Any given moment in an Augusta GreenJackets minor league baseball game offers plenty of classic sounds - from the crack of a bat to the pop of a catcher’s mitt - that have become permanently connected to America’s pastime. But a closer look at the flow of play at Lake Olmstead Stadium will reveal a method of communication as silent as it is secretive.
“It’s a big part of baseball, and it’s something you must stay focused on or you’ll miss it,” catcher Joe Staley said. “It’s all about staying aware of what’s going on in the game.”
Staley, like the rest of his teammates, will spend the summer in Augusta trying to develop into big league ball players. Part of that development centers around learning the language of baseball, which is a lesson in code, deception and secrecy.
Throughout the team’s upcoming eight-game homestand, which starts Monday against the Rome Braves, fans who take a look at manager Lipso Nava in the third base coach’s box will see him regularly relaying directions to his batters through a complex series of hand signals. One clap, left hand to the wrist, right hand to the cap, left hand down the side of his arm then across his chest, a pull of the right ear and two claps take just a moment or two to rattle off but may simultaneously tell the batter what to do at the plate and tell a base runner when to steal.
“You get used to it,” Nava said. “My first experience as a third base coach was in the Atlantic League in independent ball and I was scared. I practiced in the mirror to get used to doing it and hitting all the right hot spots. As you go on you get a feeling and in a groove of giving the signs.”
As Nava runs through his sequence, the opposing team’s catcher will take a step in front of the plate and rattle off his own series of hand signals to tell the infielders how to play a potential bunt or steal attempt. The catcher will then take a step back, tuck his throwing hand in front of his crouched body and use his fingers to communicate the type of pitch and location he wants his pitcher to deliver. A slight nod or shake of the head with convey the pitchers’ agreement or desire for a change.
The complex exchanges happen more than 100 times each game and the intent, beyond veiling the plan from the opposing team, is to make the method of silent communication second-nature to the young prospects.
“I’ve caught my whole life but definitely at the professional level you learn how to handle the pitching staff in a much different way. It’s a communication process between the whole team at this level,” Staley said. “That’s what separates a lot of good catchers from the great ones, the ability to control and communicate to the pitching staff and basically handle the whole defense.”
While the batters and pitchers receive their silent orders, the players in the field also take a few moments for stealth communication. A manager or coach from the dugout will use a few hand signals to position the outfielders at a specific depth. Closer to the plate, the middle infielders will sneak a peak at their catcher’s signs to the pitcher.
“Every pitch we communicate with each other on who’s covering (second base),” second baseman Jose Cuevas said. “Sometimes it depends on where the catcher is calling for the next pitch. If he’s calling for fastball in, I’ll cover second. If it’s fastball out, the shortstop covers. That depends on the pitcher, too and if he can locate his pitches.”
With so many signals conveying so much information openly across the diamond, opposing teams get ample opportunity to observe and possibly steal the signs. While some within the game consider sign stealing acceptable if a player or coach is smart enough to break the code, others consider the practice a violation of one of baseball’s unwritten rules.
Several GreenJackets players said sign stealing occurs much more in college ball than in the professional ranks.
“It’s not as big of a factor at this level,” Staley said. “It’s kind of an unspoken rule that you don’t really do that. And if you do, you don’t get caught. If they think they can pick up our signs and read it without me knowing, then that’s fine. But if I find out, there’s going to be consequences. That’s just how it goes. That’s baseball. As a professional, it should be more of a classy game and that’s bush league.”
The spoken word still has its place in the game, including visits to the mound from a catcher or manager, but even then precautions are taken to hide the message. Just the possibility of lip readers in the opposing dugout will push a catcher to leave his mask on while he talks to a pitcher and force the pitcher to reply with his glove covering his mouth.
The sly approaches and secretive messages may seem silly at times, but it’s a requirement for any player if he wants to continue his professional career.
“These guys, that’s why they’re here. They’re getting paid to be professional baseball players,” Nava said. “If you can’t get a sign, you can’t play this game.”