of outs.
The master decoder of sequential signs was, of course, a catcher—Ted Simmons, who played for 19 seasons in the majors with the Cardinals, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Atlanta Braves. "I'd come back from second base and tell him what I saw," says Molitor, a former Milwaukee teammate of Simmons's. "He'd put the information in the computer, Simmons-style [meaning in his head], and he'd determine that the sequence I saw meant slider."
Two years ago Brent Mayne was catching for the Kansas City Royals in a game against the Cleveland Indians at Jacobs Field. Cleveland scored eight runs in the first inning, sending the Kansas City dugout into a panic wondering if the Indians were stealing Mayne's signs. "So I told every pitcher after the inning that there'd be no more signs that game," says Mayne. "Just throw whatever you want, and I'll catch it." Cleveland scored only two runs the rest of the game.
Surprisingly, many hitters—including some of the best ones—don't want to know what pitch is coming. Most have heard stories about batters who, having gotten the signal that a breaking ball was coming down and away, leaned out over the plate and were hit by fast-balls up and in. Padres rightfielder Tony Gwynn, a seven-time National League batting champion, doesn't like to be tipped off because he just doesn't hit that way. "I go by what I see," he says. "I don't want anyone else clogging up my thinking up there. Guys on our bench talk about all that stuff, and I move to the other end of the dugout." Two years ago, Phillies pitcher Ben Rivera thought Gwynn was stealing signs from second and relaying them to the hitters. Gwynn says that Rivera yelled at him from the mound to stop. Gwynn, who says he wasn't tipping off the pitches, yelled back at Rivera, "When you start getting the ball down, you'll get people out."
No matter how hard teams work to perfect their signaling system or crack the enemy's code, there's always the chance something will get lost in the translation. Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller tells a story about Marlins skipper Jim Leyland managing in the minors in the early '80s. Leyland gave a player named Kirby Farrell the bunt sign three times, and Farrell missed it each time. Finally, Leyland cupped his hands and from the dugout yelled, "Bunt!" Farrell cupped his hands and yelled back, "What?"