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It was the eighth inning of a game on April 16, and Bob Forsch of the St. Louis Cardinals was pitching a no-hitter when Philadelphia's Garry Maddox slashed a hard grounder into the hole between short and third. Third Baseman Ken Reitz moved a couple of steps to his left, reached down—and came up empty as the ball slid under his glove. Baseball's rule book states that in a borderline situation a call should go in the hitter's favor, but in the late innings of no-hitters the custom has been to lean toward the pitcher. Sure enough, to the delight of the Cardinals, official scorer Neal Russo of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch signaled an error. Forsch then went on to pitch the first no-hitter of the 1978 season, and Russo went on to hear plenty of criticism.
This year, as in all recent seasons, the official scorer, that virtually anonymous but pivotal figure in the press box, has been under intense scrutiny. And for good reason. Though most scorers do a decent job under difficult circumstances, enough have been guilty of misjudgments, incompetence and home-team favoritism to warrant concern. Responding to a wide-ranging SPORTS ILLUSTRATED survey, players and sportswriters—many of whom score games—cited scorers in most major league cities for "homerism." Moreover, there was an almost universal feeling that some change is needed in the way the game is scored.
This is not merely an in-house baseball matter. Although official scorers do not determine the outcome of games, they do have a significant effect on something of almost equal significance: baseball's precious statistics. In no sport are statistics as meaningful as in baseball, and scorers have the power to determine some of the most important statistics, such as batting and earned run averages and no-hit games.
Sometimes the scorers make these determinations with one eye on the uniforms. "I've been involved in five or six no-hit games," says infielder Dave Johnson of the Phillies, "and all of them were suspected of being helped by hometown scoring." Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, official statistician of the National League, says, "There is great inconsistency. The most annoying things are plays that get called one way one time and another way another time. The criterion seems to be, 'I wanted to help this guy,' but that shouldn't be it at all. They should call them as they see them."
In some cities they call them as if they didn't see them at all. In Philadelphia this spring the Phils' Richie Hebner hit a line drive to rightfield, Pittsburgh's Dave Parker ran in a few steps, reached for the ball at knee level and dropped it. The hometown scorer gave Hebner a single. In Los Angeles two Dodger grounders bobbled by Pittsburgh pitchers were called hits. During the same game Los Angeles' Tommy John leaped high off the mound for a bouncer. He failed to make the difficult play, but his pitching stats did not suffer—an error was called by the scorer. Even Russo, who was kept busy defending himself after his crucial call in the Forsch no-hitter, admits, "I think some tilting toward the home team happens almost everywhere. It's human nature. You've got to live with the players."
The confusion arises partly because scoring is not easy—even for the best scorers. Russo, 58, has spent two decades as a writer for the Post-Dispatch and is also a correspondent for The Sporting News and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. At 5'8" and 190 pounds, he will never be mistaken for an athlete, but he knows baseball inside out. Indeed, his intellectual credentials are unassailable. As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Russo would walk down the street constructing crossword puzzles in his mind in Latin, French and Italian. In his spare time he writes sports crosswords for publication. Nervous and fast talking, he skips glibly and knowledgeably from subject to subject. Yet after scoring nearly 800 games, he still finds the experience disquieting.
Sitting high in the press box at Busch Memorial Stadium for the 25 or so games he scores each year, Russo must instantly decide if a pitched ball bounced before skittering by the catcher. Wild pitch or passed ball? Did a ground ball take a bad hop before being juggled by an in-fielder? Hit or error? And Russo's decisions on plays in the distant outfield are made more difficult by Busch Stadium's carpeted playing surface. The synthetic turf tends to make balls take bizarre, high bounces and accelerate after they hit the ground. Under such conditions, time-honored criteria for determining outfield errors do not apply.
The scorer's decision-making is complicated by a factor called "a reasonable effort." Ken Brett lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning while pitching for the White Sox in 1976 when a scorer ruled that a roller Third Baseman Jorge Orta failed to field was a hit. The scorer determined that a reasonable effort by Orta had not produced an out, even though an extraordinary play might have. Not everyone agreed, least of all Brett. An average outfielder who drops a fly ball after a long run will not be charged with an error; a Fred Lynn, who routinely makes difficult running catches, will be. In his pivotal decision, Russo determined that Reitz, an excellent fielder, was nervous and uncertain because of the no-hit pressure and normally would have made the play easily. Hence the error.
Sometimes even the rule book causes problems. For instance, there is no stipulation on how to score a ball that drops between two or more befuddled fielders. The scorer is free to give one of the fielders an error or to credit the batter with a hit. Many scorers feel a new category—team error—should be created for these occasions, and the Baseball Writers' Association of America has been studying the matter.
A number of scorers admit they seek help. When in doubt they will consult other writers, players or umpires, or watch an instant replay if a TV set is available in the press box. "We have no TV monitor," says Russo, "but we do have a direct line to the dugout. I'll call down there on passed-ball situations. The Cardinals also have a former pro pitcher sitting behind home plate to chart pitches. I'll call him from time to time. We have 24 hours in which to change our calls, but I don't do that very often. If I did, I'd have the snipers and vultures on my tail."