Billy Martin, Sign stealing

On the Radio: Who Needs Signs When One Has Bluetooth?

Billy MartinIn his ESPN column on Sunday, Buster Olney discussed a proposal to speed up play: outfitting players and managers with earpieces and microphones, obviating the need for signs:

If pitchers, catchers and infielders worked with wireless earpieces — say, the size of a hearing aid — and catchers could speak a code word into a microphone inserted into the heel of their gloves, rather than giving signs, then the issue of having a runner at second base would be circumvented. Pitchers could hear a sign, and if they wanted something different, they could shake it off, as they do now.

Similarly, managers could communicate with their catchers in this way, and perhaps coaches at third and first base could speak to baserunners. This would greatly reduce the need for mound conferences between players, and in turn, it would improve pace of play.

An interesting idea, but not exactly new territory. From The Baseball Codes:

While managing the Texas Rangers in 1974, Billy Mar­tin came up with what he felt was a surefire way to safeguard his signals— he installed a transmitter in the dugout that broadcast his orders to earpiece receivers worn by each of his base coaches, eliminating signs entirely. Such technology has since been outlawed, but even then it wasn’t always useful. With a runner on third and Cesar Tovar at the plate against the Red Sox, for example, Martin told third-base coach Frank Lucchesi to give the suicide-squeeze sign. The transmission was fuzzy, however, and Lucchesi couldn’t make out Martin’s order.

“Billy says, ‘suicide squeeze,’ ” recalled Rangers catcher Jim Sund­berg, “and Frank hits his ear like he can’t hear Billy’s command. Billy says it a little bit louder: ‘Suicide squeeze.’ And Frank’s tapping his ear again and shaking his head like he can’t hear.” Finally, Martin yelled into the microphone, “Suicide squeeze!” It didn’t matter; Lucchesi couldn’t hear a word. Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, however, could. He stepped off the mound, looked at Lucchesi, and said, “Frank, Billy said he wants the sui­cide squeeze.”

Sign decoding is a high art, and men like Joe Nossek, while unknown to most of the baseball world, are revered for their abilities in that arena. For all the potential benefits of going to an electronic system, such a move would deprive baseball of one of its most fascinating (if checkered) facets. Worth it? Who knows. Regrettable on many levels? Undeniably.

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