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Best Seat in the House

Photography, sports and life as seen through the lens of Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar.

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April 23, 2008 3:15 PM

Mariners: Stealing Signs.

Posted by Rod Mar

Baseball is a game of signs.

The catcher gives signs to the pitcher. One finger for a fastball, two for a curve.

The third-base coach signals the batter and any baserunners. A touch of the belt could mean a bunt. Tip of the cap followed by an arm down the sleeve signal a hit-and-run.

Don't forget the umpires signaling balls, strikes and outs.

When I'm shooting a baseball game, I rely on signs, too.

If my photo editor touches her hat, it means, "get one in focus for once". Two claps followed by a tap on the elbow means, "you're missing deadline". A tap of the nose followed by one to the ear means, "you're being relieved by another photographer warming up in the bullpen".

Seriously, a major league stadium is full of information that helps me do my job.

Unlike the spoiled sportswriters in the press box (who, by the way, have been complaining of the cold because the windows are opened up there during games), photographers have to relatively fend for ourselves. No television monitors, no one to tell us the pitch count and distance when a home run is hit.

I'm kidding about them being spoiled. Obviously they need more of that information than we do to write their stories. And, they'd have to put down their hotdogs and coffee.

KIDDING!

Aside from the traditional scoreboard in left field that tallies runs per inning, the score, hits and errors, another valuable source of information is the batting order that is listed on the centerfield big-screen. Armed with a roster in my pocket that notes left-handed and right-handed batters and pitchers, the batting order tells who is coming up to bat.

Say Ichiro is hitting for the cycle in the late innings, and left-hander Arthur Rhodes is on in relief pitching for Seattle. When Seattle's in the field, and Rhodes is on the mound, I'd like to be on the first-base side of the field shooting. This way, I can see Rhodes' full throwing motion and release. If I'm shooting from the third-base side and a lefty is on the mound, it's hard to see his face and the ball at the same time.

However, if left-handed hitting Ichiro is at the plate and I want to get a photo of him hitting the ball, I'll need to be on the third-base side of the field. From the first base side, I only see his back.

The upshot to all of this, is that by knowing who is pitching and what batters are due up, I have a better chance of being in the right spots to make photos. It's obviously an inexact science. If I'm in the first base box shooting right-handed hitters like Beltre and the Mariners rally until Ichiro comes up, I won't have the opportunity to switch sides of the field (only allowed between half-innings).

You can see that there is a mark next to the current batter (or, if they are in the field, the batter leading off the next at-bat).


When hitters are at the plate, there's an infographic on the scoreboard that tells me the player's stats for the year. What I want to know when I look at this board is usually the stolen base numbers. Obviously, this lets me know if the player is a threat to steal (and yes, there other other ways of knowing, like the player's position in the batting order -- speed guys can be found at the top and bottom of the order). If I know a player is a basestealing threat, I also then know that there could be pickoff attempts, like when Seattle's Felix Hernandez went to second base twice in the first inning to keep Baltimore's Brian Roberts close to the bag. Knowing that Roberts is speedy, I was able to be ready when Hernandez spun and threw to shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt in the first inning.



(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 400mm/f2.8 lens, ISO 1600, 1/800 sec.,f2.8)

Now, I can tell just by looking at him that Jose Vidro is usually no threat to steal, and the graphic on the scoreboard tells me he has one stolen base this year. Obviously these are just clues not givens, because both Kenji Johjima and Richie Sexson have tried to steal this season, and neither are speedsters.


There's also a board that tells the speed of each pitch. It's good information because I'm curious about such things, but really doesn't help me shoot the game. Pitches are blurs whether or not they're thrown at 96mph or 78 mph.

Regarding pitching, the pitch count scoreboard does give me a lot of information. I noticed that Baltimore starter Jeremy Guthrie, a righty, had thrown over 100 pitches when Seattle's Jose Vidro, a lefty, came to the plate.


The Orioles left Guthrie in, and Vidro pounded out a two-run single in the eighth that was the difference.



(Canon EOS 1D Mark III, EF 400mm/f2.8 lens, ISO 1600, 1/800 sec.,f2.8)

We were past our first deadline for the night, and I was hurrying to edit, caption and transmit the photo of Vidro. Here, another scoreboard, this one telling me the results of the past three batters, told me what had happened previously. I could have used my wireless internet to look up the play-by-play, but snapping a shot of the board was quicker.


Another noteworthy aspect to last night's game was the reappearance of closer J.J. Putz, who'd been on the disabled list. With the Mariners protecting a two-run lead in the ninth, Putz would have a pressure opportunity for a save. I moved from my spot outside of first base to one nearer home plate. Putz always yells and pumps his fists after collecting the final out of a victory and I wanted to be ready. Usually, a photo of Putz pumping fists is cliche, but since he'd been out for two weeks, it would be part of the story.

He gave up a double, then collected the next two outs as the small crowd roared (it was a small roar, okay?).

And then, as the third out was made, I focused, got my trigger finger ready and Putz...did...nothing.


Look, I don't know if all this stuff helps me make better photos. Maybe they just keep my head in the game. At least I was prepared.

All the signs pointed to it.

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