Catcher's Signs

By Emmitt Watson, Seattle Times
Tuesday May 12, 1998

Catchers need to watch for danger signs at home


Millions of Americans, including Seattle baseball fans, frequently rivet their attention on the TV's camera close-up of the catcher's crotch.

As they look over the pitcher's shoulder, they witness the catcher's fingers - signaling what he wants the pitcher to throw. So informed, the pitcher now throws.

As you can imagine, the catcher and pitcher have a very cozy relationship.

They damned well better have, or something bad can happen. An example occurred in the Kingdome a few years ago when Matt Sinatro (now a Mariner bullpen coach) got ready to receive an offering from Randy Johnson.

Mr. Johnson, of course, can throw a ball through a fiberboard wall. Given his 95-mph fastball and his almost equally fast breaking ball (slider), it is absolutely critical that the catcher knows what is coming.

As Sinatro related it to me the other day: "I would swear I called for a slider. But maybe it was a fastball. I got distracted by a base runner and forgot my own sign."

Sinatro leaned over to catch Randy's slider, a vicious pitch, breaking sharply down and in toward the right-handed hitter's feet. Instead, Mr. Johnson delivered his wickedly quick fastball.

The pitch went past Sinatro's right shoulder and then you heard an audible "oooff!" sound. Johnson had drilled the ball into the umpire's stomach.

What you had then were several thousand puzzled fans and one hopping mad umpire. The pitch took his breath away and almost didn't give it back.

Dave Valle had a similar misunderstanding with Mr. Johnson one time. Valle, a splendid catcher and now a pleasant, well-informed radio and TV commentator, reached down for a slider and, instead, took a Johnson rocket right in his mask.

"I was stunned, I was in shock," Valle said. "He either didn't see my sign, or I forgot what I had signaled for."

Now then: what you see on TV is one finger for a fastball, two fingers for a curve and three for a breaking ball (slider or down-dipping forkball). A fluttering four fingers can mean the catcher is calling for an off-speed change-up.

Each of these may be flashed three times in different sequence. The trick for a sign-stealer is to know which of the three sign-flashes is operative.

As catcher Dan Wilson explains, "You rest your forearm on the left knee and hold the glove down off the knee. That's so the third-base coach can't see your signs. You keep your legs fairly closed so a man on first can't see the sign, either."

No outfielder can reliably see these signs. But the shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, and Joey Cora, the second-baseman, can. Sometimes they signal the outfielders, who may "shade" slightly in anticipation of where the ball might be hit.

The hitch is, an enemy runner on second can see these signs. He might signal the batter to be ready for a fastball, a curve, or whatever. As Valle points out, a clubhouse TV set adds to this CIA-like atmosphere.

"The guy watches TV and comes out to the bench and says, `Hey, guys, they're using the third sign with a man on second,' " Valle explained.

All this cloak-and-dagger intelligence-gathering may be academic because most batters won't take a tipped-off pitch sign. As former baseball writer Lenny Anderson once said, "You can only make one mistake."

That is to say, what if the sign-stealer is wrong? You have a batter up there and he is told a curve is coming. He leans over to hit the curve. But it turns out to be a buzzing fastball up high near the batter's head - in which case he will wake up, if at all, in the Harborview emergency ward with a couple of skull surgeons clucking over his condition.

I talked finally with John Marzano, the Mariners' upbeat reserve catcher. Marzano discussed signs for a while, then he said, laughing, "Look at this."

He flashed one finger, two fingers, three fingers. "That's three signs," he said. Then he fluttered four fingers.

"The reason we flutter the fingers," he said, "is that pitchers can't count up to four."

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