For Scorers, the Game is in the Details

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Baseball umpires, just like their brethren — the referees in football, basketball, and soccer — wield power with game-altering, lightning-quick decisions and unchallengeable ball-and-strike judgment calls.

Yet the unseen overseer of the final statistics — and of all sports, baseball is the most statistic-driven — is the official scorer. Sitting on press row, next to the official scorer during one of the last games at Shea Stadium, one observes just how much his calls shape our perception of each individual game, as well as player and team statistics. Individual game stats may not affect a player or managerial team immediately. But come contract time, especially in arbitration, official statistics (not the “moneyball” equations favored by nouveau interpreters of the sport) are the bargaining chips for a prized contract, or evidence of a team in disarray.

Howie Karpin works as an official scorer for both Mets and Yankees games. A lifelong Bronx resident and former southpaw hurler for Lehman College, Karpin is officially employed by Major League Baseball, as are all scorers. Scorers are always locals, usually newspaper reporters or wire-service journalists. There’s no exam to get your foot into the press box. Traveling beat reporters in New York comment that small-market scorers often give a subtle “edge” to the home team. Karpin argues that this can never happen in New York, simply because in our baseball-obsessed climate, every fan, writer, and team executive knows most of the nuances of the game, and it’s a city where second-guessing by the press over a questionable call becomes tabloid fodder within a few hours.

Thick skin and knowledge of the game is what Karpin brings to the job. He became a scorer in 1998, replacing the legendary Red Foley (the Daily News columnist who “scored” a record 10 World Series). Karpin scores a total of 65 games a year for both teams. He’s scored 15 playoff games and three World Series (the World Series retains a triumvirate of scorers: scorers from the home teams, the visiting teams, and an independent scorer selected by MLB).

Karpin arrives at the press box about 30 minutes before a game, armed with his tools: Wite-Out, a pen, binoculars, and the official MLB box score form, which he signs off on after the game ends and sends directly to the Elias Sports Bureau. Yankee Stadium cordons off the official scorer’s seat so that he’s not disturbed by the working press, but his vision of the outfield corners is blocked (although he can use a television monitor if needed). His seat at Shea, on the other hand, is almost directly behind home plate and affords a better view. He begins his job by announcing the official time of the first pitch to members of press row with his own microphone. After that, the game dictates how involved he must become, aside from noting weather changes in his scorer’s card.

Listening to Karpin rattle off in-game stats is like listening to a Bronx short-order cook or Judge Judy. What’s interesting is that his official calls have absolutely no impact on the outcome of the game. Of course, the pitcher who loses a no-hitter in the 8th inning due to a questionable hit ruling might be rattled and melt down for a loss. Otherwise, it’s all about what goes wrong on the field and has zero connection to how the umpires might ultimately affect the game.

In a recent game against the Phillies, Philadelphia’s left fielder, Pat Burrell, overthrew his cut-off man, shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Karpin charged Burrell with an error. It was early in the game and there were no repercussions to Burrell’s play as the Phillies got out of the inning without the Mets scoring. But after the inning, a PR rep for the Phillies got in Karpin’s face and a few voices along press role were heard grumbling about the call. A look at the television monitor showed that Rollins was out of position as the cut-off man, thus causing Burrell’s throw to skip by him.

The error was reversed.

As the game proceeded, Karpin’s voice began ringing through the press box as numerous pitching changes occurred. (It’s the Mets, what did you expect?) Each exiting pitcher’s stat line for the day is announced, including hits allowed, walks, earned runs, etc. Karpin joked that Jose Lima, while pitching for the Mets in 2006, hit the “cluster” pitching line: a HR, a WP (wild pitch), a HBB (hit by pitch), and a balk, all in one inning. During the seventh-inning stretch, Karpin mentioned that a key element of his job is usually neglected by the fans: defensive assists.

Assists are usually noted for the rocket-armed outfielders who gun down opposing runners on the base paths. The routine assist in the infield is where the numbers pile up; obviously, infielders are the most vulnerable to the assist/error ratio. Jose Reyes’s extraordinary range increases the rate of an error, while the limited range of Hall-of-Famer and Golden Glove-perennial Ryan Sandburg did contribute to his remarkably error-free career. Roberto Alomar’s tricky behind-the-back flip to second gave him considerable leeway as far as being charged with an error, Karpin opined.

Official scorers usually garner the spotlight when it’s not wanted — the most recent case being the overwrought “controversy” surrounding C.C. Sabathia’s one-hitter on August 31. The hit, off a “swinging” bunt, occurred in the 5th inning of a game that would end with Sabathia retiring the final 15 hitters in order for the victory. That Sabathia himself was guilty of mishandling the bunt added some irony to the story. Karpin calls this event an “OSN” (Official Scorer’s Nightmare) and hesitantly disagreed with the official call in Pittsburgh. It’s the worst-case scenario for a scorer when he has to make a ruling on a controversial scoring play and it turns out to be the only hit of the game. Karpin doesn’t blame the official scorer. It was a “down the middle” call, a MLB “code” term, and the league wasn’t about to break tradition by awarding a retroactive no-hitter.

The pressure on the official scorer usually increases as the game progresses, but Karpin relishes this. One of the more sublime elements of baseball is the absence of a clock affecting the parameters of each game. On par with a suspense film or mystery novel , baseball weaves forward through its own internal clock — the inning — generating tension that strengthens until the final out of a tight game. For Karpin, it’s all business (although he does admit to being a Yankees fan).

Ultimately, what the official scorer witnesses on the field goes into the record book (and tomorrow’s box score) as the final verdict, the gatekeeper of a century-long tradition of statistics that makes this angle of the sport so appealing.

The New York Sun

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