Many boys dream of making it to the major leagues, hitting balls over the fence and into a crowd of wildly cheering fans. They picture toeing the pitching rubber with the crowd hushed in anticipation of the pitch. The big league dream is strong for many, but elusive for all but the special few.
Don Hartack, a former high school shortstop, realized early his ability to cleanly field grounders and stay back on a curve ball would not carry him to baseball’s zenith.
It’s Hartack’s other skills that would take him all the way to The Show.
You’re watching a baseball game and a hard hit one hopper glances off of the infielder’s glove. Quick — is it a hit or an error? The pitch that made its way to the backstop. What do you think, is it a wild pitch or a passed ball?
There’s only one person whose opinion matters. With his precise knowledge of the rule book and keen decision-making skills, Hartack got to the majors as Major League Baseball’s official scorer at Dodger Stadium.
The uniformed men play and umpire the game, but it’s Hartack who interprets the plays and decides how they will be statistically recorded. When he’s scoring a baseball game, Don Hartack is the only civilian who matters. And with that responsibility comes pressure.
Ruling a batted ball a hit helps a hitter’s batting average and could inflate the pitcher’s earned run average. Ruling the pitch a passed ball means the catcher’s fielding percentage will go down, and might also be the difference between a run being earned or unearned.
Then there are those calls that could go either way, where someone is going to be unhappy with the decision.
“Those are what I call ‘60/40’ calls,” Hartack says, eschewing the possibility that any call is truly 50/50. “I see the play live, and if it’s really close, I’ll ask to see the replay again (in the Dodger Vision booth). You go with what you feel is the right call. Each play is different.”
On such plays, the telephone next to the public relations director might ring with a disgruntled player or coach on the other end. The call from the dugout is usually a request to the PR man to ask Hartack to reconsider. Hartack says that happens only a handful of times each season.
In the face of that kind of adversity, some might crumble. Where others might feel pressure, Hartack is calm and collected.
“I don’t get pressured,” Hartack insists. “I get asked to take a second look or someone from the PR department may offer his opinion. I put more pressure on myself to get the call right than I ever get from anyone from the teams.”
Beyond the rare phone calls, there are occasional disapproving looks from members of the media. None of that fazes Hartack.
“It’s second nature to second guess,” Hartack shrugs. “It comes with the job.”
Before Hartack got his start as official scorer, he was working in the press box for Stats Inc. Major League Baseball was looking for a new scorer at Dodger Stadium, when David Lander recommended Hartack to the Dodger public relations department.
Best remembered for playing Squiggy on the 1970s sitcom “Laverne and Shirley,” Lander is someone whose recommendation might appear meaningless.
But in baseball circles, Lander isn’t merely an actor, he’s a lifelong student of the game who once owned a small stake in the Triple-A Portland Beavers team. He currently has the title of Associate Scout for the Seattle Mariners.
Lander’s nod was all the Dodgers needed to suggest Hartack to Major League Baseball. Before receiving the job, Hartack first had to pass a comprehensive test designed to gauge his understanding of the application of the rules.
“It’s an open book test to make sure you’re aware of the rules and can interpret them fairly,” Hartack said. “You read the rule book, familiarize yourself with it, and when something comes up you’re unsure about, you look it up, just like when you’re scoring a game.”
Hartack passed the test and became an employee of Major League Baseball.
Known for his levelheadedness and allegiance to getting the calls right, Hartack is a respected figure. After 15 years of scoring, he’s also a press box veteran who’s seen a lot of baseball.
“You see some strange plays over the course of a season,” Hartack says. “I’ve scored a lot of games, but there are still plays where I think, ‘I’ve never seen that play’. That’s part of what I love about baseball.”
No one had ever seen a player hit two grand slams in one inning until April 23, 1999, when Fernando Tatis teed off twice against Chan Ho Park. It’s the only time Hartack can recall that the Baseball Hall of Fame requesting one of his score sheets.
Hartack also scored a game in 2008 against the Angels that the Dodgers won despite not recording a base hit.
The closest the Dodgers came to managing a hit that night was in the fifth inning. Matt Kemp hit a squibber off of the end of his bat down the first base line. Angel starting pitcher Jered Weaver ran to cover first base when the ball spun toward him. Weaver stuck out his glove and the ball clanked off of it. Hartack initially thought it was an error, checked the press box replay to confirm it, then announced into his press box microphone, “Error 1.”
“It wasn’t a tough decision. It was an error,” Hartack says of the play.
Indeed, the decision elicited nods of approval. The PR director’s phone sat silent. It wasn’t until a few hours later that Hartack realized he was at the center of controversy.
“I got home and turned on SportsCenter and they’re talking about how the official scorer at Dodger Stadium changed a call to save a no-hitter,” Hartack recalls. “I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
The next day Hartack learned that while waiting for the replay, the play went up on the scoreboard as a hit. As soon as Hartack announced his call, “error” appeared on the scoreboard. ESPN ran with a story that he had initially ruled the ball a hit, later changing it after feeling the pressure of preserving a no-hitter.
“Having my name associated with actions that were the exact opposite of what actually happened was disturbing,” Hartack said.
Hartack was later vindicated in a communication with ESPN baseball writer and analyst Tim Kurkjian who Hartack said was equally distrubed by the inaccuracy.
Hartack was nonplussed by the attention he received. His allegiance is to the game, and to getting each call right.
It’s not the notoriety, power or prestige that comes with being the official scorer that keeps Hartack coming back. It’s not the money either; scorers make only $150 per game.
For Hartack, it’s something else entirely. As he speaks about the game, respect and gratitude shine through.
“The fact that I’m still able to be around baseball and involved is really great,” he says. “I just love the game.”
Maybe scoring serves another purpose. Could it be that the dream of putting on a big-league uniform still exists somewhere in his heart?
“I’ve said many times that the rhythm of the game is as close as you can get to playing the game,” Hartack says. “I guess I’m still a shortstop at heart.”
Contact the author at JSmiley@CooperstownExpert.com