Despite what the general public would have you believe, the languid pace of a baseball game is one of its best features. Between pitches, you have time to take in your surroundings. You might check the defensive positioning, note how a particular fielder prepares as the pitcher delivers the ball, or glance at the out-of-town scoreboard to check the action.
I’m an inveterate scoreboard watcher. It’s been suggested that I have attention-span issues, but I’m constantly looking across the diamond to check the scores. How are my favorite teams doing? How are their division rivals faring? How’s that one pitcher performing after his last disastrous start? I can get all that data at a glance, thanks to the out-of-town scoreboard.
I attend lots of games in San Francisco and Oakland, both of which have manual scoreboards. That’s comforting, somehow. The job is not entrusted to some machine at MLB headquarters: it’s someone’s job to stay on top of the action and convey this data to me.
But how exactly do they do that? From the outside, all we see are the numbers and the city codes. For as long as I’ve been attending baseball games, I’ve wondered what the hell goes on back there. This past Sunday, I found out.
The Scoreboard Operator
Kevin, professional scorer and our host for the day
I knew Kevin Mountain in a former life. I played in a band that he liked, and he and his friend Vince showed up to a lot of our shows. Vince and Kevin become unofficial mascots of the band, and were always around, doing crazy shit to make us laugh.
Vince and Kevin and I lost touch after I left that band, but I was recently reacquainted with Kevin through the miracle of Facebook. In the ensuing 15 years, Kevin had acquired a wife, two lovely children, and a part-time job as a scoreboard operator at the Oakland/o.co Coliseum. Yeah, Kevin, it’s great that you’re married and your kids are adorable, but HOLY SHIT, you’re a scoreboard operator? What the hell goes on in there?? I’m dying to know! “You should come hang out with me some day,” Mountain said. I managed to parlay that casual invitation into a press credential (thank you, Athletics front office staff) and the article you’re now reading.
Kevin met me on the concourse and we made our way to the right-field scoreboard structure. “This way we can follow the Giants game,” Kevin said. As we walked, I asked him how he ended up with the gig.
“I was out of work for a while, so I randomly emailed my buddy who had been working for the A’s for a while. He had been working the scoreboards for a few years and said they needed someone to help out. They told me I could end up with anywhere from three to 10 games this year, but I’ve already worked more than 20 this season—including both 15-inning home games!”
Inside the Bunker
Unlocking the NL scoreboard
I don’t know what I expected, but I was surprised to see that the scoreboard structure is basically a shed. It’s just three plywood walls, with the wall facing the field housing the scoreboard. Opposite the scoreboard, two old-style CRT TVs sit on a workbench, and, past that, the numbers and team names (city names, really) line the wall.
Where the magic happens
Tools of the trade
The nerve center
Once we got inside, we fired up the team laptop and turned on both TVs. Kevin had already prepared a list of matchups and starters before arriving (“Just one less thing to worry about,” he told me.)
Today’s slate of games
“There used to be a program that would blink every time you needed to change a score or an inning, but they haven’t used that in years,” he told me. “Now we get our scores through MLB.com.”
Then Kevin set about posting the day’s matchups, which must be done two hours before gametime on weekends and 90 minutes before weekday games begin. Here’s a short video of the man at work.
Once the games were posted, we double-checked his displays, hit the bathroom, and waited for the gates to open.
The days’ scoring began promptly at 11:05 am. It’s usually a two-person operation: one person follows the action on the laptop, while the other hangs up the numbers. I tried to act as the action-follower as best I could, but at first I couldn’t do much except stay out of the way. I was surprisingly tense—I knew people in the stands were depending on us, and I didn’t want to cost Kevin his job or anything.
My eyes skittered across the MLB screen looking for runs and tracking outs. With eight National League games on the schedule, keeping track of just three data points could get complicated. For example, Kevin didn’t care about middle innings, except the top of the 1st, because that required him to post a “0” for the visiting team. Also, I’m in the habit of giving the leading team’s score first: “Rockies up 3-2 over the Marlins.” But Kevin needed the visiting team’s score first, so after a few miscues, I got in the habit of saying “2-3 Colorado.”
But in short order, I was contributing, calling out scores, predicting scoring chances, and hollering “End 6 in St. Louis!” That freed up Kevin to place the numbers and double-check scores as necessary.
I asked Kevin if he ever, y’know, really biffed it while hanging numbers. “Not really,” he told me. “Sometimes you don’t get a score up as quickly as you’d like to, but we generally do pretty well. Legend has it that when Bill King was alive, he’d call down here and chew a guy out if the scores were wrong.”
There was one tense moment, though—bottom of the 4th inning in Houston, and the MLB interface showed the score as ARI 5 -- HOU 1. I relayed this to Kevin, who promptly hung out a “1” for the Astros. But a few seconds later, the score read ARI 5 -- HOU 0. I swear to God there was a “1” there just moments ago! Sheepishly, I called out to Kevin that I must have misread something, and the score in Houston is actually 5-0. He shrugged and swapped the 1 for an 0, and we learned moments later that in fact the Astros had scored a run—but it was on a Fernando Martinez “home run” that was overturned and ruled a double.
“First time that’s ever happened!” Kevin said.
Here’s another brief video of some scoring action.
Living the Dream
The rest of the afternoon went pretty smoothly. Our game was crisp, coming in at just 2:25, and Kevin’s scoring duties ended as soon as the A’s recorded the last out. I helped him clear the entire scoreboard (runs first, then pitcher numbers, then cities), which is only done on Sundays. The five-and-a-half hours we’d spent in the bunker had passed remarkably quickly. There were stressful moments, but honestly, following a bunch of baseball games while at an actual baseball game? It doesn’t get much better than that.
Kevin agrees. “I absolutely love the job. I can’t believe I get paid to do this. It's like a dream.”
The Oakland Athletics Scorer’s Code
Always root for the home team, both in Oakland and for the games you’re scoring, so you don’t have to worry about a bottom of the 9th.
You are forbidden from retrieving home run balls hit during the game. That will get you fired.
However, it’s perfectly OK to stick your head out the scoreboard door when a home run is hit nearby to try and get some TV time. (We tried, and failed.)
It’s also OK (and, in fact, encouraged) to wave a broom around when the home team sweeps (as the A’s did on Sunday).
Drink sparingly, because you don’t know when you’re gonna be able to pee next.
Don’t mess up the score, or the ghost of Bill King will haunt you mercilessly. (I may have made this one up.)