Technology puts scorekeepers in a box

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

Same routine, almost every night.

Don Hartack, the regular official scorer at Dodger Stadium, will move the small switch to ON, lean into the press-box microphone and announce his first ruling.

Something like, “E-6.”

The same wise guy from a few chairs down will scream, “That’s the worst call in the history of baseball!”

And everybody will chuckle at a gag running for more than a decade, old and musty, sort of like the Dodgers themselves.

Maybe the joke won’t work anymore. Right or wrong – and most of the world is leaning heavily toward the latter – Bob Webb’s call Sunday in Pittsburgh stands as one of the more infamous in baseball history.

Webb saw Andy LaRoche’s fifth-inning roller, mishandled by Milwaukee Brewers left-hander CC Sabathia, as a base hit, the only one – as it turned out – Sabathia allowed that afternoon.

Hartack, whose day job is writing television copy for Fox’s Saturday afternoon baseball games, has scored games for 13 years. He makes $135 a game, the industry standard. He does his job sincerely and expertly. And Don Hartack could have been Bob Webb.

“I don’t know the man at all,” Hartack said. “But I look at the footage of them showing him in the press box and I commiserate with him.”

Webb’s call has gone to New York, no longer his to make.

About five years ago, MLB appointed five men to a committee that would review decisions by official scorers. The committee was not formed to sift through every borderline call, or to retroactively grant Sabathia a no-hitter, but to rule on flagrantly incorrect judgments and scoring rules interpretations, as well as monitor the long-term performance of scorekeepers.

Until this year, the committee lacked the authority to change decisions made in the press box, but has overturned three calls this season, one previously involving the Brewers.

That’s where this gets messy, because Webb, who has scored games for 20 years, got this one wrong. It happens. There are disagreements. One man’s hit is another man’s – to quote chippy Brewers manager Ned Yost here – “joke.”

While Brewers PR man Mike Vassallo dutifully forwarded his personal DVD collection to the committee, it was unlikely any of the members – Frank Robinson, Joe Garagiola Jr. and Mike Port among them – hadn’t already seen LaRoche’s dribbler a dozen times. This is a committee that until now had decided whether a run or two against Guillermo Mota should be earned or unearned and other weighty conundrums. And, by Tuesday afternoon in New York, the boys at headquarters generally weren’t in the mood to ride their authority into the realm of re-scripting baseball history.

But the committee members will view the DVD (due to arrive at the Park Avenue offices Wednesday) and be asked to register their opinions. Hopefully, they show restraint. Otherwise, our committee members will have new full-time jobs, breaking down 15 game films a day. In the era of salary arbitration and free agency, who wouldn’t need a slightly higher batting average, or a couple tenths off their ERA?

Either way, there’s an awful lot of talk coming out of the Brewers’ camp about a process that does not influence the final score of a game. GM Doug Melvin said he might stump for a plan to triple-staff the scoring process, attempting to draw writers into the game at a time when many of their newspapers have forbidden them from voting in post-season awards. Those days are over.

Thank heavens for Sabathia, who brings perspective and accountability to an argument that has spun out of everyone else’s grasp.

“If I put the glove down and make the play,” he told writers on Sunday, “it wouldn’t be a big deal.”

Meantime, as it sometimes happens, the guy at the bottom of the box score becomes the story. It’s not a glamorous job. It’s not an easy job. Hell, it’s not even a job job. Not at $135 a night, 81 nights a year.

By day, Ed Munson is executive director of the Cypress (Calif.) Chamber of Commerce. By night, he has scored more than 3,500 games at Angel and Dodger stadiums, once scoring 2,003 consecutive Angels games. The streak ended a little more than two years ago. When he scored his first games in 1980, replay was an extravagance. Munson would have to scramble to the back of the press box, to a small black-and-white monitor, where he’d see the play again one time – and only one time – while hoping nothing meaningful occurred in the game he was missing.

Now he’s got color monitors and gobs of angles and frame-by-frame views everywhere he looks. Just as Bob Webb did in Pittsburgh the other day. Not only that, but, by golly, we’ve got a committee standing by.

“I think the essence of everything,” Munson said, “is we are so technologically advanced these days. The reasoning here is baseball has given teams an option to have players reviewed. That’s just a sign of the times.”

It leaves the official scorekeepers much where they were before, sitting in their press boxes, sweating out the first hits of the game, trying to get it right.

“When it comes to judgments, you want to be perfect,” Munson said. “Some things are just not that way. Sometimes replay helps. Sometimes it doesn’t. … But, I take that very, very seriously. I don’t want to be wrong. Then again, define ‘wrong.’ ”

Technically, it’s what one team thinks of just about every call.

“He’s trying to get it right,” Hartack said of the official scorer. “And, really, he’s the one guy in all this who doesn’t have an agenda.”

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