Published: 12:00 AM, Mon Apr 23, 2012
Baseball has sign language all its own
Sitting on a large upturned plastic bucket, Wendell Smith appears to dab at random places on his face and head, like someone doing a horrible job of applying suntan lotion.
If he was anywhere else but the edge of the dugout of his Cape Fear High School baseball team, his behavior would appear strange. But he's actually engaged in one of the most often used but least understood parts of the game of baseball, transmitting signals on what pitches to throw to his catcher, Earl Johnson.
On this Tuesday evening, Johnson is crouched behind the plate at Terry Sanford High School's baseball field, waiting for the signal on each pitch from Smith, then passing it on with more sign language to Colt pitcher Spencer Faircloth.
Smith said his system of signs is fairly typical for the sport. "Some of it is borrowed and some I developed myself,'' he said. "It lets me be pretty precise on where I want them to throw the baseball.''
Johnson, a junior, said Smith usually does a good job and the two of them rarely get crossed up on the sign Smith gives.
Precision counts, especially in this situation in the game. It's the fourth inning and Cape Fear has a 1-0 lead. Faircloth has been nearly perfect, retiring the first 10 batters he faced.
But after one out in the fourth, he allowed singles to Michael Downing and Joe Ingle.
Now with runners at first and second, Terry Sanford cleanup hitter Nathan Arp is at the plate.
And the wheels begin turning and the signs flashing as Smith figures what to do.
"A lot of factors go into it,'' Smith said. "Sometimes you look back and second-guess yourself. How solid a hitter is he? Where does he stand in the batter's box? Has he been hot?''
Smith must juggle all of those things, along with what are his pitcher's best tools, and make a decision in seconds. He decides to keep the ball away from the plate at the start, but that doesn't work as two balls are the result.
A fastball followed by a curveball evened the count at two-and-two. Now Smith has a dilemma.
"I felt like I didn't want to show him the curve again, and I couldn't afford to walk him,'' Smith said. "We didn't have a lot of options.''
The call was fastball. Faircloth got the pitch down and away where he wanted it, but Arp reached out with his bat and singled to right field, scoring Ingle. Downing would score later in the inning, and Cape Fear would eventually lose, 3-1.
It's decisions like that, Smith said, that will cause a coach to wonder what if.
"When it doesn't work, you're saying you should have thrown a curve or a changeup,'' Smith said. "You always tend to want to say we should have called something different.''
Scholastic sports editor Earl Vaughan Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3519.