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It's a trial of hits and errors

For official scorers, the game boils down to responsibility

Lou Piniella was an outspoken manager, and he had words for an official scorer -- in his playing days with the Yankees. Lou Piniella was an outspoken manager, and he had words for an official scorer -- in his playing days with the Yankees. (FILE/ANTHONY P. BOLANTE/REUTERS)

NEW YORK -- Julio Lugo bangs a bouncing ball toward center field. It glances off the tip of the glove of Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang, which sent the ball toward shortstop. Derek Jeter, gliding to his left, comes to a halt and crouches to receive it. The ball makes contact near the heel of his glove, then spins out. Jeter picks up the ball with his bare hand, drops it for an instant, then regains his grip. But with the base runners on the move at contact and Lugo sprinting down the line, Jeter races through his options and elects to hold the ball. Lugo breaks through an imaginary tape at first base. Everyone is safe.

Hit or error?

It is well after midnight on a Monday night in the Bronx. The Yankees have long since climbed into their Escalades and driven home. Most of the gypsy cab drivers lurking outside Yankee Stadium have left after scooping up the Red Sox players who didn't take the team bus back to Manhattan. The cleaning crews sweep through the stands, picking up the detritus of another night at the ballpark. Only a few reporters remain in the press box, hoping to squeeze a few more words into their computers before deadline.

Bill Shannon, who arrived on the No. 4 subway almost 10 hours earlier, his rumpled shirt straining to stay home under his burgundy blazer, remains. He is waiting for a tape from a TV production truck. He wants one more look, from one more angle, the high home plate view, at one play of the dozens made that night. The play that he called E-6: Error, Derek Jeter.

"One of our jobs is to assign responsibility," said Shannon, who has been the official scorer of major league baseball games in New York since 1979. "That's what we're here for. Baseball is a game of individual responsibility and, unfortunately, we're the guys who have to assign who's responsible for what.

"Any time you have to make judgments, whether you're a basketball referee or a civil court judge or a scorer, somebody is going to get unhappy. The 'yes' will be happy, the 'no' will be ticked. We're in that boat, and it can't be helped. It comes with the turf."

In this case, neither side is happy. The public relations directors from both teams have asked Shannon to reconsider. The Sox want Lugo to be credited with a hit. The Yankees want an error taken away from Jeter. Shannon has seen the play several times. He is willing to look one more time.

"Official scorers have been part of baseball almost since its inception as an organized sport in the 1840s," reads an excerpt from Shannon's book, "Official Scoring in the Big Leagues". "At first, scorers were essentially advocates for their teams. Keeping a written scorecard was almost incidental. Their primary function was to argue with the other team's scorer, the umpire, and on occasion, fans."

Shannon started scoring five years into covering games for United Press International. He had a reputation of being a good box score guy, someone who could recite line by line over the telephone the stripped-down essence of what had just taken place.

"We'd dictate, 'Brown 41, 11,' " Shannon said, recalling the shorthand that would tell the deskman on the other end of the phone that Brown had batted four times, scored once, had one hit, and knocked in a run (it would end up looking like this: Brown 4 1 1 1), a process he repeated for everyone who appeared in that day's game. "Then we had to do all the little nuts and mutts at the bottom of the box score, stolen bases, and double plays, and it all had to proof.

"I used to get a lead on the wire and a proofed box score five minutes after the game. Then you had to haul tail downstairs and talk to the heroes and villains."

Paper tigers
Newspapermen had been acting as official scorers for almost a century. In 1920, the relationship was formalized. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner at the time, authorized the Baseball Writers' Association of America to provide a scorer for each game. Shannon learned to score just as that era was ending, from veteran newspapermen such as Red Foley and Dick Young of the News and Maury Allen of the Post.

"I thought Red was as good as there was," Shannon said. "He used to say, 'Our objective is not to make popular calls, it's to make correct calls.' That's the idea. If you're here to curry favor in the clubhouse or the bleachers, you're in the wrong job."

Shannon is a big man, who moves even when he sits. He used to be a publicist at Madison Square Garden when it was still on 49th Street, and old habits have never left him. He belts out greetings to familiar faces as they drift into the press room.

"Oh, ho, speak of the devil and get out of his way,'' Shannon bellows as Dave Anderson, the courtly Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Times, walks past. "Anderson, how are you? You my man.

"It's a running gag Dave and I have,'' Shannon says. "Sugar Ray Robinson, who pound for pound may have been the greatest fighter who ever lived, certainly that I ever saw, he'd be doing his workout, dancing or hitting the heavy bag. But when Anderson, who did a little boxing in those days, would walk in, Ray would stop. Anderson had written a flattering piece on him, so now every time he saw him, it was 'Anderson, you my man.'''

The first game Shannon scored was in 1979, the White Sox playing the Yankees. A Chicago batter, Shannon thinks it was Kevin Bell, hits a line drive toward left. The Yankees left fielder is Lou Piniella. He realizes the ball is sinking more rapidly than he calculated and makes a belated stab. The ball strikes him in the shin, then rolls into the corner as Bell makes his way to third. Shannon scores it single, two-base error. The next batter hit a sacrifice fly off Ron Guidry and Bell scored.

These days, the BBWAA no longer has jurisdiction over scoring, and MLB, while still using some writers to score -- Charles Scoggins of the Lowell Sun has scored for years at Fenway Park -- mandates that on the nights they're scoring, they are not allowed to do anything else. Not like the days when scorers also wrote a game story or column, and went to the clubhouses to talk to the managers and players after the game.

When Shannon opened the clubhouse door, an enraged Piniella, whose locker was at the far end of the room, immediately lit into him. "I was an Army sergeant in the Transportation Corps," Shannon said, "and I learned some words I'd never heard."

After listening to a torrent of abuse, Shannon finally was able to get in a word. "Wait a minute, I said to Piniella, you're telling me Gator [Guidry] should get charged with an earned run for a single to left field?

"It suddenly dawned on Lou that this is a team game. Now he felt embarrassed, because Lou is a team guy. He's also emotional, and he was upset, because he thought the error was embarrassing.

"I understand why he felt that way, but there's nothing embarrassing about it. Errors are not punitive. We're not trying to embarrass guys. The purpose of errors is to protect the pitcher from mistakes in the field. Everybody makes mistakes. I've made a few. We're not trying to make them look bad. We're trying to make sure the pitcher is treated fairly, and that earned runs are assigned to his record. It could mean the Cy Young. That's the whole point of it, and it's been going on since 1912, when earned runs were introduced."

'E' for effort
Shannon, whose father was a Newark bookkeeper, is 67. When he started scoring, on Sunday afternoons when the regulars wanted a day off, he got 25 bucks a game. Now, the pay is around $125 a night, a barometer of the importance MLB attaches to the job. They don't give out scorer's awards at the end of a season, but if Shannon is not the best at what he does, he's awfully close.

Night after night, he makes judgment calls that often are second-guessed more than an umpire's calls. What constitutes ordinary effort, which is what the scorer must determine when trying to decide between a hit or an error? Passed ball or wild pitch? That's a pretty easy one, he said. If the ball hits the dirt or the plate before it reaches the catcher, it's always a wild pitch. You've got to try to be uniform about as many things as you can.

But so much in baseball, he says, is subjective. He must know the rules and their purposes, but the rules only go so far. MLB vice president Phyllis Merhige, who oversees the scorers, enlisted the help of Shannon and others to develop some uniform standards.

"We tried to draw at least a baseline definition of what constitutes ordinary effort, but every ball is hit differently," Shannon says. "They play 2,400 games a year in the major leagues, thousands of innings, millions of pitches. There's no way. It's unique in sports. There's no job like this."

Bobby Bonilla, then with the Mets, once called the press box from the dugout to appeal a decision. Foley, who was scoring that game, refused to take his call, and now, on the rules posted in each big-league clubhouse, it says the official scorer will not take calls from uniformed personnel during a game. Billy Martin, he never bothered with the scorer, Shannon said. "He was too worried about winning games." Managers like Buck Showalter and Bobby Valentine? They'd have Shannon in their offices, looking at slow-motion replays.

The PR men often act as intermediaries, as they did Monday night.

Does the E-6 stand?

The tape arrives. Shannon slips it into a replay machine in one of the broadcast booths.

"The long view showed Julio was about 25 feet from first base when the ball got to Jeter," Shannon says. "The shortstop could have made the play. He rushed it when he didn't have to rush it. The pitcher tipping it complicated it. It was not a simple play, but it was a makable play. It's ordinary effort at this level that I'm looking for, and I didn't get it. So it was an error.

"Maybe I'm obsessive about it, but the object of the exercise is to get the call right. You do the best you can."