For years, Matt Flaherty watched major league baseball games on television and cringed at the sight of catchers using makeshift items so pitchers could distinguish their intricate in-game hand signals.
Some catchers applied athletic tape between their middle knuckles. Others spray painted or nail polished fingertips or chalked their hands in the dirt while squatting behind the batter's box. Flaherty even noticed that former New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada dabbed his nails with Wite-Out.
There had to be an easier, more uniformed way for catchers to push their message across, Flaherty thought. Athletic tape, after all, constricted a catcher's ability to throw. And painting nails ruined cuticles and took forever to remove after the game.
Flaherty and his friend Nathan Passantino, both former college baseball players, hatched an idea together to remedy the problem.
"After about the third or fourth year, we decided to get our butts in gear and make a move on it," Flaherty said.
Last September, they introduced a new product called "Game Signs," colorful stickers that catchers could painlessly apply to their nails and discard instantly after the game.
Thanks to a savvy strategic move by Flaherty and Passantino, the product is sweeping across major league baseball this season.
"We knew that it served a purpose," Flaherty said. "We knew it had a place in this game."
What they didn't know was how quickly big league catchers would accept their product.
During spring training, Flaherty and Passantino, who both live in California, made sure to gain access to all 30 major league clubhouses. They spent a month in Arizona and three weeks in Florida to reach every team. Flaherty communicated with each club's equipment manager to set up the showings.
"Once they realized we had something that was quite innovative, they understood what it was right off the bat," Flaherty said. "Just their curiosity was what allowed us into the clubhouse. Once they saw our approach, I believe they took us seriously."
Now, Game Signs is a product just as important to some ballplayers as sunflower seeds or chewing gum.
Flaherty said Game Signs had been worn by Buster Posey and Hector Sanchez (San Francisco), Kurt Suzuki (Oakland), John Buck (Miami), Russell Martin (New York Yankees), Josh Thole (New York Mets), Mike Napoli (Texas), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Boston) and Jonathan Lucroy (Milwaukee), among others.
Lucroy was among the crop of big league catchers who took to Game Signs immediately.
In past seasons, he applied lines of Wite-Out along his fingers and even spray painted his finger nails with white field paint in college.
"Some guys use tape," Lucroy said. "They wrap their fingers in tape, but I can't do that. I don't like to throw with tape on my fingers. I used spray paint before on fingers. And then I was like, 'You know what? That's too much work.' It takes forever to get it off. So those stickers just kind of showed up in my locker one day and I started using them."
In the locked cabinet above his locker space, Lucroy maintains a stack of white stickers and specially made neon green stickers. The product currently is sold to the public in white, neon yellow and neon orange and is available online on the company's website.
As for whether the stickers actually serve a purpose other than looking cool? Lucroy, who wore them last Friday on Opening Day, says absolutely.
"The last thing you want is to give up a run in a big situation or something like that by a crossed up pitch," Lucroy said. "I'm doing everything I can to avoid that kind of situation."
Brewers closer John Axford said the stickers can be helpful, particularly when the shadows creep across Miller Park in Milwaukee during day games, making it difficult to discern regular signals from the catcher.
"It could be completely dark and you only might be able to get a certain flash," Axford said. "(Catchers) don't want to go 'one' when there's somebody on second. You have to go through different signs, and you have to be able to see the difference between a 'four' and a 'three' or a 'two'. If you miss it, then either the catcher is going to wear one, or he's going to miss it and the umpire is going to wear one. You never really want things like that to happen, so if it helps, then it's definitely useful, that's for sure."
Flaherty, 30, said he and Passantino, 29, sank a considerable amount of their financial resources into the product, which is patent pending. But both had been longing to become involved in the sport they grew up playing. Flaherty pitched at San Francisco State, while Passantino played at Hawaii Pacific.
Before Game Signs, Flahery was working on a horse ranch and Passantino was a plumber.
"Needless to say we've had a huge career change," Flaherty said.
Flaherty admitted he and Passantino hadn't seen a major increase in sales just yet. But they plan on expanding soon with new colors to a new audience. They're already in the process of making smaller-sized stickers for the Little League World Series in August.
"We figure with the MLB exposure," Flaherty said, "it's just a matter of time before it trickles down from the big boys."
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