Keeping the Score

Keeping score is a good way to enhance the baseball-watching experience. (via Paul L Dineen)

The runner takes off from first, digging in her cleats, feet pummeling the soft dirt. She flies down the basepath. Even before the pitch crosses the plate, I know I won’t make the throw that would catch her.

Still, I have to try. I snap my glove closed over the softball, rock onto my back foot, tear off my mask. As I come up out of my crouch, I unload the ball toward second with all the strength I possess.

The throw falls short. The girl stands safe on second, panting hard, and I turn away, eyes downcast, searching for my hastily discarded mask. She was the third runner to get by me — the third in three attempts. And even though I don’t want to, I catch a glimpse of the contemplative look in my coach’s eyes.

This is the last time I will play any kind of competitive baseball.

***

The first time I played catch, I was seven years old. My grandmother’s next-door neighbor, Norbie, loved baseball. I didn’t own a glove, but I did have a tennis ball.

Norbie delighted in me, his children long grown. He taught me how to catch a pop-up. Wagging his eyebrows, he pinched my cheek hard enough to hurt.

“Now, the most important part of catching a pop-up is to always keep your eyes on the ball.” Norbie was earnest, a rare thing in an adult talking to a small child. I was his rapt pupil.

It seemed like he threw it higher than the house, and I had to keep an eagle eye on it. I watched the green, fuzzy orb descend to nestle between my palms. It was intoxicating to catch something that fell from the sky, the precision of it. I begged him to throw again and again. Norbie taught me ground balls, too, but I always liked the thrill that came with a pop-up. You never knew if you were going to miss it.

Soon, my baseball community expanded beyond Norbie to include my dad. With my younger brother uninterested, we exchanged lazy tosses across the backyard patio. My favorite glove appeared around this time. It was a large softball mitt, probably meant for a first baseman. I could close it easily, having oiled it well and kept it wrapped up around a baseball every night. The glove was light yellow and sported strips of rawhide that I would pull on to tighten it up. It creaked slightly when I closed it.

I remembered my favorite player, Andy Van Slyke, said he put the pinky and ring fingers in the slot for the pinky when he wore his glove. He said it would make the glove have a deeper pocket to allow for more secure catches. He was an outfielder and I was a catcher, but you don’t pass up advice like that. I never wore my glove any other way.

***

The field spreads out in a fan before me, an expansive rolling wave of thick green. White linen-crisp lines border the wide range, and reddish dirt punctures the infield. The air smells of cut grass and fresh summer air. My heart lifts in amazement. It is just so big.

I am ten, and I am at the ballgame. My aunt stands beside me as we cheer. She isn’t my favorite, but she is today. Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh looks like a coiled concrete garden hose squatting beside the rivers, but this beautiful field overshadows the modern ugliness of its container. The crack of the bat in the vastness is still enough to make me clench my teeth.

Catfish and Me
Reminisces of a meeting with an all-time great.

***

My team was the Pittsburgh Pirates, and I gave over my lifetime love to them. I was a good Pittsburgh girl and accepted all of my home teams, but the Pirates were the first I saw live. They are still special to me because of that.

I don’t know who won or lost that first game I saw. The Pirates probably lost, as was their habit. When you love baseball, though, it doesn’t seem to matter. Minor league scrubs are worthy of baseball autographs and smiling Polaroid pictures.

One cloudless day, my aunt took me down to the ballpark, and they let us onto the field for the fan day event. I stared up in awe of the seats that surrounded me. I felt like a big leaguer, and I’m sure the crowd of people did, too.

We mixed into the throng and vied for the perfect place to get the most autographs. I don’t remember who autographed our proffered souvenirs, but I do remember the starched white shirts and bumpy, stitched lettering that marked them as one of us, one of the good guys.

After, we walked the outfield of this professional ballpark. All along the wall, the devices of each major league team were embossed in brilliant color. My cousin and I stood beside the Pirates emblem, and my aunt took the Polaroid I have to this day. We looked small next to a wall that grown men jumped against to prevent a well-hit ball. Sometimes they extended their glove over that wall, and I, a child, could only gape up at it.

***

I always played baseball growing up. I played catcher because I thought it was the coolest position on the field: You got to handle the ball all the time, and you got to wear armor like a knight. Crouching down in the dirt, nodding to the pitcher for the throw — it felt natural to me. I got hurt sometimes, but none of that mattered when I was down in the dust. While all of the neighborhood kids wanted to play pitcher, I got behind our home plate and caught their terrible pitches well into the night. My legs were covered with dirt and mottled with bruises, but I thought of them as tags of honor. They made me feel proud I could do it and those boys couldn’t.

My weight never mattered when I caught for my friends. I was able to get down behind the plate and enjoy the play. It didn’t get in the way of enjoying what is a precise and exacting sport. As a tomboy, I had a certain standing among the boys. They couldn’t beat me up, and they couldn’t tell me no. They respected my play, and they never bullied me because of my weight. I was always welcomed, and I was always welcoming.

It was only when I was told I couldn’t play catcher for my softball team that I reluctantly stopped. I could have played other positions, I suppose, but my tightly fitting uniform shirt was more than proof enough that I wasn’t in shape for sports. I topped out over two hundred pounds, and people of my size weren’t even expected to walk well, let alone play a sport for a team. My knees ached constantly, and I had to wear a brace at all times. When I did manage to get a hit, I panted running the basepaths. Sure, my wider frame served as a nice target for the pitcher, but my inability to throw out runners was too much of a liability. It didn’t matter to me. I wanted to play, and I wanted to play catcher. But practice didn’t help, coaching up didn’t help, and attempting to lose that weight fell woefully short.

And then, suddenly, it wasn’t fun. I couldn’t play up to the standards in my heart and in reality. I wasn’t in the backyard anymore. You didn’t get points just for trying.

I hung up my softball glove and resigned myself to being a spectator on occasion, but mostly, I let baseball drift to the wayside.

***

I’m not sure when I first picked up a scorecard. Early in my life, most likely, when I went to a game with my parents. My Dad liked scoring. It was something he could do that not many around us could. There was something like disdain for those who sat in their seats, ate hot dogs, and chatted the game away. Not us. All of us had programs, and the center leaf was a pristine white scorecard. The rigid columns and rows looked like some sort of math problem hiding in the middle of all the glossy magazine fun. I didn’t understand any of it.

My Dad taught me the numbers for the players. I was rightly confused that the shortstop position was numbered six and not five–although I’ve seen it done both ways, correct or not.

Each defender was assigned his number, and you simply recorded which one performed which play. A 6-4-3 double play was exciting when you had to scribble it down in your book, the hyphens a series of rapid strokes, mirroring the swiftness of the play on the field. When a player crossed home, you got to fill in the little diamond indicating a run. It was a thrilling feeling to pay such close attention, so close that you experienced what happened in the game with the players. With a scorecard in hand, you could be as much a part of the action as you wished.

And it didn’t matter that you were a young tomboy who had bad knees and ankles. It didn’t matter that you couldn’t run, throw, or hit. All that mattered was you paid close attention to each play and gave every player his proper due. A 3-2 outcome could really be exciting if you knew just how your team got there.

***

I kept score at the pro games I went to, but that wasn’t often. I was still someone who felt marginalized, scoring or no. Baseball is, after all, aimed at men. Baseball isn’t supposed to be something girls do for fun — not like I used to in the backyard. And as I grew older, I became less interested in baseball because I couldn’t relive the feeling in my arm when I threw or the sting in my hands when my bat contacted the ball. I could sit there. I could watch. But I couldn’t play.

There were other reasons I couldn’t play. Softball leagues are hard to find, and some of them are filled with strangers who aren’t out there just to enjoy the game. My weight was still with me, and I didn’t feel confident enough in who I was or my skills to take the chance on a softball team.

I didn’t play, but I always felt like I could if I wanted to. I’d heard of some softball leagues around my town. Yeah, I’ll just drop a bit of weight, find a new glove, maybe go to the batting cages… no, I couldn’t. Weight, money, time, the stigma of being a tomboy: It was too much, and I surrendered what I loved most about baseball.

Recently, I had surgery on my right wrist. It was painful, and the range of motion in my hand decreased quite a bit. It didn’t bother me that I couldn’t carry a gallon of milk, but it broke my heart that I would never be able to throw again. Something that was such a part of my life, now gone.

Scoring, though? I still can hold a pencil.

***

My favorite high school teacher’s name was Mr. Flohr. He taught history and was a character of epic proportions. He referred to any group of students as “team” no matter how many there were. Elaborate bulletin boards decorated his room according to the time of year, and he had an intense predilection for flags. His other pet project was statistics, particularly how they interfaced with the burgeoning personal computer craze of the early 1990s.

When he found out I knew how to score, he was delighted. In me, he’d found a kindred spirit, someone who could take these raw occurrences and make some type of sense with them.

I agreed to work with him. He wanted me to score the girls’ varsity softball team. The team that broke my heart was now the focus of a different set of skills. Instead of being nervous, I was excited and ready. I wanted a chance to be there, to hear that crack of the bat and to smell the glove oil. I just wanted to be there.

They gave me a big spiral scorebook and sat me on the bench. I duly kept score, watching as plays unfolded before me, and I interpreted information out of rank chaos.

Of course, the girls I’d played with were still there, but they were friendly and supportive. I got to ride on the bus with them, to listen in on their conversations. It was hard for me to make friends at that age, but scoring these games made me feel like one of the team. My weight didn’t matter. I was there for a reason and accepted when I was not in so many other venues.

High school is a hard time for anyone, but it is particularly hard for someone so noticeably different. Sports have a tendency toward inclusiveness. We’re all on the same team, and therefore, everyone plays a vital part. I had the chance to be a vital part because of my ability to score games. In fact, hitters would seek me out, wanting to know how well they did.

Mr. Flohr and I crunched the numbers in a spreadsheet I created. Coaches and players eagerly sought out the reports I worked so hard to generate. And, in the end, baseball and softball are a lot about those numbers.

Throughout high school, I was ridiculed, bullied, and abused by my classmates, but I wasn’t treated that way when I became a part of the team. Maybe I couldn’t set up behind the plate anymore, but I could still be a part of the game — and a vital one at that.

***

I walk with my husband in PNC Park, the new home of the Pirates. It is a July baseball day, and I am roasting in my thick jeans. The park is gorgeous. We stroll along the flat Riverwalk and look out across the glittering diamond water.

We haven’t seen the field yet today — only snatches of it where the corridors lead to the seats. I adjust my scratchy Francisco Cervelli jersey, and I smile at how little I’ve changed: Cervelli is the team’s catcher.

And suddenly, I remember: “Oh, I haven’t kept score in so long. I used to love it.”

My husband, pragmatic: ”Well, why don’t you keep score today?”

“I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I would have to hold my nachos and the scorecard, so it would just make a mess of everything…”

A litany of excuses. Really, I just don’t know if it can be fun for me again. If I can relive that experience — recapture that feeling of belonging.

My husband stops strolling. He grabs me by the jersey, leading me to a vendor where I can get a scorecard. I sigh at him. I shake my head. It’s stupid. What’s the point, anyway? Why does it matter, in my heart, that I take this up again?

Why is this so important to me?

We make our way to the seats, balancing drinks and nachos and, now, scorecards. The peaked skyline of downtown Pittsburgh glimmers so brightly over the field that you can’t help but stare.

And then it starts. The players take their positions on the green, green grass — different grass than the day my aunt took me all those years ago, but still the same, somehow. The batter swings his bat like a helicopter prop as he waits on deck.

I am on deck, too. I am descending into childhood, into the pain of not belonging, a longing for the good feelings baseball could arouse in me. I am standing on a ledge, and I am looking down, not jumping, but seeing all I have come through to this moment.

A crack of the bat. The center fielder locates it, comes in position and catches the ball.

I know what to do. F8. I write it down, and then I smile. Norbie and Mr. Flohr and the kids next door are all here with me. I can be a part of this.

The next play is a single, and I groan because the Pirates let a man on base. Like it or not, I score it, and that’s part of the fun. What will become of this story unfolding in front of me?

My husband offers the nachos right in front of my face. I startle and look at him. He’s wearing that look only a long-married man can give, one of righteousness without arrogance or condescension. I pretend to hate him for it.

I push the nachos away, grip my little pencil, and mark down the next batter, a groundball double play. I feel that familiar excitement, the focus, the shared intensity with the plays happening on the field below, with all the people around me. I wonder why it took me so long to come back home.

***

I keep score of major league games on an iPhone app now, so I’m able to calculate pitch count, spray charts, and batting averages automatically. I don’t do it for any reason other than it’s fun. It reminds me of a time in my life when sports were an integral part of my every day. Keeping score soothes me, and for a few hours, I’m part of a professional baseball team, despite the fact that I can’t run, throw, or catch anymore.

It doesn’t matter, because I’m still a part of the game, no matter my weight, my age, or my life. And it is nice to dive headfirst into baseball for a few hours. Some things are worth the effort.


I am a lifelong Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and I just want to say that Sid Bream was safe. I learned about baseball from the rabid fans around me, and I never lost my love for the sport. I'm a writer by trade, but a catcher at heart. Want to chat? Find me on Twitter at @LyndaWrites. Always open to some baseball--or writing--chat!
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Jim
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Jim

VERY nice.

jarhead659
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jarhead659

Thank you for this. Inspiring. And tender.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

“look only a long-married man can give, one of righteousness without arrogance or condescension”

As a long-married man, I assure you that is a skill developed over time.

Donald Duench
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Donald Duench

Thank you.

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

Loved it. I also used to score.

jrl133
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jrl133

I’m sharing this article with my daughter, whom I taught to score a ballgame

We have a plan to attend a Rockies game in August and I think we will score together for the first time in a long while

Thanks for such a genuine story of love and loss and renewal

Subway Alum
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Subway Alum

Wonderful! Brought back memories for a Little League catcher who grew up with the Pirates and will never forget Forbes Field. . . . Please consider joining SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) and bringing all those scorecards to life writing for the Games Project.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

“a coiled concrete garden hose squatting beside the rivers”

That captures Three Rivers so totally that I laughed out loud.

Fine piece of storytelling.

I hope we can do a little better for kids growing up now, finding ways to include anyone who wants to play the game. It is a game after all, there’s no actual payoff from filtering out anybody at all, as long as they can make a good game within the rules.

Richard Soenneker
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Richard Soenneker

this is a beautiful story, and captures a big part of why I love keeping score better than anything else I’ve ever read. great writing!

maumannts
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maumannts

Another great article about how the game can be enjoyed in so many ways, not just by the players on the field. I was taught to score at an early age by my father and grandfather. It’s been something I’ve done as a hobby, as a sportswriter and as an official scorer. There’s nothing like being able to recreate any game ever played just by interpreting what’s written in each square. Even better, there’s not one “right way” to do it. Scoring is as individual as a fingerprint. Sadly, I see fewer and fewer scorebooks in the stands. A lost… Read more »

Nighthawk at the Diner
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Nighthawk at the Diner

What is the app for iPhones? I’d love to do that on my phone.