"The Book of Military Administration says: 'As the voice cannot be heard in battle, drums and bells are used. As troops cannot see each other clearly in battle, flags and banners are used. ... Now gongs and drums, banners and flags are used to focus the attention of the troops. When the troops can be thus united, the brave cannot advance alone, nor can the cowardly withdraw. This is the art of employing a host. ... In night fighting use many torches and drums, in day fighting many banners and flags in order to influence the sight and hearing of our troops. ..." - Sunzi Chapter Seven: Maneuver (Griffith translation)
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Baseball Signs of the times
A growing number of college, high school teams are switching the way they signal their plays
Tom FitzGerald, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, May 15, 2009 (05-14) 21:34 PDT --
It's as much a part of baseball as razzing the umpire. The third base coach conveys a play to the hitter and base-runner by touching something - his nose, his cap, his left arm, his right arm, his chest, his buckle, anything you can touch without, well, being obscene. To the uninitiated, it looks like a series of tics in search of medication.
Yet, somewhere in that sequence, there's a sign that the steal is on, or the bunt, or the hit-and-run, or most likely nothing at all. One of the gestures is usually the "indicator," and the next sign is the one that means something.
Newspaper accounts trace the origin of hand signals to one of big-league baseball's only deaf superstars, outfielder William Ellsworth "Dummy" Hoy, in the 1880s. Ever since then, signs have been given, and signs have been stolen. That's a part of baseball tradition too. Cal is among a growing number of college teams that have switched to a different system that uses numbers rather than hand gestures. If you go to a baseball game in Berkeley, a bingo game might break out.
Head coach David Esquer, in the first-base box, is giving the signs with his fingers after looking at his master chart. Three-one-fist (for zero) before one pitch. Three-two-one on the next. The batter and runner each check the numbers on a chart wedged in their plastic wrist band. Don't bother trying to decipher the code. All the numbers come out of a computer program, and there may be 25 three-digit combinations (out of 200) that mean steal.
Unless you have a telephoto lens like a newspaper photographer to give you a close-up look at a wristband, the system is pick-proof. "You see quarterbacks in the NFL having to go to their wrist bands, and they're running multimillion-dollar offenses,"
Esquer said. "I figure we can run some baseball plays on the wrist as well." Is there any downside to the numbers system? "The cards slide in and out a little, so you have to adjust them now and then," said first baseman Mark Canha, Cal's leading hitter at .356. "That's about as bad as it gets. It's a system where you can't miss any signs really." "You don't have to worry about picking up certain indicators, so it's pretty simple," said second baseman Jeff Kobernus, a .351 hitter. "It slows down the game a little bit because (Esquer) has to give it to both the runner and the batter. Sometimes people in the stands will (mockingly) ask, 'What was that number again?' " Nearly 100 college teams are using the system, and many high school teams are jumping on board, too.
Some teams use it just for conveying pitch signals to their catchers, who consult their wristbands and then use traditional finger signals to the pitchers. Pitchers are prohibited from using wristbands because they could be distracting to batters.
The system was dreamed up at the College of Southern Idaho in 2004 by coach Boomer Walker and pitching coach David Carter, who wanted a foolproof system of pitch signals. The coach would call out the numbers or flash them with his fingers. The catcher would find the first two digits on the top of his chart and go down to the intersecting point with the third digit. The sign might be for a changeup outside, or a curve inside, or a fastball in the dirt. The system turned out to be easily adaptable to other aspects of the game.
Teams that use both offensive and defensive cards simply flip them over each half inning.Some coaches made up their own spreadsheet files.
A couple of former Western Oregon University players, Liam Woodard, 30, and Bryce Gardinier, 28, have turned the system into a cottage industry, tailoring the system to specific teams and even specific pitchers. Gardinier wrote a computer program, and Woodard set up a Web site, ownthezonesports.com. They peddle the system for $249.99. If you want 25 wristbands, it's $400. A coach can shuffle the numbers before every game. "It's been fun for us to have our own piece of baseball," Woodard said.
Cal's Esquer was one of their first customers, and he has passed it on to local high school coaches, like Max Luckhurst of Campolindo-Moraga and Chris Declercq of San Ramon Valley-Danville. Both of them swear by it. "I've made one mistake, and (the players) have made one mistake," Luckhurst said. "It's pick-proof but not fool-proof. There's room to read the chart incorrectly. But it speeds things up. It's a lot faster than going through a full sign sequence."
His players had to pass a classroom test on using the chart before they could get their uniforms. Nothing less than a perfect score would do.
According to Declercq, "If they're using it at the Division I level, with guys so crazy about stealing signs, it will work for us." He said his players missed an average of two signs a game last year under the old system.
In planning, no useless move. In strategy, no step is in vain. - Chen Hao
With the new system, he said, they haven't missed any. How vulnerable is the traditional system? "I've got a kid who's smart," Declercq said, "and the other day he had the other team's pitch signals by the second inning." Not everybody is convinced the numbers system speeds up the game. City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State use it only for pitch signals.
On offense, CCSF coach John Vanoncini said, "I think it slows the play down, and umpires now are concerned about the pace of play." SF State coach Tony Dress said, "I'm old school. My signs are not scientific, but they're not easy to pick." The most hide-bound traditionalists aren't about to jump on the numbers bandwagon.
"One of the problems in college baseball is there's too many signs being given," said a pro scout who asked not to be identified. "This system makes it easier to give signs all the time. You see a coach giving signs when it's 0-and-2 and nobody on. There is much more pressure on these college coaches to win now that they feel they have to take control of everything."
The scout doubts you'll ever see the numbers system in the major leagues. "A big leaguer wouldn't wear the wristband," he said. Cal's Esquer admits the numbers aren't for everyone. "I'm the first to admit it," he said. "It's not traditional baseball. It was hard for me. But I hate missing signs more than I have to look traditional."
E-mail Tom FitzGerald at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle