Sign stealing

Sign Stealing Intrigue Grips Little League World Series

Baseball’s unwritten rules have reached the Little League World Series, and serve to illustrate the difference between what goes on in the big leagues and how youth-league teams should conduct their business.

Barrington, R.I., beat Goffstown, N.H., 6-4, in Saturday’s New England regional final to earn a trip to the Series. Goffstown did not take it easily. The secret to Barrington’s success—or a secret, anyway—said Goffstown manager Pat Dutton, had to do with stolen signs.

“You can see [runners on second base] leaning in, looking in and they’re doing hand gestures to their kid [at the plate], indicating what kind of pitch it is and where it’s located,” Dutton said after the game in a New Hampshire Union Leader report. “You can do that in big league ball, but in Little League it’s unsportsmanlike, it’s dishonorable, and it’s disgusting. They did it the whole tournament and got away with it, and now that’s what’s representing New England in the Little League World Series. It’s just a bad look.”

Dutton first noticed a pattern when the teams met earlier in bracket play on Aug. 8, in a game that Goffstown won, 2-1. As Dutton told it, he alerted the umpires, who subsequently issued warnings when Barrington stole a sign on the next pitch after Dutton had raised the issue. The offense is punishable by ejection for both player and manager, but everybody was allowed to remain in the game.

The point was enumerated by Giants broadcaster and former 20-game winner Mike Krukow in The Baseball Codes:

Krukow received an angry response from a number of Bay Area parents after praising pitcher Tyler Walker on the air for launching a retaliatory strike against Mark Mulder after the A’s ace hit two Giants, including Barry Bonds. “They’re pissed off that they have Little Leaguers and I’m teaching them the wrong baseball,” Krukow said. “But I’m not teaching Little League baseball. Their fathers teach them Little League baseball. I’m explaining what goes on here at the major-league level. And if Walker doesn’t do what he did, then he’s got to answer to Barry Bonds. And Barry Bonds has every right to get in his face, and every other pitcher’s face, that doesn’t protect him.”

If these comments seem at all inflammatory, it must be pointed out that Krukow is an ex-pitcher, a baseball man, whose opinions reside in the mainstream of the sport. He understands how baseball as an institution is improved by the Code, and, just as important in his role as a broadcaster, he understands how those who don’t pay close attention might fail to comprehend that fact. It makes for a tough balancing act.

However those comments sound now, when they were made—the game in question happened on July 4, 2004—they were in the mainstream of baseball thought. And though retaliation is far different than stolen signs, both topics are found in the sport’s unwritten rulebook.

Back at the Little League level, Dutton did not protest the game, but was profoundly disappointed.

“It’s just frustrating to see teams and kids having to go about it that way when clearly they were playing better than we were,” he said in the Union Leader. “They didn’t have to do that. That’s something these kids don’t learn on their own. That’s something that they’re taught. They’re coached to do that. Obviously the team condones it, they coach it, and, personally, that’s something that I’m completely against. Little League is supposedly against it, but you wouldn’t know it this week.”

Barrington Little League denied everything, but pick up the below video at about 31:30 to see what’s happening. (The exact moment comes at 31:43.)

Speaking personally, I’m a coach on my son’s travel ball team, and there have been a few instances in which I could clearly see a catcher’s signal from the first- or third-base coach’s box. I subsequently implemented a lightly disguised verbal signal to let the hitter know when a breaking ball was coming. It was intentionally simple, and the opposing coach inevitably caught on quickly, at which point he instructed his catcher give signs from deeper between his knees, and lay his glove hand atop his leg to further obscure things—a real-time lesson in proper setup. Nobody on the other team ever took offense, and one coach actually thanked me for the wake-up call. (It probably helped that we were playing in a local tournament and not the Little League World Series.)

This is different from a player peering in from second base after the catcher has set up about as well as he can—a tactic that my team does not endorse. Dutton’s concerns seem founded. Now we just have to wait to see if Barrington keeps it up now that people are paying attention.

Barrington opens the tournament at 3 p.m. EST today, against Southeast Division champ South Riding, VA.

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