When he was a sportswriter for the Baltimore News-American, Bill Stetka learned a lot about big events, how people perceive them and how the media covers them. He was involved in many himself, including the 1983 World Series, which the Orioles won.
Now as director of alumni services for Towson State University, he answers more questions than he asks, and until this week he thought he’d seen almost everything.
Stetka found himself in the center of a firestorm of argument when he charged Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken with an error Tuesday night, then reversed his decision Wednesday. The error was significant because it would have ended Ripken’s errorless streak at 67 games-five shy of Eddie Brinkman’s American League record.
Instead, Ripken’s streak is intact, 70 games and counting after cleanly handling four chances during this afternoon’s 7-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians.
Stetka charged Ripken with an error when he failed to catch a throw from center fielder Mike Devereaux. After the game, an Orioles public-relations man asked Stetka to go into the Home Team Sports production truck and look at the play from a couple of angles.
He agreed because “my job is to get the play right,” he said. The next day he talked with players, coaches and managers on both sides, as well as a couple of umpires. And he looked at television replays again.
His original decision, he decided, was wrong. But for a couple of hours Wednesday, Stetka experienced what a lot of reporters never do-how it feels to be the hunted instead of the hunter.
“It was comical,” he said. “I was trying to talk to people and I’ve got all these people following me every step of the way. I’d walk to one side of the field to talk to someone and they’d follow. I’d go to the other side and they’d follow. They were hovering over me and I started thinking, ‘Geez, I’ve got to make this decision.’ I’ve been on the other side as a reporter and PR man, but it’s an entirely different game in that kind of situation. It’s embarrassing.”
Stetka persevered in his quest for the correct call because he wanted people to have an explanation. He also wanted them to know why he changed the call-"I knew what people around baseball were going to say,” he said. “They’re going to say it’s the hometown guy making a hometown call.”
More than that, the incident brought attention on one of the least understood jobs in baseball -- that of an official scorer.
They are not umpires and they are not team officials, although players occasionally argue otherwise. They are not, technically, league officials, although their $65-per-game payments come from the league.
For that amount of money, they sit in the press box and decide what’s a hit, what’s an error and make several other interpretations of baseball’s often vague rules.
Much of their work is not open to interpretation. In most cases, everyone in the park will know what pitcher got the victory, what pitcher got the loss and who gets credit for a save.
But in the gray area of defining hits and errors, trouble can start. If the pitcher has a no-hitter, does that matter in making a judgment? Perhaps it’s not supposed to, but for dozens of years many official scorers have preached that the first hit of a game must be a clean and decisive one. The rule of thumb they use: Don’t loss a no-hitter because of an infield squibber. In some cases, scorers have gone back and changed the call after someone else got a clean hit.
Their training varies. Some have covered the games for several decades. Others have been around only a few years. Some are hard-headed, won’t even watch an instant replay or consider an outside opinion. Others watch dozens of instant replays and ask the opinion of people around them.
In extreme cases, official scorers can decide batting championships, 20-game winners and whether contract incentives are paid.
“I do it because it allows me to stay involved in the game,” Stetka said. “The money doesn’t amount to that much and most nights there’s never an eyebrow raised. I try to be careful because I do think that, in general, official scoring is pretty weak around baseball. Then there are nights like this week.”
To a lot of the people around the game, official scoring is a problem. For one thing, it varies from city to city. Some scorers are hard, some are easy. Some favor the home team, some dislike the home team.
What makes the matter worse is that there’s no clear outline for who ought to get the job. The home teams hire official scorers and most are former newspaper reporters. Some are former club officials and some are guys who’ve been around a long time and watched a lot of games.
That criteria -- or lack of it -- bothers a lot of players, who believe that people who’ve never been down on the field and seen the game up close have no idea what it is all about.
“My problem is that there’s no consistency,” Ripken said. “It varies greatly from city to city. People say, ‘Well, it’s none of your business, you’re making enough money.’ But you do care, and a hit here and a hit there does matter. I try not to worry about things I can’t control, but it’s human nature to get upset.”
Ripken and lots of other players have learned this lesson again and again.
Ripken learned it in 1986 when he left the Oakland Coliseum thinking he’d had a decent day with two infield hits. More than a month later the Orioles were notified that the A’s had won an appeal to the American League office and that Mark McGwire, then a third baseman, had been charged with an error on one of the plays.
Almost everyone has a story about scoring.
Orioles Manager Frank Robinson remembers the day he dribbled a ball down the third-base line. The guy on the mound was Whitey Ford, generally regarded as the best fielding pitcher in baseball.
Ford didn’t make that play “and the scorer charged an error,” Robinson remembered. “He said that Whitey Ford had to make that play because he was the best. I thought that was a contradiction. Whitey Ford was the best and he couldn’t make it, so it must be a hit.”
Players still remember what they used to say about the Tigers -- “If they hit it in Detroit, it’s a hit in Detroit.”
Orioles broadcaster Jon Miller recalls the time Texas center fielder Juan Beniquez, a Gold Glover, lost a ball off the bat of Carlton Fisk in the lights at Fenway Park.
The scoring decision: Error.
How could that be? It’s an informal rule of thumb that balls lost in the sun or in the lights are hits. Asked about it, the scorer snapped: “If it had been anyone but Fisk, I’d have given him a hit.”
Others remember the day Toronto pitcher Dave Stieb phoned the press box to ask that an error be given to one of his teammates, which would have resulted in one less earned run and the AL ERA title for Stieb. Sources say he’d left the game and gone into the clubhouse and figured up his ERA with and without the run being charged to him.
“Everyone has an opinion and none of them will be foolproof,” Robinson said. “My personal feeling is that it ought to be ex-players and that they should be assigned regions. They wouldn’t work one stadium all the time, but they’d never have to travel too much either.”
Asked what it was like when reporters who covered the team also acted as scorer (most newspapers today don’t allow their reporters to score, citing the obvious conflict of interest), Robinson smiled and said: “They caught hell. They’d give a guy an error and then have to come down to the clubhouse and ask him why he made it.”
Robinson doesn’t remember if he phoned the press box to complain, but hundreds of players have. Former Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley knew the number of times he’d done it by heart, outfielder Brady Anderson has phoned a time or two and Earl Weaver was known to air out a complaint.
Once, Weaver wanted a player credited for a single on a bunt that was clearly an error.
“But,” Weaver protested, “I’m having trouble getting the guy to bunt. If you don’t give him a hit on that, I’ll never get him to bunt.”
Again and again, the judgments vary, just as the judgments of umpirers, managers and pitchers vary.
“My favorite one was about anyone who’d play when Brooks (Robinson) had a day off,” Frank Robinson said. “Brooks made every play and if someone else messed up a play, the rationale (for giving him an error) was that Brooks would have made it. So what? Brooks made all the plays.”