WAUSAU, Wisc. – To the uninitiated, it can look like the third-base coach at a baseball game is swatting flies.
In the moments before a pitcher delivers the baseball, the coach’s motions can look something like this:
The right hand moves down the front of the right thigh, moves up to tap the bill of the cap and the chin, touches the elbow of a bent left arm before it slides across the chest, grabs the right earlobe and returns to the right thigh.
To some in the stands, the series of silent movements likely makes little sense. But for the batter and the baserunner, these are coded instructions on how to approach the next pitch.
Coaching signals, an intricate communication system of gestures, has been a staple to deliver messages on baseball and softball fields.
“It can look very complicated,” said Wayne Sankey, baseball coach for Stevens Point Pacelli High School and the Plover American Legion teams. “You are not just talking about what goes on with third base (coaches) but we have signs for defensive formations or (base) coverage and pickoff plays, too.
“It can seem like a lot, but it becomes second nature (to the players), especially by the time they are juniors and seniors because we do it so much.”
Signals must be simple, undetectable
Coaches use signs to tell a baserunner to steal or a batter to bunt, to signal that a hit-and-run is on or to take a pitch.
The key is to make the signs simple enough for your team to understand, but still concealed enough so opponents can’t easily pick up on them.
Third-base coaches will go through a series of decoy signs, for example, touching the ear, swiping a forearm or chest and then touching the face in a sequence that means nothing to the batter. But the coach’s next move could be tapping the bill of the baseball cap — the team’s indicator that the following sign will be the instruction.
There are indicators that can call off a play as well. The first-base coach also can play a part in relaying signals and delivering an indicator for a baserunner.
“We keep (the signs) simple, mainly for me. I’ve got to remember them, too,” joked Tom Magnuson, who has coached the Wausau Legion baseball team for 35 seasons. “I think the book ‘Ball Four’ had a story about Preston Gomez, a coach who had a separate set of signs for every player. I can’t imagine trying to remember all of that.
“We have one set of signs and keep it pretty basic. But you have to put a little bit of confusion in there — just hopefully not enough that it confuses your own players as well.”
Manitowoc Lutheran baseball coach Paul Durkee said he will install a few basic signs at the start of the year and then add more to the repertoire as the season goes on. How many signs the team has can depend on the experience level of the team.
“Last year we had eight seniors and had been playing varsity since they were sophomores,” Durkee said. “They were fine to go and we had every (signal) in right away. Being a veteran group can be a difference along with what you might call the team’s baseball smarts.”
Greenwood baseball coach Kent Hinker has a similar approach. He said he has just a handful of signs and he keeps his sign system relatively simple. He adds a few signs as the season progresses.