No stealing signs in this numbers game   

Updated: March 3, 2009

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I'm a fierce traditionalist when it comes to baseball. I don't like the DH, I'm not a fan of the wild-card playoff format -- I even had a hard time adjusting to umpires' working in both leagues.

So why do I suddenly think it makes perfect sense for a third-base coach to bark out numbers instead of using signs? I'm not really sure, but I admit I'm having trouble with the whole wristband thing. I can probably get used to that, too, but it might take some time.

To back up, I went to one of my sons' high school baseball games on Saturday afternoon, and the third-base coach for the other team kept his hands to himself. He held a laminated sheet, and whenever someone reached base he started calling out numbers in sets of three, no number higher than 5.

Tim Foley

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The histrionics on old school signal calling may be an institution, but it is definitely flawed.

As soon as he read the numbers off the sheet, the baserunner(s) and batter would consult their quarterback-style wristbands. In a second or two, the runner had his lead and the hitter was in the box. They didn't even have to look at him.

Typically in high school baseball, signs are a process. The hitter might be looking but the runner isn't, so the coach goes through the traditional routine of standing with his hands on his hips, glaring at the runner -- there could be whistling involved, or the repetitive screaming of a name -- until the inattentive runner gets the idea and turns his attention in the proper direction. Usually, the level of disgust in the coach's manner runs in direct correlation to the likelihood of a play being on. If he wants your attention that badly, well, something's probably on.

And then there's the whole issue of missed signs, which follow along the same well-worn path except for one significant difference: After the coach does the hands-on-hips routine, he generally spins around in a tight circle of frustration before returning his glare to the offending party.

I've never timed it, but I'm guessing this routine adds up to about 15 minutes a game. Double it for JV.

But what I was watching was a system that called for no signs from the third-base coach. He didn't tap his nose or swipe his sleeve or bounce his index finger three times on the bill of his cap. Sacrilege, right?

As soon as the coach -- Max Luckhurst from Campolindo High School in Moraga, Calif. -- started calling out the numbers, I did what any self-respecting dad from the other team would do: I set about the task of picking them. There had to be a code, and I thought over the course of a game I could unlock it. I figured the first number told the players which of the following numbers meant something -- 3-2-1 meant 1 was the hot number, and 1 had to correspond to bunt, steal or hit-and-run. By the same token, 2-3-1 meant 3 was the hot number. It was similar to the four-digit system we used in college for calling pitches with a runner on second.

And then I heard Luckhurst say "5-3-2" and the runner took off for second and my whole theory was shot. Then I realized the players wouldn't need wristbands if the system was that simple. So I gave up and watched the game.

Good thing, too, because I called Luckhurst on Monday to see whether he was at the forefront of a movement to revolutionize a small part of the game.

"It's a software program," he said.

Oh.

I have to admit, that was kind of a letdown. I wanted something more intrepid. But then again, if I'm going to abandon tradition, I might as well go all the way.

Luckhurst discovered the program the same way I did. He went to a game -- in his case, a Cal baseball game -- and heard Cal head coach Dave Esquer and his assistants calling out the three-number sequences to their players. Curious, Luckhurst asked around and found out about the first pick-proof sign system, created by ownthezonesports.com.

It works like this: The coach's sheet has a list of numbers created by a spreadsheet-type software program. He might have 35 sets of numbers that all mean one thing: bunt. He might have 35 more that mean steal. He might have 20 that mean hit-and-run and maybe two or three for a less common call such as fake bunt/steal.

The players' wristbands have grids of numbers, with the horizontal numbers in pairs -- e.g., 32, 44, 21 -- and the vertical numbers in single digits. The coach calls out the three-digit number, the player finds the first two numbers in the horizontal column and the last number in the vertical column. Where they meet is a simple symbol -- "B" for bunt, "HR" for hit-and-run, you get the idea -- and within seconds we're all on the same page. There are also dead numbers, which don't mean anything.

It's not difficult to learn. Put it this way, my description sounds way more complicated than the actual grids. Check the Web site and you'll see.

The same system can be used for calling pitches and defenses. The coach can customize his numbers to fit his team's tendencies. A growing number of college teams use the system, including Oregon State, Purdue, Washington State and Cal. It makes sense, since college baseball players do one of two things when they're not playing: (1) incessant bench-jockeying; (2) trying to pick signs.

Look, I know what you're thinking: This isn't baseball. This is straying closer and closer to a world where computer programs run our lives. I doubt a major league team would employ such a system, fearing ridicule from everybody else. Besides, if a third-base coach isn't swiping his sleeve and tapping his finger from his nose to his ear to his chin and then back to his nose, is it really baseball?

Here's what Luckhurst has to say about that: His team hasn't missed a sign in its first four games this season. "Last year I can't tell you how many signs we missed," he says. "It was one of our biggest problems."

And, as Luckhurst says, the system is pick-proof but not foolproof. A kid could goof it up, and so could a coach. He spent hours with his team in the classroom before the season, calling out numbers while they checked their grids to find the right combination. A coach can use hand signals instead of verbal, an option better suited to a louder environment than most high school games.

It's pick-proof because it's totally random. The numbers mean something only to the people with the wristbands. And when a college team plays a three-game weekend series, someone just gives the software a command and the numbers scramble into a different grid. Replace the old grid with a new one and everyone has a new set of signs without having to learn them. The only fear is having either a grid or the coach's master sheet stolen or lost.

"You can sit in the dugout and hear me say '2-3-5' and say, 'OK, that's steal,'" Luckhurst says. "For that one time, it might be. But the problem is, you're never going to hear me say that again. Coaches will sit in the dugout and write down every sequence, thinking they're going to find a pattern. They won't, because it doesn't exist.

"I was skeptical at first, but we're not missing signs anymore, it speeds the game along and the kids love it."

So, function or tradition? The coach, of course, opts for function. And if you're the kid missing the sign and paying the price, you would, too.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.


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