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Scorekeeping by baseball fans appears to be a dying art

Know what I like? When a home run lands in the stands, and the fans there quiver like winter wheat, just as wiggly spectators did back in Babe Ruth’s day.

Know what else I like? The way the vendor yells, “Peanuts here! Salt peanuts!” a character from baseball’s creaky demimonde.

I even like the way the West Coast puts baseball to bed each night, scores from earlier contests glowing like evening stars on the little scoreboards along the outfield.

Baseball is a game of touchstones and tombstones and comforting repetition. Unfortunately, one of the game’s saintly little traditions seems to have about run its course.

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Each season, fewer and fewer fans keep a scorebook at ballgames. Scorekeeping — baseball’s Latin — appears to be a dying language.

“It’s been fading out for a very long time,” says Barry Rubinowitz, a lifelong devotee to scorekeeping. “There’s a certain lack of literacy involved.”

Last Friday, the former comedy writer was the only soul I could find keeping score on the third-base loge level at Dodger Stadium. Ushers there confirmed that they rarely see anyone “keeping book” any more.

Rubinowitz is not exactly the last of a species. But he’s certainly on the endangered list.

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“When I was a kid, it was different; you could talk to strangers,” says Louisa Jensen of Glendale, who still keeps score at Dodgers games. “So when I was a kid at Wrigley Field I learned from a man sitting next to me.”

If you’ve never kept book, it involves a batter-by-batter shorthand account of the game. The only symbol that makes any sense is the little diamond that represents the basepaths. When a runner reaches first, the scorekeeper draws a line from home to first and makes a notation about how the runner reached. BB means “base on balls.” 1B means “single.” HBP means “hit by pitch.”

When a runner scores, you fill in the diamond, like completing the answer on a standardized test.

On the defensive side, each player in the field has a number based on the position he plays. The pitcher is 1, the catcher 2, first baseman is 3, and so on. For some reason, the shortstop is 6, not 5, in the rotation of positions. When the shortstop fields a grounder and fires the ball to first, the scorekeeper records the out with a simple “6-3,” noting shortstop to first base.

Everybody keeps score a little differently. For example, I customize my scorebook by adding CB (cold beer) and HBHDW (hit by hot dog wrapper) to mine. When Alyssa Milano shows up at a Dodgers game, I write a little AM inside the shape of a heart. When a drunk muffs an easy foul ball, I write DMEFB. If Milano muffs an easy foul ball, I write … OK, you get the idea.

Sure, scorekeeping is an arcane set of chicken scratches that not everyone wants to learn. Besides, finished scoresheets are available on the Web, and stats are flashed onto big screens and directly to your cellphone if you like, making a scorebook less vital.

But to a few stubborn holdouts, it’s almost unthinkable to attend a game without a scorebook.

“I’ve scored virtually every Red Sox game I’ve been to since my first game ever at Fenway Park in 1967,” says Steve Ferri, who grew up in Boston and lives in Pasadena. “For the Sox, George Scott hit a home run in the bottom of the first to tie it up, and Rico Petrocelli hit a home run in the bottom of the second to tie it up again.”

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At Angel Stadium, I found more scorekeepers than at Dodger Stadium, but still only a smattering. As with all things baseball, the practice often harkens to the fan’s childhood.

“I started doing it with my father,” says Jack Rallo of Covina, a program scoresheet in his lap. “And I do it now because it keeps me in the game. ... It’s just kind of fun.”

“My mom taught me,” says Carl Johnson, visiting from Pittsburgh. “When the game’s over, you can go back and appreciate it. The more pencil marks, the better.”

“You’re taking it to the next level,” says Bruce Jacobson of Upland. “Where did the player hit it last time? Why are they moving the fielders?”

So baseball, a game built on stats and tradition, is losing a geeky little accounting procedure that no one will stay awake worrying about — except maybe me.

Fortunately, a few diehards are managing to keep scorekeeping on life support, still scribbling their little love notes to the game.

“I think keeping score helps me to strategically understand the game,” Ferri says. “Or at least that’s what I tell people.

“I guess that’s kind of like claiming that you read Playboy for the articles,” he says. “But maybe the real reason is that I am just a nerd.”

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chris.erskine@latimes.com


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