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In the mid-1970s, Whitey Herzog was the third base coach for the California Angels. The centerfielder for that club was Mickey Rivers, and whenever Mick the Quick, as he was known, got on base, Herzog's job suddenly got more difficult. Herzog would run through his repertoire of hand and arm motions only to realize Rivers was gabbing with the first baseman or gazing into the seats—and hadn't seen a thing Herzog had signaled. "The only time Mickey would stop and look for a sign was when the count got to 3 and 2," says Jerry Remy, another Angel of that era. And, of course, no one gives a sign on 3 and 2.
Finally, Herzog came up with a single simple sign for whenever Rivers was on first and California manager Dick Williams wanted him to steal. Herzog would whistle to get Rivers's attention, yell, "Hey, Mick," and then wave his right arm in the direction of second base. "If you're going to give a sign, the guy you're giving it to had better be able to get it," says Herzog. "Anyway, they hardly ever threw Mick out."
Boston Red Sox outfielder Bernie Carbo was once cut down trying to steal second in the seventh inning of a game in 1975 that the Sox were losing 5-0. When he got back to the bench, his manager, Darrell Johnson, angrily asked him what he was thinking. "You gave me the steal sign," Carbo said.
Johnson, whose system was based on giving numerical values to simple signs and having the players add those values together to determine what they were to do, asked Carbo what he thought the numerical values had been. "Two plus two," Carbo said.
"That's four—the take sign," said Johnson. "The steal is five."
"Damn!" said Carbo. "I added wrong."
The art of giving, receiving and stealing signs isn't always a laughing matter, though. All that patting, clapping, tugging and rubbing by a third base coach may look a little silly, but signs are serious business. In last year's World Series, for example, Cincinnati Reds coach Sam Perlozzo was so concerned about the Oakland A's reputation for stealing signs that even after the Reds won the first three games, Perlozzo changed all his signs for the fourth.
At any moment in a major league game a mass of information is being passed back and forth across the diamond. Let's say a game is tied in the seventh inning and your team has runners on first and second, one out. Your manager will flash a quick sign putting on a play—bunt, hit-and-run, whatever—to the third base coach, who then will use his own signs to retransmit the skipper's orders to the two runners and the hitter, while the first base coach gives a signal to the runner on first to confirm that there's a play on.
Of course, since your opponents are trying to steal the signs, there will be any number of coaches, players and even trainers in your dugout feigning signs. "Sometimes it looks like five guys trying to bring a jet onto an aircraft carrier," says Pittsburgh Pirate pitching coach Ray Miller. "Some are signs, some are decoys, and it's fascinating to sit there and watch the stuff flying all over the place."
Players on the field will be among the covert communicators, too. The runner on second may adjust his feet a certain way to indicate to the hitter the type or location of the pitch about to be delivered. Players on the bench or the base coaches or even a member of the bullpen could be relaying similar information to the hitter. Meanwhile, the first baseman and middle infielders may try to chat with the base runners to disrupt their concentration.