YUMA, Ariz. — For lack of a better pair of feet, call it the Vince Coleman Syndrome. It happens in baseball every time a quick runner gets on first base. It happens to the pitcher.
The pitcher eyes the runner and goes into the stretch position.
What is suddenly stretched is the brain.
Padre reliever Mark Davis will take it from here: "You're out there on the mound, looking over at the runner, and while you're winding up, you're thinking OK, I'm gonna watch this guy, I'm gonna watch . . .
"Then, bam, you throw the pitch, and realize not once have you looked at the catcher's glove. High and away. Ball one.
"You get the ball back from the catcher and start thinking about the runner again and, bam, same thing. You are down in the count 2-and-0 before you know it. And then the guy can really steal."
Don't the Padres know it.
Benito Santiago was voted by the Associated Press as the best catcher in baseball last season, yet he still allowed 85 stolen bases in 127 attempts (33%). Most Padre pitchers, stricken with various forms of Vince Coleman Syndrome, were finally forced to ignore the runners so they could just worry about the hitters.
"So I never had a chance," Santiago said. "If I have a chance at anybody--Vince Coleman, Tim Raines, anybody--I can throw them out."
Sharing his dismay, this spring the Padre bosses are doing something about it. Through an intricate set of signals transmitted from the bench to the catcher to the mound, pitchers will now be told when to throw to first base. They will be told when to fake that throw. They will be told when and how to do everything but pitch to the hitter.
Not only is this complicated, it is unusual. As far as the Padres know, nobody else on the major league level is doing it.
"When I was with Seattle last year, we did it throughout the minor league system, and it worked," said Pat Dobson, new pitching coach. "I don't know if anybody else does it, but it can really get the pitcher's minds back on the batter, and let Benny have a shot at the runner."
The grateful, if not temporarily confused, pitchers agreed.
"It will take a lot of responsibility away from us and allow us just to concentrate on getting the guy out," Hawkins said. "Now we just have to learn the signals."
Said Ed Whitson: "I'm convinced that the runner steals 95% of the time off the pitcher. When a pitcher gets thinking and worrying, that's when a team like St. Louis runs you to death. This can be a great idea."
The way it will work, Manager Larry Bowa and Dobson will watch the runner from the bench. They will watch how he leans, or how he flinches, and when they sense a steal, they will relay the proper sign. Meanwhile, pitchers can still throw over to first any time they would like, but should be relaxed in the knowledge that it's not always expected.
Said Bowa: "There is no reason for us not to throw out 45-50% of the runners. It's a matter of mental discipline."