Baseball's scribes field conflict-of-interest charges

Major league baseball's official scorers, who once had to deal only with the verbal abuse of players affected by their rulings (was it a hit or an error?), are now being attacked on a second front.

This new flow of criticism is coming from some of the newspapers who employ them as baseball writers (also known as "beat" men if they travel with the team). The phrase their bosses use is a familiar one: conflict of interest.

It is a conflict of interest, they say, because the writer is being paid by the league; because his decision might be influenced if the player is a close friend; and because one can't write objectively and score at the same time.

"Let me give you an idea of the kind of situation we want to avoid," one sports editor told me. "You've got a player closing in on a batting title who is involved in a controversial call that could perhaps be either a hit or an error.

"Our writer calls it an error, then later has to go to that player for a post-game interview," the editor continued."I don't think the writer is going to get the same cooperation he would if the decision had gone the other way. In fact, he may be told to get lost, or worse. And there have been rare instances when a reporter has been physically abused."

Most official scorers, however, claim they get more of a reaction from a story that has something negative in it about a player or his team than any hit-error calls they make from the press box.

Nevertheless many major newspapers that once allowed their beat writers to score, among them the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and Minneapolis Tribune, have now revoked that privilege."

The word privilege is used because most writers take their scoring seriously; are not picked haphazardly; and receive $50 a game for their services. They are recommended for the job by the local chapter chairman of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, subject to league approval, and almost never without having seen 100 big-league games three years running.

If that $50 fee sounds excessive, it isn't Competent scorers earn their money. They are, in fact, recorders of baseball's most precious statistics, and their job does not end when the game is over. An accurate box score, plus other information pertinent to the game, must reach the league office within 36 hours, although computers in most parks inform the wire services only minutes after the final out.

The thing most ballplayers do not like about official scorers is what they call their inconsistency, plus a tendency (real or imagined) to favor the hometown players in any close decision.

Official scoring, of course, is never easy, and most veteran coaches I have talked with insist that it should be done only at field level and never from the press box, which is considered too high up to judge tricky ground balls properly.

The bounce that a baseball takes today coming off synthetic turf, as opposed to grass, can also cause a scorer as well as a fielder big problems. Decisions must also be made quickly, almost instantly. And what if the infielder had to leave his feet or the outfielder run a country mile before the ball caromed off the top of his glove?

The Sporting News recently did a survey on official scorers and learned that 15 nonmembers of the writers' association now hold jobs that were once the exclusive property of the nation's beat writers.

Although many of them are former newspaper or public relations men who have retired, some scorers also work in such diversified fields as real estate, construction, driver education, and Oriental rugs sales.

From time to time, baseball has toyed with the suggestion of having a rotating fifth umpire handle the duties of the official scorer. What has killed that idea more than anything else is the expense involved, although retired umpires living in major league cities probably would jump at the hance to earn $ 50 a game.

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