I was in my twenties the first time I saw someone keep score at a baseball game.
Two seats away from me, my friend Carl was using a strange set of hieroglyphics to mark each play on a scorecard in front of him. Dots, backward Ks, number-dash combinations—he wrote it all down and waited for it to speak back to him, to tell him the story of the game. I’d never seen anyone do this before Carl—or, not that I remember—and I wanted in.
This past June, my husband and I happened into four Chicago Cubs tickets far down the first baseline, just off the field. We decided, at the last minute, to take our two younger sons and go. And I decided, some 20 years after my initial encounter with the art of scorekeeping (and still curious!), that this would be the game at which I’d finally keep score.
To bring myself up to speed, I watched some confusing YouTube instructional videos on the drive down. After my third video, I gave up and consulted my husband. In his infinitely laid-back wisdom, he said, “Just try it and see how it goes.”
The setup wasn’t immediately promising. The day was cool and rainy, and we were late. By the time we got into Wrigley Field at the bottom of the second inning, the program booth near our entrance was closed down. “Sorry,” my husband said, putting his arm around me when he saw my disappointment, “I’ll get you a beer.”
Time to keep score
He was pointing to a program booth with a stooped, white-haired man behind it and stacks of programs, scorecards and pencils in front of him. I immediately approached and asked for a scorecard.
“Sure!” the man said, “Two dollars.” He peered out from under his blue visor and continued to speak. “And for this piece of lumber,” he said, as he handed me a blue and white Cubs pencil from his stack, “50 cents.” Things were looking up.
Pencil and scorecard in hand, we made our way to the seats. The Cubs were up by two against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Peanuts had been purchased. The sun was now out, and the day could justifiably be described as hot. My youngest had his mitt and, given our seats, not entirely misplaced hopes of catching a foul ball. I had a beer, my scorecard and a growth mindset. It was time to keep score.
So I did. And if I were to describe it here, it would be exactly as boring as a play-by-play description of the game itself—a low-scoring affair in which the first-inning, two-run Cubs’ lead eventually became the final score.
It was a game of few on-base hits and even fewer moments of high drama. I didn’t get to darken anyone’s diamond (a literal description of how you denote a player who scores) and wrote down only one small “SB” for Addison Russell’s eighth-inning stolen base.
I made lots of notations about outs and how they happened, and may or may not have created some little codes and abbreviations of my own. My YouTube instructors had seemed to encourage that!
Notice the little interactions
One screen lists the teams, highlighting in yellow which player is at bat and thereby also reminding you where he falls in the lineup. Then, as each player comes up to bat, his face appears on the other screen, framed by various statistics including—no joke—the exact diamond-shaped notations I was studiously keeping on my scorecard.
Apparently, I didn’t need my own sheet to tell me that Schwarber struck out swinging during his last at-bat. A “K” in a diamond labelled “Fourth Inning,” beneath his giant projected face, was there to remind me.
So what reason is there to explain the fact that I absolutely loved it? That if given the chance, I’d henceforth keep score at each and every baseball game I attend?
I believe it’s this: Keeping score is a mindful way to watch baseball. As I annotated that game against the Pirates, I saw a different game of baseball than I’d ever seen before. The third time I wrote down 4-3 for a Zobrist-to-Rizzo play, I began to notice the way the two of them worked together to cover the infield. The painfully few times I drew a line advancing a player along my little diamond made me appreciate the hard-won opportunity of getting on base.
All this tracking forced me to pay attention to specific players and their choices, to the ebb and flow of the innings and the interplay of the lineups. It kept me present—focused me on the real-live game in front of me instead of the ongoing show projected above me.
For the casual fan, the lure of the screen is strong. It’s easy to lose track, chat with friends and catch up with the game via replay on the big screen. Keeping score redirected my attention to the live action as it unfolded, play by play—I watched the actual people playing the actual game, as I didn’t want to miss a thing.
The joy of sports
This may, in fact, be the argument for many activities on the brink of extinction—those on the verge of being subsumed by technology’s perfection and speed. While they appear unnecessary, these manual practices are the very things that keep the impulse to engage alive within us.
Caring enough to anticipate what will happen as the batter steps up to the plate is to recover the joy of what I imagine sports must have always been about.
We’ll never win by mounting an argument for their product. Instead, the argument is for the process: For staying awake to the real action. For feeling the heartbreak of the third out, or the joy of a stolen base.
By the time a play hits the big screen, we’re one step behind and that much more numb than before. Caring enough to anticipate what will happen as the batter steps up to the plate is to recover the joy of what I imagine sports must have always been about.
The sun stayed out for the entire game. My youngest left without a foul ball, but he was full of Cracker Jacks, peanuts, hot dogs and a chocolate Frosty. The Cubs won. And while I still can’t make a rational argument for the product, I left the game with my first completed scorecard, covered in pencil and eraser marks and all curled up on itself after having served as a makeshift megaphone through which to cheer on the final out.
I have a record of the game. Not a sterile, searchable, electronic record, but my own imperfect account. Evidence that we were present on a warm day in June, when the sun shone and the Cubs beat the Pirates, two to zero.
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