You Gotta Keep Score: Mariners Broadcaster Dave Sims Talks Scorekeeping

“You gotta keep score,” broadcaster Dave Sims told me over the phone. “I don’t know anyone in this business who doesn’t keep score.”

Even early in my conversation with the Seattle Mariners play-by-play veteran, I understand the depth to which this professional broadcaster associates calling a big league baseball game with scoring it. Sims can barely conceive of succeeding at the former without doing the latter.

It isn’t long, either, before a discussion of the broader practice of scorekeeping gives way to the concrete, and I can hear the rustle of looseleaf paper as Sims shuffles through his scorecard from the Mariners-Dbacks game he called earlier in the day. Highly touted Seattle prospect Dustin Ackley‘s day at the plate catches his eye.

“Let’s see,” says Sims, “Ackley walked on four pitches and he hit a double. In my mind’s eye I can see it, and I have it marked down right here. Keeping score helps you tell the story of the ballgame.”

Sims paused, as his scorecard revealed another storyline. “The Mariners were set down ten in a row to start the game,” he said with the same emotion he probably infused the live broadcast with. “Heck, they didn’t have a base hit until the fifth, a seeing eye single by Michael Saunders past the right side.”

He can’t seem to help but to recount the afternoon. It’s as if, scanning his scorecard, the game is replaying itself before his eyes. Give him enough time and one starts to feel that he could extract a week’s worth of stories from the ticks, digits, and colors on his scorecard.

A broadcaster’s job is to describe the game with the accuracy of a reporter and the narrative fluidity of a novelist. Like a reporter, Dave Sims takes very good notes, and, like a novelist, he knows how to interpret and translate these notes into a cohesive narrative. Through the relentless use of his scorecard, Sims turns a plot into a story, and he does it in real time.

Through the relentless use of his scorecard, Sims turns a plot into a story, and he does it in real time.

Sims learned to score from his father at a young age, around six or seven years old, and he found keeping the book a match for his personality. “I’ve kept score all my life,” he tells me. “If you’re a baseball fan, you tend to be anal retentive anyway. Scorekeeping just reinforces it to the nth degree.”

“For example,” he continues, “I’m very anal about keeping pitch counts. Today, I was watching the Mariners and the Diamondbacks, and it’s interesting to see what guys are swinging at. Keeping a good pitch count, I can look down at my book and see that Langerhans swung at the first pitch the first time up and the second time up he took it deep in the count.

“I keep balls and strikes. I keep a pitch count up in the upper right hand corner of the box because it can give you an insight into how a hitter’s doing.”

Dave Sims’ scorebook is a living text. He uses it constantly while broadcasting, moving from the live game situation to the evolving text and back again like an air traffic controller with a radar screen. The scorebook is an irreplaceable key to the practice of broadcasting, and crucial for tracking the through-lines of the game as they play out from the first pitch to the last. Sims’ scorebook, in other words, is not a document composed for historical posterity, but a tool of the immediate world, as crucial to his work as a computer screen to a programmer.

(Speaking of technology, I ask him if he ever uses the Internet during a game. “When I’m broadcasting, I don’t have time to be fumbling around checking the Internet,” he assures me, “but I can go right to my book. You’re seeing more iPads used for some stuff, but I’m not there yet.”)

Sims’ scoring system, which I’ll readily admit was a bit hard for me to grasp in its finer details over the phone, places a premium on the most important narrative fact in a given inning: outs. “The great Bob Wolff told me never to forget the number of outs in the inning,” says Sims. Next up is the need to identify how a hit was made, and Sims logs where the ball was batted to alongside the traditional numbers. What that likely means, I’d guess, is a few more strokes of the pen than the average fan invests, to show a long fly ball or a weak grounder. And a home run, for example, gets an ‘X’ to mark the spot over the fence where it left the yard.

Sims also uses four color-coded highlighters to mark important turns of event. A play marked with a pink highlighter signals that a run was driven in, green means a strikeout, blue a walk, and yellow means that it was an unusual play of some kind (one can imagine a yellow streak highlighting yet another gravity defying catch from Franklin “Death to Flying Things” Gutierrez, or yet another 200th hit of the year from Ichiro). “When I look down at my book,” Sims says, “my eye jumps right to the color. It’s all very visual.”

During Spring Training, when a scorebook can take on the convoluted air of an Enron accounting ledger, Sims marks the starters in black or blue pen (the foundational color is arbitrary based on whatever pen is at hand that day), and the reserves go down in red. He maintains the scorecard just as he would any other broadcast, from each Single-A at bat on down to every last dizzying high-numbered roster manipulation.

“If I’m on the air, I can’t just say, ‘here is some guy.’”

During the regular season, Sims’ scorebook is an oversized ledger with space for a hundred or so games. His book is not as cumbersome as the one used by the late Mariners icon Dave Niehaus, the heft of which, Sims noted, “was enough to give you a hernia.” Sims’ saves his big scorebooks, and his archives go back years. He can look to his own library to find the results of a game from years gone by.

His book is not as cumbersome as the one used by the late Mariners icon Dave Niehaus, the heft of which, Sims noted, “was enough to give you a hernia.”

Whereas, in basketball and football broadcasting, of which Sims has done a ton, there is more reliance on producers for up-to-the-second game information, in baseball, Sims does much of his own tracking, creating his primary reference materials as the events themselves occur. It’s a triangle of action: he watches it, he marks it down, and he talks about it. See, write, talk, see, write, talk. One corner of the triangle informs the other as the space between them gains texture. The past informs the present.

The broadcaster, in completing this three-pronged action, does what the fan himself or herself does, seeing and marking, reacting and learning. When I score a game myself, I feel more confident in discussing the finer points, having at my disposal a reference document that corresponds directly to the facts of the matter. I can argue for a player’s performance because I have equipped myself with information. The insight that a scorecard proffers is distinctly democratic, and the broadcaster who keeps his own score is only trumpeting the fact that what he is doing every fan can also do, albeit without the salary. Every fan owns his or her own story.

“It’s a multitasking job, particularly in TV,” says Sims of scoring and calling a game while throwing cues to fellow broadcasters and sideline reporters and coming in and out of breaks. “But it’s what I’ve trained all my life to do, and I love it.”

Images courtesy of Dave Sims.

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