Twenty-Five Years and Counting: A few innings with the Durham Bulls’ official scorer
Photo by Kate Joyce.
It’s the bottom of the second inning on a rainy July evening at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Charlotte Knights are in town, closing out the final evening of a four-game set. At the far left side of the press box, Brent Belvin — the Bulls’ official scorer — is camped once more in the spot he’s occupied for twenty-five years.
The press box windows are open, and that particular variety of Carolina breeze is drifting in — warm, gentle, approximately 115 percent humidity. Belvin chats quietly with the half-dozen other team and media guys in the room — about the All Star Game selections, the AL Central standings, the status of Yu Darvish’s trapezius strain. It’s inside baseball talk from inside baseball men.
As the scorer for almost all the Bulls’ home games, Belvin records the outcome of each plate appearance and sends the official record of statistics back to the league office. Belvin does this by way of computer software these days, but he keeps a backup record on paper, using old-school scorekeeping notation.
Belvin is also in charge of making those judgment calls that don’t affect the outcome of the game, but do impact the statistical record. For instance, whether the hard grounder that bounced off the shortstop is an error or an infield hit. Or whether the RBI two-bagger should be ruled a single with an advance on a fielder’s choice. Oh, he runs the lights on the electronic scoreboard, too.
It’s a fairly specific skill set, and Belvin’s been keeping score like this since he started in the 1989 season, when he was a student at Duke.
“I was interning at Baseball America, which is based here in Durham, and at the time the owner also owned the Bulls,” Belvin says. “They had a full-time official scorer, I think, through most of the ’80s, but he had left. They were scrambling on a nightly basis to find somebody to do the games. They asked me if I’d like to score a game or two. I alternated with another guy for the ’89 season, then in ’90, I started doing it every game.”
Belvin’s ambitions at the time were to break into baseball writing or otherwise wedge his way into the game he loved. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Belvin played baseball from Little League through high school. At Duke, he was sports editor at the student newspaper, The Chronicle, and worked a five-dollar-per-hour internship job at Baseball America.
What finally landed him the scorer job that summer, though, was that he knew the particularly arcane pencil-and-paper notation system specific to baseball.
“I learned as a kid,” Belvin says. “I had an old-fashioned scorebook. My dad taught me how to score games probably when I was seven or eight years old. I would sit and watch the NBC game of the week, back when that was the only TV game on Saturday afternoons. I would score the game of whoever was playing. I literally used to sit in my room at night listening to Braves radio. Occasionally Monday Night baseball, if my parents would let me stay up. And of course, the All-Star Game was a huge deal.”
It’s the top of the third now in the Charlotte game, which is shaping up to be a lengthy one. After a forty-minute rain delay, the Knights and the Bulls are trading punches — scoring runs, putting men on base and running up the count on seemingly every at bat. It’s going to be a long night.
But it’s July, so at least it’s not a school night. Belvin teaches psychology and AP government at Jordan High School in Durham. That’s his main job, though his attendance record as Bulls scorer is pretty good. He estimates he’s scored about ninety-five percent of the Bulls home games over the last twenty-five years. That’s around seventeen hundred games.
“For a teacher, this is a great summer job,” he says. “I can still travel when the team is out of town. I like it because it gives a focus to a summer day when I’m not working. It gives me something to look forward to.”
Belvin says by far the most challenging part of the job is making those judgment calls — on errors, wild pitches, earned runs — that can impact the statistics of the players on the field. He’s expected to make the call within a few seconds of the play, and his decision is irrevocable and final. It can be stressful.
“Most of the time it’s obvious,” Belvin says. “But probably twice a game, there are calls that could go either way. We do have replay now. It’s not great replay, because they rely on high school kids that are working for free to do the in-house camera work here. Sometimes they get a good replay, sometimes they don’t. But up until the late 1990s, there was no replay at all. So I had to just make the call on the spot.”
He remembers one particular play.
“There was a game a few years ago,” Belvin recalls. “The pitcher had a no-hitter in the ninth inning and there was a line drive out to left field that the fielder just butchered. Now, maybe if it’s the third inning and the pitcher has already given up two hits, I might check the replay. But at that moment, I knew everyone was waiting to see the call. I didn’t hesitate on that one. I had to be decisive. It’s the ninth inning, and I wasn’t going to let that play ruin his no-hitter.”
Has there been an official score called that earned him grief from the players or coaches?
“Over the years, there have been a lot. I don’t know whether there was one where anyone was so angry that they confronted or threatened me. There have been some where my judgment has certainly been questioned,” he says. “Some games, there’s not a decision to be made at all. I’m just keeping the statistical record, and it’s not that hard.”
It’s those other games, though, that can invoke baseball’s famously circular, Yogi Berra-style logic. “There are times when you have to make the call, and you’re not sure,” Belvin says. “But that’s why there’s a need for a scorer, to make those calls. Because sometimes, it’s not sure. If it were always sure, there’d be no need for a scorer.”
Charlotte goes down one-two-three in the top of third. Belvin leans back as the Bulls’ on-field promo crew works the crowd with their routine of between-innings games and contests. Belvin isn’t watching the field when a roar goes up from the crowd — by far the biggest cheer of the game. It turns out the grade-school kid doing the bucket toss game not only made his shot into the farthest bucket, he celebrated with a standing back flip. Bulls players actually come out from the dugout to high-five the youngster as he leaves the field.
Belvin missed the kid’s big moment, but he’s a professional, after all. He knows what to do. Calling into the next booth, he asks for a video replay “on the kid with the back flip.” Apparently, the high school camera operators were on the ball (so to speak) this time. Within a few seconds, the footage is up on his video monitor. Belvin watches the screen closely as a colleague from across the room leans over to see: “Was it awesome?”
“Yeah,” Belvin says with a chuckle. “It was awesome.”