A mathematician makes the call


It's a balmy night in Baltimore, one of those evenings at Oriole Park that carries the scent of fall. In good years, such a night is magic: cool breeze, mild temperature, 40,000 fans hanging on each pitch. Any play could affect a pennant race and shape the postseason to come.

But on this Wednesday night, little is at stake. The Blue Jays are in town, a team rebuilding just as the O's are. The crowd, one of the three smallest ever at Camden Yards, makes the ballpark feel like a city yawning.

But two men - one on the field, one off - are riveted on every play.

The man on the field is O's shortstop Mike Bordick. It's the sixth inning in a two-run game. A Blue Jays runner dances off third. Two outs. Rookie pitcher Sean Douglass checks him, then delivers a curve on the outside corner.

Vernon Wells, the rookie batter, shows he's still green. He tries to pull the ball but hits a hot, hopping grounder up the middle, inches to the left of second.

Bordick, the 38-year-old veteran who is chasing the big-league mark for most consecutive games without an error by a shortstop, breaks to the ball. After the Wednesday game, he must get through two more before the record could be his. But first there is this play to make. Bordick knows the hitter, the pitcher, the game so well, he's in place to get to the ball. If he does, it will be chance No. 500 in his errorless streak. The lead, the game and baseball history spin on this play.

You can't see the second man intent on the game. Mark Jacobson, 44, is in the press box, deep in a steely trance. The Stanford-trained mathematician makes less than $200 a game deciding whether big-league plays are hits or errors. The stats of players who make millions rest in his hands. So does Bordick's streak.

Despite his godlike fielding percentage of .998, Bordick, a mortal, will err eventually; the last time he did, Jacobson made the call. Despite his spellbinding concentration, Jacobson will miss a call sometime, too. But if you want anybody on hand when the stakes are highest, it's these two - twin islands of calm in a high-pressure game.

Jacobson, who works days for the Defense Department, has been scoring games for a decade. A native Easterner, he worked in California as a radio stringer to wangle his way into A's and Giants games. "Hang around long enough," he says, "and they sort of ask you. That's how it worked for me." If you grew up wanting to be a scorer, he says, you may be in it for the wrong reasons.

Jacobson loves the game, he says, but no particular team. "No offense," he says, "but even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. It would compromise my work."

Learning from Jacobson takes patience. He takes time to answer. He remains abstract and rarely drops a name. It feels like playing tennis against the guy whose sole aim is to return the ball until you make a mistake. "It doesn't matter who's batting or fielding," he says. "My job is to see plays correctly."

That's harder than it looks. "Everyone here has a right to his opinion," he says. "Most see with their hearts. They have a passion, a rooting interest. Only the scorer pays a price by being incorrect."

Some scorers try to rule by fiat: "I was right; I'm the scorer!" That's not Jacobson's style. "The goal on each play is to go through an analytical process, calling on a variety of factors, then make the correct call," he says. "In the end, being right is the path of least resistance."

Jacobson has learned much about differing perspectives. He learned early on that three experts can view a simple play up close, yet afterward describe it three different ways. "I try to have a calm mind," he says. "I don't know how I do that. But once you know what really happened, you have the input to call a play correctly."

Some examples: A pitch that hits the ground in front of the plate is a wild pitch, not an error on the catcher. Misdirected pitches in the air are tougher. "You don't know what the pitcher and catcher agreed on," he says, whether the pitcher throws what the catcher called. "The pitch may really be in the catcher's reach, but because of the play called, he's surprised. He misses. Those are hard ones."

Often baseball's rule book itself is unfair. An outfielder can misread a ball off the bat, run the wrong way, and the ball falls in. "The rule book says you can't give an error for a mental lapse," he says. "I have to rule it a [hit]. It counts against the pitcher's record."

Scoring has shown him a different game than the fan sees. He learned a basic early on: Fielding percentage is a useless stat. "Take shortstops," he says. "Some have so much range they get to balls others can't. They get a glove on them. They miss. That's an error." The player too slow to get there at all? "No error," he says.

In a rare personal aside, Jacobson assesses Bordick.

"Not flashy," he says. "He goes on knowledge. Some players will dive for a ball and make a flashy play. Bordick puts himself in the right spot, so he's already there. He makes the catch look easy."

He could be talking about himself.

It's fitting that Jacobson be one custodian of the Bordick quest. After all, he scored the game in which Cal Ripken passed Lou Gehrig. That scorecard - with his signature - is in the baseball Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, the shortstop, who could make major league history at the Yard tonight with his 102nd error-free game, makes his choice. He lunges three steps forward, bends at the waist and smothers the ball on the short hop. He guns to first. Wells is out by a mile.

How many realize it's a great play? Jacobson does. He doesn't have to make an iffy call. Inning over. The streak continues.

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