Before we learn about the scorebook, first, the man who taught me it. My father was an old-school baseball guy. The man couldn’t carry a church-pew tune, but send him to the third-base coaching box and he’d sing like a pitch-perfect lark.
“Come on Bruce, come on Babe … A little bingo-bango here … Come on, Babe, ducks on the pond!”
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I still have the three-fingered Rawlings PM20 fielder’s glove he once used as a fast-pitch softball infielder after his own small-college playing days were over. This piece of puffy leather was endorsed by Wally Post, a slugging outfielder who hit 40 home runs for the Cincinnati Reds in 1955 (eclipsed by Willie Mays, who clouted a Major League best 51 for the then-New York Giants). Put that Rawlings on today and you’d think you’re patrolling center field with the fingers laced together on a ski glove.
Dad also taught me how to keep score.
As the second son, I was drafted into service during my brother Denny’s games, where I became the unofficial historian of the run to South Tonka Little League’s 12 and under championship in suburban Minneapolis. It was heady work for a kid still swathed in baby fat, but it instilled in me an early appreciation of scorekeeping hieroglyphics.
With book in hand, I could glance at my lines, numbers and abbreviations and quickly answer nearly any question about the performance of every player. I had a more complete view of the game than anyone on the field.
There is no similarly satisfying scorebook shorthand for real life. And who would want one? Our prosaic daily narratives resist translation into epic poetry; no Homers sing of our non-heroic rage or our unspectacular odysseys. But pencil an HR boldly into a scorebook next to any hitter’s name and that homer speaks louder than words.
I connected for a presentable number of home runs during my own playing days, which culminated during college with Sunday afternoon town team games for the Chanhassen side. (More post-game beers were served up than homers in this twilight league.) I continued to keep book, though, as I coached youth-league teams and recorded the action on scorecards purchased at Major League parks in Minnesota, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Fluency in the dialect of the diamond ascribed to me omniscient narrator status. I alone judged whether a hit or error advanced the batter to first base, or whether a catcher’s passed ball or a pitcher’s wild pitch allowed the winning run to score. In my mind, I was the game’s final arbitrator.
Baseball’s scorekeeping system dates back to the 1860s and a man named Henry Chadwick, who invented a grid nine batters deep and codified letters for the fate that befell each hitter, along with numbers representing the positions of fielders who impacted the at-bat. The art form has evolved over the past 150 years, but not so much that it would be unrecognizable to Chadwick.
A 5 – 3 is still a groundball out from the third baseman (5) to the first baseman (3). An F – 8 remains a fly out to center field (8), although some now circle an 8 on the page to mean the same thing. And the K will forever be a strike out (written backwards if the batter doesn’t muster a swing at the third strike).
What would surprise Chadwick is the status loss of the scorebook in major league dugouts. Keeping book at the game’s highest level has been split into a series of specialized charts (and accompanying videos) for pitchers and hitters, plus an iPad app called MLB Dugout that makes instantly available preloaded statistics, scouting reports, charts of where hitters’ balls tend to go and other esoteric metrics. As a result, Big Data is threatening to replace the educated hunch among baseball’s managers — or already has.
Thankfully, some fans are more reluctant to give up the scorekeeping art. You can still buy a bare-bones scorecard at the stadium and if you’re lucky get a small pencil (no eraser) to go with it. The true aficionado, however, shows up at the park with an oversized spiral-bound scorebook pre-gridded in fine blue lines for each of the 30 or so games that can be recorded in it. (There are apps for scorekeeping, but why?)
I’ve drifted away from the practice in recent years and it could be that my baseball enjoyment has suffered. A call to action played out in front of me at a recent Louisville Bats home game: In front to my right a fellow graying boomer sat sideways in his seat holding an iPad. After each play he touched and flicked the screen, feeding data into a software program that I imagined would grind our most graceful game into bland binary bits.
Meanwhile, to the left sat a tank-topped and ponytailed millennial woman scoring in her big book with a green mechanical pencil. After each hit or out she flipped the scorebook level on her lap and drew in her own lines and circles, her own key numbers and letters, all while the father to one side and the son to the other merely watched the action — hers included.
Baseball can keep one forever young, I thought, but only by connecting it to the past. Which is exactly what I plan to do at my next Bats game, with a brand new scorebook and a well-sharpened pencil.