Now that two MLB managers and one GM have lost their jobs over a sign-stealing scheme, I thought I’d relay this conversation I had with former Chunichi Dragons cleanup hitter Kenichi Yazawa.
A few winters ago, he brought up the topic of the late Morimichi Takagi, who died suddenly on Friday. The taciturn Hall of Fame second baseman had a knack to spot opponents tipping their pitches. From there, the conversation moved to sign stealing, and the elaborate ways Japanese teams went to transmit that information to the guy in the batter’s box.
“Takagi loved finding out how guys tipped their pitches. He’d spot something like where the pitcher’s palm was. He’d tell me what to look for. But when I was at the plate, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t see it,” Yazawa said.
“When he was on the bench, he’d never say anything. He spent every instant concentrating on the pitcher. You could do that with (Yomiuri Giants star Suguru) Egawa. He’d hold the glove in front of his face in his windup, and you could tell by the size of the gap between the top of his glove and the bill of his cap whether it would be a fastball or not.”
“But for me, even if I could figure it out, I didn’t want to know because the whole process messed up my timing if I was thinking about that.”
“A former Taiyo Whales catcher, (Hisaaki) Fukushima. In the late innings once, when the score would be 6-0 or 7-0, he’d say, ‘Yazawa, what kind of pitch do you want next?’ I’d think, what would be good, so I’d say, ‘OK. How about a curve?’ I asked him if I’d really get one, and he said it would be a curve. And it was. So he’d ask if I wanted another one, and it here it came.”
“I liked to think along with the pitcher, try to guess based on the kind of pitcher he was. This type we’ll probably throw this, while another type of pitcher would throw that.”
“At old Nagoya Stadium, the Dragons used to station a scout inside the scoreboard. They weren’t like the electronic ones now. They had numbers and letters on boards. If we were playing the Giants, there would be a “G” and below it a “D.” If a curve or a breaking ball was coming, the scout would wiggle the “D,” so you’re there looking at, it’s in your line of sight to the pitcher. If it didn’t move, it meant the next pitch was a fastball.”
“That stuff all started with (Hall of Fame catcher Katsuya) Nomura with the Nankai Hawks. Blazer, Don Blasingame, was involved in that. He was really good at it. Another of the coaches they had at Nankai was Takeshi Koba.”
“Koba liked to do that when he was the manager in Hiroshima. At old Hiroshima Shimin, they had a member of the team staff in the scoreboard and there was a light in the scoreboard that would flash once for fastball and twice for a curve. Actually, I was the one who discovered that. After that they quit. Later they used a radio signal to trigger a buzzer that Koji Yamamoto and Sachio Kinugasa and players like that would have concealed in their sliding pants.”
Dr. Gail Hopkins, who played two years for the Carp when Koba was their manager and finished his Japan career with the Hawks under Nomura and “Blazer” — as Blasingame was known — has confirmed Yazawa’s account.