During my career I was always looking for an edge to make myself a better umpire. One Saturday morning before I was to head out to work a game, I was watching “This Week in Baseball”. The host Mel Allen would highlight the past week in baseball and also have feature stories about inside baseball. On this day, they featured a big league Coach who had the ability to steal the opposing team’s signs. His ability to steal signs made him a valuable member of his ball club because he could tell his Manager what the other team was planning and the Manager could take action to nullify the other team’s plans.
I figured that if I could steal signs, I would get an edge and I could make instant strategies to cover the upcoming play. So, I started watching Coaches and Players as they communicated between each other during a game using signals. The first Coach I started watching was Texas Coach Cliff Gustafson. I could not have picked a better subject to study because in the 18 years I worked for Coach Gus, he never changed his signs. I was able to pick up his bunt, fake bunt and take sign. Because of his style of play, Coach Gus used these signs hundreds of times a game. Coach Gus used the fake bunt for two reasons, 1) put pressure on the opposing pitcher to throw strikes and 2) to get the defense to tip their hand on how they would defend the bunt. So, if I am working the bases and I knew the fake bunt sign was on, that told me the runner(s) were not going anywhere. Once the bunt play was on, I knew where the likely play was going to occur that needed my attention. Hence, I was very seldom surprised by a bunt play.
I was always watching and listening to develop information that would help me during a game. One day, while waiting for a scrimmage to start I was sitting in the dugout at Texas and I watched Coach Gus conduct a defensive drill. I observed Coach Gus yell out a number and the defense would preform a pick-off play. One play I found very interesting and knowing that it was called I would be less likely to be surprised by the play. The situation was runners on 1st and 2nd, 2 outs and a full count on the batter. Coach Gus would yell out “32”. the pitcher would come set and instead of throwing a pitch, the pitcher would throw the ball to 3rd base in the hope of catching the runner breaking on the first movement of the pitcher. If it worked the runner was dead meat and the inning was over. Having this information gave me a great advantage.
The first time I saw this play in a game situation, I was working the plate, I heard Coach Gus put on the play and the pitcher threw the ball to 3rd. One problem, the runner showed discipline and waited to verify that the pitcher, pitched the ball. The play did not surprise me, I had honed in on the actions of the runner on 2nd, so I had no doubt and I was very confident when I called a balk. I believe I got the call right because I had that information.
Texas A&M Coach Mark Johnson would signal his runner at 1st what kind of lead to take. He would signal that he wanted the runner to take a big, one way lead or a very short lead and then extend once the pitch was on the way to the plate. If the runner took a big lead the potential for a pick off play was much greater, a short lead probably would not draw a pick off throw but maybe a throw from the catcher. If I was in position “B”, I couldn’t see the lead the runner is taking but knowing the sign I was more aware of the possibility of a pick off or throw behind the runner.
I did not limit myself to watching Coaches, I would also watch catchers when I was working the bases. If the catcher like to throw, especially behind runners, I would try to pick up his sign to his teammates that a throw was coming. Knowing a throw was coming game me a great advantage to get in the proper position to make the call.
When I was working unfamiliar teams, I would watch the Coach give the sign then I would watch the batter and try to pick up any change in his behavior. It is amazing how big a kid’s eyes get when he is given the hit and run sign.
I was surprised to find out that several of my peers would also steal signs. We would share our “data bank” with each other and in the case of my long time partner Tim Henderson we had our own signs to give each other a “heads up” if a play was brewing.
Many years ago we were working at Rice with another umpire. Tim had the plate and I was at 1st with our other partner holding down 3rd. Let me set the scene, tie score, Rice batting in the bottom of the 8th, runners on 2nd and 3rd, and no outs. Rice Coach Wayne Graham was in the 3rd base box and the batter looked down for any sign and all Coach Graham did was clap his hands and gave him a “let’s go”. The batter went about to prepare himself and enter the box when Coach Graham took several steps toward the batter and calmly said, “Bobby, you need to do your job”. This exchange hit me strange, so I gave Henderson a quick whistle and pointed to my temple. That was our signal for a squeeze play and I believed Coach Graham has just ordered one up.
The pitcher started his windup, the runner broke, the pitch was up and in on the right hand batter. The batter attempted to bunt the ball but missed, the batter then interfered with the catcher trying to make the tag on the sliding runner. It was very entertaining watching Henderson go through all his gyrations as he called the runner out and correctly called the strike on batter.
After the game our third member was singing Henderson’s praises for being “on top of the play” and not being surprised by the play. Tim explained how much easier it is to handle that play when you know its coming. “How did you know that was play was coming?” blurted out our partner. Tim went on to explain he had observed and heard Coach Graham, same as I had, but he was in the process of putting it together when he heard my whistle (he never saw my hand sign) and it confirmed his suspicion. Tim was ready and he simply made the call, our partner was flabbergasted by our observation and communication. It was a great moment and it was not the last time Tim and I gave each other a “heads up”.
Now that I have nearly broken my arm patting myself on the back, a couple of suggestions. Start observing Coaches and players, you will develop a different level of concentration that will benefit you in your officiating. Share your information with your peers and continue to build your data bank. You will be amazed how much easier it is to call plays when you are prepared for them.
Call’em right, tommyj28