Baseball is just like any other sport when it comes to who gets the attention. The players are the stars of the show, followed by the managers/coaches, and everyone else is often ignored except for when one of the stars needs to blame someone for a bad performance.
All fans are guilty of this oversight from time to time. Many other people, from umpires to groundskeepers, play an integral part in staging a ballgame. Without their skill, passion and commitment, players and fans alike simply wouldn’t have a game to enjoy. While this is true at the top level of the sport in MLB, we should be even more grateful and supportive towards the many people who give up their spare time to support baseball in our homeland.
One such group of enthusiasts is the Great Britain Baseball Scorers Association (GBBSA): the official national scoring body recognized by the British Baseball Federation. The GBBSA has just launched a new website providing details of their activities and how you can get involved, alongside statistics for the British National League and a burgeoning group of articles about the sport. The man responsible for overseeing scoring activities in the Southern league is Joe Gray and he recently spoke to BaseballGB about the work of the Association, the qualities of the British league, and the frustrating shortcomings of public transport.
While dads may have their little ones practising keepy-ups as soon as they can walk, few people in Britain are born into a baseball-loving family and they therefore follow an unorthodox path into the sport. Joe Gray is no exception. “My interest in baseball started back in the summer of 2002, when I read a biology book by the late Stephen Jay Gould, called Life’s Grandeur. A section titled The model batter: Extinction of 0.400 hitting and the improvement of baseball was included to illustrate how the main theme of his book was not limited to the natural world. I had one year left as a student (and therefore one year left to stay up all night each Sunday watching live baseball, before entering the real world). My interest grew over that year, and once I left university in the summer of 2003, I was keen to get involved in baseball in Britain”.
Five’s attempts to wreck the studies of yet another baseball convert came to nought and Gray’s subsequent job-seeking efforts brought him into contact with the British game. “The hunt for employment brought me to South London, which is where I met Dave Ward, the General Manager of the Croydon Pirates. Dave runs excellent training sessions for the club during the winter, but after going to my first one it was clear that playing baseball was not going to be my thing. One option was for me to train to be an umpire, but I knew that I didn’t have the necessary people skills. Fortunately, though, there was another way I could get involved: learning to score. The 2008 season will be my fifth scoring for the Pirates, and my first looking after scoring in the South of the country for the GBBSA, after Brian Holland announced he would be taking a step back from scoring after well over 40 years of involvement in the discipline”.
A day in the life of a British baseball scorer
Nothing that is worth doing comes without some form of sacrifice and a typical day in the life of a British baseball scorer shows that early starts and public transport are the main tests on your commitment. “The day starts with a loud buzzer, followed by a glance over to the alarm clock to see a time that a milkman might be more familiar with. The battle between the need to get up and the temptation to return to sleep having been resolved in favour of the former, it’s then up to the country’s public transport system to provide a means of getting to Croydon. First Capital Connect batted somewhere near the Mendoza line last year, in terms of providing uninterrupted services”.
Once the journey has finally been completed, a scorer’s job begins. “A scorer should aim to get to the game at least an hour before first pitch, which gives time for a chat with the players, managers, and umpires, before settling into the scoring chair to fill in the line-ups. As some players cut it pretty fine in terms of making first pitch, it’s fairly normal to still be writing out the line-up during the first inning. That all done, it’s a case of hoping to see a good game or two, without too many complicated run-down plays or close error-hit calls, as there are no action replays to help out here. During the game, you are guaranteed a visit or two from players affectionately known as “stat rats”, who will be keen to see how their day is going from the scorer’s perspective. If a double-header is being played, the 20 minutes between games can be used to take a stretch, have a conversation or two, and perform the other necessaries. After the game, it’s off to the pub with the team, where the scoresheets always prove useful in settling a few arguments about the day’s play. Assuming the scoresheets leave the pub dry and in one piece, they can then be used to work out the statistics”.
Systems and scoresheets
For a fan, keeping score is appealing partly because you can devise your own scoring system, full of idiosyncrasies and personal touches. As the official national scoring body, GBBSA naturally favours the use of a standard system and they strongly recommend the one described in the International Baseball Federation Scoring Manual.
“The IBAF system is perhaps not the most elegant of scoring systems, but from a technical viewpoint it does have certain strengths, such as breaking down the different types of fielder’s choice, and distinguishing between errors that prevented an out being made and those that just allowed advancement round the bases. For people who have learnt to score in the States, the IBAF notations for recording hits may seem quite foreign. A single is a long vertical line with a short intersecting horizontal line, while doubles and triples are the same but with two and three horizontal lines, respectively (home runs are marked with the more familiar “HR”). In each case, the symbol is followed by the number representing the fielding position of the player whose direction the ball went in”. While British scorers are free to choose the system that they wish to use, Gray states that “knowledge of the IBAF method is beneficial as it is will be employed in any international tournaments that take place on our soil”. Scorers in Britain who would like to receive full details of the IBAF system can find out more by e-mailing the GBBSA.
Potential scorers don’t just have to think about the system they will use, they also have to decide which scoresheet meets their needs the best. Two scoresheets can be downloaded from the GBBSA website, as Gray explains: “The first is the official scoresheet for use with the IBAF system. The second is a smaller scoresheet that I have developed to address the shortcomings with the official sheet (chiefly, the lack of spaces for keeping track of balls, strikes, and pitch counts, as well as the difficulty in making lines for substitutions clear). Guidance for this scoresheet is currently in development, as is a larger scoresheet to enable statistics to be recorded on the same piece of paper as the game”.
The scoring systems and scoresheets are put to use during the five-month period of National League play, with the ’08 season set to start on Sunday 13 April. In 2007, ten teams battled it out during the regular season to earn the right to play in the Final 4 National Championships tournament, held in September. After the Liverpool Trojans and the Menwith Hill Patriots lost out in the semi-finals, it was the London Mets who caused something of an upset by beating their Southern division rivals the Croydon Pirates 2-0 in a best-of-three series final. Full details on the structure of the 2008 competition are due to be announced in the very near future.
Many baseball fans in this country focus exclusively on the MLB product (and a brilliant product it undoubtedly is), but Joe Gray believes that the local game can be an enjoyable addition to a Brit’s baseball season. “On the whole, there are a few more walks and stolen bases than you would see over in the States, but the basic ingredients are there for good baseball (and it’s free to watch). Over the few years that I have been following the game in Britain, several outstanding overseas players have played in the league, including the South African Brett Willemburg, who went on to participate in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, batting .500 against a group of pitchers that included Roger Clemens. There is also some excellent home-grown talent, as was demonstrated in the brilliant game between the Liverpool Trojans and the London Mets in last year’s national finals [a gripping semi-final game in which the eventual tournament champions beat the Trojans 2-1]. Another point to make is that in a world where sports stars seem to be more and more pampered, there’s something quite refreshing about seeing the top players in the country raking the infield dirt and putting up fences”.
Heading off to catch a few games of British baseball this year sounds like a good idea and combining it with “the joy of keeping score” (as Paul Dickson describes the activity) should make for a great way to spend a day. The position of the ‘official scorer’ carries with it a not inconsiderable amount of responsibility, but that’s what makes the job so rewarding. “Spending a summer’s day watching sport can be very enjoyable in its own right, but being involved in the proceedings adds to the experience. Scoring a baseball game provides a similar experience to scoring a cricket game, but there is one major difference. In cricket, the scorer keeps a purely objective record of what is happening (for instance, it is the umpire who will decide if leg-byes or runs off the bat are to be scored). In contrast, the baseball scorer will be called on to make judgement calls during the course of the game, such as whether a passed ball or wild pitch should be scored, and whether a batter deserves a hit or not. In this way, the baseball scorer really is a part of the action. However, I must say that the reason that I really enjoy scoring is that it provides statistics with which we can compare players”.
Such analysis will form an invaluable part of the GBBSA’s website over the coming season and beyond, alongside the statistics themselves. The Association’s website should therefore be on every British baseball fan’s ‘must read’ list, both to support their hard work and to gain an insight into the national competition. Yet some of you may be tempted to support the GBBSA in a more direct way by becoming an active member, and if so Gray has these final words of encouragement: “For anyone who is interested in scoring in Britain and joining the GBBSA, I would say that is well worth giving it a go. It’s a great way to get involved in the game, particularly if playing is not for you”.
For further details on the GBBSA, including how to get involved, please visit the GBBSA website at http://www.gbbsa.org.uk/
Thanks to Joe for his time. If you are involved in British baseball and are interested in BaseballGB doing a feature on your activities, please send me an e-mail by putting ‘matt’ in front of @baseballgb.co.uk in your e-mail address bar.