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Signs of the times

Signs of the times

The Indians are at the plate, and suddenly third base coach Jeff Datz can't keep his hands to himself.

Datz rubs his chest. He taps his elbow. He touches his nose. He wipes his hands against each other. He touches the bill of his cap.

What in the world do these hand signals mean? Is Datz instructing the runner at first base to steal? Is he telling the man at the plate to bunt? Is he ordering Chinese food for the dugout? That's for Datz to know and for the opposition to find out.

We had as much chance of Datz telling us what each sign means as the White Sox do. But Datz, who moved to third base from first after Joel Skinner was named manager Eric Wedge's bench coach for this season, did offer us some insight into how sign language factors into a big-league ballgame.

The creation: The coaching staff comes up with initial batch of signs during Spring Training. "We talk about it as a staff," Datz said. "Eric wanted to change things up a bit this year. You get with the layers and keep them complicated enough that the opposition can't pick them up and yet simple enough that our players can pick them up."

The instruction: Signs have a tendency to look more complicated than they really are. "There's not a real science to it," Datz said. "You just try to keep it relatively simple." That comes as a relief to the players, some of whom are quicker to adapt to signs than others. "It's a struggle for some guys. But as we go, we'll have variations. Every player is different."

The alterations: It seems you can't trust anybody these days. Not even a former teammate. Because players come and go so frequently in today's game, teams have to be sure to change their signs frequently. "That's one of the reasons we change them every year, for sure," Datz said. "Sometimes we change them series to series. We might just use them for a few series at a time. But if things are going well, sometimes we'll keep them the same and go from there."

The five-finger discount: No jury would or could convict them, but baseball coaches are among the most accomplished thieves in the world. It's well-known that sign stealing is a regular part of the game. "Everybody watches," Datz said. "There are some clubs that really like to bear down. But I think everybody watches to steal signs and get an edge."

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: : :   This Edition: April 19, 2006   : : :

The decoys: Sometimes signs are much ado about nothing. "You have to use some decoys," Datz said. "You can't just put signs on when something's going on. You can't just do signs when a hit's on or a bunt's on. You have to go through a sequence of signs every time there's a runner on base."

The communication: Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. And the players better be looking for them. "We tell our players from Day 1," Datz said, "that if there's a runner on base or you're coming to the plate or you're on the on-deck circle or on the bench, you have to watch. Watch the game, follow the game and be a student of the game."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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