Sunday, April 15, 2007


Each spring I make an effort to read a baseball book, or at least intend to read one, to help get me in the mood for the new season. Last year I was taking a class and discarded the silly ritual, with the unfortunate result that the start of the season just didn’t have the magic it should. Then by the time I could focus on it, the Bucs were already hapless, another season lost.

I was not going to repeat the mistake this year.


First up, sixty actual major league game situations that make you the umpire. This was bedtime reading with my 8-year-old who loves baseball, trivia and puzzles. Some are very easy, like is it a home run when the ball bounces off Canseco’s head and over the fence, others are more tricky, like what’s the call when a confused outfielder hands the ball to a fan then grabs it back to complete the play, or when a batter pulls a hammy and cannot round the bases on a home run, or whether the infield fly rule applies on a pop bunt to the catcher. Dude will fare much better than I did. I think my 8-year-old beat me too. I tried thinking about it; he just intuitively decided what would be fair in that situation. You find when you study them that the rules of baseball are exquisitely fair.


I promised said boy that I would teach him how to score a game so I figured I’d better review it myself since it’s been a while. Turns out I didn’t need this book because everybody does it their own way and the basic instructions are inside the front cover of any scorebook. The good news is the book turned out to be much more than a how-to, with photos of scorecards from historic games, quotes from famous Americans on how they learned to score with their dads (who knew presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was a more avid scorer than Ike, or that First Lady Grace Coolidge kept her own card?), an essay on the mathematical beauty and compact storytelling of the box score, and some exposition on the history of the official scorer and examples of why they can be so hated. By the way, I did score the Mets-Cards season opener with Ben and he is a quick study. We scored the first 4 or 5 innings and then he went to bed and asked me to do the rest of the game and leave it outside his door. My wife reported that he scrupulously studied my work over breakfast. When I got home from work Monday evening I asked him whether he had looked at the scorecard and he said, "Yeah, it's not the way I would have done it, but it was pretty good." That still cracks me up.


A simple and witty little book written in 1957 by an author better known for his 1940 skewering of Wall Street called Where Are the Customers’ Yachts? Written in the style of a primer for non-fans, the joke is that only the knowledgeable fan can understand his convoluted instructions, what with the strange and seemingly contradictory terms and myriad exceptions to every rule (a whiff is a strike, but if you strike it it’s not a strike, unless it’s a two-strikes bunt, then it’s a strikeout): everyone knows you learn the game only by playing or watching it. What is so great about this book, and about baseball, is that this book could be published 50 years later with minimal editing: baseball is a pure sport, 90 feet to first base is absolutely perfect, and 9 players on each side is still exactly right.

This book was a favorite of the KEEPING SCORE author and I bought it on his recommendation. Naturally he covers the unique joys of scorekeeping, which are purely personal:

AFTER the meticulous scorers have done all this they usually throw the score card away. Occasionally, if it has been a memorable game, they take the card home with them, put it carefully away somewhere, and never look at it again for the rest of their lives. It is hard for me to imagine anyone, on a frosty December evening, sitting before the fire with the score card of a game played the previous June, and recreating the game, batter by batter and inning by inning. However it has undoubtedly happened. In baseball, everything eventually happens. Another thing I can’t imagine is a wife saying to her husband as he departs for the game without her, “Be sure to bring back your score card, dear, I want to read it.”
The author would much rather see the game at the ballpark if he can.

THE practical matter is that if you are a really interested fan you don’t quite see the game on TV. A faraway technician has his hands tightly on your head and your eyeballs. He is in charge of what you look at. He is far from unintelligent but he can’t cater to your special interests. When Willie Mays is chasing a desperate fly he will show you Mays chasing it. If you were at the park you would also watch Mays, but you might take a moment off for a quick glance to see if the base runners were tagging up or running, which is a delicate matter of tactics. You might want to glance at how the infield is shaping up for the relay, or a dozen other things. But when you are sitting in an upholstered chair, instead of a non-so-comfortable wooden bench, you will see what the cameraman decides you shall see. You will miss a lot. This of course includes catching cold, if there should be a sudden downpour.

Here is a further suggestion on the point: It has been observed that a baseball lover sometimes recalls in reverie the details of a thrilling play he saw long ago. It is my suggestion that such pleasant memories are always of plays seen at the park, not slouched before a TV set. There just seems to be nothing memorable about a great game seen on television.
Isn't that so true? I remember Dave Parker's throw to the plate in that All-Star Game, and I remember Sid Bream lumbering home with the winning run in the NLCS, but not like I remember plays I saw live at the ballpark.

These books are on their way to Dude, and if he likes them perhaps he will pass them along. Hope springs eternal in April, but only for a week or so for us Pirates fans. They won their first three, which was just swell, then fell quickly back to earth at 4-2 then 4-6. Fortunately I have a second team to root for now, since Ben is a big Phillies fan, but they have started 3-8. At least with the Phillies there is the possibility that they will get hot. But win or lose, now Little League is starting and I can share baseball with my boys, which is as it ought to be.


Tom said...

It's nice the way you review this stuff in relation to your son. I hope I some day get that opportunity.

You asked me a couple of years ago for baseball book suggestions saying that you read something every spring. I took your tactic and read something each spring since. I just finished THE HEAD GAME by Roger Kahn about pitching and will review it soon.

Dude said...

It's been many years, but I used to love keeping score of baseball games. I remember scoring Jose DeLeon's MLB debut over KDKA. I wore big cheesy headphones and spent three hours scoring DeLeon's one-hit shutout.

Another time, I scored a televised Pirates game on WGN in which John Candelaria gave up only one hit and one walk. The first runner was caught stealing and the second was erased on a double play, leaving a perfect three-up three-down visual look on the score page as the Candy Man faced the minimum. It was elegant and beautiful.

E said...

I read in one of those books that there was a game where the starting pitcher injured himself pitching to the first batter, who reached base. The relief pitcher retired the next 27 batters but of course was not credited with a perfect game. Dude, if you read the books you will come across some nice tidbits like that.

Look how fast some of these perfect games were played.

Dude said...

I know there was a game in which the pitcher was tossed for arguing balls and strikes after walking the first batter. The reliever pitched a perfect game the rest of the way. And the rest of the story: the starting pitcher...was none other than...Red Sox left-hander...Babe Ruth.

E said...

Yes, that's it. My bad.

Mike Morse said...

I'm really pleased you liked my book of baseball brainteasers! You got my main point precisely - the rules are really very intuitive if you think about them. Just be sure to discourage your 8-year-old from becoming an umpire, or your house too may have a pedant like me. Cheers!

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