Jul 15 2009
Since reading Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, I’ve been more and more drawn into the statistical elegance of baseball, geeking out on the exceptional symmetry of the game and the subtleties that can be revealed through an understanding of the various numbers that have been used to track the progress of teams and individual players since the invention of the box score in 1876 by Henry Chadwick.
It wasn’t always so for me. Baseball was a sandlot pastime as a kid – I played a couple undistinguished seasons in the Georgetown, Mass. “Farm League” – as a very error-prone nine-year old first baseman who never could anticipate the play, even when it was hit right at me. But I could hit, and will forever remember the clear click of my only homer in the field behind the town’s library, a soaring wonder that earned me a gasp from the crowd and a short moment of redemption for all the missed catches and wild throws that made me the gimp of the team.
Baseball to a nine year old – drawn to the magic of the Boston Red Sox and their 1967 Impossible Dream bid for the World Series — was not a game of numbers, but of heroes like Rico Petrocelli, Tony Conigliaro, Jim Lonborg and the Carl Yastrzemski. I barely understood the game, but remember the incredible phenomenon of my fourth grade class hearing the scores of the day games announced through the public address system of the Perley Elementary School – the beer jingles “Schafer is the … one beer to have. When you’re having more than one” and the beginning of a long abusive relationship as a battered Red Sox fan.
As this has been a summer of Cape Cod Baseball for me. I try to make every home game at Lowell Field, walking up Main Street in my shorts and flip flops at 4:30 pm the home team’s cap on my head, and a nub of a yellow number 2 pencil stuck behind my ear. A few dollars in my pocket for when they pass the hat*, a bag of popcorn, and a can of Moxie – the soda that tastes like shoe polish but prevents softness off the brain.
Every game has a photocopied page of stats for the home team and visitors. A dense list of stats that tells the spectator details such as number 3, Rico Noel, the second baseman is 5’8″, weighs 190 pounds, comes from Bristol, Virginia, plays for Coastal Carolina, and is hitting .210 after 23 games and 54 at bats. The rest is all numbers. Stolen bases. Runs. Homers. Walks. Hit by balls ….. interesting stuff, but nothing compared to what has been revealed from my personal revelation of the summer of 2009 – the mysterious score card. One day I saw on the raffle ticket table a stiff piece of paper with a complex grid like a paper spreadsheet.. I picked it up. Looked at the rows and columns of little diamonds and realized: “you have no clue how to score a baseball game.”**
No one ever taught me now to score a baseball game. Sure, I can follow a count of balls and strikes, I know most of the rules (but have a hell of a time figuring out silly concepts like the bunt exception on the infield fly rule) but I have never sat in the stands and kept score. Up until this June, if you’d asked me to score a game, I d have looked at the scoreboard and read it.
Look at picture of a ball game in the 1950s. The men wore ties and hats. And nearly every one of them is holding a score card and a pencil (always a pencil, because even the best scorer makes mistakes). I loved Red’s tribute to his late dad on my favorite Red Sox blog, Surviving Grady when he fondly remembers the man habitually scoring games. So people even score from the radio. So I set out to teach myself something that, like my friend said after dropping Mandarin Chinese lessons in college, something no one knows except a billion other people.
Off to Google and Wikipedia and instantly I discover there is a subculture of scoring fanatics. Being obsessive compulsive I start printing out copies of the PDF score card blanks and start practicing in front of the television with the Red Sox.
Everyone knows a strike is a “K.” Why? Because the father of scoring, Henry Chadwick said it was so, and well, because there is a K in the word “strike”. A backward’s K means the batter struck out without swinging, “looking.” And from there it’s an amazing world of abbreviations and conventions. Put it this way. There is no official way to score a game – but, it has to be done in such a way that another scorer can look at one’s scratches and symbols and mentally recreate every swing, hit, force out, fielder’s choice and managerial ejection as if they has been there.
So there I sit in the home team bleachers, freezing my ass off because I never think to bring a sweatshirt in this summer of damned rain, sunspot anomalies, and El Nino disturbances that makes the sighting of a lost snowflake a distinct possibility one of these evenings. I take my card – with the Kettleer’s Gothic Germanic Script on one side, the ad from UBS Wealth Management Services of Hyannis utterly out of place during this Deprecessionary Summer. And I settle in, arriving 15 minutes early to get a prime spot in the top row of the old bleachers (the pipe railing is a nice back rest and the old gents who have the Knowledge sit there). Popcorn bag gets wedged on the springy green foot plank of the bleachers so it won’t blow over and shower the miscreant delinquents under the stands with my dinner. Moxie gets saved for the end of the bag when the popcorn salt makes it imperative.
Then the card gets filled out. First the opponent. The Wareham Gatemen. The Brewster Whitecaps. The Chatham Mariners. The Falmouth Commodores ….Then the weather – whether or not it is raining and which way the wind is blowing. Then I wait for the announcer, a broadcast journalism intern from Northeastern University, to welcome me to the “60th Season of the Cotuit Kettleers and lovely Lowell Field” and tell me the lineups.
In college wooden bat summer leagues the lineups change with every game. Cotuit’s manager – Mike Roberts (father of Baltimore Oriole Brian Roberts) and the coach of the UNC Chapel Hill baseball team for two decades — is a big bunter and short ball aficionado, so he’s constantly mixing up his lineup from game to game.
Visitors get announced first and I start scribbling – easy names are easy names (this is the summer of Zack’s and Zach’s) – hard ones get approximated. The main thing is to get the uniform number and the order down right. Spelling can be corrected later. Down the left margin I go. One player after another. Following along as the announcer names the foes and then the hometown heroes. The important thing is to assign each name their place on the field – and this another revelation of the scorer’s art. You don’t write 1B for first baseman or LF for left fielder. The players are numbered one through nine, starting with the pitcher and moving to the catcher (2), the first baseman (3), second (4) and then … not the shortstop, but the third baseman (5), then the short stop (6), then the outfield – 7 for left, 8 for center, and 9 for right. This is the basis of the system and the thing that drove me insane the first few games. But suddenly I felt I had been let in on some dark Masonic secret when Don Orsillo called a Red Sox double play on the television as a “Six-four-three double play” and I instantly knew that the short stop (6) caught the chopped hit, threw it to the second baseman (4) who tagged the base and hurled it to the first baseman (3) in time to nail the batter. Duh.
In such illumination I find great profundities.
First up the visiting team’s lead off man. I check the stat sheet, and write down his average so I can tell at a glance if he is a slugger or not. The pitcher winds up and ……Then the scorer’s trance settles in and I immediately – the first time I did it — realized why people score baseball games…. It’s simple. It puts you into the game at a level of attention and detail unknown to the average fan. Take your eye off the batter and you can miss some seriously strange stuff. Go to the bathroom and you come back with no idea of who did what to whom and with what effect. Baseball, I would argue, is the only game that is played at a pace where a fan can note with amazing accuracy every detail of the game. Basketball? Too fast. Football? Way too chaotic. Hockey?
I embarrass my children. “Geek” they call me. “Weenie.” But in this primal form of very real baseball, baseball without music blaring, mascots mugging, the real game of wooden bats and veritable boys of summer, scoring just seems like the right thing to do. There’s no rewind. No laptop at hand. If I want to know the score, the real score,¸then I have to keep it myself.
I fill out my card. It is a very social thing. I ask people around me to confirm that I saw what I thought I saw. The old timers asked me the other night for the pitch count – and , um,. Let’s see, he’s got 84 pitches, I bet he doesn’t come back after the stretch ….I know when a batter comes up in the ninth inning how he’s done at his previous at bats. I am the bearer of the knowledge. The Score Master. I know he’s two for three and all of his hits were singles to third. I know that the errors are piling up around the short stop. My son arrives in the third inning and I can give him a play-by-play synopsis of the game in under a minute. I can look at the scoreboard and tell when it is wrong.
The other night, at the end of the game, as we walked out of the park, I rolled up my smudged card and stuck it in my back pocket and my daughter asked, “What do you do with those things?”
“Nothing.” I laughed at the existential uselessness of it all and think of the Grantland Rice line – he, the great poet laureate of the game:
- “For when the One Great Scorer comes
- To write against your name,
- He marks – not that you won or lost -
- But how you played the Game.”
But I could never throw one away. I stack them on my desk. And when the official score is posted on the Kettleer website the next day check my work and I see where I went wrong. I go back and correct, or, I shake my head and realize the official scorer had no clue on a particularly chaotic play. As the games have gone by and I’ve scored more than a dozen, I am going back to the online sources – I even bought a used book on Amazon – and I’m getting a little fancier. Modifying my system to make it more efficient. Adopting, for example, the official hit notation method used at Fenway Park. Adding footnotes. Little embellishments that make the card even more useful ….. marking it up with asterixes for particularly stunning plays.
Like playing a song on a ukulele (The Princess Papoolie Has Plenty Papaya, And She Loves To Give it Away), knowing how to shoot a noon sun shot with a sextant, shaving with a straight-edged razor, changing a tire, using jumper cables, reciting a long poem from memory, and having three awesome dirty jokes for any occasion and a good toast when called upon to give one, I am a step closer to another merit badge in manliness.
And in conclusion, a little postscript on the topic of Cotuit baseball and what it means to this little village:
Last Sunday I went to church — the Cotuit Federated Church where I got married, but do not attend *** to hear my neighbor, the Rev. Jeremy D. Nickel, preach a sermon on the Red Sox. I buy into the whole “Fenway is a cathedral” Field of Dreams spirituality of baseball thing, but the Rev Jer avoided the clichés and metaphors by accurately homing In and nominating Dave Roberts for sainthood for his curse-killing steal in the fourth game of the American League Championship Series against the Satanic Yankees and their Dark Lord Steinbrenner ****– and made me think about the importance of staring down the baseline of life at second base and not caring about what lies behind in the past, just going for the glory when it needs to get gone for. Then we stood and sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game (twice), Jeremy’s wife, the pastor Rev. Nicole Lamarche recited Grantland Rice’s “Casey At Bat” and I put a bill in the collection plate handed to me by a nice lady wearing a red Red Sox shirt with David Ortiz’s name on the back. Give Jer a follow on Twitter -
*: Plastic kettles actually, because the team, the Kettleers, is named for Myles Standish’s 17th century screwing of Chief Paupmunnuck out of the village for a kettle and a hoe
**: which is where college Deadhead buddy Timothy Grand, The Omega Man of Miami, chimes in to say I would have been shot as a Nazi at the Battle of the Bulge for impersonating an American and failing the secret password challenge question known to all true American males.
***: I am, according to my spiritual guide Paul Noonan, a “Devout Home Baptist and member of the congregation of St. Mattress”
****: aka SIAS or FIAT ( “s**t in a suit” or “feces in a turtleneck”)which I said, not the right reverend.