Making the Call: Keeping Score in Baseball’s Toughest Market, Part 1

Bill Shannon literally wrote the book on scorekeeping in the majors. (via Scott Orgera)

Although it takes a significant number of people to stage the grand production that is a major league baseball game, what really matters ultimately gets decided between the white lines. From scoreboard technicians to peanut vendors, everyone plays their role from the time the umpire yells “play ball!” to when that all-important last out is made. While the TV and radio announcers can voice their colorful spins and the scribes can pen their versions of what played out on the diamond that day, no one but the players truly dictate what numbers appear in the final box score. Well, almost no one.

Behind the scenes sits someone whose decisions can yield quite a bit of influence on the final line, yet most folks in the ballpark may not even be aware of his or her existence. Typically perched in an inconspicuous spot somewhere in the press box, the holder of this relatively unheralded and often thankless position can indirectly decide the winner of a batting title, whether a player receives an incentive-driven bonus, or even if your fantasy team finally beats that annoying braggart from the office. This mystery person is the official scorer, assigned by the MLB commissioner’s office to rule upon a wide array of game occurrences including whether to credit a batter with a base hit.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this great game is how it can spur a seemingly endless amount of friendly (most of the time) arguments about topics that revolve around minutiae. Not many things spark these debates quicker than deciding between a hit or an error. Because this is a frequent subject of disagreement, it’s also the most common reason why fans often think they can do a better job than the official scorer. What most fail to realize, however, is that the correct call can require both a trained eye and an intimate understanding of the rule book.

Perhaps the late Bill Shannon summed it up best in Official Scoring in the Big Leagues, recalling an encounter between a famed New York sportswriter and a tennis legend.

A (supposedly) incorrect call is treated as a crime against humanity. As a simple illustration, there was a game at Shea Stadium in which the charmed rookie Dwight Gooden was easily overpowering the Cubs in a game the Mets would eventually win, 10-0. In the fifth inning, Keith Moreland hit a grounder to third that was mishandled but Moreland was, in all probability, going to beat it out anyway. Maury Allen scored it a hit. I would have done the same. Unfortunately, it proved to be Chicago’s only hit.

On Sunday, Sept. 9, two days later, Allen was assigned by the Post to cover the men’s final of the U.S. Open tennis championships at the USTA National Tennis Center (which happens to be directly across the street from Shea). It turned out that John McEnroe, concluding one of the great years by any player in the history of men’s tennis, routed Ivan Lendl, 6-3, 6-4, 6-1, to win the championship that day. The world’s press gathered for the champion’s post-match press conference. In the course of events, Allen posed a question to McEnroe. The champion immediately responded with a question of his own: ‘How the (expletive) could you call that a hit?,’ he said.

While making the distinction between hit and error is certainly an important part of being an official scorer, it is just one of many important duties the scorer has on a game-by-game basis, a set of responsibilities that the viewing public, players, coaches and even media members usually know little about.

With a lot riding on their actions, and little fanfare aside from occasional, sometimes misguided, criticism, official scorers’ jobs at the major league level can be a pressure-packed gig. The lights tend to be brighter in New York City and, as is the case with many things in the Big Apple, scrutiny on the official scorer’s calls is typically magnified.

Due in part to this added attention, along with the lofty standards set by their peers and the public, some of the nation’s best-regarded scorers occupy the hot seat at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium each season. I took a peek behind the curtain and got a better view of one of baseball’s most misunderstood roles.

Scorecards and Subway Cars

In the Bronx and Queens, the trio responsible for the final record on a daily basis may have different professional backgrounds, but it’s the common denominators among them that are key. This includes a wealth of live baseball viewing experience along with expert-level knowledge of the rule book’s scoring section. It also requires integrity and the conviction necessary to stand behind your calls, while also being flexible enough to make a change when you’re wrong.

And, perhaps most important, the ability to remain impartial. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone playing favorites among this group, at least not on the days that they’re scoring.

“Less homerism in New York and that should be the goal everywhere,” said former Mets starter Ron Darling, now in his 12th season as an Emmy Award-winning analyst for the club’s TV broadcasts on SNY. “Each play scored on its own individual uniqueness. Scoring is one of the most integral parts of the game because of the role statistics play in every fan’s knowledge and love of the game.”

To truly understand these scorers’ prowess as well as their passion for the job, you must first look to their predecessors – two men, in particular. Red Foley and Shannon, both legends in their own right, had more influence on New York’s current set of scorers than anyone else . In fact, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about scoring with any of them without Foley or Shannon’s name being mentioned.

“Red, and later Bill, set the standard that today’s scorers try to maintain every day,” said Gary Cohen, television voice of the Mets who is in his 29th season covering the organization. “One thing they all have in common is an ability to explain their decisions as rationally as possible within the context of the particular situation.”

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Cohen added: “New York is the gold standard when it comes to official scoring. Not only is there no hometown bias (which should be the case everywhere, but isn’t), but there seems to be a deeper understanding of the scoring rules and how they should be applied.”

A sportswriter for the New York Daily News for 34 years, Foley began scoring at a time when the Baseball Writers Association of America still designated one of its members to serve as official scorer for each game. From 1966 through 2002, he scored over 3,000 games as well as 10 World Series – the most by an official scorer in modern history. Foley passed away in 2008 at the age of 79, leaving behind a legacy as one of baseball’s best official scorers.

In addition to the countless bylines and various pieces of baseball history that bear Red Foley’s name is one of the country’s most popular baseball-centric bars, a Midtown Manhattan mecca for writers, players, managers, coaches, umpires and fans.

Certain topics, including politics and religion, are strictly off limits at Foley’s NY, but one subject not on the banned list is scoring. Owner Shaun Clancy became quick friends with Foley following his major league scoring days, a period in which Foley still served as a part-time official scorer for the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.

“I sat with him and (Hall of Fame writer) Jack Lang watching many games, and he knew of my love for scoring games,” Clancy reflected. “When I wanted a name for my bar I wanted an Irish name with a baseball connection, and who better than Red? It was also a way to honor Red, who was ahead of his time in both writing and scoring.”

Foley also played an indirect role in the pub proprietor’s former gambling habit. It happened after a wild ending in Game Five of the 1999 NLCS at Shea Stadium, in which Robin Ventura never made it to second base on a game-winning grand slam after being mobbed by his teammates.

“Red cost me a lot of money and might be the reason I stopped betting on baseball,” Clancy joked. “Last game I ever bet on was the infamous Robin Ventura grand slam single. I had the over and if all the runs had scored I would have won, but it was scored a single. Only one run scored and the official scorer that day was Red.”

One official scorer who received Foley’s tutelage was Shannon, who would go on to become one of the game’s most revered scorers himself. He first sat in the official scorer’s chair in 1979, but had been a media fixture in and around the city for many years prior.

His resume read like a New York sports potpourri; he’d held esteemed positions ranging from the head of public relations for Madison Square Garden to the press box announcer for the NFL’s Titans and Jets for almost a half-century.

Shannon also authored, edited and contributed to many sporting publications and claimed bylines as a newspaper and wire service writer. Even with all of these impressive achievements, Bill’s lasting impact is most evident in New York’s official scorers of today. He took each of them under his wing and taught them the nuances of the profession.

Until his death in a house fire in October of 2010, Shannon was the senior official scorer in the city and eventually became the de facto standard for scorers around the league. He was always willing to impart his knowledge upon fellow scorers and those interested in the position.

Howie Karpin, a longtime sports journalist who has authored or co-authored eight books, scored his first game in 1998 after almost two decades covering baseball for various radio and print outlets.

“I was interested because I saw that a media person was the scorer and that it could be an avenue for me to one day sit in that chair,” Karpin said. “The late Bill Shannon really got me interested because of his passion and his support for me.”

Tales of such support were common among Shannon’s proteges and other press box denizens, as his booming voice always seemed to rise an octave when explaining why a particular play was scored the way it was. No matter if you were a well-known columnist or an intern looking to break into the business, he always made time to thoughtfully respond to such inquiries.

Taking into account the criticism every official scorer must face for what many consider to be nominal compensation, Shannon always issued a somewhat playful warning to those who showed interest in the position.

Jordan Sprechman, an attorney and wealth advisor for J.P. Morgan, started working major league games at both Shea and Yankee Stadiums in 1980 while attending Columbia University. That’s where he first met Shannon, who at the time covered many of the college’s teams for the Associated Press. A decade later, Sprechman began stringing for the AP at major league alongside Shannon and eventually asked about becoming an official scorer.

“When I first started working semi-regularly at the ballparks,” Sprechman said, “I told Bill that I would be interested in perhaps one day being considered to become one of the official scorers. By then, there were only two in New York: Bill and Red Foley. After the obligatory comments about being out of my mind, Bill said that if I wanted to become a scorer I had to do three things: show up as often as I could, pay attention, and keep my mouth shut.”

Billy Altman, a New York-based scorer since 2004, also heard such cautionary words from Shannon. Despite his experience as a Grammy-nominated music critic and sports writer just as comfortable discussing The Ramones as Rickey Henderson, it took Altman a while to even broach the subject with the senior official scorer.

“As a kid growing up, and much more so once I started writing about baseball and spending a lot of time in the press box, I was always fascinated by the job,” Altman said. “After coming up with enough courage, I finally asked Bill one day how one became an official scorer. I’ll never forget his answer: ‘You WANT to do this?!’”

The three persisted nonetheless, each shadowing the scorer and absorbing hundreds of unique game situations until it was their turn to take the reins.

David Freeman was the fourth member of the New York official scorer rotation from 2004-15, before moving to Florida to pursue his music career. Like the rest of the group, Freeman had covered baseball in a number of different capacities. Also like the others, a large part of his path was paved by Bill Shannon.

“A few years after I started doing stats, Mr. Shannon came up to me and said ‘Red and I aren’t getting any younger’ and asked me if I’d be interested in being an official scorer one day.”

What’s probably most telling is that all these men considered Shannon not just a mentor, but a dear friend. That may sound trivial to some, but in the ultra-competitive world of sports media it is a rarity to be treasured.

Memorialized in each big league press box in New York City with prominently-placed photos and plaques, Foley and Shannon’s significance lives on.

A Day in the Life

An official scorer’s typical day at the ballpark begins inconspicuously, as their responsibilities don’t officially kick in until first pitch. Some choose to prepare score sheets and notes beforehand. Others may check with a team’s PR staff to confirm the proper pronunciation of a player’s name. No matter their pregame rituals, once the leadoff hitter steps into the batter’s box it’s time to focus.

As soon as the first pitch crosses the plate, the official scorer announces the time over the press box PA system, which can be heard by writers, broadcasters, scoreboard operators, team personnel and other members of the media. This is one of many announcements the scorer must make, including the statline for each pitcher who exits the game and a number of important data points as soon as the last out is made. These include the total runs, hits, and errors for each team, the time of game, the number of men left on base, the winning and losing pitchers and if a player was credited with a save.

However, these are not the items that garner the most attention.

“In between, the scorer makes hit/error, wild pitch/passed ball, and other of those kinds of calls. Those decisions are the ones that most baseball fans associate with the scorer’s job,” Sprechman said. “Those are extremely important because everyone – players, managers, the front office, fans – cares about those calls and their impacts on batting averages, hitting streaks, earned run averages, and the like.”

The day can quickly turn into anything but typical, which is why an official scorer has to be prepared to make sense out of even the messiest of plays from a scoring perspective – and to do it quickly.

“In many games there are no real calls of those kinds to make,” Sprechman added. “On the other hand, there are some games in which in every inning, it seems, there is a tough call to make.”

Even the most seasoned scorers must stay on their toes the whole game. While many in the press box are honed in on their individual tasks, whether it be writing a game story or babbling on Twitter, the official scorer’s eyes should be on the field at all times.

“Not sure I’m ever really comfortable,” Altman said. “Having to concentrate on roughly 300 pitches, and recognizing the near infinite possibilities of things happening in a game of baseball and all hell possibly breaking loose on any of them, regardless of the score, kind of ensures that you’re not likely to ever be completely comfortable.”

After the victors have been crowned and the players have retreated to the clubhouse, the scorer tends to some crucial bookkeeping- completing forms which are then sent to the Elias Sports Bureau and used as the official record of that game and its statistics.

“Information on offensive, defensive and pitching performances is written down. It is a compilation of the events of the game, including attendance, score by inning, umpires, putouts, assists, and seemingly everything else one can think of,” Sprechman explained. “To me the most important part is the reconciliation. In every baseball game, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So, for instance, if the visiting club’s sheet reports that the visitors had 37 plate appearances, the home club’s sheet had better report that the home club’s pitchers faced 37 batters. And if the former hit three homers, the latter allowed three homers. And so on.”

Section 9: The Rules of Scoring

Every man in America is an authority on baseball. If you don’t believe that, just ask one. Regrettably, most of the knowledge they have was accumulated by about age 12. Much of it is correct; a lot of it is not.
Official Scoring in the Big Leagues, by Bill Shannon

MLB’s official rule book is filled with interesting tidbits about baseball and its regulations, ranging from the maximum length of a bat to when a ball should be ruled dead. Many of these guidelines and restrictions are paramount to players, managers, coaches and umpires. The largest section of the book, however, is the one containing the somewhat complex rules on official scoring.

Section 9 comprises about a quarter of the entire book yet its contents are often a mystery to the on-field personnel, and with good reason. Although a student of the game may find these rules intriguing, the only person who really needs to understand them is the official scorer.

“Players, managers, and coaches need to know the other parts of the rule book far better than they need to know the scoring rules,” Sprechman said.

Radio and TV announcers, on the other hand, can be quite vociferous at times when they don’t agree with a scorer’s decision. It’s all part of being an official scorer, and not something the New York scorers take personally.

“I seem to be having my name dropped a lot more lately on Mets broadcasts but it’s all good,” Karpin said. “It’s the broadcasters’ prerogative if they want to second-guess or criticize the call.”

These types of discussions among baseball lifers help make official scoring such a fascinating subject.

“In an era that is dominated more and more by objective data, scoring remains a subjective art,” Mets broadcaster Cohen said. “Any decision depends not only on the scoring rules as written, but on the eye test of the scorer or observer to see how those rules should apply. This naturally lends itself to debate when different observers come to different conclusions.”

Darling, a key member of the Mets’ starting rotation for nine seasons, reviews the official rules twice every year – once prior to Opening Day and again before the start of the playoffs. The former Ivy Leaguer also read the rule book as a kid, inspired by his father who was an umpire in his spare time.

“I believe our discussions, in relation to official scoring, take up less than 1 percent of our broadcasts. That being said, we are all scorekeeping aficionados and enjoy the banter of discussing how plays are scored,” Darling said. “The rules versus the visual perception. How scorekeepers are handcuffed by the rules when it is obvious by a former player’s eyes what just happened.”

While the rules do require that the official scorer make some judgment calls, many scoring decisions are actually made within the boundaries of Section 9, including how to recreate an inning and assign earned runs accordingly, adding a level of uniformity to the profession — assuming the scorer has a firm grasp of those rules.

“A play in Detroit should be scored the same way as the same play in Cincinnati,” Shannon wrote. “To that extent, the scorer has no discretion over the call; he is merely its executor.”

The lion’s share of judgment calls revolve around hit versus error, on occasion presenting the scorer with some flexibility. Foley and Shannon had the reputation of being tough but fair when it came to doling out errors, and that approach has carried over to today’s scorers.

“The most important thing an official scorer can be is correct. Sometimes you see a replay that dispels the call you made, so you are not right and you owe it to the players involved to change that call as soon as possible,” Freeman said. “There are no sides. As Mr. Foley used to say, ‘An official scorer makes correct calls, not popular ones.’”

Now that we’ve introduced the key players, looked back upon some important history and taken a dive into the rule book and its many intricacies, it’s time to take a breather.

Part two of this series will explore the appeals system, see how official scoring is being affected by changes in the modern game and relive some memorable on-field moments -– all in a New York minute.


Scott Orgera is a sportswriter, datacaster and statistician who has covered baseball for multiple outlets since 1995. He has written for the Associated Press, Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, among others. Follow him on Twitter @ScottO_NY.
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Brian S
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Member
Brian S

Justin Turner was just assigned an error last night (9/10) for a the game on 9/5. How does this occur?

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

You open up another topic for this site: great baseball bars in each city where thirsty insiders gathered to assess that night’s game.

Nicole Strecansky
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Nicole Strecansky

Wow. Very very well put.

Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

Looking forward to part two!

Brooks
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Brooks

I really enjoyed this! I’m only an amateur in scorekeeping, so this was a really fun read. Thank you!

Don Smythe
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Don Smythe

Bill Shannon was a friend (and co-worker, and boss) of mine. He was one of the few people I’ve ever met to whom the term “gentleman” applies. Baseball was blessed to have him, and his meticulous work as a scorekeeper will be reflected on the craft for years. His death was a great loss to a lot of us.

boogshine
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boogshine

Such a nice piece of baseball writing, even if I wasn’t a Mets fan who enjoys their broadcasts even when the games are meaningless September AAA contests.

Edward Pagano
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Edward Pagano

Nice job Scott

Jesse DePalma
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Jesse DePalma

Love reading about the behind the scenes workings of an mlb game. A tad long winded, but overall great writing. Ive followed him for a while and this Scott Orgera’s a great read each time. If im scoring this article…IT’S A HIT!!!

Jerry
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Jerry

Jordan Sprechman rocks!