Crunching the Numbers with Scoreboard Operator Chris Ivy
Photo by Leah Sobsey.
There’s an old saying in baseball, that the game brings out the little kid in grown men. Sayings only get old if they stick around for a while, and they only stick around if they’re true.
I was reminded of all this at one of the Bulls’ last regular season games, when I got to spend a couple of innings behind the left field wall with scoreboard operator Chris Ivy. Recently retired from his day job with Durham County Social Services, Ivy looks a little like a thinner, healthier, happier Mark Twain, circa 1891. But he virtually bounces with the energy and enthusiasm of a fifth-grade kid who has just discovered the magic of baseball. (I speak from experience — I have one of those fifth-graders at home.) It’s contagious, really. The most fun I’ve had at the ballpark all year came when hanging out with the estimable Mr. Ivy and watching the game through those little scoreboard windows in the outfield.
Working on a small wooden platform wedged between the Blue Monster and a massive concrete outer wall, Ivy is the guy who manually switches out the scoreboard numbers for each inning, plus the runs, hits and errors totals for the game. Ivy’s wooden perch is crammed with stacks of number placards — lots of zeroes — and virtually wallpapered with old programs, scorecards and clippings stapled to every surface.
This is Ivy’s sixth season with the Bulls. An old-school baseball fan and longtime attendee of Bulls games, Ivy says he completely lucked into the scoreboard job. When he applied with the Bulls in the spring of 2008, he thought he might snag a gig working as an usher, or maybe in the gift shop. Instead, thanks to some fortuitous timing, he got what he considers the best job in the park.
“Most of the other guys that work here, they never get to even see the game,” Ivy said, adjusting his “workstation” behind a small plexiglass window mounted in the wall. He keeps all the tools of his trade within reach — walkie-talkie, program, a radio to monitor the broadcast and a formidable-looking notebook for scoring the game. Ivy is a dedicated practitioner of baseball scorekeeping — that arcane system of notation that’s been part of the game since the late nineteenth century. Mark Twain’s era, come to think of it.
“I taught myself as a kid, out of an encyclopedia, when I was eight years old or something like that,” Ivy says. “I would make my own books.” Poring over his oversized spiral-bound scorekeeping folder set on a small shelf, Ivy shows me the most intricate notation system I’ve ever seen. When he’s alone working a game, Ivy keeps a hyperdetailed account of each inning, each at-bat, each pitch – using multiple colored pens and a highly customized notation system.
“It keeps it interesting and keeps you focused in on the game,” Ivy says. “And I like all the numbers. I keep track of strikeouts by inning, pitch count, balls and strikes. Of course, when I have company back here I scale it back a little.”
In a nod to the digital age, Ivy also has an iPad and a subscription to the online MLB.tv service, so he can watch live broadcasts of major league games. As he works tonight’s Bulls’ matchup against the Norfolk Tides, he’s keeping one eye on the Tampa Bay Rays — the Bulls’ major league parent club — as they go into extra innings against the villainous New York Yankees.
Ivy knows a lot about baseball at all levels of the game, but he’s a particularly serious, and studious, Bulls fan. He can tell you all the players’ stories, as they come in from the lower leagues — or down from the majors on rehab assignments — and back up again to the Show. The big story from the early part of this year was rookie slugger Wil Myers, now with the Rays.
“If you look at his statistic from his weeks here, it’s crazy,” Ivy says. “He was knocking the ball all over the place. He had 54 RBIs when he left. It took a while for anybody else on the team to get that many.”
As the game against the Tides ambles along, Ivy dutifully keeps tabs on the proceedings in his spiral notebook, occasionally darting up from his stool to swap out a placard. He goes through plenty of zeros — the Bulls wind up on the losing end of a low-scoring 2-0 contest.
He gets a few visitors, as well. A writer from Baseball America drops by with a friend in tow and Ivy gives a quick tour of his domain. Ivy says he likes having people come back behind the wall, and he often ventures out to invite fans back himself.
“Like this picnic area up here,” he says, gesturing up to the stands. “If I see a bunch of kids out there I might go up and see who’s in charge, then bring them back maybe four at a time.”
Even as visitors come and go and placards switch in and out, Ivy is never far from his scorecard.
“I had a seven-year-old come back here a couple of weeks ago and he was looking at my scorecard,” Ivy says. “He didn’t know much about it. So I gave him one of the programs, which has a scorecard insert. His dad called me up a few days later and thanked me for having him back here. He said they’d been watching games on TV and keeping score. He said he’s more interested in scoring than the baseball.”
“That’s how it was with me, too, when I was a kid,” Ivy says, scanning his scorecard, which is fast filling up with a jumble of minute notations. Grabbing his pens once again, he makes a couple of corrections and adjustments. “It’s all these great numbers.”