Cue the music. Do this. Don’t do that. Can’t you read the signs?
Nothing makes a coach angrier than when the answer is no, as longtime Portales softball coach Robbie Crowley can attest.
“Oh, they’ve missed the sign,” Crowley says with a laugh. “It makes me angry, because I don’t know if they missed the sign or they just chose to ignore the sign.”
The answer was no for some eastern New Mexico ballclubs, too, so the scenery has changed a little bit. The new trick up the sleeve is a band on the sleeve.
When you hear Clovis softball coach Brandi Thomas saying, “Orange 42,” or Portales coach Dusty Nusser yelling, “222,” that means their players are checking their wristbands, which have an insert slightly larger than an index card telling them what the signal corresponds to.
“I saw Artesia using it, probably four years ago,” Thomas said. “They were using it to call both defensive and offensive signs. Scott Simer, who was the coach then, is a friend of mine. I asked him the difference of missed signs at the plate. Me, I would go old school signs. But he told me none of his girls would ever miss a sign because it was right there on their wrist. I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot.’”
For Nusser, in his first year as the head coach, the wristband signs are second nature to the players. This is the fourth year Portales is using the cards, but Nusser did have a hand in the implementation as an assistant.
“The year we won the state championship was the first year we started doing it,” Nusser said. “When Art (Ontiveros) was the head coach and I was the assistant, I made them. So it’s (continuing) the system.”
The Portales card has situations like hit and run, suicide squeeze, fake bunt and steal, with some blank spots on the cards that act as dummy plays to keep the opposition guessing.
Thomas has nine commands on her cards, organized in a series of numbers in four quadrants — blue, orange, green and yellow.
“This year, I used numbers and colors. There’s less of a chance of another team getting hold of a certain number. Let’s say 14 is a hit and run. (Our opponents) know that, they’ll do a pitchout. For example, I have 14s with three different colors.”
There is a category called, “Hit,” which is Thomas’ version of the dummy call.
Nusser said the card system works for three reasons:
• It’s harder for kids to miss signs.
• Practice time goes to fundamentals instead of learning signs.
• An opposing coach or bench player will sometimes be assigned to write down the signals, which Nusser and Thomas said they combat by switching cards. The coach tasked to do that, Nusser said, will waste his time writing down numbers that won’t matter a few innings later instead of looking to see if the pitcher is tipping a curveball.
Texico baseball coach Ty Thatcher and Portales softball coach Robbie Crowley still do the classic method of signs with visual activators.
“Say, I touch my visor, then I touch my ear,” Crowley said. “The indicator is the visor, and whatever I touch after the visor gives them the signal of what the gameplan is. The ear may be a bunt.”
To keep things less confusing, Crowley said, the signs Portales started the season with are the signs they’ll be using at the end of the season. But she admits opposing teams have picked up Portales’ signs, and that she’s thinking of going to the wristbands next season as well.
Thatcher said he’s fine with the system he calls, “a little old school,” where he uses activators but also a motion called the “kill” that cancels a sign.
“I think you have more of a connection with the player than you do with the wristbands,” Thatcher said. “In our world, you can’t hear 10 feet, let alone 40 feet or 60 feet. I know Dusty was having a hard time (on Monday, a 7-3 Texico win over Portales) getting his signs to the guys to the plate.”
Nusser said he’s only had a few signs missed, compared to a game when he was a freshman in Muleshoe and the team missed eight signs. Thomas said she’s had three players miss signs this season, and the result is 2-for-3 with a pair of singles and a runner caught stealing.
Cue the music, and don’t be said, because two out of three ain’t bad. But the underlying point is that execution sometimes matters more than anything.
“There are certain situations you know,” Thomas said. “We’re in the bottom of the eighth, with the international tiebreaker and the runner on second. The obvious play is a bunt because you have to move the runner to third. It’s up to the offense to execute it, and it’s up to the defense to get the out, whether it’s at first or they can get it at third.”