Created:Tuesday, March 30, 2010 11:43 p.m.CDT

WHAT IT'S LIKE TO... Deliver signs


DeKALB – Ed Mathey knew it was time for a change.

It's something every baseball team eventually does. But this season, the Northern Illinois baseball coach implemented a whole new set of signs on the field.

"That's always the great battle within a ballgame," Mathey said. "I felt some teams probably got onto us a little bit."

Baseball coaches use signs to communicate pretty much everything with their players on the field. There are signs to steal a base, signs to shift the outfield left or right or the infield in or out and signs to bunt, swing away or take a pitch.

The key is making sure your opponent doesn't know what you are telling your team, which would ruin the point of using signs altogether.

Stealing signs is just as big of an art form as setting them up in the first place.

"You only have to worry about it when a team has five coaches," Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh said. "There’s things you look for or listen for if you think they are on to you. The most common thing is if you hear a hitter's first name it means something or if they keep calling out a player's number. You just listen for them to relay it to the hitters."

If a coaching staff is calling what pitch to throw from the dugout, like Sycamore will do much of this season, things get even trickier.

When DeKalb was doing the same thing two years ago, it went as far as to have its catcher wear a wristband and the coaches would send in a three-digit code that would determine what pitch they were calling.

"There's a lot of programs that have tried [to steal signs], but it's just a matter of getting more complex then," DeKalb coach Justin Keck said.

At DeKalb, Keck has instituted the same set of signs throughout the program. So when players enter the school as freshmen, they learn the same signs they will use for four years.

Keck said the majority of teams they play, like his own team, don't have the time to worry about trying to steal the other teams' signs. But they use them anyway.

"From game to game, we change our indicator as far as what the hot signal is that tells the player what to do," Keck said. "That's really just what the coach's preference is. Some people use number or name or body parts."

In college, when teams have more coaches, stealing signs can happen more often.

"The constant battle is you're giving a sign and you're watching them maneuver and you watching to see if their fielders are changing up because they're picking up your signs," Mathey said. "If you call a hit-and-run or a steal, and they start pitching out consistently, then you know they've got something on you.

"If it's just one time, then you pay attention to it and you wait for the second time because maybe they're just playing a hunch on that one time."

If not, the coaching staff has to start over from scratch, like the Huskies have done this season.

• Daily Chronicle sports reporter John Sahly contributed to this report.

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