Covering Mouths Just To Cover Their Bases

June 22, 2009|By Kevin Cowherd

Recently I started talking to my wife while covering my mouth with my old Rawlings glove, a practice she finds disturbing.

"The neighbors might be lip-reading," I said. "Who knows what they'll pick up?"

"You're watching too much baseball," she said. "Dial it back a little."

She might have a point.

Watch a major league game now and every pitcher-catcher conference on the mound involves both players talking with their gloves in front of their faces.

The first time I saw this, I thought: What, someone had onions for lunch?

But it turns out not to be a bad-breath issue.

Instead, it turns out to be a paranoia issue. The pitcher and catcher are worried the other team will read their lips and know how they plan to pitch to the next batter.

How the other team can instantly relay this information to the batter is beyond me. Unless the team has some sort of super-secret transmitter and the batter is wearing a tiny earpiece no one can detect.

But that's the beauty of paranoia: It doesn't have to make sense.

I brought up the issue of players covering their lips with their gloves to Orioles manager Dave Trembley, who immediately went into CIA-station-chief mode and clammed up.

No, that's not true. He actually seemed happy to discuss it.

"It's a rather recent occurrence," he said, "because of the TV, because there's so many cameras ... and there's so many people during the game that have monitors, and they're ... back up in the clubhouse watching it.

"It's like the [coaches] in football do on the sidelines. They put their playsheets [in front of their mouths] because there are people watching it [on tape] and they'll slow it down and try to read their lips."

Trembley and his pitchers and catchers seem to subscribe to this theory: Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean someone's not trying to steal intel from you.

OK, I said to Trembley, let's say there's a guy in the clubhouse who's like the Picasso of lip-readers.

He's watching a mound conference on TV. And he sees the pitcher on the other team call for a certain pitch to the batter.

Can that actually be relayed to the batter quickly enough to do any good?

"Oh, it sure can," Trembley said. "Because somebody can [just] ... run down [to the dugout]. It's a matter of seconds before they could relay that information."

Well ... OK. We didn't get into exactly how that info would get to the batter, whether by super-secret transmitter and tiny earpiece or some high-sign or pig-Latin shout-out from the dugout.

Some things you're just better off not knowing.

There's a theory floating around that all this hiding-your-lips-with-the-glove business started with former Oriole Will Clark.

Clark played for the San Francisco Giants in 1989, the year they beat the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series.

In Game 1, with Clark due up, Cubs catcher Joe Girardi went out to the mound to talk to pitcher Greg Maddux.

Clark watched the conversation and - you talk about a crack lip-reader! - later said he saw Maddux call for a high, inside fastball.

Armed with this knowledge, he jumped on the pitch and slammed it for a home run.

And this, the story goes, was the blow that struck fear into pitchers everywhere, convincing them that teams would now employ an army of lip-readers to eavesdrop on mound conferences.

I ran this story by veteran Orioles catcher Gregg Zaun, who said he had never heard it.

But he agreed with Trembley that all the TV cameras in ballparks give each game the potential for all sorts of intrigue.

"Teams, whether they admit it or not, have someone in the clubhouse watching signs," he said. "Let's face it, if you know what's coming at the plate, and it only takes one run to win a ballgame, one run to win you a pennant, win you a World Series, just think of the magnitude of one pitch. ... "

So pitchers and catchers huddling with their gloves over their mouths is here to stay, right?

Well, maybe.

I say this because some pitchers, like Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie, think it looks too dorky.

"I actually don't do it," he said. "When I talk to the catcher, I look down. I'll say, 'Let's throw the fastball here.' But I'm looking down when I say it."

Sure, that might work.

Until they stick a camera on the pitching rubber - which could come any day now.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd on Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 Sports Radio.

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