"For those keeping score at home" is a hoary baseball cliché, often uttered by an announcer after breaking down the events of a particularly convoluted play on the field.
But let's not forget the individual tasked with keeping score at the ballpark, that press box denizen responsible for translating each and every on-field occurrence into a coded series of alphanumeric abbreviations (a fly ball to right field becomes "F9," for example, while a shortstop-to-second-to-first double play receives the well-known tag of 6-4-3). These are the game's official scorers, oft-overlooked individuals who nonetheless play an important role.
The decision to award a hit or an error is solely at the official scorer's discretion, and these decisions affect a player's stats. And in the ruthless and highly competitive world of the Minor Leagues, few things are more important than a player's stats. Baseball is, after all, a numbers game.
Therefore, if you're an official scorer, you better be able to explain your decisions.
The tools of the trade
Despite the job title, there is, in one sense, nothing "official" about official scoring. There is no school to attend, no degree or certification that must be earned. All one needs to become an official scorer is a deep knowledge of baseball, a flexible summertime schedule, and, of course, connections.
Official scorers, then, are a diverse lot (save for the fact that they are nearly all male). In putting together this story, I spoke with five official scorers, all of whom got their job either through a previous involvement with the team or a chance personal connection. A brief overview:
The Montgomery Biscuits' Kyle Kreutzer works as the team's assistant box office manager during the day, taking on the official scorer role in 2006 after the team couldn't find an immediate replacement for his predecessor. Brian DeLettre of the Jacksonville Suns started off as a bat boy in 1998 and now does official scoring as part of his jack-of-all-trades "press box assistant" job title. Steve Walsh, a veteran local coach, got his job with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans through a friend who knew members of the team's front office. Bryan Moore interned with the Peoria Chiefs in 2005 and now works as the Sports Information Director at nearby Eureka College. Don Rizzardi had worked for the Huntsville Stars in various capacities since 1985, and now does official scoring in addition to his day job as prosecutor for the Madison County D.A.'s office.
Though scorekeeping is traditionally viewed as a low-tech diversion requiring nothing more than a scorebook and well-sharpened pencil, those who do it officially are far more likely to use a computer. Programs such as TAS (The Automated Scorebook) automatically tally all statistics as the game progresses, leading to a much reduced workload.
"In the old days, we did it with pencil and paper, and had to add everything up at the end of the game," recalled Rizzardi, who has been scoring for the Stars for more than two decades. "I don't miss that at all ... a game might be over in two hours and 15 minutes, but then it would take another 45 minutes to tally it all up."
Scorers are in contact with the New York City-based Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) stats department throughout the ballgame, first calling in the lineups and then providing constant reports on the action. The stats department, in turn, then updates the in-game box scores on MiLB.com.
"I call every half-inning, providing a narrative of what happened," explained Moore, now in his third season with the Chiefs. "Essentially I'm just reading my scorecard back to them."
But these duties vary depending on the team's technological abilities. Teams that provide the more in-depth "Gameday" feature employ a datacaster who updates the game on a pitch-by-pitch basis (in some cases the datacaster doubles as the official scorer). In his in-depth account on the Fresno Grizzlies' team blog, datacaster Jim Nelson explains his job as follows:
"[A]s the game begins, I start entering strings of codes into the computer. The coding is much like a foreign language. I record every single movement, from pitch location, balls, strikes, hits, walks, errors and all player movement on the base paths. For example, 54/sac/bg.1-2 translates into a sacrifice bunt hit to the 3rd baseman, with the 2nd baseman covering 1st, and the runner advancing to 2nd base. Complicated, yet simple!"
But to utilize another hoary cliché: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Official scorers will always have to defend their decisions to managers and coaches, who are ever-vigilant when it comes to protecting the statistics of their players. Upon the conclusion of a ballgame, many official scorers are tasked with printing out copies of the game's box score and personally delivering them to both the home and visiting coaching staffs.
This can sometimes be a nerve-wracking experience.
"What I'm always trying to go for is just to have both managers take the box score and say 'Good night.' Then I'm out of there, those are by far the best nights," said Kreuzer. "When they ask you to hold on, that's when your stomach gets in knots. You've got to remember the specific play they ask you about and try to defend it. ... I'll listen to whatever their opinion of a call is because, granted, sometimes their view is better than mine. I'm more willing to change the little things -- a random single here or there -- that don't result in a run being changed from unearned to earned."
"It's like dealing with a bunch of lawyers sometimes -- they just want to argue their case," said DeLettre. "As long as they can give me a valid argument and treat me like an adult, I'm cool with changing it."
Rizzardi, of course, is a lawyer himself. This makes him particularly well-suited for this aspect of the scorer's job.
"If one team thinks one of my decisions was wrong, then the rule I follow is that I then have to go talk to the other team. I'm not changing anything unless both sides agree. They might not like that, but they respect it."
Rizzardi also notes that sometimes the particulars of scoring can be lost on coaches and managers. He cited a recent postgame controversy in which there was confusion as to why runs could be charged as unearned to the team but earned to the pitcher who allowed them.
"It's like a court of law and dealing with judges, you can stop a line of questioning when you're able to throw a particular rule at them," said Rizzardi.
The distinction between unearned runs and earned runs can indeed be hard to determine. Scorers must be able to reconstruct an inning upon its conclusion, determining just what would have occurred had an error (or errors) not been committed. But this is the stat most likely to be debated by managers and coaches, as it affects a pitcher's all-important earned run average.
"If an 'error' on a close call could save a pitcher three or four earned runs, then you know his pitching coach is going to lobby hard for that." said Moore. "Sometimes it will be an older guy politely asking you to take a second look, other times guys try to intimidate and just tell you to change it. I'm not a big fan of the rude people, but I understand what they're trying to do."
"I don't have this attitude of 'I'm right, screw you,'" said Walsh. "I score it how I see it, but I'm not perfect. Sometimes, upstairs in the mezzanine, you can't quite appreciate the speed of the game and get the true flavor. If both managers can agree that something should have been the opposite of what I scored, then I'll make the change. What I won't allow is for anyone to browbeat me into making a change.
"But I understand where these guys are coming from. The thing that's most important to them is getting their players to the Major Leagues."
One of the best things about the game of baseball is that you never know quite what you'll see on a given night, be it a wacky double play involving seemingly every defensive player or an accomplishment of historical import. The scorer's job is to make sense of it all.
"One of the things I do is write down the player's numbers on a defensive scoresheet, so that I can remember who's who when things start to get screwy," said DeLettre. "Sometimes you're dealing with a play where six players touched the ball."
"The key is not to panic in a rundown, I just reach for a pen and paper as fast as I can," said Moore. "You want to be in control when something bizarre goes down, because everyone is going to be looking at you. 'Is that going to be an error?' 'Was the third baseman involved in that?' 'Who was the cut-off man?' You definitely want to be in a position where you know what you're doing."
A universal sentiment among scorers is that the first hit of a game should be a clean one -- otherwise, there could be second guessing should the pitcher not allow another hit for the remainder of a ballgame. And should a no-hitter progress late into the ballgame, the official scorer is likely to feel the heat.
Walsh recalled an incident in 2004, when fireballing Pelicans pitcher Jose Capellan had a no-hitter going in the seventh inning.
"A guy hit a ground ball that went off the pitcher's glove and over to the second baseman," he recalled. "Now, ordinarily, anytime a ball is deflected like that it's gonna be a base hit. But the ball deflected right to [second baseman Jon] Schuerholz, who fielded it cleanly, had all the time in world, and made a wild throw. So I scored it an error.
"The funny thing was, here I am sweating it out, and they still took [Capellan] out after eight innings, because of the pitch count. And then in the ninth inning, [reliever Ralph] Roberts gave up a hit!"
Rizzardi recalls scoring a no-hitter in the 2007 Southern League playoffs, as Huntsville's Corey Thurman, David Johnson and Luis Pena combined to accomplish the feat against Tennessee.
"I came into the clubhouse after the game, and everyone was excited," said Rizzardi. "Thurman had the ball and he looked at me. 'Here's the last out,' he said. 'You've always been good to us.'"
An easy decision
By some assessments, working as an official scorer just isn't worth the hassle. As Kreutzer puts it, "Nobody ever loves you for being correct. You're not going to get credit for that."
But in some ways, this is precisely the point. Rizzardi notes, "Much like a good umpire, the story of the game should never be about the official scorer."
"If I'm going about my job the way I should, then I'm invisible," said Walsh. "It's like any other job. If you're doing it well, then the boss isn't going to bother you."
And, through it all, these men are getting paid to watch (and play a small role in) the game they love.
"Most of the time what we're doing isn't really that tough to do," said Kreutzer. "It's almost a dream, really. We're getting paid to watch baseball, and you can't beat that."