Stew Thornley still remembers the jitters from his first big league game. The Minnesota Twins were playing host to the Washington Nationals in June of 2007, and Thornley’s hands were shaking.
Thankfully for the Twins — and for Thornley — he wasn’t in Minnesota’s starting lineup that night. Instead, he was sitting in the Metrodome press box for his first game as the official scorer for the Twins. Thornley and Gregg Wong have since served as the team’s two scorers, splitting Minnesota’s 81 home games each year. It’s a job that goes unnoticed by most fans, but it’s one that can certainly carry its share of pressure.
Call an error on a play that the fielding team believes was a hit — as was the case in Thornley’s debut, when he gave Twins shortstop Jason Bartlett an error — and you might get an ear full. Make the opposite call and rule it a hit instead of an error and someone else could get upset.
Being an official scorer means having to study Major League Baseball’s rule book and understanding the 10 rules that lie within. Most important, however, is rule No. 10, which deals with official scoring. It’s a chapter Thornley — an author and student of the game of baseball — knows very well.
Those rules have come in handy over the years for both Thornley and Wong, but there are many plays that still come down to the official scorer having to make a judgment call.
“You’re there to make your call, not somebody else’s call, not just to make the safe call,” Thornley said. “If all you’re going to do is make the safe call, then that’s not what you should be doing.”
Thornley recalls keeping score even as a young kid watching games simply because he enjoyed doing so. It didn’t turn into a job until many years later — and it first came about when he was serving as a public address announcer at the University of Minnesota in the early 1980s. He was asked to double as the official scorer and eventually went on to keep score for the minor league Minneapolis Loons in the 1990s.
After getting his feet wet in 2007, Thornley joined Wong — a former beat writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press — as one of the Twins’ two official scorers in 2008. The duo is employed by Major League Baseball, making sure to distinguish themselves as independent of the home club to avoid any assumptions of a hometown call.
Thornley said he hasn’t had to make too many calls with the game on the line during his time as an official scorer. No pitcher has taken a no-hitter deep enough into a game that Thornley had to worry about possibly botching a call and spoiling the no-hitter. The ones that did go late into the game were broken up cleanly.
That’s not to say there haven’t been times in which there was pressure involved. When Twins first baseman Justin Morneau was chasing the RBI title in 2008, he trailed Texas slugger Josh Hamilton by just one RBI heading into the final day. Thornley knew Morneau was close, but purposely went out of his way to find out exactly how close as the Twins played the final game of the season.
“I knew Morneau didn’t get any in the Saturday game and I made a point not to look in the paper to even see how Josh Hamilton did,” Thornley said. “I didn’t want to know.”
Thornley didn’t have to make any close calls that time, either, and Hamilton edged Morneau by one RBI. But there was still that what-if scenario running through Thornley’s head. The wrong call certainly would have yielded an outcry from the Twins, and likely from Morneau, if it cost him an RBI.
Most of the calls an official scorer has to make deal with determining whether a play is a hit or an error. Back in his first game as a scorer in 2007, Thornley ruled Bartlett was handcuffed on a short-hopper and gave him an error. If he were to make that call today, Thornley admits he would have ruled it a hit.
Things have changed since then as far as the players’ ability to challenge the scoring on a play. Until a few years ago, Thornley said, teams were able to appeal a scoring decision but weren’t encouraged to do so. Instead, the official scorers would often hear an earful from a team’s public relations department with the hope of possibly changing the ruling.
Now with the new collective bargaining agreement that was put in place a few years back, players have the right to appeal a ruling and send it in on their own. No more having to go through the team if the player feels he was wronged on a call.
“The number of calls going in (to MLB) has gone way up,” Thornley said.
In a way, though, that has lessened the pressure in the press box — or has at least tamed the heat scorers feel from PR staffers. If there’s a disagreement on a call, it can always be sent to the league office for review, where it ultimately lands on the desk of Joe Torre, the former Yankees skipper who is now the executive vice president of baseball operations for MLB.
Thornley has had a few of his calls reach Torre this year, and the scorers always have the chance to respond.
“It’s never pleasant to get a call saying, ‘You’ve had one knocked over,'” Thornley said.
There might not be as much pressure on Thornley and Wong as there is on a manager or any given player during a game, but the rulings the two scorers make can certainly have an impact. For players so concerned with statistics — especially those looking for new contracts — every hit matters.
Occasionally, an error call will elicit a groan from fans or others situated in the press box near the official scorer. There can be debate among writers as to whether a play was a hit or an error. Ultimately, it’s the scorer’s call to make. And just like an umpire, official scorers have to be able to take the heat.
“I was an armchair official scorer for years, so I understand the armchair official scorers. When I was an armchair official scorer, I thought everything should be an error,” Thornley said. “When you first sit in that hot seat, you feel it. The first game I did, I could notice because I had just a little jitter trying to keep score. I thought, ‘OK, I am nervous.’ You’ve got to be able to deal with it.”