Can you read the signs?

While flashing them has been an intricate part of the game, stealing signs is becoming a lost art in baseball.

Originally Published: August 12, 2004
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Stealing signs. It is a baseball tradition as old as the game itself. It is an art that has been practiced, legally and illegally, for well over 100 years, and it goes on every night at every ballpark in America. It can win a game, can lose a game and might get you hit in the head.

Felipe Alou
Felipe Alou's tip of the cap could mean something, or nothing at all.

Joe Nossek was the best at stealing signs, it was his only job for years as a coach for the White Sox until he was replaced before this season. By design, there is no place for a manager to hide in visiting dugout at the White Sox's U.S. Cellular Field. So, several visiting managers, including Tom Kelly, formerly of the Twins, and Johnny Oates, formerly of the Orioles, would have their coaches build human fortresses around them so Nossek couldn't see the signs that were being relayed to the base coaches, the catcher, etc.

More signs are sent today than at any time in baseball history, that's how intricate the game has become. Many pitchers are given a sign from the bench for a pitch-out, a pick-off throw and even a step-off. Third base coaches are relaying hundreds of signs a game, there's a technique to that, also. Brewers third base coach Rich Donnelly has practiced his signs in front of the mirror so not to be too obvious with his signals or his cadence. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, more than once, had his trainer, Barry Weinberg, flashed the sign because no one would be watching him. "When he took out the tongue depressor,'' Donnelly said, "it was a steal.'' Former Padres third base coach Tim Flannery once practiced his signs on his 13-year-old son, thinking "if he can get 'em, so can our players.''

If they're too obvious, they can be easily stolen. If they're too complicated, the players might miss them. Managers have changed the signs during the course of a game if there's a doubt about them being stolen. Managers routinely change their signs after a player has been traded because he will tell them to his new team. Former Phillies manager Danny Ozark had, at one point, different signs for infielders, outfielders and catchers. Former Padres manager Preston Gomez had a different sign for every player on the team, which got confusing.

Jim Leyland tells a story about one of favorite players he managed in the minor leagues, Kirby Farrell. Leyland gave Farrell the bunt sign three times, and each time, Farrell missed the sign. Finally, Leyland cupped his hands and yelled "Bunt!'' Farrell cupped his hands and yelled "What?'' Slugger Cliff Johnson understood the take sign one night in Baltimore in 1985. Disgusted, he gave the middle-finger salute to third base coach Art Howe.

Stealing signs has always been global. When former major league manager Davey Johnson played in Japan, his manager knew that the visiting clubhouse in a certain ballpark was bugged by the home team, so Johnson's manager wrote down the signs -- which was a series of numbers -- for each player on opaque wristbands. The manager would yell out a string of numbers, the players would check his wristband, and the play was on.

The 1984 Cubs, the NL East champs that year, knew "the other teams' signs better than our own,'' said Oates, then a Cubs catcher, There are countless stories about how teams swiped the signs from opposing catchers to determine if a fastball or a breaking ball was coming. For a portion of the 1980s at Chicago's Comiskey Park, there was a 25-watt refrigerator bulb in the scoreboard. A member of the organization would sit in the manager's office and watch the TV broadcast, which had a view of the catcher from center field. There was also a toggle switch in the office. Flip the switch and the light in the scoreboard came on, telling the hometown hitter if a fastball or an off-speed pitch was coming.

Paul Molitor
Getty ImagesPaul Molitor was among the game's more astute code-breakers.

There is a more honest way to do it, and no one did it better in the early '80s than the Brewers' Ted Simmons. He would lead off second base and watch the catcher flash a series of intricate signs. "He would put the information in the computer, Simmons-style (Simmons' head) and he'd determine that the sequence I saw meant slider,'' said former teammate Paul Molitor. Molitor became an expert at stealing signs, also, and took his technique to Toronto in 1993 -- the Blue Jays won the World Series that year. Molitor would lead off second base, solve the sequence, then relay the information to the hitter by tapping his helmet or putting his hand on his left or right knee. Catchers get lazy with their signs when there's only a runner on first base. Molitor was so good, he could get a big enough lead off first, if the catcher didn't have his legs closed enough, Molitor would steal the sign.

Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn are among many players who didn't want to know what was coming. "What if they're wrong?'' Gwynn once said. George Bell, a former MVP, was one of the best at stealing signs and relaying them to a hitter, but he didn't want to know what was coming after being hit in the head by a pitch that was relayed by a teammate -- he was looking for a breaking ball, dived out after it, and was drilled with a fastball.

Some hitters have been known to peek at the catcher to steal the sign, or see where the catcher is setting up. That's a no-no, that will get a hitter flipped every time. Former Giants catcher Kirt Manwaring once knew that a hitter had a tendency to peek at his signs, so the next time the hitter looked back, Manwaring gave him his middle-finger salute.

It is harder today to steal signs because the game has become so complicated. Sometimes, the simplest signs are the best. With the Mets, Rickey Henderson's sign for a steal was different than most, it was a clap of the hands by third base coach Cookie Rojas. One night, Henderson set yet another record, got a standing ovation -- Henderson tipped his cap to the crowd; no one loved doing that more than Rickey. After the ovation had died down and played had resumed, Rojas gave Henderson the steal sign, a simple clap of the hands, done several times in succession. And Rickey, thinking it was another ovation, tipped his cap to Rojas.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.