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Giving the Signs Is Inside Baseball

I can still remember it. We had runners at second and third with one out in the eighth inning of a tie game. Our next batter swung at the first pitch and ripped a line drive on the foul side of third base — catching our coach right on the ankle.

He went down like a shot, before gingerly picking himself off the turf. At the same time he casually rubbed his chin with his right hand before grabbing for his hat with the same hand and shaking it out.

To the uninformed, it was nothing but a painful, perhaps nervous response to an injury. To me it was the sign for a suicide squeeze.

Perfectly hidden, I had no doubt the play was on and we were about to score the winning run.

Except for one problem. Our runner on third base never saw the sign. And instead of scoring the game-winning run, he got trapped off the base and tagged out and we eventually lost the game.

“Don’t you guys know the signs?” our coach asked after the game. “Next time I’ll just walk over and tell you.”

At Dartmouth, veteran coach Bob Whalen leaves nothing to chance.

About 15 minutes before the start of every game, Whalen takes his team to the outfield for a little pregame talk.

They talk over field conditions — the wind, the sun etc. — and perhaps some specific situation needed to sharpen their focus. And, of course, the signs. “We do it every day, before every game,” says Whalen, whose Dartmouth teams are 55-7 at home since the building of Red Rolfe Field at Biondi Park.

When it comes to baseball, Whalen emphasizes that communication is the key to success. And the way you communicate in baseball is through a series of intricate, mostly wordless — and secret — signs.

“Signs are about communication,” says Whalen. “It’s a way of relating information.”

There’s the catcher flashing the sign for the opening pitch; the coach alerting the batter whether to swing away or take; the infielder giving the open mouth behind his glove to call for base coverage and the coach positioning the defense to counter the opponents’ tendencies. Everywhere on the diamond someone is giving a sign in baseball’s eternal chess match.

But Whalen is not as caught up as some with the micro-managing of the game. Some catchers look to the dugout before every pitch. Not at Dartmouth. Some players linger out of the batter’s box to decifer the signs before every pitch. Again, not at Dartmouth.

“It takes away from the tempo of the game,” he says. The Dartmouth coach says he may call a half-dozen pitches during the game, though he will call pitch outs and pickoffs. The rest of the time he relies on his pitcher and catcher to follow through on what they’ve been taught — how to attack hitters.

“We want our pitchers to work fast and throw strikes,” says Whalen, who learned baseball from his father who scouted for the Pittsburgh Pirates for nearly two decades. “We have a pro philosophy, in that we use the fastball to set everything up. And we pitch to contact.”

It must be working. In the past six years, Dartmouth has led the country in allowing fewest walks per season. This year, the Big Green ranks third.

When it comes to giving signs when the Big Green is in the field, Whalen takes a position on a bench where he can see and be seen. In those innings, Whalen and his staff are usually thinking two and three pitches — if not batters — ahead, while poring over scouting forms to glean any kind of an advantage or idea of what the opposition might do.

That’s where the signs come in — sometimes touches to the body, sometimes verbal — setting the defense, planning for any contingency.

When the Big Green is at bat, however, Whalen takes a less visible approach. He stands where only the third base coach can see him, and the way the dugout is positioned, his players block the view from the other dugout.

There, Whalen passes along his instructions via the signs to third base coach Jonathan Anderson. Armed with the information, Anderson then begins the time-honored practice of giving signals to the batter and/or runner on base: hand to the cap, wiping across the chest, touching the chin and then down to the arm.... and then all over again the next pitch.

“When we do give the signs, we want to be understated and quick. I don’t want the attention on me. It’s about the players, not the coaches.”

Of course, not all the signs are intended for his players. Some are directed at the opposition.

“During the season, we play the same team four times in a weekend. You know they are trying to get on your signs. Sometimes, we just give dummy signs to the other dugout.

“You give enough so that when you do give (actual) signs, it’s not apparent that it is.”

What may be apparent sometimes is when Dartmouth changes its signs. Then Whalen makes a Pac-Man motion with his hand to do away with the old signs.

“Of course these kids are too young to know what Pac-Man is, but they understand the concept,” laughs Whalen.