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Sign language: For the Merced College baseball team, the signal system has become a little more complex

Chris Pedretti wasn't sure he wanted any part of the radical change he saw sweeping through college baseball.

Instead of giving signs, coaches were calling out numbers to let their catchers know what pitch they wanted.

The idea seemed logical.

A simple numerical system that made it impossible for opposing teams to steal signs -- ideal, right?

But it wasn't traditional baseball.

After all, coaches have been using hand signals since the game's inception.

So Merced College's skipper resisted. But eventually, Pedretti's sense of tradition gave way to his baseball savvy.

"When I first heard about the system, I was like, 'I'll never use that,' " Pedretti said. "It wasn't how I thought of baseball.

"But the more we saw it, the more I realized how beneficial it could be."

Pedretti said the system was developed by current Modesto Nuts manager Jerry Weinstein while Weinstein was at Cal Poly.

It works a little like a quarterback receiving a play from his offensive coordinator.

In the Blue Devils' version, pitching coach Nate Devine calls out a three-digit number to his catcher -- from a sheet of paper.

The catcher finds the number on a wristband he's wearing and signals the desired pitch to the pitcher.

The wristband consists of six 5-by-5 grids filled with letters that represent a certain pitch.

Each row in the grid has a number above it, as does each line.

So if Devine calls out pitch 414, his catcher finds row 41 and counts down four lines to find the pitch being called.

Looking at the grid, the system seems incredibly intimidating, but MC catcher Wes Borba said it's easily picked up.

"At first it was kind of a mess," said Borba, who has been with the team since the system was implemented two years ago. "You'd look down at the wristband and see all kinds of things going on.

"I called for some wrong things in that first month.

"Once we got used to it, it kind of became second nature."

Pedretti said there are about 150 pitches on each sheet of paper and wristband.

The coaches never call the same number twice, and on good days one pitch sheet can last about three innings.

Pedretti makes up six sheets and their corresponding wristbands per game -- just to be safe.

A computer program is used to make sure the numbers are random, making each sheet unique -- and making it impossible for other teams to pick up any discernible patterns.

"Something we really try to do is steal other team's signs," Pedretti admitted. "If we see another team using this system, we won't even bother."

According to Devine, the system has done more than just improve communication with his catchers.

"I was reluctant at first, but I love it," Devine said. "When the catcher doesn't have to wait for me to signal in a pitch, the game goes much faster.

"Everybody stays on their toes. It's just much more effective."

Pedretti and company have improved the system a bit to make sure everyone's involved in it.

While Devine calls out a number to his catcher, assistant coach Steve Pinocchio is relaying it to the infielders -- who are also wearing wristbands.

"It's a big advantage for our infielders, knowing what pitches are coming," Pedretti said. "Even if they don't adjust their positioning, knowing that a change-up is being thrown inside can help them anticipate what's coming.

"We used to have our middle infielders try and peak in to catch the sign, but that could leave them out of position."

Blue Devils shortstop Ben Gorang has nothing but praise for the system.

"It's way better," Gorang said. "It helps with positioning, but more than anything else it keeps you mentally sharp.

"You stay more into the game when you're checking the wristband on every single pitch."

The infielders aren't the only ones following the pitches throughout the game.

Pedretti said the pitchers on the bench requested the wristbands so they could follow along with the action.

Eventually, the entire bench was equipped with them.

The bench's participation not only keeps the entire team focused throughout the game, but also allows players new to the program to learn the system quickly.

MC has made such strides in its second year of using the pitch system, Pedretti is beginning to expand how it's used.

The Blue Devils' skipper has incorporated pick-off attempts and pitch-outs into the equation -- and seeing big dividends.

"We've been very successful with calling pickoffs because of the system," Pedretti said. "You don't have to rely on everyone catching the sign.

"You just look at the card and everyone's on the same page.

"We're just starting to fine tune how we use this.

"But no-matter how unconventional it may seem, the system definitely works."

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

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