As the pictures at the left show, third-base coaches often strike odd poses. In their clandestine world, any or all of these apparently meaningless gestures could be conveying a message. Or there is always the slim chance that they actually are doing nothing more than contemplating disaster, picking a nose, loosening an errant shred of chewing tobacco or scratching an itchy ear. They also may be flashing the "takeoff" sign.
A takeoff is used when it is felt that the other team has stolen a signal. If a coach gives a takeoff, then goes through his usual rigmarole and follows the indicator with a bunt sign, the batter will know he is to disregard it. The results can shake up the opposition, particularly if the first or third baseman charges in for an anticipated sacrifice and has a line drive remove his bridgework.
Sign stealers are always on the prowl, and third-base coaches must be on the lookout for evidence that the codebreakers have succeeded. The Reds' Alex Grammas caught the Phillies in the act when they came to Cincinnati for a series in July.
"We felt they had picked up our steal sign because they called for a couple of pitchouts," Grammas says. "So, between innings, we switched signals. Just to check up on the Phillies, the next time we had a man on first I used the old steal sign and, sure enough, they pitched out again."
August 31, 1975
One of the most respected third-base coaches, Grammas is in his 12th year on the job, 11 of them in the big leagues. Along the way he has developed signaling into a science.
"When I managed Fort Worth in the Texas League in '64 I also coached third and I perfected my technique by practicing signs in my hotel room," says Grammas, who began his coaching career after 10 seasons as a light-hitting infielder for the Cardinals, Reds and Cubs. "The most important thing is to keep signs simple. You use lots of fake moves, but you have only a few simple gestures that mean anything. That way your players don't have to worry about missing a signal and can concentrate on doing what they're supposed to do.
"If you don't use enough fake moves, the other team'll pick you clean. You've also got to be quick, and you've got to have rhythm. There are only a few plays you can use in any situation, and if you don't give your signs fast enough, the other team is more likely to decipher what you're up to."
Rhythm? "You've got to have it," Grammas insists. "If you make a few quick moves and then slow down when you give the indicator and the signal for the play, they'll stand out. You want to maintain an even tempo. You want to make it look like you're doing the same thing all the time."
Being an outstanding third-base coach requires more than mastering sign language. "Once the game begins, the most important man when it comes to making quick decisions is the third-base coach," says Cincinnati Manager Sparky Anderson. "He's more important than the manager. Lots of times I'll give the wrong sign to Alex, but he always picks me up on it and gives the right one to the players. He's also taken off signs I've given him because he knew the other club was on to what we were doing. I really notice how good Alex is when I watch a new third-base coach breaking in, and I see his hesitancy in all sorts of situations. Alex doesn't hesitate because he's studied all the players and knows their abilities. I can't begin to count the runs he's scored for us simply because of his knowledge of the throwing arms of relay men. He knows the ones we can run on in certain situations."
"You can't calculate the value of a good third-base coach," says Montreal Manager Gene Mauch. "A good one develops a great sense of pride on a club because the players know they can trust him, that he doesn't make mistakes."
In addition to transmitting signs, a third-base coach is responsible for directing most of the on-base traffic. The decision to hold a runner at third rather than send him home is not made on whim. It is based on close study of players, both friends and foes.
"Ray Shore is our advance scout, and I pick up stuff from reports he sends in," Grammas says. "Lots of little things affect the outcome of a play, so I keep up-to-date on how outfielders are charging balls and how well they are throwing."
Combining this with his knowledge of the Reds' base-running capabilities. Grammas often predetermines what he wants a runner to do on a ball hit to the outfield. But even such a routine decision is subject to instantaneous change once the play unfolds.
"For example, if the ball takes a waist-high hop so the outfielder can throw quickly," Grammas says, "I'm more likely to hold a runner than if the fielder has to reach up or bend down to catch the ball."
With fractions of a second frequently the difference between a runner being safe or out. Grammas is alert to the smallest details. One of the most minuscule: if a left-handed-throwing rightfielder or a right-handed-throwing leftfielder has to move toward center field to pick up a ball, it takes a split second longer for him to release the ball because he must pivot into position before making his throw. It is just the sort of situation in which the speedy Reds, at Grammas' behest, will take the extra base.