McHenry’s speedy leadoff hitter Jack Glosson stood on first base last week and looked toward coach Brian Rockweiler for his sign.
In this likely steal situation, it was the time of the game when most third-base coaches go through a complicated signaling process – a tap of the hat, a swipe of the chest, tug on the earlobe, kick of the dirt, another tap on the hat.
But instead of going through that traditional routine, one that may look to an outsider like a strange tribal dance or perhaps someone fighting off an angry fly, Rockweiler opted for a different route.
“Five. Three. One,” he called out.
Glosson looked down at his wristband, which has a coded system with all of the Warriors’ offensive plays, such as bunts, steals and hit-and-runs, as well as defenses for each of these plays. The next pitch he bolted for for second.
Never mind that he was thrown out. That he had received the sign and executed it meant the wristband system that the Warriors implemented for the first time this season is working.
“I think it’s easier for the kids,” Rockweiler said. “All you have to do is listen to a number and look it up. There shouldn’t be anyone missing a sign.”
Wristbands and numbers started finding their way into the college game about 10 years ago. Own the Zone Sports, one of the most popular companies selling the computer software to create signs, has clients at more than 500 college baseball and softball teams, including 12 NCAA national champions.
Huntley coach Andy Jakubowski is considered the first coach to bring the system to McHenry County. He first heard about it at an American Baseball Coaches Association conference and decided to adopt it in 2010.
A handful of other teams in the area have embraced the trend. In addition to McHenry, Crystal Lake South is continuing it for the second year, and Marengo is in its fourth season with the wristbands. (Huntley uses wristbands only for defense this year, as does Prairie Ridge.)
The coaches who use the system say it promotes accuracy, efficiency and – perhaps most importantly – “They’re supposed to be pick-proof,” Rockweiler said.
Johnsburg tested that theory last week at Marengo. Each time the Indians called out a three-digit sequence, a bench player jotted it down.
“We really didn’t find out much,” Skyhawks coach Sam Lesniak said.
After the game, Marengo coach Josh Maas showed why. Each wristband has eight different 5-by-5 grids on it. The first number corresponds to a row on one of the grids. The second two numbers are for the column. Hitters connect the two to find a coordinate, kind of like the board game Battleship.
Coaches use computer programs to customize the grids to fit their philosophy, adding more steals or taking away some bunts, for example. Marengo has eight different ways to signal a bunt, in addition to several “repeat” signs.
Most teams have several wristbands, too, so they can easily swap them out if they play a team multiple times in a season, or even between innings if they think the other team may have a tip.
“We have seven or eight different colors that we’ve used,” Jakubowski said. “If we play Prairie Ridge on a Tuesday, then we’ve got to follow that up and play them on a Saturday, we might be in yellow for the Tuesday game and red on the weekend.”
However, there are still some who aren’t sold on the number system. Woodstock tried it two years ago but quickly scrapped it.
“Our kids hated it,” Woodstock coach John Oliveira said. “They didn’t want to have anything on their wrist outside of their EvoShield and all those kinds of things.”
Essentially, it was a matter of fashion over function for the Blue Streaks.
The other main argument comes from baseball purists. The wristbands take away the game-within-a game of giving and stealing signs. Something that is unique to baseball starts looking more like an offensive coordinator relaying signs to a quarterback.
But, like it or not, baseball is changing. Instant replay is in its second year at the major league level. A sport that once prized batting averages and pitching wins is increasingly opting for advanced metrics like WAR (wins above replacement) and FIP (fielding independent pitching). And, perhaps most telling of all, a video board has sprouted up just above the ivy-covered walls at Wrigley Field.
“Things evolve. Things change,” Crystal Lake South coach Brian Bogda said. “Kids of this generation like this particular system. If that’s what helps them understand the plays and execute them the proper way, why would we not try to help them out and give them that advantage?”
The wristbands represent just another way the game has advanced since Abner Doubleday first wrote the rules in 1839. And there certainly aren’t any signs that they’re going away … unless we missed them.