No one tugs his ear more than Bob Henley.
The Washington Nationals third base coach goes through a variety of moves when dispatching signs to hitters and base runners. Henley will tap a quad, swipe a forearm, touch his finger to his nose, pinch-and-pull his ear lobe and often wrap up his movements with a clap of his hands.
Henley is dispatching baseball maneuvers in code, a tradition that lives on during an era that has iPads in the dugouts and tracks every minimal movement.
Deciphering what the third base coach is doing stands as one of baseball’s great strategical pieces. There are “spies” in the stands, people watching on television. Execution and secrecy are why Henley approaches his job with such reverence. If he botches a sign, the player can suffer and multiple things can go awry.
“It’s a very important job, because if he doesn’t get the sign from me, the players don’t get the sign,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “Sometimes, he gets it from me and they don’t get it. That can be the difference between hit-and-run and the second baseman covering and the next thing you know, you score three or four runs. Or that same ball is a double-play ball, and they’re out of the inning.
“Signs are very, very important. I try to remind our guys because invariably, first basemen like to talk. There are some guys that are known to distract you so you cannot get the signs. Like I tell my guys, if you can’t talk and look at the same time, then don’t talk. But, some guys are known for talking and distracting you. The third base coach’s job is probably one of the most important jobs on the field.”
Henley was one of two holdovers from Matt Williams’ staff. He retained his spot at third base, which meant he had learning to do in spring training. Baker touts that he possesses a “complicated” set of signs that he has used at his four managerial stops. During spring training in Viera, Florida, Henley practiced taking the signs. Baker would put a play on, then take it off, even outside of games so Henley could be in sync with the new manager.
“I was actually able to talk to a third base coach [Mark Berry from Cincinnati] he had for years in the spring,” Henley said. “I had a couple of signs in the spring and I missed them. I started talking to [Berry] and said, ‘Boy, I missed a sign the other day on something.’ First thing he did was say, ‘No, no. It’s going to take you a little time to figure out Dusty and some of the signs.’ Early on, I missed quite a few, too. Just stay with him. I think just getting with a guy that was with him and saying hey, that’s normal the first couple months [was good]. It’s going to take a little time.”
As Henley became more accustomed to what and how Baker was relaying signs to him — if a play is on, it has a specific indicator, if not, there can be a movement to suggest to the opposition an indicator has been signaled — he was able to understand the new manager’s thinking more, too. He started to ascertain some of Baker’s habits. Baker told Henley not to try guess along with him, but just to make sure he was crisply relaying what the team wanted to do. At times in between innings, Henley, intrigued by all of Baker’s baseball experience, asks the manager about the process to arrive at a certain decision.
“Through the months of being with him, I’ve learned quite a lot of how he views it and making sure I’m in a position to get whatever sign he puts on and execute that to the players,” Henley said. “He definitely has a unique set of signs which I have now and have an understanding of. I like the fact it took a little while to get them. It took me the whole spring.”
Back in mid-April, they had an error in communication. Daniel Murphy was on first base after a single in the seventh inning. He took off for second thinking a hit-and-run was on. Jayson Werth flew out to right field with Murphy in motion. Murphy was doubled off at first base.
The hit-and-run caught everyone off guard, including Baker, who later took the blame.
“That hit-and-run in the seventh, that was my mistake,” Baker said. “I inadvertently touched the wrong part of my body. That won’t happen too often. I’m not going to tell you where I touched, but I was probably as surprised as you guys.”
Baker was able to laugh it off because the Nationals ended up winning. Otherwise, communication between him, Henley and the players remains serious business.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at email@example.com.
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