THE fielder knocks down a hard grounder but can't make the play. Did the batter make a hit, or did the fielder make an error? In terms of the game results, it doesn't matter what you call it. But when it comes to statistics, the impact can be enormous. And given today's big-money contracts, with incentive clauses for individual accomplishments, the difference between a hit and an error can sometimes be measured in six figures.
No wonder disputes arise - like last season's controversy involving superstars Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs. With Clemens pitching for Boston, Boggs was handcuffed by a grounder and the batter reached first base safely. The official scorer ruled it an error for Boggs.
After the game, Boggs questioned the call, saying the ball had been too tough to handle. Upon reexamining the replay, the scorer agreed and changed it to a hit. The switch evoked widespread criticism - particularly of Boggs for requesting it, since the change negatively affected his teammate's pitching statistics and thus hurt his bid for the Cy Young Award.
Most baseball traditionalists agree that such considerations have no place in these decisions - that a scorer's judgment should never be affected by the personalities involved or the heat of the contest.
Another issue is who should make these decisions. Scorers are hired by the league. Until recently, they always came from the ranks of working sports writers.
Over the past decade or so, this has changed. Worsening relationships between players and writers, along with concern about potential conflicts of interest, have persuaded many newspapers to enjoin their writers from doubling as official scorers. The result is a hodgepodge, with writers still scoring in some cities, while various individuals (retired writers, high school and college coaches, amateur umpires, or others) do it elsewhere.
"I agree with not having working writers scoring today," says retired Philadelphia baseball writer Allen Lewis, one of the nation's most knowledgeable and respected authorities on rules and scoring.
"In the old days when you didn't have the adversary relationship ... it wasn't a problem. But today the whole thing is different. You're not giving your paper its full due if you make a tough call and the player gets angry and won't talk to you."
The ideal, no matter who does the scorekeeping, is to provide full, accurate reports of each game, with consistent, unbiased decisions on such things as hits and errors - a situation many authorities say does not exist under today's unstructured approach.
Lewis, one of the select few journalists enshrined in the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, proposed several years ago that baseball create a trained and supervised pool of ex-writers who would rotate from city to city.
Another idea is to add a fifth umpire to sit in the press box and do the job. So far, however, the establishment has rejected all such plans as being too costly.
"I estimated, when I made my proposal, that they could do it for $100,000 or so," Lewis said by telephone from his home in Clearwater, Fla. "Now it would cost more - maybe even a million. But what's a million today? Teams pay that to one second-rate player. But they close their eyes to it. They don't want to hear about it."
Whoever does the scoring, the problems are basically the same - particularly in pressure situa- tions, as when a possible no-hitter is in progress.
"You really have to discipline yourself," Lewis says. "In the case of a play late in the game I always asked myself: If this was the first inning, what would you have scored it?"
Then there is the age-old problem of "homers" (scorers who tend to favor hometown players in their decisions).
"We had them - no question about it," he says. "And I'm sure they still do."
Today's scorers do have one big advantage, though - the TV replay.
"When I started, you knew you'd better not miss the play, because you weren't going to see it redone on TV," Lewis says.
Over the years many notable achievements have depended on scoring decisions. One of the most famous occurred in St. Louis in 1917 when the official scorer, delayed by a streetcar tie-up, arrived too late to see a first-inning infield play that most observers said was a hit. The scorer, however, went with the minority opinion in the press box and called it an error - a ruling that turned out to be significant when pitcher Ernie Koob went on to fashion a no-hitter.
Perhaps the most incredible official scoring story occurred on the last day of the 1910 season - also, coincidentally, in St. Louis. The great but unpopular Ty Cobb had completed his season, while well-liked Napoleon Lajoie of Cleveland, still with an outside chance of beating out Cobb for the batting title, was playing a doubleheader against the old St. Louis Browns.
Every time Lajoie came up, a strange tableau unfolded: The infield played back, Lajoie bunted, and there was no play. He wound up with eight hits, and - according to the unofficial averages - the batting crown.
In that pre-computer era, though, it took several days to check all the statistics and declare them official. And in that time another writer, incensed at the fiasco in St. Louis, took matters into his own hands.
The official scorer in one of Detroit's last games had scored a ball Cobb hit as an error, but hadn't yet submitted his official report. So he reconsidered the play (without benefit of any replay, of course) and decided it had been a hit after all. When the official statistics came out, it was Cobb .385 and Lajoie .384.
It's hard to imagine anything quite as blatant as all that happening today, but obviously the official scorer continues to play a major role in the statistical side of the game - and undoubtedly always will.