Meet the guys who hold Major League Baseball’s most thankless job (other than the umpires)

Justin Morneau
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Justin Morneau is congratulated after scoring on a controversial play against the Yankees last year. Some thought it should be an inside-the-park homer, but it was ruled a triple and error.

The late Red Barber, a legendary broadcaster in Cincinnati and New York for more than three decades, used to say a person in an enviable position was “sittin’ in the catbird seat,” wonderfully situated for whatever came next.

At the Metrodome, the official scorer at a Twins game — usually retired Pioneer Press sportswriter Gregg Wong or prolific baseball author Stew Thornley — occupies a different kind of catbird seat. On tough calls, they often feel like a bird surrounded by cats, an uncomfortable position Major League Baseball vows to change when Target Field opens next year.

The scorer sits in the second row of the press box, directly behind the Twins media relations staff, and across the middle aisle from the visiting team’s P.R. rep. According to MLB Club Relations Vice President Phyllis Merhige, who oversees official scoring, the seat is too close to team representatives who might try to influence a call.

No matter the seat, it’s always a hot spot
“I can’t demand, but I can ask that they not set the location near the P.R. people,” Merhige said in a telephone interview from her office in New York City. “I’ve met with some degree of success in some places and not so much success in others.”

At the old Yankee Stadium, Merhige succeeded in moving the scorer from the front row next to the Yankees media relations staff to the back row on the opposite end of the box, a spot with a podium she nicknamed “the Wizard of Oz booth.”

According to Wong, for years the official scorer sat in the first row next to Tom Mee, the Twins’ longtime public relations director and the first employee hired after the franchise moved to Minnesota in 1960. After Mee retired in 1991 and became an official scorer, the seat moved to the second row near other Twins employees, Wong said. Mee stopped his scoring duties in 2007.

Merhige prodded the Twins to find a better location in the new ballpark, and her efforts appear to be fruitful. Twins baseball communications director Mike Herman said the Target Field seat will not be near either P.R. staff, though the location hasn’t been decided.

A play in the final game before the All-Star Break, with Thornley on duty, illustrated Merhige’s concern.

Stew Thornley
magconline.org
Stew Thornley

In the sixth inning of the Twins’ 13-7 victory over the White Sox third baseman Gordon Beckham charged in, slapped at and muffed a slow grounder by Brendan Harris. Thornley, after watching one replay on the overhead television monitor, called it an error. Dustin Morse, Herman’s assistant, turned to ask Thornley about the call, soon followed by Herman. Neither raised their voice or appeared impolite. Across the aisle, a White Sox P.R. staffer watched and listened quietly.

Frankly, several writers (including me) thought Thornley cost Harris an infield hit. But Thornley saw something we didn’t: Harris was only one-quarter of the way down the line when Beckham muffed the ball. “If he plays back, he makes the play,” Thornley said. The error stood.

However, after the game, Thornley reversed himself on a different call. In the eighth,  Denard Span dropped a fly ball after a long run that Thornley initially ruled a single for A.J. Pierzynski. Rule 10.05(a) tells scorers to give the batter the benefit of the doubt. But in this case, Thornley beat himself up for not calling it an error all the way.
 
“It was a crappy call,” he said.

“It’s always safer to call it a hit. The batting team is happy, and the fielding team can be ambivalent … But you have to make the proper call.”

Everyone’s a critic
That’s the challenge for official scorers in all 30 major-league cities, who get paid $135 per game for a job that, like umpiring and managing, most people think they can do better than the person in the seat.

Scorers come from varied backgrounds. A few, like Wong, are retired baseball writers. Newspaper sports editors discouraged beat writers from scoring games in the late 1970s because of conflict-of-interest concerns, and MLB began hiring non-journalists as scorers in 1980. But Merhige often recruits former writers like Wong because players and managers trust their baseball knowledge. Wong covered the Twins for the PP from 1985 to 1987 and filled in on the beat until his retirement in 2002. Thornley, a softball umpire who began scoring for college and independent teams about 25 years ago, belongs to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

Gregg Wong
miac-online.org
Gregg Wong

There are no rigid requirements for an official scorer, Merhige said, although you must know the major-league game and the detailed scoring rules. And we mean detailed. The section of the Official Baseball Rules covering official scoring runs 36 pages.

“I think some people think we’re just pulling people out of the stands, especially in the clubhouse,” Merhige said. “It’s one of those subjects, like umpiring, that everyone has an opinion on. But you don’t realize how difficult it is until you get into it.”

Presumption of incompetence doesn’t bother Thornley. But the perception that the scorer should be a “homer,” favoring the home team on borderline calls, is something Merhige discourages and Thornley and Wong strive to avoid.

“You can’t cater to that,” Thornley said. “That’s one of the biggest pressures, to resist the pressure and make the proper call. I feel that pressure, and I feel it more when the home team is at bat. When the team has guys who are among the league leaders, that’s looked at a little bit more.

“Phyllis was in town last year and made it very clear — we don’t want homers, and we take that stuff very seriously.”

Small decisions can have big impact
Neither Wong nor Thornley mind explaining a call to a player or manager.  Thankfully, neither had to deal with a clubhouse fiasco like longtime Boston scorer Charles Scoggins, one of the best in the business, inadvertently created at Fenway Park in September 1992.

Third baseman Wade Boggs, charged with an error in a Sox loss to Detroit with Roger Clemens pitching, persuaded Scoggins to change it to a hit. No big deal, right? But it added two earned runs to Clemens’ total when he was vying for the American League earned run average title and Cy Young Award. Clemens and fellow pitcher Danny Darwin were furious, with Clemens claiming he lost respect for Boggs, and Darwin reportedly yelling at Boggs in the clubhouse.  Clemens won the ERA title anyway but lost the Cy Young to Dennis Eckersley. (P.S.: The Sox finished last.)

Often, players and former players cause trouble for scorers because they don’t know the rules. On a Twins radio broadcast June 20, after Joe Mauer stole a base against Houston in the eighth inning with the Twins down three runs, analyst Dan Gladden insisted it should have been defensive indifference because Astros first baseman Lance Berkman did not hold Mauer on. Gladden claimed to remember a similar ruling in a game he played in.

Gladden had the right idea but the wrong application. According to Rule 10.06, scorers should consider “the totality of the circumstances,” and holding the runner on is one factor. But Wong credited a steal because shortstop Miguel Tejada covered the bag and catcher Pudge Rodriguez popped up to throw before holding up. In Wong’s mind, how could there be indifference when two Astros tried to make a play? But Wong said he had to explain that to friends who heard the broadcast and presumed Gladden knew what he was talking about.

Wong was also on duty last year, when several Twins insisted Justin Morneau deserved an inside-the-park home run against the Yankees. That’s the goofy play where Yankee centerfielder Melky Cabrera fell fielding the ball in right-center, tried to flip it to right fielder Bobby Abreu, but tossed it past him. That wouldn’t be a home run in tee ball, and Wong called it a triple and an error. But someone told Morneau he got jobbed out of a homer, Morneau believed it, and the commotion escalated to the point that manager Ron Gardenhire asked Herman to bring Wong to his office.

“The P.R. guys are in a tough spot,” Wong said. “When they go down to a clubhouse after a game, they’re getting yelled at by players and the manager. They’re trying to head that off.”

It turned out Gardenhire wasn’t angry. “Gardy said, ‘We’ve got 27 home runs and we can use all the home runs we can get. I just want the players to know I’ve got their backs,’ “‘ Wong said.

The kicker: Before Wong headed for the clubhouse, Twins general manager Bill Smith told Wong it should have been a double and a two-base error. Two club officials, two interpretations, nobody’s happy. That’s life for an official scorer.

“One thing I’ve learned as a scorer: You don’t have to make a call instantaneously. Take your time,” Wong said. “There’s a five-second delay on the televisions in the press box, so you can look up and see it again before the replay. You’ve got so many opportunities to see it before you make the call. The more time you take to do that, the fewer problems you have. Take your time and try to get it right the first time.

“But sometimes you change a call. I changed a wild pitch to a passed ball earlier this year, when visiting P.R. asked me to look at it. The important thing is to make what you believe is the right call. Everybody wants what benefits them the most.”

Pat Borzi, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, writes about sports for MinnPost.com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Stew Thornley on 07/27/2009 - 11:02 am.

    Nice job, Pat. Thanks.

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