Karl Lindholm: Baseball uses silent language
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?
(Five Man Electrical Band)
All I did was open and close my fist, subtly — then all hell broke loose:
Our pitcher threw a high fastball, outside the strike zone. Our catcher leapt to his left, caught the pitch, and fired a strike to second base. Our shortstop raced from his position between second and third, took the throw, and slapped a tag on the onrushing baserunner, who had larceny on his mind.
Out by a mile!
My small gesture had initiated all that action. We had anticipated our opponent’s intent to steal, and had countered their stratagem with our own, successfully executing a “pitchout.”
How much fun is that!
A pitchout is an example of the way baseball’s intellectual challenge combines with its physical dynamism and demands.
There is non-verbal communication in all sports, but none is quite as dependent on it as baseball. It is at the very core of the game. Baseball is a game of extraordinary strategic complexity, and these modest physical movements, the closing of a fist in the example above, are baseball’s means of communication, so routine and integral that we take it for granted.
I loved playing basketball as a kid, but I preferred coaching baseball as a young teacher, lo, these many years ago. Baseball is a game of restraint, to be played every day, with a focused intensity, not a passionate frenzy. Baseball demands “equipoise,” important in other sports too, but especially baseball — that is, the ability to concentrate and relax at the same time.
Baseball has a fine balance between action and inaction that is its essence, even if it is out of phase with our contemporary lifestyle. The coach is the custodian of this balance, reminding players, by his model, not to get too high in victory or too low in defeat. Celebrate victory today, or grieve a loss, but be ready to go again tomorrow.
Baseball really becomes fun when players are physically mature enough to have a limited mastery of its difficult skills, in junior high or high school. That’s one reason why baseball is losing ground to continuous-action games, like soccer and lacrosse, which are fun from day one.
It is then, when those skills have been acquired, that the inside “game” truly comes into play. This inside game is ignited by a wonderful tradition of sign language. The coach communicates his strategic wishes in a pantomime of discreet gestures and movements — a touch to the face or the bill of the cap, a sweep of the hand across the letters on the uniform, a tug on the ear, a hand clap, all from a posture of restrained engagement.
Baseball is the rare game where the defense has the ball and initiates the action. The game begins with a sign, just after the umpire bellows “Play Ball.” Nothing happens until the pitcher gets his sign from the catcher indicating which of his repertoire of pitches to throw.
This pitcher-catcher com-munication was not particularly complicated for me when I was a pitcher, as I only had a fastball and a two-bit curve, so my battery-mate put down one finger (fastball) or two (curve), and I complied. With a runner on second base who could see our signs, the catcher presented sequence of signs with three or four fingers, conveying the illusion that I might actually have another pitch — a change-up, slider, splitter, or sinker.
As a young coach of high-schoolers for about a decade, I’m sure I was guilty of over-coaching. I loved putting players in motion, keeping the pressure on the opposition. I enjoyed sitting on the bench with the team, or standing in front of it, or in the third-base coaching box, shouting encouragement and giving signs, the captain of the ship, at the helm.
Signs are a cryptic language designed to confuse your opponents but not your own players. My signs were simple: ‘stache-steal and belt-bunt. A light brushing of my hand across my moustache meant steal the base; a touch of my hand to my belt buckle meant bunt the ball.
With older kids, I added an “indicator,” some gesture that meant that the very next sign was “live.” Usually my indicator was a touch of my left wrist where I wore a watch: the message was to watch for the next sign — ‘stache or belt meant nothing unless they were preceded by a hand to my watch.
Most coaches also have a “wipe-off” sign, signifying that all previous signs no longer apply; they are wiped off. This gesture, of course, is to discourage sign stealers on the other side.
There are signs for less common strategies too. At times a coach asks for a confirming sign from the batter and/or runner, a quick touch of the uniform perhaps — flesh to cloth. This confirmation is required when plays involve risk of injury, such as the “suicide squeeze” — “suicide” because the runner at third dashes home as soon as the pitch is released, and is “dead” at the plate if the batter doesn’t get a bunt down (the runner also might be dead, a morbid thought, if the batter misses the sign and takes a full swing).
This game-within-a-game is an enjoyable and essential part of baseball for all of its aficionados, young and old.
For me, when I coached, the mere act of grazing my hand across my belt buckle, and watching the tumult that ensued, was a great joy.
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