Commentary

The art of scoring

Every scoresheet we keep tells a story, and we get to write it in our own language

Originally Published: August 29, 2013
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

I've always loved scorekeeping, even though it ended my baseball career.

True, my career wasn't helped by the fact that I was much smaller than all my teammates (where was HGH back then?). Nor did my difficulty making contact with a decent fastball help. Nor did having such poor vision that after my eyeglasses fell off during an attempted diving catch, I couldn't find either the glasses or the ball.

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AP Photo/Julio CortezThe scorekeeper purist, as this unidentified spectator clearly is, chronicles even an early-March Mets spring training game.

Eventually, the center fielder came over to get the ball while I crawled around on my hands and knees searching for the glasses.

Nonetheless, I blame scorekeeping for ending my major league dreams.

You see, just before the first game of my sophomore season, our high school coach asked whether anyone knew how to keep score. I raised my hand. That this was a mistake quickly became evident when the coach said the team needed someone to be the official scorer. That someone would be me. And because it's hard to keep score and play at the same time, I spent virtually the entire season on the bench with a scorebook in my hand and a frustrated expression on my face.

I gave up playing organized baseball after that season. But not scorekeeping. Oh, no, I still keep score. How could I stop? Why would I want to? It's one of baseball's greatest things.

You can keep score in sports such as basketball, bowling or golf, but it amounts to little more than marking down numbers. There is no creativity involved. Scorekeeping in baseball, however, is an art form, individual expression that makes you feel you are part of the game. It personally and precisely records every moment of the game, allowing you to replay and relive it forever.

Or until your spouse throws out your scorebook.

"A neighbor had a score sheet from the last game between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers," says Paul Dickson, the author of "The Joy of Keeping Score: How Scoring the Game Has Influenced and Enhanced the History of Baseball." "He recalled the whole game inning by inning, just looking at the scorecard. It was almost like watching a rabbi read scripture. Here he was recalling the whole game. It was kind of magic. It's sort of an analog thing you do in the digital age."

Is the digital age killing off scorekeeping? Walking through ballparks, I don't see many fans keeping score anymore. One of the few I saw at a Cubs game earlier this season was a 75-year-old fan named Ron Swanson.

"Now you've got everything you pretty much need on the scoreboard, so I can understand the next generation not wanting to do it," Swanson says. "But in my day, you pretty much had to keep score to know whether this guy got a hit or whatever. Like today, the first 14 batters in a row were retired; and if you're not keeping score you wonder, 'Gee, did someone walk?'

"And at my age, you also get a little more forgetful."

Fans have been keeping score since long before Swanson scribbled his first 6-3 onto a scoresheet. In "The Joy of Keeping Score," Dickson writes that official scorers can be seen along the first-base line in early engravings of baseball games. "The urge to keep score is as old as the game itself and borrows significantly from the book-keeping instincts of British cricketeers," he writes.

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Jim CapleCubs fan Ron Swanson has been perfecting his style for a long time.

In fact, Henry Chadwick started out covering cricket before switching to baseball and becoming the father of scorekeeping in the 1860s. As Alan Schwarz writes in his wonderful history of baseball statistics, "The Numbers Game," Chadwick "invented his own personal scoring form in the hope it would become standard." Similar to the ones we use today, Chadwick's scoring grid was nine batters deep and nine innings wide and was coded with letters for what the batter did and numbers for which fielders handled the ball.

That system evolved over time, but at least one notation remains the same as it did more than a century ago: a "K" in the scorebook means the batter struck out. Chadwick originated the "K" because he used the last letter of an out -- in this case, "struck'' -- as his way of identifying it in the book.

Scorekeeping, thus, has been around for about 150 years; and like Mark Twain, Paul McCartney or the Dodgers' pennant hopes on June 1, rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Are we really seeing any fewer people keeping score now than we would have noticed a couple decades ago? After all, I was the only player on my team who raised a hand when our coach asked if anyone knew how to do it. Maybe we just don't notice scorekeepers because we don't look closely enough.

"I got a call from the Wall Street Journal," Dickson says. "The writer tells me he's doing a piece on the death of scorekeeping, and I'm like, 'All right. I can't wait to read it because I didn't know it was dying.'

"It's not dead at all; it's just the opposite."

Indeed, the digital age hasn't left scorekeeping behind at all. There are now apps for keeping score -- here's one -- which would have come in mighty handy when I was on the bench in high school. Not that I use them now. While these apps can be convenient for compiling stats for youth and high school leagues, they take just as much concentration, time and effort as keeping score with a pencil. They also remove the individual touch -- which pretty much defeats the whole purpose for most of us.

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(AP Photo)President Dwight Eisenhower knew the art. This is his scorecard from all 10 innings of the Washington Senators win over the Yankees on Opening Day in 1954. (Click 'enlarge' to fully appreciate it.)

"Scorekeeping is a very personal thing," says Philip Michaels, online managing editor for Macworld, PCWorld and TechHive. "My notation system is going to be very different than someone else's, and that's all right because mine is indisputably better. The trouble with apps is you're generally locked into the way they want you to score. I remember one of the apps I tested required you to enter balls and strikes so that it could keep a running pitch total. You could ignore that, of course, but then the running pitch tally would be comically low. Justin Verlander went seven innings and threw just 30 pitches! Right off the bat, this thing you're keeping for an accurate record of the game is horribly inaccurate.

"Add in battery life -- since your phone or tablet always needs to be on over the course of a nine-inning game, you're going to seriously sap your device's battery -- and the fact that it's really hard to see the screens during day games. For me, apps were more trouble than they're worth."

Furthermore, the apps mean everyone's score sheets look alike. Which is like trying to make Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh and Hopper all paint the same way. Traditional score sheets are as identifiable as fingerprints; no two look alike. Everyone has their own system for keeping score. My brother, John, taught me to score when I was 8 or 9, so we had similar scoring styles but differed as well.

I don't score every game I attend anymore, but when I do, I record hits and runs by tracking the base runner's path around a small diamond. Most people do it this way, though others use short horizontal slashes (one mark for a single, two for a double, three for a triple and four for a home run), a technique that has always baffled me. I use "F8" for a routine flyout to center, "L8" for a line drive to center, and "Fd8" for a fly to the warning track. If the center fielder makes a great catch, I will circle the "F8." I also place a mark in the square to show where the ball was hit -- a long line from home plate to the fences for a home run -- plus I sometimes write down the count … if I was actually paying close enough attention.

Maybe that sounds too detailed. But there are writers who keep score with different colored ink to differentiate when a player batted against a lefty or a right-hander.

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Courtesy of Paul Dickson Paul Dickson has written many books about baseball, including "The Joy of Keeping Score."

"There are people who are unbelievably meticulous," Dickson says. "People keep track of the most trivial things, like who sang the national anthem. Most everybody I ever interviewed about scorekeeping has their own idiosyncrasies. There are people who will mark down a star for a great defensive play, and they'll award five stars a year for extraordinary plays."

In addition to the normal scoring items, Debbie Zduriencik also keeps track of such things as the number of full-counts a pitcher has reached, as well as the number of runs allowed on each home run and who is on the disabled list. I mention this because Debbie is the wife of Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. She watched her husband keep score for years before giving the art a try herself -- and was quickly hooked.

"Once I got started," she says, "it was like I can't watch a game without scoring."

Zduriencik is among what Dickson says is a surprisingly high number of women who keep score.

"I had an event at the Smithsonian, and I bet that of the first 10 people who came up for me to sign the book, the majority would be women. And they were," Dickson says. "I started asking women why they did it. They said it was from Little League and girls softball. They were often called upon to be the scorekeeper, and they enjoyed it."

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, likewise, says he sees more women than men bring scorebooks into the stadium.

"Maybe women enjoy it because it's so relaxing," Debbie Zduriencik says. "It's fun to watch your team. Our lives are so fast-paced, and then you come here to the ballpark and go, 'I'm going to relax and I'm going to really enjoy this game.' It's like how you enjoy a good cup of coffee instead of just gulping it down."

Debbie says she usually doesn't keep score when she's away from the ballpark and watching the game on TV or listening on the radio, but home is often a preferred venue for scorekeepers. Growing up, I kept score while lying on our living room carpet and listening to Giants games on the radio. I recall Tony Gwynn telling me that when he was a kid, he kept score on the steps at his house.

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Jim CapleYou'll definitely need to click 'enlarge' to absorb Jim Caple's singular scoring style.

Perhaps the best -- but most pressure-filled -- spot for scoring is the chair of the official scorer.

Eric Radovich, an old friend and softball teammate, is one of the Mariners' official scorers. The position has its perks -- free parking, a pregame meal, $160 per game and a front-row seat in the press box -- but they come with responsibility. Hit or error? That's his call.

Radovich has a TV monitor to watch replays, but he doesn't rely on it. He makes his calls quickly and authoritatively and rarely changes his initial scoring decisions. "It's nice to have replay, but I probably only turn over my call three or maybe four times a season," he says.

His scorekeeping responsibilities have also become a little easier since the Mariners traded Ichiro, whose many infield grounders could be challenging to score.

"With him, every ground ball is potentially a base hit," Radovich says. "It was always so hard to determine: If a guy made a little bit of a high throw, would Ichiro have been safe with a good throw? Did the guy have to hurry the throw because it was Ichiro? Was he going to be safe or was he going to be out? It was always tough to say. It was always tough to be the official scorer on infield grounders.

"Almost every one was an adventure for the scorer to determine whether he was going to beat that out."

Major League Baseball doesn't prescribe a specific style to which official scorers must adhere. They score just as everyone else does, in their own personal styles and generally in their own scorebooks. The only caveats are (A) that the notations must be legible enough to allow for going back and recreating the game in case a scoring decision is called into question, and (B) that the league can take possession of the scorebook if it so desires. (So watch what you scribble down.)

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Jim CapleDebbie Zduriencik, wife of the Mariners general manager, can vouch for how habit-forming scorekeeping is.

Of course, the official scorer is subject to second guessing and reversal. (Check out this story.) And his power only extends so far. Dickson recalls sitting next to a friend who was an ardent scorekeeper. There was a close play that the official scorer ruled a hit. Dickson's friend said, "That was an error! I'm scoring it an error."

Dickson told him he couldn't do that -- the play had been ruled a hit. His friend said, "What's going to happen to me? Will I go to scorekeeper jail? It's my game that's in this scorecard."

That's another part of the beauty of keeping score. It's your scorecard. Your account of the game. It's your version of the play-by-play. Your handwritten Vin Scully.

"There is that ounce of control. You're not just a spectator anymore," Dickson says. "You're now an interpreter, even though you're replicating what everyone else in the stadium knows."

This is what I should have kept in mind back on the high school bench. I was the official scorer. It was my version of the game that counted. And so I should have given that second baseman playing in my place twice as many errors and four times as many strikeouts as he actually had. Maybe then our coach would have put me in … just so long as I kept a scorebook in my waistband and a pencil in my cap.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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