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July 5, 2002
This year, after many years of living off the largesse of my friends and family, and begging, borrowing, and scalping tickets where I could get them, I bought season tickets. I've learned a lot by upping my game attendance from 20 to more than 40 (and that's not including minor-league games).
For starters, there's a huge gap between the unified seamheads--the people who may believe in clutch hitting or might know their park effects cold--and the random fan who cheers for the dot/train/boat races and says things like "I love the music! The music is the best part of the game." Recognize each other through the rolled eyeballs during the warmed-over bloopers segment (if it wasn't digital, folks, they'd wear the tape through).
The greatest thing I've found this year, though, is that in attending games you can see things you don't see on television, like fielders who do poor jobs positioning themselves, the guys who take needless dives to catch balls (or who hesitate on an early step to necessitate the dive), and show up on "SportsCenter" later that night. That's obvious enough, right? But your ability to see things grows as you learn how to watch baseball in person. I remember when I realized that after years of fandom I could guess pitch speeds by my ability to pick up a ball out of a pitcher's hand. It gets even better than that, though; when you see the same team over and over, patterns start to emerge that offer entertainment in a way that was previously hidden.
Stealing signs, my dear readers, is remarkably easy for the dedicated fan. I was shocked to realize I'd cracked a particular Mariners' sign, and even more surprised when I picked off the Rockies' signs over the course of a long homestand. It's not likely to shock you to learn my pre-game preparations often involve beer, and my game-viewing frequently consists of a three-hour running comedy routine with whoever's around me, punctuated with sometimes spirited arguments over players and strategies. Which is to say I'm not sitting up on the top deck with binoculars and a furrowed brow for three hours, so this isn't going to involve any stats, or use of mathematica.
Here's my easy guide for the neophyte:
That's all you have to do. You don't even really have to memorize the the moves a coach makes or the order in which he makes them, though it helps to take notes on what your suspicions are. I think videotape combined with good note taking would make the process so easy even Yankees fans could manage it.
Here's the thing: as far as you may be from the third-base coach, the players are also a fair distance away. The signs can't be so subtle they could be missed, so they tend to be things like "if I touch the brim of my cap at all" or "if I touch my hat with both hands." You're not going to see a team set up the hit-and-run with something like "if I knock the dirt out of my cleats heel-toe-heel." This means that you too can see signs if you have decent seats and good eyeballs.
Because of their frequency, it's easiest to puzzle out the steal signs. You shouldn't assume that a fast player (say, Ichiro Suzuki) won't steal on his own, but they'll get the sign to steal when the manager wants to force the issue, and then unless something's seriously wrong, the player is going.
Watch the third-base coach when the runner on first looks over. He'll do a whole routine that probably lasts all of ten seconds at best, touching the legs, arms, hat, whatever. Don't sweat it too much. If you're like me, you played that damn flashing-color Simon game for years, and your pattern-recognition skills are honed to a razor's edge.
The coach will almost certainly have a routine, whether he intends to or not. The signs when nothing is on are quick, no big deal, a brush on an arm, a quick touch of the cap. Look for things that stick out: a particularly long touch, or a gesture repeated consecutively. They want the runner to see the sign, so it becomes exaggerated.
This is how I caught the Mariners' steal sign. Dave Myers (who I think should share the blame for Chris Snelling's blown ACL, by the way, another of his many botched calls) would go through the dusting-himself-off routine, including a brush of his hand across the lettering on his jersey. But when the steal sign was given, he would stop his hand as it brushed across the middle of the lettering, hold for a moment, and then go back into the routine.
It was that easy.
Then the Rockies...when third-base coach Toby Harrah touched his left arm with his right arm and ran his hand up and down a couple of times, the runner went. A quick brush, and no go.
You're probably thinking I'm making this up. That's fair enough; I didn't believe it myself for a while. Try it yourself if you go to enough games, especially if you're able to go to a lot of them in quick succession. Teams do change their signs on their own, and almost always change them when they trade a player.
The steal sign is the easiest to catch, just because it's the most frequent, but if you have a team that does a ton of sacrifice bunting (say, if your manager is Don Baylor), you might get to see that one enough to figure it out before they swap it out. Also, if you have coaches who take any precautions, or come up with even rudimentary concealment signs, it'll take a lot more effort.
Now, if a schmuck like me can pick off the signs, why don't more teams do it? Knowing when a player is going to run would be a huge advantage; even sacrificing a pitch-out to catch a guy means you've eliminated a baserunner and taken an out away from your opponent. I can't believe that smart players standing around couldn't steal signs if they really wanted to.
In the same way, though, that batters don't do a lot to steal pitch signs or locations, I believe that by and large, teams have agreed to not try particularly hard. It'd be a race, where coaches are forced to do elaborate Fred Astaire routines to convey or conceal simple signs. Then your player--especially your dim player--is going to get that confused look on his face, and then he'll get picked off while mentally trying to work back through the signs. Just like teams don't want to force catchers to (gasp!) set up in the catcher's box and then move to the pitch, because it's trouble for everyone, stealing signs would result in a mental arms race that is too much trouble for everyone involved.
For us, though? Go on, do it. It's fun, and it's one of the many advantages to attending a lot of games in person. Plus, if you're quick enough, you can bet the people around you, and with the money you make off the rubes you can buy extra copies of Baseball Prospectus 2002. You know, in case you lose one, or you loan it to a friend.
Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.