Sad end to a man's quest for knowledge
With newspaper box scores going the way of the dinosaur, a daily obsession goes away
We interrupt the stretch run of this fascinating baseball season with something completely irrelevant, epically ridiculous and wildly unimportant. A most absurd streak quietly ended in 2010: For the first time since 1989, I no longer clip every box score of every baseball game from the nearest newspaper and tape each one into a spiral notebook, a daily task that I've estimated, at roughly 15 minutes per day, has cost me 40 days of my truly pathetic life.
This official announcement comes with some sadness because I love box scores. I've always loved box scores. From 1990-2009, I never missed one day of clipping and taping box scores, a streak that our best baseball fans must acknowledge is far more impressive than Cal Ripken playing in 2,632 consecutive games. On one memorable night in 2002, I went to bed at 11 o'clock, realized in horror I had forgotten to do my box score book, got dressed, clipped and taped my box scores, then lay down for a restful six hours of sleep as my wife looked at me and wondered how she could have married such an unfathomable geek.
I now know how Joe DiMaggio felt when his 56-game hitting streak ended that July 17 day in 1941. He was stopped by Indians third baseman Ken Keltner's two great defensive plays; my equally unbreakable streak was stopped by the slow death of the newspaper business, the business I grew up in, the business I will always love. But in 2009, it became clear that my Washington Post, due to deadline issues, was no longer providing enough box scores in the edition delivered to my house in Darnestown, Md. When only seven boxes out of 15 made it to my driveway, part of the next 24 hours were spent tracking down the missing ones. I couldn't find them all. So I decided 2009 would be my last year.
I probably should have quit my obsession in 2004 when I returned home from a trip to find what had to be considered an omen: A signal to become slightly less obsessive than Rain Man's Raymond Babbitt, Valenzuela is pitching on Thursday. My closet was a shambles, the top shelf had collapsed from the weight of 15 years of box-score books, two books per year, a total of 30. My suits were on the floor, covered with plaster and covered with box scores from 1990. Two suits were ruined, which was especially troubling since it's hard to find size 32 short anywhere other than Nordstrom For Kids.
But my brother, Matt, rebuilt my closet and I continued my quest to save every box score. My wife reminded me several times over the last few years that box scores are available on the Internet, something I was keenly aware of, but being an old newspaper guy, I enjoyed having the hard copy of the box score at the ready, be it in a car, a cab or a plane. Having every box score of a season by my side wherever I went gave me a sense of comfort. If I wasn't sure how the Padres were using their bullpen, for example, I could go through a month of Padres box scores, and I would know. I remember in 1993, right about the start of the steroid era, counting by hand the number of players that had gotten four extra-base hits in a game that season. The search took from Dallas to San Francisco. I couldn't have done that on my computer on a plane. It was more satisfying than reading Sky Mall magazine.
But now, it's over. Now I read the box scores most days on ESPN.com on my computer. I'm not comfortable doing it but I have no other choice. I have saved time, as well as money on scotch tape and scissors. Since 9/11, I estimate having lost at least six pair of scissors because I forgot to remove them from my bag and the security men and women at airports thought I might hijack the plane using scissors as dull as NFL preseason games.
But I still read box scores with the same vigor and interest every day for there is so much to learn in box scores, almost everything you need is in box scores, especially with the expanded ones that tell you, in some cases, more than you wanted to know. Twice a year, I have lunch and talk baseball with George Will and Dr. Charles Krauthammer, who write and speak about important issues in the world, such as war and gay marriage. At one lunch, Krauthammer said, "I read the front page for 30 seconds every day, then I go straight to the box scores.'' To which Will said, "Why do you waste the 30 seconds?''
Former major league manager Gene Mauch once showed me how to determine which player made the last out of a game by reading a box score, calculating the at-bats, runners left on base, double plays, etc. Mauch had better things to do, yet that fascinated him, so it fascinated me that one of the most brilliant managing minds in baseball history would sit at breakfast and determine that Dan Ford made the last out of an Orioles-Royals game.
The box scores start every day for me because there's always a chance you'll see a pitching or batting line that you've never seen before, and might never see again, such as Ben Petrick's 3-0-0-4 a few years ago. Four RBIs without a hit! "I thought I had a bad day,'' Petrick said, "until I looked at the box score.'' The box score is where we once saw the battery for the Tigers of Glenn Abbott and Marty Castillo -- Abbott and Castillo -- and the Giants' famed Bud Black-Steve Decker battery -- Black and Decker, of which great writer Steve Rushin wrote: Decker wore "the power tools of ignorance.''
The box scores start every day for me because there's always a chance you'll see a pitching or batting line that you've never seen before, and might never see again.
In the upper left-hand drawer of the desk in my office, I keep the box score from the Rangers' 30-3 victory over the Orioles on Aug. 22, 2007, because it was historic in so many ways, including the batting line of the eighth and ninth hitters for the Rangers: Saltalamacchia 6-5-4-7 and Vazquez 6-4-4-7. And I can still remember John Kruk laughing at me in the background as I made a complete fool of myself on national TV when I could not control my enthusiasm at the sight of a box score never seen before in baseball history.
This year, like every year, has been filled with great box-score items, including one from Wednesday night when the Red Sox, for the first time in their history, got a home run from their first baseman, second baseman, shortstop and third baseman in the same game. Also this year, the White Sox became the first team to use five pitchers in a game and all five recorded three strikeouts. The Blue Jays got home runs from Jose Bautista, John Buck and Travis Snider, the first time in Toronto's 34-year history that its 7-8-9 hitters homered in the same game. Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Ryan Zimmerman homered in the same game, the first time that players with the last name starting with U, V and Z did so in the same game. And Gavin Floyd started against Brian Bannister, the first Floyd-Bannister pitching matchup; Floyd Bannister is, of course, Brian Bannister's father.
I still devour box scores every day, making sure to check, among other things, that the Mets' Angel Pagan didn't get hit by a pitch: He has never been hit by a pitch in his major league career. The difference is, I just don't cut the box scores out anymore and tape them in a book like a fifth-grader doing a current events project. I don't miss the black ink on my fingers, I don't miss lugging around a notebook as thick as a phone book and I don't miss the looks of disbelief from my wife that a grown man would do such a stupid thing for 20 years.
But there are still days that I reach for my box-score book and it's not there. And I miss it.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
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