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For announcers, scorekeeping an art

Color-coded formulas help teams keep track of game details
April 20, 2012
If scorekeeping is an art, then Wisconsin Timber Rattlers announcer Chris Mehring just might be the Vincent Van Gogh of the genre.

Mehring, the dean of Midwest League broadcasters, has been calling games for the club since the 2000 season. And during this time, he has developed an elaborate color-coded scorekeeping system that requires the use of five different Sharpies. A multi-hued and vaguely psychedelic scoresheet results, but Mehring is not motivated by aesthetic concerns.

Rather, the different colors help him tell the story of the game -- both when it is in progress and, later, in constructing game recaps and historically-themed articles. Let's break it down, with explanations from Mehring in the parentheses:

  • Green: runs and RBIs ("runs equal money")
  • Blue: errors ("errors make me sad")
  • Yellow: walks ("caution")
  • Purple: hit by pitch ("bruises")
  • Orange: strikeouts ("I couldn't find a red highlighter")
Keeping score, in which every on-field occurrence is translated into an alphanumeric abbreviation (a fly ball to right field becomes "F9," for example) is an inherently idiosyncratic process. No two methods are exactly the same, and those who practice this time-honored baseball tradition find joy in developing unique methods.

But, that said, Mehring's color-coding system isn't as anomalous as it may first appear. He says he first "stole" the idea from former Burlington Bees announcer Randy Wehofer (now with the Iowa Cubs), and as I was putting this piece together, other broadcasters weighed in regarding their own approach.

For example, Nathan Baliva of the Peoria Chiefs uses yellow highlighter for positive game developments and orange for negative ones. He also uses the same color pen to write in the lineups, until that color results in a Chiefs loss (last year, a pink pen given to him by an intern promptly resulted in an 11-game winning streak).

And Owen Serey, who has called games for the Dayton Dragons and South Bend Silver Hawks, relayed that, in addition to a four-color coding system, he would draw a line denoting the location of each hit in the ballgame ("after 10 hits, it's hard to remember which one went where," he explained).

What unites these efforts is that they are all in the service of storytelling -- despite its relatively compact nature, a well-kept scorecard presents as thorough and detailed a game narrative as one could ever need.

"I've got all of my books from 2000 right here in the radio booth. It helps to have them handy" said Mehring. "And when I'm working on historical [articles], I can take a look back to see what happened. If I want to see the first time that the Timber Rattlers played at Miller Park, or check a particular playoff game or no-hitter, then I can go back and do that. Being able to see how things developed helps the writing process down the line."

As such, Mehring calls scorebooks "memory aids." And, often, the memories they bring back would otherwise be lost in the annals of time.

"A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at a game against South Bend in 2000. It was 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth, and the Timber Rattlers loaded the bases and then won on a grand slam from Gorky Estrella. Not a lot of people may remember him, but I'll always remember him for hitting that game-winning grand slam."

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On Deck

From the booth to the stands

The broadcasters aren't the only people in the ballpark keeping score, of course. Nationwide, there is a small but passionate subset of fans who do the same and whose enjoyment of the ballgame is greatly enhanced as a result.

"I love looking back [at my scorecards] and seeing the players that came through," said Chris Bunting, a North Carolinian who attributes his affinity for scorekeeping to the same detail-oriented and "obsessive-compulsive" tendencies that led to his career as an accountant. "There are a lot of teams here in the central part of North Carolina, and when you keep your old books, you can look back and see who made it."

As a season ticket holder for Greensboro's South Atlantic League franchise during the early 1990s, Bunting remembers marking "E6" in his book after another miscue by a talented but unpolished infielder named Derek Jeter. He also recalls the prodigious power of Ruben Rivera (who, years later, was released from the Yankees after allegedly stealing equipment from Jeter's locker).

"[Rivera] would just smash the ball. Once he hit the power line that hung over [Greensboro's] War Memorial Stadium, and it dropped back into the field of play. I thought to myself, 'I'm making a note of that one -- I'm not going to see that again.'

"And that's why I love the Minors so much," he continued. "It's not as polished as the Majors. You can have half a dozen guys touch the ball on one play, and errors all over the place. Sometimes I wouldn't be able to remember who did what. ... These days, to find out, you can just take out the iPhone and hit refresh on the box score. It's amazing, and maybe you could say I don't even need to keep score anymore. But I'm sure not going to stop."

Another individual who won't ever stop keeping score is Louisville-based fan Stevo, who, like Madonna and Prince, prefers to be identified sans surname.

"I'm fascinated by baseball, what it was and what it meant, but had trouble bridging the gap. I wanted to know what's really going on here -- not just that there are nine players in the lineup and nine innings in a game," said Stevo, who now runs a baseball blog with large portions dedicated to scorekeeping. "One day I read an interview with Paul Dickson, who wrote The Joy of Scorekeeping, and I bought the book for $2. I read it and -- wow! -- I just picked it up from there. The first couple of ventures were a mess, but I wasn't expecting immediate results. ... I've made my own beer for years, and I compare it to homebrewing: you invest in it at your own level and get out of it what you put in. It's one step at a time and learn as you go. I need to keep learning."

Spreading the gospel

Granted, scorekeeping can be a lonely endeavor. At most Minor League ballgames, the number of fans who are doing so is likely to be in the single digits, and the score sheets provided in team programs (when they are provided at all) require users to revert to a microscopic text size.

"I've been to Appy League games where outside of a player [in the stands] tracking pitches, I'm the only person keeping score," said Bunting. "People are afraid to approach because they think you're a scout."

Stevo helps to counteract this sort of assumption by bringing his specially designed scorecards to games and handing them out to those who seem interested.

"It's a conversation starter, for sure," he said. "One of these days I'll squirrel away a few bucks and instead of business cards I'll get my own baseball card printed... I'll put some stats on there, like how many games I've scored, and hand them out. Like, this is fun, you should try it."

And those who do will soon have their own idiosyncratic (and possibly color-coded) stories to tell. One of Stevo's involves scoring a wild, 13-inning Louisville Bats game this past July 4, which ended on Todd Frazier's ultra-rare walk-off fielder's choice.

"I met [Frazier] briefly at a Reds caravan in January, and brought the scoresheet for him to sign," said Stevo. "He looked at it, shook his head and said, 'Aw, I remember that!' then put his signature on it and handed it back. ... I'm a history nut, and scorecards really are a historical document. Maybe not the sort of thing you'd see in the Smithsonian, but a personalized piece of history."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog.