Joe Nossek, bench coach of the Chicago White Sox, is considered the Sinatra of sign-stealers, unfailingly the first name mentioned when the larcenous art is discussed.
“He belongs to the CIA,” then-Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn once said admiringly of Nossek.
The next name invoked is likely to be Roger Craig, who called so many successful pitchouts in his career that it seemed the opposition’s steal sign was being channeled through him.
Don Zimmer is another acknowledged sign-stealing master, a skill honed during more than a half-century in professional baseball.
The trio isn’t necessarily proud of their reputations, mind you.
“I don’t know if ‘pride’ is the word,” Nossek said. “It’s nice to have something you’re recognized for. It’s flattering more than anything. Whether it’s justified all the time, I don’t know. Sometimes, psychologically, it’s an advantage.”
“Let me tell you something: I’d rather be known as a baseball man, knowing the game,” Zimmer said. “For someone to say ‘Zimmer was a big sign-stealer’ – I don’t even want to be remembered for that.”
But that’s the price of success for Zimmer, Nossek and Craig, all of whom had – or have – the ability to get into the heads of opposing teams. When the White Sox come to town – as they are now, playing the Mariners – it’s not unusual for teams to change their signs, just out of respect for Nossek.
Nossek, 62, once estimated that stolen signs can be responsible for 15 to 18 key outs a season, possibly translating to four or five wins or more. “Pennant races are decided by less,” he told Sports Illustrated.
Like all great sign-stealers, Nossek looks for a change in the routine of opposing coaches, the first indication that a sign is being relayed.
“You see how a guy works, and if you see something different, you have something to key on,” he said.
“Here’s how you steal a sign every once in a while: If I’m on the bench, I’ll see a third-base coach has a rhythm,” Zimmer said. “Next pitch, same rhythm. Then the next pitch – wait a minute. Oh, oh – something different. It might mean something.”
Craig was a master of observation, forever seeking subtle nuances that spoke volumes. It might come from the opposing coach, or just as likely from the base runner.
“Base runners are like thieves: A lot of times, they give themselves away,” Craig said. “It could be the way they fix their helmet, or look at second base, or if they do something different when they squat down.”
When he managed, Craig assigned utility players on the bench to watch the opposing manager or coach, charting his movements as he gave signs.
“Sometimes I’d have three or four guys look at one person – ‘You look at when he touches his face; you look at his chest; you the belt; and you the pants,'” he said. “You keep eliminating stuff.”
While serving as Chicago’s “Eye in the Sky” in 1990, Nossek was accused by the Orioles of sitting in the stands and communicating signs to Sox manager Jeff Torborg. The Orioles pointedly had their general manager, Roland Hemond, sit next to Nossek in a subsequent game to monitor him.
“The only part that hurts is being accused of cheating,” Nossek said. “I try to keep it aboveboard. Once in the early ’90s, I tried to film the third-base coach in the game, but it didn’t work out well. I did it a couple of months and couldn’t get anything. I threw it out the window.
“My big defense, and I continue to stand by it, is if you think someone is doing it, change your signs. It’s quite simple.”