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February 25, 2003

Follow the signs

From: Palm Beach Post, FL - 25 Feb 2003

By Joe Capozzi, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 25, 2003

JUPITER -- At 8:45 a.m. Monday, the door to the Florida Marlins' clubhouse was firmly shut. Inside, 60 players concentrated as third-base coach Ozzie Guillen performed an intricate ballet with his hands.

He touched his nose, tugged his belt, adjusted his hat, pulled his ear lobes, patted his shoulders, clapped his hands, slapped his thighs.

Fifteen minutes later, the Marlins performed one of their most important drills of spring training -- speaking and understanding the unspoken baseball language of signs.

"Last year, I used my kid's Little League signs in the big-league camp,'' Guillen said. "It worked for us so we kept it.''

This year's signs? Guillen answers with a frown that sends a firm message -- baseball signs are closely guarded secrets that can mean the difference between winning and losing.

When manager Jeff Torborg wants to put on a play in his team's Grapefruit League opener against Baltimore on Thursday, he'll send a signal to Guillen, who then uses a series of signs to tell the batter and base runners whether to steal, bunt or hit-and-run.

"It can be pretty tough. You've got to pay attention,'' third baseman Mike Lowell said. "But I'm sure if the FBI was staring at our third-base coach, they could figure it out sooner or later.''

Guillen said he takes pride in knowing his signs. "I don't miss one sign with my manager, thank God. And that's the one thing you worry about.''

Still, he doesn't go to the extreme of former Expos coach Pete Mackanin, who would stand in front of a mirror every night and practice signs.

The hard part for players is knowing Guillen's code, which includes the sequence of motions and his indicator, which tells players he's about to give the actual sign.

Guillen's Little League-level sign last year was a clap, which made him look like he was encouraging the batter.

"One clap was bunt, two claps was hit-and-run, three claps was steal,'' he said.

But the key to that sequence was the indicator. Guillen's indicator was touching his nose. In other words, he could have clapped all he wanted, but if he didn't touch his nose first, players knew he wasn't saying anything. But if he touched his nose, then clapped twice, that meant the hit-and-run was on.

"The indicator is the one you've got to be careful about. You can't touch the indicator all the time,'' he said.

Torborg recalled how Yankees coach Yogi Berra touched his nose for a squeeze play. "One day in the dugout he was starting to pick his nose. And they thought we were putting it on. Yogi says, 'It's only on the outside of my nose!' From a distance you can't tell.''

Sign-giving in baseball has come a long way since the days of William "Dummy" Hoy, a hearing- and speaking-impaired outfielder in the late 19th century who persuaded his third-base coach to relay plays via sign language.

At the turn of the century, manager John McGraw ordered his New York Giants to learn sign language to communicate with deaf pitcher Luther "Dummy" Taylor.

"Now the TV cameras are on you so much that you can't do too much for long,'' Torborg said, referring to how teams decipher signs by studying videotape.

Like most teams, the Marlins will change signs several times a year -- before opening day, after the All-Star break, and even if they're playing a team to which a former player was recently traded.

"When we play Boston (June 27-29), with Kevin Millar, we're going to have to make little adjustments,'' infielder Andy Fox said. "You might just reverse the sequence, or have a different touch here or different touch there.''

That's why Guillen uses tricks or decoys to keep the opposition guessing.

"Some coaches are devilish fellows. If you release a guy, some coaches will call a guy and ask for the signs,'' Torborg said. "Preston Gomez had a set of signs for every player.''

But Guillen also walks a fine line between fooling the other team and fooling his own players.

"With Luis Castillo, I have to be real careful about what kind of sign I give because he always gets confused,'' Guillen said of the Marlins' leadoff batter.

"Some of the coaches on other teams try to kid you... 'Hey, we got your signs.' I say, 'You don't have my signs. Even my own team doesn't have my signs!' "

Former Cardinals great Pepper Martin, while coaching in the minor leagues, came up with a simple way to communicate with his players after they missed too many signs. Martin held up placards that said STEAL or BUNT. The other team thought he was bluffing, but he actually was telling the truth.

Guillen used the same concept last year when the Marlins played the Expos for the first time since Cliff Floyd was traded to Montreal.

"Jeff said, 'We need to change the signs.' I said, 'No we don't.' I just told Luis Castillo, 'First pitch, I'm gonna put hit-and-run, but don't go.' We put hit-and-run on first pitch, nothing happened. Second pitch we put hit-and-run on, nothing happened. Later we put hit and run-and-and sent him. So we kept the signs.''

Guillen says he has never missed a sign from Torborg, and Lowell takes equal pride in never having missed a sign during an at-bat.

"I was in the minor leagues and you missed a sign, you paid $100,'' Lowell said. "That was the Yankee system. They'd enforce it, too. After the first guy forked over a hundred bucks, no one ever lost a sign.''

But Fox admits he's gotten confused because of other age-old baseball rituals.

"The coach used to grab his groin area to put us on hold,'' he said. "As a player, that's kind of a habit thing. So you wonder, 'Is he just fixing?' "

Copyright © 2003, The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved.