If You Can’t Take the Heat, Get Out of the Pressbox
The invitation was a little vague. A friend of mine, Frank, was asked to fill in for the regular announcer at a Western Carolina League doubleheader between the Charleston Pirates and the Spartanburg Phillies. “Come on up if you feel like it,” he said. “Give me a hand with the outfield scoreboard.” Sure. It was a fan’s dream.
When I arrived, near the end of the first game, Frank’s five-year-old son Adam was working the scoreboard in the pressbox, pushing the buttons when he remembered or when Frank directed him. The buttons stuck, so he had to work them several times to move from one strike to two, and he invariably pushed too much. The numbers circled, one, two, zero, one, two. Frank sat at the microphone, sheets of statistics scattered around the table in front of him. Before the game, he had gathered information on all the players’ records for the year. At first, when he announced a new hitter, Frank had mentioned his batting average and any other pertinent information about his time at the plate. But the players had asked him to stop. They said it was embarrassing — not many had averages much over .230. Frank’s research lay around him, discarded. Adam willingly surrendered his job on the scoreboard to me.
The pressbox view took in all the players, the pitchers warming up out along the foul lines, even the pick-up game on the field across the street. And every sound in the rickety wooden ballpark, every conversation, seemed distinct. I had to shake myself to stay on top of the task at hand. All my baseball-watching life, I had always relied on being able to get the correct count from an occasional glance at an electric scoreboard being controlled by someone else. I wasn’t used to watching every pitch, identifying each as ball or strike. I missed a lot, but a fan would always offer assistance: ‘Hey ya idiot, it’s two strikes!” When the count was correct on the scoreboard, the umpire took it for granted. When I had it wrong, he identified the true count with his fingers. His hands were up a lot at the beginning. But I got better.
As the second game got underway, it became clear that there was more to the scoreboard than I had expected — I didn’t discover the switch to indicate hits and another for errors until the second inning. But it didn’t really matter since neither team had had a baserunner.
Soon, though, a Spartanburg batter hit a hard line drive straight at second base. The Charleston shortstop ran to his left, and when he was directly in front of the ball, it hit his mitt and bounced away. He had had the ball, and he blew it. I pushed the error button. A clear call.
When Charleston got the side out and came to bat, the shortstop was the second hitter. He looked up at us from the on-deck circle and shook his head. “That was a hit,” he said. He held out his arms, as if to plead. He was 18, and baseball, I realized, was his whole life. I began to see the muffed grounder in a new light.
“You know,” I said to Frank, now struggling with Adam over control of the microphone, “the regular announcer never calls errors. Even when it’s the crummiest game imaginable, he never calls more than two or three errors.”
Frank nodded. “He’ll let almost anything through. I heard that the manager sends a report up to the parent club every game. So they can see who’s doing what. That’s what they use to advance or cut people.”
“Like if somebody makes too many errors,” I said, “they’ll cut the guy.” Frank agreed. We felt awful. We’d just ruined the poor kid’s life.
The shortstop was still scowling, and we knew he was right. Was it so important that we call every ball with firm accuracy? Or shouldn’t we loosen up and admit that only a monstrously bad play was an error in Class A ball?
In the sixth, with the Pirates at the plate, a Charleston batter hit a rifle shot past second base. The Spartanburg second baseman raced to his right, stretched, and backhanded the ball. The momentum of his run took him a step or two towards left field, but he spun while off-balance and weakly threw the ball to first. It arrived too late. The batter was on. Frank and I looked at each other.
“Man, if he’d gotten that one it would have been incredible.”
“Nobody could’ve gotten it.”
Hit, we both agreed. We had learned our lesson.
The Charleston fans, desperate for a good sign, shouted out their agreement when we pushed the hit button.
Two minutes later we heard a voice behind us. “What the hell’re you doing, a hit?” We turned around. A fan had climbed into the pressbox with us. “That was no hit,” he said. “That was the second baseman’s fault.”
We both turned full around, ignoring the game, and looked at him: “Are you crazy? That was hit hard, the second baseman was lucky to get his glove on the ball.”
“Shit,” the guy spat out. He was big, and obviously mad. He wore a Spartanburg T-shirt. “That guy’s an All-Star. He makes plays like that every night.”
We looked at each other. He does? An All-Star? We didn’t know what to do.
“One strike,” somebody shouted up from the stands. I pushed one strike. “We agree it was a close play,” I said. “Might’ve gone either way. But he was really lucky. . . .”
“Ball,” shouted a fan. I pushed the button.
“. . . to get to it. It was a hit.”
“Error,” insisted the Spartanburg fan. “He could’ve gotten it.” He shook his head. “So on a play like that you take away a guy’s no-hitter?”
We looked back at our own scoring. Sure enough, that had been the first Charleston hit of the game, if we had judged the play an error, the no-hitter would be intact. Instead we had hurt another young player’s record. We felt awful again, and I held out my hands apologetically. “I’m sorry, man,” I said.
“You’re sorry,” he cried. “What’s that do for a pitcher who . . .” He was interrupted by a Charleston batter who cracked a pitch solidly into left field, and took off for first. We all turned back to the field. He rounded first without a pause and ran on to second standing up.
Frank smirked. He turned to the Spartanburg fan. “That was an error, too, I suppose?” he asked. The fan shrugged. “Moot point,” he said.
We didn’t call another error the rest of the game, but we didn’t call much of anything else either. Too dangerous. In the eighth inning Spartanburg busted out in a big rally. “Is a fielder’s choice marked as a hit?” I asked. Each play left us puzzled, and for once we were relieved when the ballgame ended. Our efforts, we agreed, had been something of a failure — a valuable experience, perhaps, but also sure proof that fans should never try to step into the scorer’s seat. The record book looked like three games had been recorded simultaneously.
Frank left immediately after the game, after Adam had shouted good night to all the fans. I waited for them to leave, for the stadium to empty, before I climbed down. But before I could, the reporter from the local paper appeared to pick up the box score. I showed him the notes I had taken, the five sheets of paper and arrowed diagrams. He looked at it and glanced around nervously. “Yeah, but where’s the official score?” I shrugged and pointed back to my scribbles.
“Sit down,” I said. “Let’s see if we can figure this thing out.”
Stephen Hoffius is a free-lance writer in Charleston, South Carolina. For a year he edited the state newsletter of the Palmetto Alliance. (1984)
Steve Hoffius is a free-lance writer in Charleston, and a frequent contributor to Southern Exposure. (1979)
Steve Hoffius is a Charleston, SC, bookseller and free-lance writer. (1977)
Steve Hoffius, now living in Durham, N.C., co-edited Carologue: access to north carolina and is on the staff of Southern Voices. (1975)