Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Have you ever played the game?"

       Baseball scorekeeping stories, Part II ...
       The toughest call I think I ever made as an official scorer in baseball, the toughest error I ever charged, also led to the biggest disagreement/argument.
       It was the summer of 1999, the last year the Knoxville Smokies played at old Bill Meyer Stadium just off Interstate 40/75 near downtown Knoxville. And this is about the Birmingham Barons' batting coach yelling at the official scorer: Have you ever played the game?
       Repeat (because that's what he did): Have you ever played the game?
       And the smart-aleck scorer -- that was me, of course -- yelled back: "Have you?"
       Just the start of our pleasant exchange that lasted maybe a minute.
       Coach: "I played in the big leagues!"
       Scorer: "Not for long, and not very well!"
       That was matching lack of respect with lack of respect.   
Arnold Fielkow
      The good part: He was down on the field, standing at the base of the grandstand -- with the big screen and all the stands between him and me, up in the press box atop the stadium roof. A good distance apart, and how nice because I wasn't about to go face-to-face with him.
       It was heated enough that the president of the Southern League (Arnold Fielkow, later executive vice-president of the New Orleans Saints for six years and then a New Orleans city councilman) fined the batting coach a nominal amount -- I think it was $50, or so I was told by a Knoxville team official. 
       I was told to call Fielkow about the incident, and did.  He wasn't happy and said he should fine me ... until I pleaded that I was a parttime  -in for weekday afternoon games -- I had a regular job (as a sportswriter/copy editor) -- and I was making only $25 a game, and just happy to be there. So he settled for a short lecture, telling me not to yell at any more coaches.
       Show some respect, in other words. But that respect should work both ways.
       The play: Bases empty, third inning, right-handed batter hits a screaming ground ball -- a "skinner," as my old friend Coach James Farrar used to call it -- toward right field. The second baseman, moving quickly to his left, somehow stabs the ball, then in one motion, jumps in the air, spins and does a 360 and throws the ball ... 30 feet over the first baseman's head.
       The batter is no more than 3-4 steps out of the batter's box, not halfway to first base when the throw is made. That's how hard the ball was hit, how quickly the second baseman fielded it.
       If the second baseman had stopped himself, pivoted and planted his feet, the throw to first would've had the batter/runner by 30 feet.
       So a spectacular play was followed by a dumb one, just a quick (and unfortunate) reaction. But it was a panicked, unnecessary decision.
       The official scorer -- me -- called it an error. (A tough error.) The visiting team, which was batting, didn't like the call ... at all.
       Have you ever played the game?
       And here's what I found when scoring professional baseball games: Managers, coaches and players think -- believe -- that because they play/played the game, they know more about scorekeeping plays and rules than us pedestrians.
       Of course, I don't agree.  If you've been a scorekeeper for 35 years, read and thought about the scoring rules again and again, watched a thousand games and scored a thousand more, you appreciate how difficult it is to play the game. If you're conscientious about scoring -- and I was -- and as fair as you strive to be, you're qualified.
       It's a judgment call (as I noted in the previous blog piece), and there are going to be people who judge it the other way. I've never thought my judgment was beyond question, and I've changed calls after listening to differing opinions.
       But when I described this play to a friend who loves baseball as I do, he said: "Easy error."
       It wasn't as easy a call that day in '99. I could've taken the easy way, given the second baseman credit for a heckuva play just to get to the ball, and called it a hit, and probably no one would've complained. But I kept thinking: That should have been an out. That was my instinct.
       The batting coach came out of the dugout after I made the error call and waved his arms at the press box, as if to say "what was that?" The Birmingham manager, coaching third base, glared up there, too. The batting coach told a Knoxville team official standing next to the dugout with a walkie-talkie that he wanted to talk to me about the call. I politely refused.
       Just to add to their fury, there was another play in the ninth inning when one of the Barons' players hit a ball toward first base and I again called an error on the Smokies' fielder. I didn't have a doubt about that call, but again there were glares up my way.
       Confession: I knew who the batting coach was, knew he had been a major-league player, a New York Yankees player at that. He didn't know me from first base.
Steve Whitaker (photo from Whitaker Realty)
       Steve Whitaker was -- unfortunately -- a bust with the Yankees in the late 1960s, the supposed successor to Tom Tresh in left field who came to the majors with a big buildup, but didn't live up to the promise. He got to the Yankees in 1966, just as the franchise hit bottom after years of dominance in the American League.
       He was with the Yankees for three years, a .231 hitter (18 home runs, 68 RBI) who had only fairly good season, and he was out of the majors after parts of five seasons. Most notable about him, maybe: He was once traded for Lou Piniella.
       But he was batting coach with Birmingham in the Southern League because it was the Chicago White Sox's Class AA farm team, and Whitaker spent almost three decades in the system guiding young batters.
       Another confession: I knew the Smokies' second baseman who made the play and was charged with the error. Mike Peeples was from Green Cove Springs, Fla., and had been a star at Clay High School -- in the same county (Clay) where we lived when I worked for the Florida Times-Union (in Jacksonville). I remembered him from a few years before when I was prep sports editor for the paper and had talked to him a couple of times before or after Smokies' games.        
         He was a nice young man. When I went to talk to him about that play before the next Smokies' game I scored and said it was a tough error, he said, "That's OK. I made a bad play out of it."
         In doing extensive research for this piece (not really, but it sounds good), I Googled for Steve Whitaker to check on his baseball career and was pleased to find a link to Whitaker Realty in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, home to the Yankees' spring training for 34 years (1962-95). He has been a real estate broker for 35 years; he has his family involved in the business, and it appears highly successful.
         And so I apologize for being disrespectful that day. I don't apologize for the scoring decision. That's just how I saw it, and I haven't changed my mind. But it was a tough call.


  1. From Taylor Moore: At least you had the field and a screen to protect you. We have talked about the infamous Larry Mansfield-Bill McIntyre incident when all that was separating them was about 1 foot in the dark at SPAR Stadium.

  2. From Teddy Allen: I just love these (blogs on scorekeeping).
    Your buddy was right -- easy error.

  3. From Sid Huff: Sent this on to a dear friend of mine, Pat Robson, who was a college and minor league umpire for many years. Pat got me tickets to the 1990 World Series (I was a Reds bat boy in 1960 and have been a lifelong Reds fan). We sat with the major-league umpire, Don Denkinger, who is (in)famous for the 1985 World Series blown call.

  4. From Maxie Hays: You made the correct call, Nico. The second baseman made a great play on the ball and hurried his throw to first. Error on the second baseman's throw.

  5. From Patrick Booras: A thankless job at times. ... I think you made the right choice. Also, a second baseman on most plays has more time to straighten up and make a good throw, and most times a shorter throw.

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  7. From Ike Futch: Best one yet, Nico. I can relate to so many things in this one. ... Playing second base for seven of my eight years of pro baseball, I agree 100 percent with your call -- E4. I only questioned one official scorer's call in my career and that was only after I read an article about it. We were playing at home and I went about 20 feet on the outfield grass and knocked the ball down. It was scored an error and ended a 42-game streak without one -- a Tulsa team record. Also liked Sid Huff's comment about umpire Don Denkinger. He was coming up through the minor leagues when I was playing in the '60s.