National League: some officials are more neutral than other officials

If you’re reading this post hoping to find some dirt on umpires, then you’re out of luck. Instead I’m introducing my post on week 3 of the National League with a look at the role of the official scorer, and how it is possible to be a neutral official while being a fan of one of the teams. The reason why this is the case is that all decisions which have an impact on runs being scored (and therefore the result of the game) are made by the umpires. In contrast, the decisions of the official scorer concern how each play should be described, with a view to the statistics that the descriptions will yield. I know I’ve already made the distinction more complicated than I should have, so as my punishment I’ll have to give an example.

In the example, there are two outs with a runner at third and a 2-2 count on the batter. The pitch is a ball that gets past the catcher and the runner at third sets off down the line sprinting. The pitcher runs over to cover the plate, but the runner is adjudged by the umpire to have beaten the tag – a run scores. The next pitch is strike three. Going back to the pitch that got away, the scorer must decide whether this was a wild pitch (the pitcher’s fault) or a passed ball (the catcher’s fault). With the former, the run will be an earned one, while with the latter it will be unearned. So the decision has an impact on the pitcher’s earned-run average (as well as a bearing on the catcher’s stats). Importantly, though, no matter how the scorer chooses to record the play, one run scores.

While an official scorer cannot help a team win, it is still vital for decisions to be made in as objective a manner as is humanly possible, so that no player is favoured over any other when it comes to adding up stats and calculating averages at the end of the season. This is one of the reasons why a scorer shouldn’t sit with the players during the game. Or at least that is the theory.

In my first year as a scorer for the Croydon Pirates, I sat on the players’ bench, wore the team uniform, and combined keeping score with being a very vocal supporter. This was my baseline, but I’ve made several improvements since then. The first was to buy a folding chair so that I could position myself in “neutral territory”. The second was to keep quiet during the games. The final touch was to ditch the Pirates cap (although I would not say that this is a compulsory measure).

And so there I was in the final inning of the second game at Roundshaw, on Sunday, thinking I had a perfected the art of neutrality. It is understandable, therefore, that my brain was surprised when the body to which it was connected suddenly stood up and shouted “come on”. This is the knee-jerk reaction of many a sports fan in response to something good happening.

The “something good” was a two-out, bases-loaded, walk-off single by Sam Touchstone. It capped a genuine nail-biter of a final inning (nail-biting does not necessarily betray an allegiance, as I could have been biting them for either team).

Going into the top-half of the inning, Bracknell, the visiting team, trailed 4-0. After a 5-2 win for the visitors in the first game, a second win of the day (and the season so far) looked out of the question: Byron Cotter, the Pirates’ starter, had allowed only four base-runners up to that point. However, a combination of good hitting from Bracknell and hurried fielding from Croydon saw the lead decrease to a single run. The Pirates, who were hunting for a first win, had got two of the three outs they needed, but Ryan Trask, who represented the tying run, was at third base.

With a full count on the batter, Trask charged down the line with the delivery of the next pitch and evaded the tag from the catcher. It would have been a spectacular play regardless of the game situation.

The pitch that Trask stole home on was ball four (if it was strike three, the game would have been over there and then). The walk was followed by a hit and another piece of messy fielding from Croydon, and suddenly the go-ahead run was at third. However, Cotter held his nerve to strike the next batter out and keep the game tied going into the bottom-half of the inning, which is where the walk-off single, and my lapse of neutrality, comes in.

To take nothing away from Bracknell and Croydon both getting their first wins of the season, the biggest story of the day in the National League South was the London Mets’ sweep of the Richmond Flames, which put the defending champions two games clear at the top of the division. Meanwhile, Menwith Hill of the National League North took two games from the Halton Jaguars, who play in the division below. There is no news yet on the Liverpool Trojans’ games against the Humber Pilots (or at least none that I can find).

3 Responses to National League: some officials are more neutral than other officials

  1. Tim Stride May 6, 2008 at 2:55 pm #

    I did wonder why the umpire at the game I was scoring this past weekend politely asked me to move more central between the two benches, ending up just to one side of home plate. He said that it favours one team but I couldn’t really work out how it might favour them. Maybe giving their players a better chance of influencing how certain events were scored for a particular player? Or that the manager of the other team would have to walk further to find out the score and the inning number?! I couldn’t see how it might affect the course of the game itself.

    The irony was that I was actually unintentionally closer to the opposition of the team I am official scorer for. So far in my fledgling scoring career I prefer to not be too close to either bench – mainly because I can do with as few distractions as possible and because sitting just to one side of home plate (with as a good view of the other bases and the outfield as possible) gives me a more neutral and focused outlook on the game and means the umpire has easy access to you when he needs to check on something.

  2. Joe Gray May 6, 2008 at 7:35 pm #

    As you say, it is hard to imagine a scenario when one team would be favoured, just because the scorer was sitting closer to them (for some reason, though, it looks bad to the casual observer). But the over-riding determinant of a good position is one with a good view.

    The International Baseball Federation advises us to sit somewhere free of public access, but I’ve not come across many such places at British grounds!

    The main problem I had when sitting right by the players was that they have a habit of wandering in front of you just as something important happens on the field. That said, if the game was a bit dull, it was quite fun to eavesdrop on what they’d been up to the night before.

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