Happy New Year!
That’s the annual salutation heard in baseball parks all around the country on Opening Day, signaling the start of another season. It was a most welcome greeting this year, which promises to be merely different — as opposed to the disaster of 2020.
For me personally, this year marked the end of an era, so to speak. For the first Opening Day in more than 20 years, at least the first one with a “live” audience, I didn’t dust off my tuxedo, complete with matching orange vest and tie, and head to the best seat in the house at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Before proceeding, some clarification is in order. The official “Under Further Review” interpretation of “the best seat in the house,” is one being occupied. Having said that, regardless of location, that’s where I can always be found — in the best seat in the house. Hopefully that’s the same for you … and you … and you … and anyone who has the same affection for the game as I do.
It can be in the bleachers, the farthest from home plate in Bob Uecker territory, in the grandstand, upper or lower boxes or reserved seats, one with a choice field or club level view. And if it happens to be in the “Standing Room Only” section, so be it. The “best seat in the house” is one that can be afforded, is available, gifted or, in some fortunate cases, one that is assigned.
At one time or another I have been there, done that, in all of the sections mentioned above — and those of us who grew up around old Municipal (before Memorial) Stadium on 33rd Street even figured out ways to sneak in for a freebie every once in a while.
For the better part of the last six decades I have been among those fortunate enough to spend most of my time in assigned seats in various press boxes around the country. Most often, however, my time was spent at Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street or Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where of late that assigned seat often put me in the official scorer’s chair.
In addition to arguably being the real best seat in the house, it could sometimes be the hottest. For sure there were some debatable calls (as opposed to questionable!), a few challenges and an occasional appeal that resulted in an overturned call. But, fortunately, nothing more than a usually mild difference of opinion.
The percentages were good enough to last 33 years, spread throughout those six decades, and the system in place makes previously reported skirmishes a thing of the past. The biggest reward? There are three ways to get into a major league box score — as a player, an umpire or the official scorer. It is the adulthood reality of any childhood dream, so being an official scorer is more than a fair tradeoff.
I have often been asked, “How do you become an official scorer?” It is not an easy question to answer, but the obvious place to start is by seeing that your resume includes a lot of games. Lots and lots of games. When I first landed the gig back in the 1970s, all scorers were traveling members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The initial requirement was that a writer had to see at least 100 games a year for three seasons before becoming eligible to join the ranks of official scorers. That’s how I got my introduction.
Somewhere around the late 1970s or early 1980s, most newspapers denied their writers permission to serve as scorers, fearing the possibility of an employee becoming part of the story. Today the job is often filled by retired baseball writers (again, my intro), current or former coaches or those specifically trained, many starting at the minor-league level.
I’m very grateful to have worked with the three compatriots — Mark Jacobson, Ryan Eigenbrode and Dennis Hetrick — who will carry on, and I’m confident that the Baltimore crew will continue to earn respect as one of the best in the business.
Just as I’m not sure how many MLB games I’ve seen over the years (5,000 might be a good vicinity), neither do I know how many of those were ones for which I served as the official scorer. I would think 1,000, including two World Series, ALCS and ALDS and one All-Star Game would be a fair start for an over-under number.
For the most part, once a game is recorded it blends with all the others and becomes part of the game’s history. But, for various reasons, some are standouts, the most obvious being the Orioles’ most recent World Series win in 1983.
The first and for personal reasons perhaps the most memorable game for me came very early, Sept. 24, 1974, in my first year as an official scorer. That’s the night Baltimorean Al Kaline got his 3,000th hit — and, with the possible exception of my first game, I believe that’s the most nervous I ever was while sitting in “the chair.”
The last thing I wanted was to have to make a decision on the most significant of the 3,007 hits Kaline accumulated in his career. I got tested in the first inning that night when Tommy Davis bounced a ball deep into the third base-shortstop hole that went for an infield hit. I guess the guidelines had been set.
To this day it is one call I sometimes think about, so if Davis got a “gift” he can thank Kaline. Fortunately Al removed any lingering suspense by lining a one-hop double off the right-field wall off Orioles’ left-hander Dave McNally. Having been a left-handed pitcher who faced Kaline for three years in high school, I was familiar with balls he hit that landed beyond the reach of the closest outfielder. Unlike those experiences, this one was a relief. The only regret was not salvaging a memento, thereby keeping intact my reputation as a non-collector.
Another missed memento opportunity came on Oct. 7, 2001, when Cal Ripken Jr. played the 3,001st and last game of his historic career. Somewhere I do have a copy (unsigned) of that box score, but I’d be hard-pressed to find it.
Josh Hamilton’s four-homer game on May 8, 2012 provided another memorable moment, but it was on Sept. 3, 2002 that I had what most likely was the most controversial, yet relatively meaningless, decision of my official scoring career. That was the night Joaquin Benoit was credited with a seven-inning save in the Texas Rangers’ 7-1 win against the Orioles.
The admittedly bizarre ruling was made possible because starting pitcher Aaron Myette was ejected from the game after throwing only two pitches, and Todd Van Poppel picked up the gift win by pitching two innings as the official pitcher of record. Looking back, it might be another decision I’d want to rethink, but there wasn’t any discussion at the time, so no need to rehash now.
Another milestone came when I worked some games during Tampa Bay’s initial season, so my name is on that historic box score for the first victory for the expansion team then known as the Devil Rays, 11-8 against the Detroit Tigers on April 1, 1998.
One significant thing missing — I never worked a no-hitter, unusual according to a canvas of fellow scorers around the country. Saw more than a few and in that first year of 1974 it seemed like every member of the Orioles’ starting rotation carried a no-no at least into the eighth inning.
Not having a no-hitter is insignificant in comparison to the memories of being an active participant in recording even a very small percentage of baseball history. Reward enough for almost a lifetime of involvement in a game I’m not embarrassed to say that I love.
Those days are now over … gone but never to be forgotten. I had pre-determined that a reduced schedule would make 2020 my last year. The pandemic, plus hip replacement and three abdominal surgeries, in that order, made it not only a year to forget, but also a year to make it easy to close the book on the official scoring era of what has been a very fortunate career.
I don’t know how many more of these essays might be in the works, but the Lord willing, the hope is to keep this chapter going as long as possible. Sooner or later, depending on precautions and restrictions, hopefully I’ll eventually find my way back to one of those assigned seats in the press box, my longtime home away from home.
In the meantime, though, I’ll check out some of those other venues discussed earlier. Wherever it is that I might land in OPACY, you know where it will be.
In the best seat in the house.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Craig Heist