The Poetics of Scorekeeping, by Patrick Dubuque

Today’s Scorekeeping Week contributor, Patrick Dubuque, writes about baseball and the Seattle Mariners at his blog, The Playful Utopia.

It’s the question many of us dread at the ballpark, usually accompanied by a smirk and perhaps a mesh-backed cap, as a man with a salt-flecked mustache twists around in his seat. Why do you keep score? It’s a question that is rarely worth trying to answer, except with a shrug: “I just like to.” Then the conversation ends; the chasm between can never be bridged.

It’s not a bad question, though.

On Sunday, June 4, 2000, I went to a baseball game at Safeco Field in Seattle. Trailing 5-1 in the seventh inning, Padres third baseman Phil Nevin lifted a fly off Arthur Rhodes, deep to right field. Jim Caple wrote the following passage about what happened next:

[Stan] Javier raced back to the warning track, leaped and reached his glove over the fence. The ball appeared to strike the glove’s pocket about an arm-length beyond the fence but Javier couldn’t hold onto it. Yet when he pulled the glove back, he also flipped the ball back onto the field side of the fence. As Javier fell to the ground, he looked up, saw the ball dropping toward him, reached out his glove and became the leading candidate for Catch of the Year.

From my seat, I wrote my own version of what occurred:

9!

The average comment about scorekeeping will inevitably mention that it is fading from the national consciousness, a dying language. In the story above, both accounts are translations of a moment, the encapsulation of a million simultaneous details into a single, communicable event. When you read Caple’s account, you get a good feel for what happened, but all writing is in some way summarization, an altered translation. The single 9!, in a only a few strokes of a pencil, hacks away at the adjectives and the hyperbole. What remains are the man, Stan Javier, and the quality of his performance.

By keeping score we have created our own language. Each person’s style varies, providing a unique dialect, but the narrative is one which other scorekeepers (and, it must be emphasized, only other scorekeepers) understand. The language of baseball creates its own citizenry. It has its own punctuation and pronunciation, its own trimeter rhythm. Scorekeeping converts baseball into poetry. Its minimalism represents Keats’ negative capacity, a freedom from resolving the unresolvable, and instead revel in the process itself, the telling.

The relative simplicity of scorekeeping demonstrates the powerful human need to categorize, to make sense out of what we observe. In reality, even amidst the repetition of baseball, no two pop flies are ever the same; there is always some factor, some element, that is unique. Scorekeeping allows us to condense these infinities into a single subset, like a 9, so that we can process them and, more importantly, discern patterns. It’s not enough to sit passively, and let the game (or life) unfurl before us; we want mastery over it, a knowledge of why things happen the way they do.

In a game of chess, the number of possible permutations exceeds the capacity of the human brain after the first few moves. In baseball, many of the variables reset between batters, supplying the mind with only a few contingencies to consider. Because of this, we can use the data we’ve collected to make predictions about what will happen. This, more than anything, is why baseball fans are drawn to numbers, to the game’s unique capacity for analysis. For a sport and its chronicling method, scorekeeping, that are so heavily rooted in the past, they are also obsessed with the future. The scorecard allows this process to happen in the middle of the action, using those inevitable pauses to reflect and reassess.

Finally, scorekeeping isn’t merely transcription. A quick glance at a cell phone will confer a sheer quantity of information that no scorebook can replicate. It’s the writing itself that is the defining act; it is the commemoration that separates a given ballgame from any of the million before it. We write to connect ourselves to history, to name ourselves as part of it. Scorekeeping, like writing, allows us to describe for posterity our own fandom, our presence at that game and our understanding of it. It is how we take possession of our past.

Because I was there to witness it, I own a small piece of that Stan Javier catch. As long as I have that scorecard, I always will.

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4 Responses to The Poetics of Scorekeeping, by Patrick Dubuque

  1. Chris says:

    Great read. I’ve never had a great answer when asked this question, but any one of these reasons would be a good one.

  2. Dana King says:

    Great post. I’ve said I score because it keeps me in the game, but, in truth, it’s a small way to be part of the game, and to take your little piece with you when you go.

  3. Matt S. says:

    Great topic. For an interesting novel where the story revolves around baseball scoring, see suicidesqueeze-book.com

  4. Peter says:

    *applause*

    Nice piece. I’m 25 now and I’ve been scoring just about every game I’ve attended for years. Even sometimes keep score of playoff games or other significant matchups. It makes watching a baseball game thoroughly more enjoyable and keeps you aware and involved in each twist in the narrative.

    My dad is in his 70s and, though he’s a lifelong baseball fan (grew up with Sandy Koufax in Brooklyn), I’ve never once seen him keep score and the inconvenience of it is the only thing he ever talks about when scorekeeping is brought up. Strange because in his days of going to the park, everybody kept score.

    I was at a Dodgers game last year and a dude randomly plopped down in a seat next to me with his son late in the game. He complimented me for keeping score (it was a meaningless late season game) and wanted to observe my scorecard. “Yeah, I’m one of those big baseball nerds,” I admitted and he said something like “Nah, man. Baseball is cool.”

    Then at a Padres game, the Mariners were in town and the stadium was absolutely PACKED with many Japanese Ichiro fans. This seems perhaps a bit poignant now as the people of Japan are suffering, but my girl and I sat next to a nice young family from Japan throughout the game and, as always, my scorekeeping was a conversation-starter. “You really love the game, huh?” the gentleman asked with his baby son on his lap. And then we talked baseball for a while.

    At the very least, scorekeeping is a bright badge of baseball fanhood within a ballpark and it sparks conversation with fellow fans and thus further immersion in the atmosphere of the game.

    When I was growing up, I always had to escort my grandmother to church (which I hated). She was so devoted that every single time she’d be holding the book, keeping up with everything that was read and singing with every song and I know this was because she was there to have an EXPERIENCE. I haven’t been to church in years and would never go back, but I consider the ballpark to be a cathedral, a site of gathering for ritual, and to keep score is like the grandmothers keeping up with the readings and songs. Having an experience.