Any person claiming to be a baseball fan who does not also claim to have invented the quickest, simplest and most complete method of keeping score probably is a fraud.
Ever since Henry Chadwick, the pioneer chronicler, decoded his doodles recording the 1850s contests between the New York Mutuals and Brooklyn Eckfords, baseball and the scorecard have gone together as inevitably as mustard and a white shirt.
By the time that Abraham Lincoln, informed of his nomination for president, allegedly said, "Tell the gentlemen to wait a few minutes till I get my turn at bat," the cryptic art of baseball scorekeeping already was more than a decade old.
Perhaps baseball's distinguishing characteristic among games is its openness to inspection, analysis and detailed recreation. Other sports promise secrets. Baseball offers insights.
The most useful tool in our creative spectating, as we dissect the game, then reassemble it in a better-understood whole, is the modest scorecard -- baseball's unique skeleton key.
"You can't tell the players without a program," is just a come-on for the rubes. The real fans know better. It's not the players but the game itself that you can't understand without a scorecard. And a wellkept one, at that.
The scorecard is baseball's central artifact. The binding that holds together the enormous archives of this pastime is the tradition, stretching to the mid-19th century, of keeping score.
No other American sport has anything that genuinely approximates the scorecard -- that single sheet of paper, simple enough for a child -- and that preserves the game both chronologically and in toto with almost no significant loss of detail.
All American sports have derived some sort of box score that mimics baseball's -- giving an account of scoring and offering a base for statistics and records.
But only baseball can offer a succinct and satisfactory play by play synopsis of itself -- one which will seem as fresh and clear in a century as it does today.
Other games often are a muddled blur before they end. Basketball and hockey actually advertise "continuous action." They might as well add, "instant gratification . . . no thought required . . . forget quickly." Football coaches lament, "I won't know what happened until I see the films." If then.
Only baseball has the constant property that it becomes clearer and more complete in retrospect.
If, for example, in the year 2020, some child should want a 20/20 account of Carlton Fisk's famed foul-pole homer in the 1975 World Series, memory's boon companion will be the old scorebook.
Rather than recall one play, we can skim through every one, stopping to savor the sidelights that even now have begun to dim.
That 21st-century kid may have heard of Dwight Evans' catch at the bleacher wall off Joe Morgan in the 11th that saved the game. But who remembers the great play before it -- circled in red -- that made Evans' moment possible? The scorecard never forgets.
The letters "HBP" say that Pete Rose opened the Cincinnati 11th by being hit by a pitch. Ken Griffey tried to sacrifice, but Fisk Pounced on the ball and got a force at second. We know this because the jotting "F26 B" has the same meaning to millions of fans -- force-out, catcher-to-shortstop, on a bunt.
With hindsight, we realize that the next notation -- Evans' famous "DP 9-3-6" -- would never have happened without that "F2-6 B."
Please, if you don't know why Evans would play deeper with a man on first than with a man on second, don't let on. If someone asks, just mutter, "Basic outfield positioning in extra innings . . . have the same rule of thumb since Hugh Duffy's day."
It is not, however, such fascinating baseball trivia that is the scorecard's primary elucidation. As a crumbly, yellowing heirloom, the scorecard has a dwindling value -- by 2020, junior probably will have a lifesize hologram of Fisk hitting that homer, in three dimensions, right in his bedroom.
It is the nature of the game itself -- its pace and flow, its strategies and hidden foreshadowings -- that are camouflaged within the scorecard. Perhaps a lifelong baseball man, an Earl Weaver, can have a genuine feel for every ebb of an evening without a written record, but few others can.
The observant fan does not decide on a method of keeping score with an eye to digging the meticulous scribbling out of the bottom of a box some decades hence. Better than nostalgia is a notetaking system that helps light up the game while it is in progress.
On the other hand, an ardent monority of fans, like Chadwick -- the original scorekeeping freak -- always will prefer being exhaustive to being enlightened. To them, scorekeeping is as thrilling as philately.
That is baseball's original, ancient tradition -- the nit-picking lower road, so to speak.
Although the Hall of Fame has redimentary scorebooks dating to 1845, it took baseball a few years to isolate the scrivening personalities that could concoct hieroglyphics for the game.
By Civil War days, the ubiquitous Chadwick and a New York Herald reporter named M. J. Kelly had done the deed.
"Seek one," wrote Chadwick in 1861, "whose gentlemanly conduct will render him acceptable to all who . . . make inquiries. Appoint one who fully understands every point of the game and who has powers of observation to note down every detail."
Naturally, Chadwick meant himself, as did Kelly when he wrote, "Those entrusted with the quill are an indispensable adjunct to the game -- gentlemanly and well posted, who may be consulted with confidence by strangers and reporters."
Scoring reached its most convoluted stage before the first professional game was played in 1869. Chadwick's scorebooks, a legend of incomprehensibility, cover games for more than 50 years.
His cryptology included the letter "D" for a ball caught on the first bound (an out then), an "L" for a foul ball and a "K" for a batter who struck out. Why, in heaven's name? Because D, L and K were the last letters of the words "bound, foul and struck."
All that conspicuously remains from Chadwick's system is the universal and perverse use of a "K" for strikeouts, right down to Sandy Koufax's nickname, "Mr. K."
By 1868, Kelly, an even more arcane gent, had arrived at what even he termed "a fully adequate scoring system."
By that, Kelly meant that he could distinguish in his numerology between "a slight muff (error), a bad muff, atotal miss and a total miss that was mitigated by a good attempt."
Kelly noted not only the precise direction of every hit but its altitude, speed and the number of times it bounced before being caught. The man, to be blunt, was fixated.
Thus, when a ball skipped so quickly that he could not count the hops, Kelly had to create a new phrase -- and so was born the term "daisy-cutter."
Kelly's scorecards look as if they escaped from Albert Einstein's blackboard. For an excuciating example, a three-bounce liner to center field that is misplayed into three bases might be scored something like this: Mx . . . m-2c. That doesn't touch the squiggles, inverted letters, crescents.
Mercifully, as science teachers, simplicity is often the last discovery. Although few things are as individual as scorekeeping, almost any modern system follows certain basics.
In the back of nearly every major league program is an innocent looking page that says, "How to Keep Score."
Ah, but how to forget? For those who have caught the "DP 6-4-3" disease young, scorekeeping is incurable. Once you have learned to number the positions on the field 1 to 9 from pitcher-to-right-fielder, once you know that a double to left is as simple as 7, once you have understood the revelation that the four corners of the box represent the four bases, there's no going back.
The completed scorecard, from first pitch to last, gives us a sense of possessing the game that no other sport allows. To any intimidating expert who might ask, "What happened?" we can truly say that we have every answer.
Baseball invites us into its sanctuary in many ways, but nothing gives the sense of instant access, of authority, of being at ease, to match the scoreboard -- it is our membership card.
The child who has decided to use "W" for walk instead of "BB" for base-on-balls is already halfway to being hooked for life. Little does he kn ow that his backwards decision at age 10 to use "Kc" for "struck out swinging" and "I" for "called strikeout"-- instead of the obviously correct opposite way, will be an absolutely unbreakable habit that will bring him pitying looks all his life.
Slowly, with the years, we realize that how you keep score means little -- all systems work.
Why you keep score, what trends and keys you study and when you decide to make special notes, are what make the difference between a doodler and a seer -- that is, one who really sees.
To this end, several tricks are useful.
Carry different color pens so that key plays can be marked. Perhaps a series of red-circled defensive plays will jump off the page. Perhaps by underlining all outs that are made with two or more men on base, you and Joe Clutch will be the only two people in the park who know he stranded 10 men in one game. Note with an asterisk all innings that end with men left in scoring position -- they almost always are keys to the game.
A 2 1/2-hour ball game is a great wasteland of dead time begging to be condensed into a digestible meal. Any game that has more than a dozen moments worth circling is one whale of a game. Study crisis points, ignore the dross.
The eternal game within-the-game -- pitcher vs. hitter -- is always the heart of baseball, yet it is almost impossible for even a working reporter, much less a casual fan, to digest, debate and anticipate each pitch the way it is scrutinized from the dugout.
If we are to sense even a fraction of the intensity and internal comprehensibility that the game holds for the players, we need to find shortcuts.
It is a rare player, usually a marginal one, who cannot tell you every pitch that has been thrown to him -- in sequence -- for the last week or more. Woe unto the pitcher who can't recall all 120 pitches of the game he just worked -- and the reason for each on. It is a myth that major leaquers are in any sense casual -- test them and they invariably ring true.
To glimpse this interior world, stop noticing where a pitcher is being hit and concentrate on how hard he's being hit. Every hitter strives to "make good contact"; then the hits fall where they may.
Underline all well-hit balls once in the same basic color as your symbols -- twice if they are crushed. Make these underlinings clearly different from excellent defensive plays. Merely scanning the card can show that a pitcher working on a shutout has, in fact, already lost his stuff and is living on borrowed time. While others hear silence, you watch the real game as it is seen from the field -- the roof is crashing and everybody knows it.
Three seasons ago, Jim Palmer pitched a one-hitter in which 14 balls against him were hard-hit outs. His voluntary comment after the game was, "That was the worst one-hitter in history. Those people had no idea what they were cheering."
One device, above all others, opens up this already undisguised game -- keeping track of pitches.
Before anyone screams, nobody said all pitches -- only the telltale ones.
Just as a game has a few crucial plays, so it also has a limited number of pitches on which every player on each team can feel the hair standing up on the back of his neck.
On the normal ballpark scorecard there are five seldom-used columns marked "AB-R-Y-RBI-E." Use them during the game, to keep track of the pitches to each hitter.
Keep casual notice of each count -- if you're really watching the game, you will anyway. As soon as each player's time at bat is over, don't just write down "6-3" or "K". While you're at it, also write down the final count during his time at bat over in the those five unused columns. Since a player rarely bats a sixth time, you'll seldom runs out of space.
The only other time to make notations in those columns is when the count reaches 0-2 or 2-0 -- that's when the players' ears start to prick. Just put a check in the appropriate box for 0-2, since the pitcher has succeeded, or an X if it's 2-0, since he had failed and fallen behind.
If you miss a few counts, or have to make some guesstimates, nobody's going to sue. The idea is not to be a scribbling fanatic, but to get a better sense of the war between mound and plate, to sense where the initiative and the worry reside.
Few baseball fans need to be told what to look for. If those checks don't lead to victory and the Xs to doom, then you just saw a game that was a fluke and every player knows it.
You have, ready at hand, the total number of pitches thrown by each hurler and his ratio of balls to strikes. You know who is taking or fouling off pitches and being a pain in the neck. And you've also spotted the jerk who's made four outs on five pitches.
That table of pitches is a gold mine equal to the normal scorebook itself and it requires surprisingly little effort -- unless the guy next to you starts to clench his fist the second time you ask him, "What was the count to Fisk?"
Here we arrive at the basic question. Why do so many people keep score -- plenty of them in greater depth than described here?
The purpose, quite simply, is to acquire the haughty illusion, perhaps only available otherwise to the encyclopedic race track handicapper, that, by virtuous analysis, you understand what's going on better than almost anybody else in the joint -- including perhaps, the piople who are doing it.
Just as the gambling degenerate occasionally senses that he knows the race better than the horses or jockeys, so the fan who cares about the interior shape of the game can sometimes get a pitch ahead of reality.
Don't scoff -- players do it all the time. A sixth sense, somewhere between anticipation and premonition, always had been of baseball's greatest charms as well as the central justification for its perpetual pauses.
That slow pace which maddens the philistine is, to the true fan, an abundance of rich gaps which allow him inside his game in a way no other American sport allows.
Where else do we get such a palpable sense of the immediate and often inexorable future -- just as it is felt on the bench?
When the '77 Boston Red Sox hit 33 home runs in 10 games -- a streak not even approached in baseball history -- the Sox players were like little children explaining the sense of electricity that seemed to buzz through the bench before each new home run. It chilled them that certain players seemed "wired into" others so that particular players were in charge of predicting homers for certain others.
The devotee of the scorecard feels, when his luck is right, a faint trace of that being-at-one with a fundamentally comprehensible game.
Two weeks ago in a press box in Milwaukee, a Washingtonian routinely perused his scorecard, noting how the Brewer starter, although leading, 1-0, was being hit harder each inning as he fell behind on more and more counts.
The fellow noted how Al Bumbry, in his first at bat, had filed out to the left-field fence on a 2-0 fast ball. He noticed that, thanks to six two-strike foul balls by Rick Dempsey, the Brewer pitcher had thrown more pitches in getting one out in the sixth than he had in any other total inning.
The count was 2-0 on Bumbry; the pitcher's curve was erratic; he had to throw a fast ball from a stretch.
The press box was semi-asleep -- a dull game, but the D.C. man nudged the Milwaukee chap next to him and said quietly, "This pitch . . . left-field bleachers."
Bumbry hit the next pitch into the left-field bleachers, while the clairvoyant was still dreamily pointing there, to win the game, 2-1.
The Milwaukee man turned slowly to the Washington writers and asked, "What did you say your name was again?"
And that is why scorecards were invented.