Culture

Keeping Score

Jonathan Herrera of the Colorado Rockies slides into second as shortstop Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs leaps for a wild throw from catcher Geovany Soto at Wrigley Field on June 27. i i

hide captionJonathan Herrera of the Colorado Rockies slides into second as shortstop Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs leaps for a wild throw from catcher Geovany Soto at Wrigley Field on June 27.

Brian Kersey/Getty Images
Jonathan Herrera of the Colorado Rockies slides into second as shortstop Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs leaps for a wild throw from catcher Geovany Soto at Wrigley Field on June 27.

Jonathan Herrera of the Colorado Rockies slides into second as shortstop Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs leaps for a wild throw from catcher Geovany Soto at Wrigley Field on June 27.

Brian Kersey/Getty Images

People like to say that baseball is a game of statistics, but really it is a game of law. It is a forensic sport. And because of this, baseball has something to teach all of us, not only those who love the game.

When I say baseball is a forensic sport, what I mean is this: in baseball we are interested less in what happens, than in who is liable, or responsible, for what happens; we are interested in apportioning praise and blame. To put it better, in baseball — as in the law — the way you determine what happened is by making a judgment about who is responsible for what happened.

Whether an act of violent killing is murder depends on the halo of circumstances surrounding the act. We can know the local facts — A shot and killed B, say — and still not know for sure whether A murdered B. Was it an accident? Was it self-defense? Was it an act of passion, or a mercy killing? What was done depends, we can say, on more than just what was done.

And so with baseball. Batter hits ball and makes it safely to first base. What we want to know is did he get a hit? And this is really the question, did he earn the base, or did he get it as a result of a fielder's choice, or a fielder's error? Do we praise him for his achievement and so credit him with the achievement? Or do we blame the fielder for what happened and so deprive the batter of having gotten a hit at all? What happens, in baseball, is constituted by matters forensic, matters of praise and blame.

Consider: Runs are either earned, or unearned. That ball that got away from the catcher and allowed a runner to advance a base? It is either a wild pitch, and is the pitcher's fault, or a passed ball, which is the catcher's mistake. Did that runner steal the base, or did he take it thanks to defensive indifference? Some pitches are strikes and others balls. That is, some pitches are pitches the batter ought to be able to hit — he's to blame if he fails to do so — and some are just lousy throws for which the pitcher is liable.

Generally we blame a batter if he doesn't get a hit. But not always. In cases where the pitcher fails to give him a good pitch and he is awarded a free base, or where he flies out to score a runner (a sacrifice), we treat the batter as if he did not even have an "at bat." He is rewarded with a free pass, of sorts.

Nothing brings out the forensic character of baseball — and its broad significance — so much as the practice, in baseball, of keeping score.

In baseball — and here the contrast with other sports is great — keeping score is never just a matter of keeping track of who's winning. It's a matter of notating, in the thick evaluative sense I've been trying to bring out, exactly what happened, play by play, during a game. It isn't easy to do; it requires patience, concentration, and more than anything else, knowledge and understanding of the game. It requires the skills of a judge.

Now we come to the heart of the matter. The baseball score keeper's text is never merely a record of the game. There is no such thing as a complete record of what happened, after all. And anyway, who needs a complete record? It's not as though it would make sense to play a baseball score the way musicians might play a musical score. Not even in the imagination.

No, in a way the practice of scorekeeping in baseball — the practice of trying to write baseball down, which is to say, trying to make sense of it — is the point of the game itself.

Baseball, when all is said and done, is a writing practice.

However counterintuitive this may seem, I believe that the same is true of forensic practices in other areas of our lives as well. Baseball serves to remind us that the project of trying to write ourselves is an important and ongoing one.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: