Once, there was a time in baseball when gloves were just gloves, and talk was just talk, and it was actually possible to employ one without the other.
So much for those days.
Now, in this neurotic age we live in, it's apparently no longer safe or feasible for anyone to carry on a conversation on a baseball field without placing a big old hunk of leather -- among other obstacles -- in front of his mouth.
It's a special language all its own. Everybody speaks glove.
”--Red Sox catcher David Ross
You see it every night. The scene goes something like this:
Catcher, pitching coach and interpreter scramble to the mound. Pitching coach talks into his sleeve, in English. Interpreter talks into his hand, in Japanese. Pitcher talks back into his glove, in Japanese. Interpreter talks back into his hand, in English. Catcher talks into his glove and mask.
And they actually understand each other?
"Oh yeah," Red Sox catcher David Ross said. "It's a special language all its own. Everybody speaks glove."
Boy, that's for sure. And they don't just speak it. They're flat-out addicted to glove -- because everybody does it these days.
"Here's what I'm waiting for," Chicago Cubs broadcast-witticist Jim Deshaies said. "The manager goes out to argue a call. Then he and the umpire both whip their gloves out and start screaming into their gloves."
Hey, at this rate, would it shock you if that really happened? Wouldn't stun us in the least. So as we've watched this glove-talking epidemic spread across the baseball landscape the past few years, we've asked ourselves many times:
How did it come to this? Does glove-talking actually accomplish anything? Are there lip-readers -- or possibly CIA agents -- in every dugout?
Are scouts watching? Are hitters watching? Are the video machines rolling? And what's glove got to do with it, anyway?
So we set out to dig for these important answers. Please alert the Pulitzer committee because this is a story that has never been told:
The true story of glove-talking in the 21st century.
Why they do it
Why do grown men talk into their baseball gloves? C'mon. Why do you think?
"It's just paranoia," Braves pitcher Paul Maholm said. "I think every pitcher and every catcher are just paranoid, so we throw our gloves up."
And what exactly are they paranoid about? Ehhh, pretty much everything. And anything.
"They've got TiVo these days," Rays pitcher David Price said. "They can rewind, fast-forward, slow it down. So they can read our lips. And they can do it many times."
Can they? Sure. But do they? Hmmm. No one is too certain about that.
"The whole thing is funny to me," Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster said. "I watch it all the time. While they're out there glove-talking, little do they realize we're sitting in the dugout, not even paying attention. Look at the hitters when [the catcher and pitching coach] go out there. They're usually talking to the umpire, messing with their bat, checking their uniform out to make sure they look good. I watch it all the time. It makes me laugh."
So Dempster is one of the proud, the few, the courageous in this sport right now. He refuses to glove-talk.
He has been known to wriggle his glove around 75 times before he throws a pitch. He's been known to take aim at his good friend A-Rod. But talk into his glove? No chance. Doesn't see the point.
"It would be interesting to see how many times in a game guys cover their lips," he said. "Somebody should really count them up some night -- and then how many times, after they cover their lips, do they get the out? We need a stat. You've got FIP and xFIP. How about xLIP -- the xLIP factor?"
Beautiful. Somebody get FanGraphs on this immediately. But more on whether glove-talking actually accomplishes anything later in our show. First, however, we need to play the role of Doris Kearns Goodwin and examine …
The real history of glove-talking
There has to have been a time, somewhere in the history of American innovation, when man spoke words -- and probably curse words -- into his glove for the first time. Was it Thomas Edison, perhaps?
"Edison -- he was a noted glove-talker," David Ross said. "That's the rumor, anyway."
Unfortunately, we don't have the videotape to prove it. So we set out to examine what we could prove. Which brought us to …
Legend has had it, for quite some time now, that always innovative Maddux was the true Father of Glove-Talking. It's right there in Pete Morris' book, "A Game of Inches: The Story Behind the Innovations that Shaped Baseball."
The way this tale goes is this: In Game 1 of the 1989 National League Championship Series, Maddux was about to face Will Clark with the bases loaded in a one-run game. Cubs catcher Rick Wrona and pitching coach Dick Pole trotted to the mound for a conference with Maddux and his infielders.
Meanwhile, from the on-deck circle, Clark supposedly read Maddux's lips as he mouthed the words, "Fastball, high inside." You can watch the whole thing here, at the 1:21:15 mark.
Clark then whomped a grand slam, off an up-and-in, first-pitch fastball. And, theoretically, glove-talking was born, approximately four seconds later.
But was it?
In Morris' book, Clark's teammate, Bob Brenly, expressed doubts about the truth of that story, although you can see in the video that Clark watched the scene on the mound very intently.
And what about Maddux? His longtime friend and ex-teammate on those Cubs, ESPN's own Rick Sutcliffe, has a different recollection of how and why Maddux turned into one of the first of the glove-talkers – if not the first.
"I talked to Mark Grace [also a member of those Cubs] about it," Sutcliffe said. "And we both think Greg was the first we ever saw put his glove over his mouth."
It was not to prevent future Will Clark-type subterfuge, Sutcliffe said. At least not at first.
One reason, he said, was that Maddux would sometimes get the catcher's sign and "mouth [the pitch] he was going to throw." So deep thinker that he is, Maddux began hiding his lips as he looked in for the sign, Sutcliffe said.
"Also," he said, "Greg was a guy who used some profanity from time to time. And finally, his wife told him: 'If you're gonna say those things when you're on TV, at least cover your mouth.'
"So Greg was the first one I remember doing that," Sutcliffe reported. "But honestly, he did it more to hide the profanity."
Just to double-check, we tracked down Leo Mazzone, who became Maddux's pitching coach in Atlanta a few years later. Mazzone laughed uproariously at any suggestion that Maddux was at the forefront of paranoid glove-talking.
For one thing, Mazzone said he "never covered my mouth -- not one time" when he talked to Maddux, or anyone else on that awesome Braves staff. For another, he said, Maddux was so dominating, he practically eliminated the need to hold mound conferences.
"One time," Mazzone said with a laugh, "he said to me, 'Come on out and visit me. I haven't seen you [on the mound] in a couple of months.' He said, 'You know, Leo, it gets kind of lonely out there. So why don't you come out and visit me in the sixth inning.'
"So sure enough, he's shutting out the Mets, and he looks in the dugout with one out in the sixth. And Bobby [Cox] says to me, 'Mad Dog is looking for you. Go out there and make sure he's all right.' So I go out there and he says, 'I'm glad you came out. My catcher doesn't speak English. I'm tired of talking to Chipper. So it was nice of you to come out here. You got anything you need to ask me?' And I said, 'Yeah, you planning on going seven tonight or all nine?'"
And none of that was uttered, Mazzone swore, with a glove over anyone's mouth. Or so the story goes. Too bad there were no lip-readers in the park to verify that.
So if Maddux is truly the Father of Glove-Talking, it's news to his old pitching coach. What did happen, Mazzone is pretty sure, is that another pitching coach had his lips read on the mound one night in the '90s -- "and it might have been Joe Kerrigan," he theorizes.
Which meant it was time to track down Kerrigan, the former pitching coach for the Expos, Red Sox, Phillies and Pirates. But Kerrigan was quick to nip that rumor in the bud.
"I know you're looking for that Watergate break-in moment," he told us. "But I ain't got it for you."
In fact, he said, every time he sees people glove-talking on the mound in modern-day America, he asks himself: "What's the point?"
So if it wasn't him and it wasn't Maddux, who was the first glove-talker in history? It took some heavy-duty reporting. But we're pretty sure we found him.
One of our many reliable glove-talking sources nominated another member of our deep ESPN pitching staff, Curt Schilling. And when we ran that by Schilling, we were shocked when he said, almost immediately: "I think I might have invented that."
He even remembered exactly when and where. It was Game 5 of the 1993 World Series. He was on the way to an epic 147-pitch, Series-extending shutout. And with two on and nobody out in the eighth inning, and Rickey Henderson heading for home plate, out came catcher Darren Daulton to talk it over.
As they started to talk, "I remember thinking, 'They're looking at me. They can read my lips,'" Schilling reminisced. "I was just paranoid."
So he placed his glove over his mouth, said what he had to say, then got a huge out at the plate on a comebacker to the mound. And after he'd finished dancing out of trouble and finishing that shutout, he thought to himself: "I don't ever remember seeing anybody do that."
"I watched baseball my whole life," Schilling said. "And I don't know if I was the first or not. I'm sure I probably wasn't the first. But I don't remember anybody doing it before that. And I do remember people talking about it after I did it. Then everybody was doing it."
So we asked Schilling whether he wanted us to stamp him as the first known pioneer of the soon-to-be heavily populated glove-talking frontier.
"If I can take credit for it, absolutely," he said with delight. "That would be a legacy I'd be totally proud of. This game is over 100 years old. There aren't many 'firsts' anymore."
So there you have it. Thomas Edison … Alexander Graham Bell … Curt Schilling: Inventors who changed the world, forever and ever and ever.
But what has he wrought?
All right, so glove-talking is upon us. And spreading at an even more rapid rate than A-Rod's law firms. We acknowledge that. But here's the ultimate question:
Is this a brilliant, important and unavoidable development in this crazy, espionage-laden, high-tech age? Or is it the most overblown, out-of-control, maniacal exercise in paranoia ever to sweep the planet?
Even the "inventor" of this phenomenon knows the answer. Are there lip-readers and sign-stealers and edge-seekers everywhere in baseball? Of course. But is this degree of nonstop, never-ending, glove-talking really necessary? Be serious.
"Oh, this is way over the top," Schilling admitted. "Like the army building a fake army for [Gen. George] Patton before D-Day. There's a level of paranoia involved. No doubt about it."
Hey, ya think?
Brad Ausmus caught in the big leagues for 18 seasons, from 1993 to 2010. He watched glove-talking erupt all around him. He eventually became hooked himself. And he always told himself if it merely made the difference in one game, and that game turned out to be the margin between making the playoffs and missing them, it was worth a try.
But even he concedes he has no evidence it actually worked -- ever. Heck, he's not even sure the pitchers were talking to the correct object.
"If you're going to talk to something," Ausmus chuckled, "and you had a choice between the ball and the glove, I'd pick the ball because the ball's the one going to home plate."
Excellent point. But that wasn't the only innovative spin on glove-talking he pondered in his day. As a Dartmouth grad and noted creative thinker, Ausmus tried out actual variations on the glove-talking concept, for variety's sake if nothing else.
"Ironically, I remember going the other way," he said. "I'd go out to the mound, pull my mask off, not cover anything and turn toward the hitter and say the word, 'fastball,' hoping they could read my lips. I'd say something like, 'I don't think FASTBALL' -- and then turn my head back to the pitcher -- 'is a good idea.' It was just a little exercise in reverse psychology. Just trying to bait the hook. I have no proof it worked."
And of course, we have no proof that glove-talking, in its most basic form, truly works, either. But face it. It isn't even about whether it works anymore. This, says Deshaies, is a classic example of "the herd mentality" run amok. It was glove at first sight -- an outbreak born, he says, almost totally out of the logic that "if Maddux is doing it, I'd better do it."
"It reminds me," Deshaies quipped, "of the old 'Get Smart' Cone of Silence: 'Chief, we need the Cone of Silence. We must talk into our gloves.'"
Well, if that's their directive, some pitchers take it about as literally as it can be taken. For example, Matt Garza "goes full cover," said Dempster, his former teammate in Chicago. "He covers his entire face [with the glove]. It's incredible. I don't know how they even hear him. He's, like: 'Fastball down and away right here.' And the catcher is going: 'I don't even know what he just said.'"
Dempster's other favorite glove-talking overreactor is Carlos Marmol, who is "always covering. He covers as soon as the catcher starts to come out -- just in case he says something."
But we have to admit that the ranks of player-kind who exceed the limits of glove-talking logic are hardly confined just to those two. And not only to pitchers, either.
"I've seen catchers leave their mask on and cover their face," Ross said. "And I think, 'How secretive can you be?' But I don't think most guys even think about it. I don't even think we know what we're doing half the time."
And does anyone ever even question anymore whether half of this counterespionage stuff is really necessary? Some degree of caution obviously is. But most of it? Get a grip.
"I don't do it," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "I'll usually go in and put my head down. And if we need to change the signs or something, then I might do it. But if it's just casual conversation, I don't bother. I know my lips are big. But if guys can read them from that far away, they're pretty good."
Maybe, Dempster suggested, "teams need to sign lip-readers. I think that's where we're headed. In fact," he said, motioning toward his team's Japanese interpreter, C.J. Matsumoto, "it wouldn't surprise me if C.J. over there isn't really an interpreter at all. I think he's actually a professional lip-reader. I bet he doesn't even speak Japanese."
All right, yes he does. But could official team lip-readers be just over the glove-talking horizon? Why the heck not?
"If you're fresh out of college and looking for a job in a tough job market, this might be the way to go," Deshaies said. "Colleges can start offering programs in baseball lip-reading. Maybe they'll give out scholarships for kids who can read lips through glove-talking."
Hey, don't laugh. How could we rule out that -- or numerous other potential innovations on the glove-talking front?
"I could have an offseason camp for catchers," Ausmus mused. "Major League Glove-Talking Camp. Forget receiving, blocking, throwing, game-calling. It's time to teach glove-talking."
"Maybe," Deshaies said, "instead of glove-talking, each club can come up with their own dialect, their own glove-talking language. Then they could just talk at will, and the other teams would say, 'What on earth are they saying?'"
"Could we do it with cell phones?" Ausmus wondered. "Maybe guys could start texting instead of talking. Glove-texting gloves. That could be this year's hot product."
Yes, it could all be right around the corner if the glove-talking epidemic keeps mushrooming. But it's time to ask: Does it have to mushroom? Really?
"I think we should start a movement, to stop all glove-talking," said Deshaies, who boasts that he never glove-talked once in a 12-season big league pitching career. "The only thing is, we'd need an elite player to step forward, to be our spokesman."
Hmmm. But who? Luckily, Deshaies knows just the guy for the job.
"What about Mariano Rivera?" he proposed. "It could be his last great act, his last great contribution to sporting life. He can let it be known that, for the final month of his career, he will not speak into his glove, that he has no fear of that -- because, by golly, they have no idea he's going to throw a cutter."
This, friends, is a movement we could seriously get behind: The Mariano Rivera Stamp Out Glove-Talking Movement. Now what about you? Can we make this happen, please? Double-please?
It might be our only hope to restore the art of simple, unfettered conversation on a mound near you. So sign us up right now. This has to happen -- for the glove of the game.