In the ninth inning of a Midwest League game between the South Bend Cubs and Lansing Lugnuts on Friday, July 17, South Bend right fielder Jeffrey Baez came to the plate with nobody out and a runner on first. Baez bounced a ground ball up the middle and Lansing second basemanchased after it, booted it around a couple of times, and both runners were safe.
"E-4," ruled the official scorer. It certainly seemed an easy call to make at the time for that scorer, but when he reported the results of the game to the South Bend coaching staff, he found them not happy that their player had been robbed of what they considered a hit.
I was that official scorer, doing that job for the first time in my life. It's not as easy as you think.
Just ask Jack Wilkinson. On July 18, the veteran Atlanta scorer changed a first-inning hit by the Braves' Nick Markakis to an error six innings later. Instantly, as there had been no other Atlanta hits, Jon Lester of the Cubs had a no-hit bid, something he said he didn't realize until he looked at the scoreboard while on deck waiting to hit in the eighth. The no-no was broken up moments later, but the curious change took a hit away from a hometown player.
Or ask Chicago official scorer Don Friske. On May 6, 1998, Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros, arguably the most dominant performance in major-league history (by Game Score, it is the best: 105). In the second inning, Friske ruled a ball that went off Cubs third baseman Kevin Orie's glove was a single. Had Friske called that play an error, Wood might have had a 20-K no-hitter.
Curt Schilling suffered through one of the worst starts of his illustrious career on May 22, 1997: 2⅔ innings, nine earned runs. The next day, scorer Bob Kenney changed a third-inning single by Bernard Gilkey to an error on third baseman Scott Rolen. Presto! Eight earned runs magically became unearned, and Schilling's ERA dropped from 4.13 to 3.18. That was enough runs to make a difference in Schilling's career -- had those earned runs stayed on the books, his career ERA would have been 3.48 instead of 3.46.
Scorekeeping has always fascinated me. I have kept a scorecard at every professional game I've attended, nearly 3,000 of them, regular-season and playoff major-league games, minor-league contests and even spring-training affairs. Years ago it was the only reliable way to know what had happened in a game.
Now? You can get minute detail on every pitch of every game on your phone. Yet I still score games by hand. Why? Tradition, partly, and also because a scorecard creates a personal history of the game. Scoring also gives you an opportunity to argue or debate an official scorer's decision with friends who also score games. Was that really an error? Should that have been a wild pitch or a passed ball? Exactly how many fielders, and who, touched the ball during that rundown play?
It's easy to go from keeping score to seeing from afar what official scorers rule to "I could do that," so I asked my friend Tim Zeko, official scorer for the Lugnuts, if he could arrange for me to be the official scorer for a game when I visited him in Lansing this summer.
Lugnuts management approved the request and we agreed that I'd shadow him for one game, then take the scoring reins for the next one. Zeko has scored more than 200 games for the Lugnuts over the last six years. He originally wanted to score for the same reason I wanted to do it just once: because he loved keeping score and was excited to be paid for it. After doing it for a while, he said, "I thought I knew how to score a game properly. Boy, was I in for an education."
Sal Fasano was the first Lugnuts manager Zeko worked with. He told Fasano he was new to the job and asked him if he had any advice so he could do the best job possible. He said: "Protect my pitchers."
That would be sage advice, as I was to find out later. In the meantime, Zeko told me the two things official scorers really want are "clean singles by the leadoff hitters for each team in the first inning and a quick game. Well, maybe a cookie from the press box buffet line."
I watched Zeko score one game, which included showing me how to report to the bureau in New York that keeps the statistical record of minor-league baseball (surprisingly low-tech: you call in by land line phone every half inning). He introduced me to the managers of the two teams and let them know that I'd be scoring the next game.
Did you know that the weather conditions in a boxscore might not be exactly what's happening at the ballpark? There's no weather station at Cooley Law School Stadium, so Zeko told me to use a weather app on my phone to estimate weather conditions at game time, as the MiLB folks like to have that ahead of time. I also translated the wind direction and speed I found -- west, 11 miles per hour -- to "blowing out to right field," because the people in New York don't necessarily know which way the dozens of minor-league ballparks face.
Having called in the somewhat-fictional weather information and lineups prior to the game, I called up the game box score and play-by-play on the ancient laptop in the Lansing press box, had that pre-game cookie and waited for the game to begin. As in many professions, there's a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in official scoring, where not much goes on for a while, then everything happens at once.
The game began routinely, with no questionable plays. Zeko keeps cards in the press box labeled "E," "H," "WP," and "PB" that can be flashed at the radio broadcasters so they know the call immediately. I had a couple of those in the first inning, a wild pitch and an error, both obvious to anyone. The next thing I worried about was the fact that South Bend starter Michael Wagner hadn't given up a hit with two out in the third inning. As Zeko told me, "You always want the first hit to be a clean one." That's exactly what happened when the next hitter, Lansing's Chris Carlson, bounced a no-doubter single to right field.
Every half-inning, I'd pick up the phone, press buttons for the pre-selected number and tell Matt in New York the results of the scoring for that inning. For example, for the top of the fourth, when South Bend scored a run, I said, "Gioskar Amaya was called out on strikes. David Bote hit a line-drive single to left. While Erick Castillo was batting, Bote stole second. Castillo grounded out 4-3, Bote advanced to third. Rashad Crawford hit a ground-ball single to center, Bote scored. While Jeffrey Baez was batting, Crawford was caught stealing, 2-4."
MiLB wants to know what kind of hit it was (line drive, ground ball, etc.), where it went and what happened during each at-bat if there was something other than what the batter did. I'd sit and watch the play-by-play screen update after I called in the scoring to make sure it was accurate.
In the sixth inning, after two runs had already scored on a single by Crawford, leaving runners on first and second, Baez singled. The runner on second scored and Crawford took third, but Baez was hung up between first and second. Crawford scampered home on the play, and Baez eventually was safe at second. No throw in the rundown was dropped nor thrown away, so it wasn't an error. Instead, I ruled that Baez had advanced on a "throw," but credited him with an RBI. That wouldn't be the last I'd hear of this play.
With the score 8-1 in the seventh, play began to get a bit sloppy, as you might expect from players four levels below the major leagues. Lansing catcher Juan Kelly led off the bottom of the inning with a popup toward shortstop. South Bend's Gleyber Torres tripped over his own feet and the ball dropped untouched. I called it a hit, though Torres would have easily caught the ball if he hadn't been clumsy. No runs scored in the inning, so I thought I was off the hook.
Then there was the Baez play. Zeko had told me, "Go with your first instinct, don't second-guess yourself," and that's how it felt. I was going to stand by this call.
The game over, I reported the game length and attendance to New York. I found myself again surprised that game times were noted (and are in the major leagues, too) in the most old-fashioned way possible: by writing down the start and end times and taking the difference. In this age where every smartphone has a stopwatch, why not do it that way? The answer appears to be: "Because we've always done it the other way." I also confirmed the game's linescore with MiLB Matt, thanked him for his help, and printed out enough boxscores to distribute to the game broadcasters and managers and put one in the team's file.
That was only the beginning of my education. Bringing the boxscores to the managers was the final task. Zeko accompanied me as backup and we began with the home clubhouse. (Here's the play-by-play from this game.)
Lansing manager Ken Huckaby, an amiable former big-league catcher, seemed mostly satisfied with the box I brought him, though he questioned the error I gave to his second baseman in the ninth. I told him that had been the way I saw it, and he sort of shrugged and shook it off, much as he'd likely shake off his team's 10-3 loss.
The South Bend clubhouse wasn't nearly as friendly, even though they'd won the game. We stood outside for a moment as manager Jimmy Gonzalez was just coming out of the shower and the idea of trying to explain scoring decisions to a naked man wasn't my idea of fun. Gonzalez looked at the boxscore and was unhappy with both the error given on the Baez play and the hit given on the Torres play. Again, I told him that's how I saw it, but he was pretty adamant that he wanted it changed. Zeko intervened and saved me, saying, "We'll go run this by Huck (Ken Huckaby) and see if he'll agree to the change" - referring mainly to the Baez play. We said we'd come back if he agreed, if not, the play stood.
We went back to the home clubhouse and Huckaby scoffed at the suggestion, so the play remained an error. It took a hit away from Baez, who was in the middle of a hot streak, as well as an RBI. He'd have been 4-for-5 with three RBI if I'd called that play a hit. In hindsight, it probably was, though I did as I had been taught and went with my first instinct. It's not the first time an official scorer has blown a call and it won't be the last, it might have been my first and last, as I might never get this chance again.
Oddly enough, I still wasn't done. On our way out of the ballpark, Zeko and I were stopped by an almost-frantic Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, Lansing's media-relations director. They'd received an email from MiLB asking for clarification:
Scoring question from tonight's game. In Top 6, we have Baez singling to right field. Our stringer input Crawford (the runner on first) scoring on the throw. I need some more information on this play, as something seems amiss. I apologize we didn't catch it sooner.
That was the play I'd reported Baez had advanced on a "throw." I replied:
Baez attempted to take second base, a play was attempted on him but he slid around a tag and was safe. No throw was dropped or thrown away, so no error was charged. While this play was being attempted, Crawford scored. Baez to second on a fielder's choice, Crawford to third on the single and scored on the fielder's choice.
This took yet another RBI away from Baez, so his night wasn't as impressive as it might have been. For a 20-year-old in his fourth season trying to make the Cubs' brass notice him, would this one play matter?
Zeko told me that while the South Bend coaching staff was upset with me when we met, they'd probably have forgotten about it by the time their team bus left for South Bend, where they'd have another game and a different official scorer the next night. By 2016, that coaching staff could be at some other place in the Cubs' system. They might not even remember the one-time official scorer in Lansing who might have deprived one of their players of a hit and two RBI.
But I'll remember that night forever. I had a blast. Even though I probably made a couple of mistakes, I'm in good company with many other official scorers and I learned quite a bit about scoring, the job of scorer and a bit of the inner workings of baseball, and one game I scored is part of the official record of minor-league baseball. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.