Opening the box that holds baseball’s secrets

Rotisserie baseball has taken over our newsroom.
   For those of you among the uninitiated, that’s an armchair sports league in which people concoct fantasy teams made up of their favorite professional players. Competitors win or lose based on the real-life statistics of the players they’ve “drafted.”
   Reporters and editors in the rotisserie league spend hours each day monitoring their make-believe rosters, trading players and gathering data. If there’s a baseball game on television, someone’s watching it between phone calls.
   At the center of all this activity lies a little corner of the newspaper where we print box scores. They keep the pretend managers informed about their players, providing a snapshot of each game and each player’s performance.
   The rotisserie competition doesn’t attract me. Mostly it just distracts me, as guys mock each other’s players and rejoice when their imaginary teams do well.
   But I must admit I’m intrigued by the box scores. Nowhere else in the paper is there so much information packed into such a tiny space. No other part of the paper requires a set of instructions to comprehend.
   So this week I set out to master the box score, to learn to read what one writer called “the catechism of baseball.”
   When I first looked at the boxes, many of the abbreviations might as well have been in Swahili. HBP? How ’bout peanuts? LOB? Loser owes beer? BB? The only BB I know is a BB gun.
   I couldn’t even tell who the players were. What does Grcprr stand for? What mother would name her son Mntkw? REMtz reminds me more of a band than a person. I never had a friend called MCdva.
   It looked like the stock report.
   And I’m not the only one who thinks so. I read about a pitcher for the Senators back in the ’30s who changed his name from Pete Jablonowski to Pete Appleton because he was tired of having his name written Jblnsi. Appleton didn’t fit, either. It’s enough to make you appreciate a name like Sosa.
   Then the classes began. My boyfriend taught me the basics, and that HBP means hit by pitch (ouch!) while LOB is left on base.
   He explained how to tell which was the home team, and about the rules that dictate when a pitcher is credited with a win, which seem really unfair.
   My boyfriend can’t even remember when he didn’t know how to read a box score, so he was a little puzzled when I questioned the format’s logic. Given a choice between a game story and a box score, he’d pick the box. To him, it’s obvious that BB would mean base on balls — and that that really means walks. And of course 2B means double. What else could it be?
   But it was all new to me. And while certain rules of the game make no sense from my point of view, I started to appreciate the beauty of the box score. I even went to the library for some research about them.
   That’s where I learned about Jablonowski. I also found a quote from a 1957 book that seemed to capture the magic of the form: “The baseball box score is the pithiest form of written communication in America today. It is abbreviated history. It is two or three hours (the box score even gives that item to the minute) of complex activity, virtually inscribed on the head of a pin, yet no knowing reader suffers from eyestrain.”
   I’m not sure I qualify as a “knowing reader” just yet, but I have figured out that SF is not San Francisco, but rather a sacrifice fly. And that Bllgr is Clay Bellinger, the Oneonta native who just started playing for the Yankees.
   I’ll be able to poke fun at the rotisserie managers, too, just as soon as I figure out who has which players — and how their names are abbreviated.
   Rachel Dickler is city editor at The Daily Star.

This column was published April 24, 1999

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