I sat down at the keyboard today intending to write something about the start of the World Series, but no sooner had I begun trying to focus my thoughts when a friend called to tell me the truly stunning news that Bill Shannon had died this morning in a fire at his mother's home in West Caldwell NJ. He was 69.
Bill Shannon's name may not be familiar to baseball fans outside of New York. And even in this two-team city, I think it's fair to say that most local baseball fans probably don't know who he is either. But to anyone who's ever spent time in either hometown stadium at any point in the last thirty-plus years - in particular, inside the press boxes -- Bill Shannon's name has been synonymous with New York baseball. He was a veteran sportswriter for the Associated Press and, more importantly, he was a longtime official scorer who during the last decade served as the chief scorer for Yankees and Mets games in New York. In that capacity, he not only worked his own games several times a week but also scheduled and supervised the work of the other four official scorers -- a small fraternity in which, for the past seven seasons, I've been truly privileged to be a member.
To say that Bill was a pretty good official scorer is like saying Ted Williams was a pretty good hitter. From knowing and understanding the sport's vast and intricate rules governing play, to interpreting those rules at the drop of a bat (or ball) to fairly judge what was transpiring on the field in front of him from first pitch to last, Bill Shannon made scoring an art the way Ted Williams made hitting an art.
And it was Bill's artist's-like approach to his craft that made me want to become an official scorer in the first place. Sitting next to him numerous times in the Shea Stadium press box in the years I covered the Mets, I continually marveled at his encyclopedic command of the rule book, his immaculately maintained scorecard (the scorer's primary job is as the "recording secretary" of the game) -- and, most impressively, his remarkable ability to make what always seemed the "right" call, hit or error, on any borderline play.
Over the years, I'd regularly ask Bill about a particular play that might have gone either way and, invariably, he'd go into exacting detail about what he'd seen and why he'd make his call one way or the other. Take, for example, a ground ball not fielded cleanly by a shortstop leading to a batter reaching first safely on a late throw. Bill would note how hard or soft the ball had been hit; the speed of the runner; the position of the fielder as he gloved it (forehand or backhand); concurrent factors that might be pertinent (field conditions, other base runners); etc. He'd have processed all of it, instantaneously, instinctively, and made what was invariably, once everything was factored in, the proper call. ("That's a base hit," he'd bark into the press box microphone.) "Of course, you could see it another way," he'd smile and say after somebody down the row in the press box would mutter that it should have been scored an error and not a hit. "But if every play was black and white, you wouldn't need an official scorer, would you? Well, someone has to make the determination -- and that's part of what you're asked to do in this job."
I remember the look on Bill's face when, one day in 2003, I screwed up enough courage to ask him how one becomes an official scorer. "You want to do this?" he asked, his eyes widened in a semi-shocked, semi-amused stare. And over the next year, whenever I was at a game, he'd invite me to "shadow score" alongside him, randomly asking what so-and-so did in the fourth inning, or how many hits, strikeouts and walks the starting pitcher had given up so far and, when a call needed to be made -- and almost always before a replay was shown on the press box monitor -- if I thought it might be a hit or an error. Then he'd announce his official call, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not agreeing. Between innings, he'd ask my reasoning, and give me his -- with logic, with wisdom, and with respect for my opinion, even though he'd been doing this for decades and I was a decidedly non-Ruthian babe in the woods.
Near the end of the 2004 season, when a series of rainouts required that Yankees play a number of day-night doubleheaders, Bill asked me if I wanted to work a game. Naturally, my very first time occupying what scoring colleague Howie Karpin refers to as "the hot seat." The Yankees pulled their starting pitcher before he'd made it through the fifth inning, thereby disqualifying him from the win in a game in which the Yankees would never trail. With the starter removed, the rules dictated that I, as scorer, would be responsible for "awarding" the win to one of the subsequent relief pitchers. (Thankfully, one of them threw two scoreless innings, making what could have been a head-spinning decision a no-brainer.)
Here in 2010, thanks to Bill Shannon and his belief in me, I'm still making decisions as an official scorer. Some are easy; some are hard. I try to approach all of them based on what I see in front of me. Unless there's a specific rule that comes into play for a decision, I strive for what Bill always impressed upon me was the most important thing about any call: The integrity behind it. People can agree or disagree, but if you honestly think this ball's a hit or that ball's an error, that's what you call. Superstar or shlub, home or visiting team; it doesn't matter: your job is to make the proper call as you see it. Do that and you'll always be doing your job right.
That's what Bill Shannon did, game after game, week after week, month after month, season after season, for over 30 years - and in the toughest, most second-guessingest baseball town around, he never once lost his "hail fellow, well met" generosity and positive spirit. He was a friend, and a mentor, and I can only hope that, wherever he is, they're crediting him with a much deserved W for his performance in the game of life.
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