EVERETT — When the Eugene Emeralds’ Luis Matos scored on Patrick Bailey’s sacrifice fly to center in the top of the first inning of last Saturday’s Everett AquaSox game, the crowd of 3,680 at Funko Field reacted first with polite cheers for center fielder Victor Labrada’s catch, then with a gentle sigh when Matos crossed the plate with the game’s first run.
Me? I reacted with panic.
There I was, rushing around a long and narrow wooden box, muttering to myself as I frantically grabbed tiles with numbers on them, hoping I hung them up in the right holes and desperate to get it all done before the next ball was put in play.
This is what it’s like operating the manual scoreboard at Funko Field. It’s a task that I, with questionable judgement, ordered up for myself, thus putting the quality of the spectator experience at serious risk.
Let me explain.
One of the more charming aspects of Funko Field is the manual scoreboard located on the outfield wall in right-center. It’s one of the few manual scoreboards left in professional baseball, as teams have fully embraced the jumbotron — Everett even has one. But if you’re sitting in the stands and want to know the number of runs, hits, errors or score by inning for either team, you better hope the manual scoreboard operator is getting things right.
The manual scoreboard has been in place since 1987, when original Everett Giants owner Bob Bavasi had it installed as part of the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the major-league color barrier — Bavasi’s father, legendary baseball executive Buzzie Bavasi, was involved in bringing Robinson to the majors. The scoreboard even includes the line, “Hit the sign, win a suit,” in homage to the famous sign located on the right-field wall of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Ebbets Field, which was Robinson’s home stadium.
I was The Herald’s AquaSox beat writer from 2004-15, so I’ve watched the manual scoreboard in action countless times, and being in the press box meant I got to hear the walkie-talkie chatter whenever public address announcer Tom Lafferty gently (sometimes not so gently) needed to correct the scoreboard operator. All that time I wondered what it would be like to work the scoreboard.
It took nearly two decades, but I finally got my chance. AquaSox director of corporate partnerships Mike MacCulloch arranged for me to work last Saturday’s game, plus he gave me the contact information for two of the regular scoreboard operators: the father-son duo of Mike and Jack Kuna of Snohomish, who have been doing it for two seasons, and retiree Craig Hancock of Lake Stevens, who’s in his first season. I decided to give them both a call to get some advice.
When I got a hold of the Kunas, the first thing Mike Kuna asked was whether I was working the scoreboard alone, followed by a mischievous laugh. That was ominous. Then they told me how it can be stressful and physically demanding, but that they enjoyed it. They even shared how once they accidentally dropped a phone on the field through one of the openings in the scoreboard and had to have a player retrieve it for them.
“I would say that paying attention is always a good thing,” Jack Kuna said when I asked for his biggest piece of advice. “As long as you’re paying attention you shouldn’t have too much of a struggle.”
Hancock’s advice was almost identical: “Keep your focus 100% on the game. When I’m there I’m not watching the crowd, looking at the sky, looking at my phone, I’m watching everything that happens in the game because if you take your focus away then something’s going to happen and you’re like, ‘Gee whiz, what happened?’”
Armed with that sage wisdom I arrived at Funko Field, and the first thing I did was say a little prayer that the game would be smoother than the previous night’s, which ended 16-9.
About an hour before the game began MacCulloch took me through a locked door in the homer porch in right field, which led to a narrow pathway to the scoreboard. I climbed the stairs and stepped into what felt like the set of the movie “Bull Durham.” The room was made of wood and measured about three feet wide and 70 feet deep. The back wall had several pegs with stacks of tiles hanging from them, each tile containing a number.
Then came the warnings. The first was the sight of a splintered tile on the floor with a baseball lying nearby, indicating that a blank tile had been the victim of batting practice — a subtle reminder that the scoreboard operator is in the line of fire. The second was when MacCulloch said I shouldn’t push too hard on the wall when changing the numbers, showing me one spot where the scoreboard was in rough shape. Indeed, the last thing anyone wanted was a sportswriter falling through the wall in the middle of the game.
I peeked onto the field through one of the openings in the scoreboard and was met by a blinding glare of sunlight. I hadn’t accounted for the fact I’d be watching the game from the opposite perspective of the press box and therefore had the sun straight in my face. With no sunglasses or sunscreen, I was wondering whether I’d escape without burning my nose off. It was also toasty inside the scoreboard — no surprise for a stuffy wooden box painted black — and I was grateful the 90-degree temperatures hadn’t hit the region yet.
Oh, and the door to the homer porch would be locked during the game, meaning the only way back into the stadium was walking all the way around the outfield wall to the north entrance. There would be no bathroom breaks once the game began.
The plan was for me to work the scoreboard alongside someone who had worked the scoreboard before, but 20 minutes before first pitch I was informed that operator wouldn’t be able to make it. A frantic call was made to Hancock and he agreed to rush over, but until he arrived I’d be on my own.
The top of the first wasn’t even that action packed, as Eugene scored one run on two hits. Yet I found myself scrambling like Jim Zorn during the early years of the Seattle Seahawks. There are yellow tiles with black numbers to show the number of runs scored in the current half-inning, and there are black tiles with white numbers to show how many runs were scored in previous half-innings, as well as the total runs, hits and errors for each team. While the categories are labeled inside, it’s counter-intuitive because it’s from the backward perspective. You can’t tell what numbers are facing the spectators because each tile has a different number on each side to cut down on the number or tiles needed. And because it was the first inning, the half-inning score was on the opposite side from the game totals, meaning every play required covering ground. I had to constantly talk to myself to remember what numbers needed to go where, and I had to double-check to make sure I was placing them for the correct team.
I’d just caught my breath when Hancock arrived for the bottom of the first, and suddenly things were much calmer. Not only did Hancock know what he was doing, having two people working the scoreboard simplifies the process by about a factor of 10. So I was able to settle down into the job as I mainly dealt with the score by inning while Hancock dealt with the game totals.
In the bottom of the second there was a play where Everett’s David Sheaffer was called safe after the first baseman’s foot came off the bag. I’ve always been a stingy scorer, and I called for Hancock to add a 1 to the error column. Hancock disagreed and went to add a hit to Everett’s total. Shortly after the walkie talkie crackled and Lafferty said, “Eugene needs one error,” causing me to break into a big smile. Vindication!
During the middle of the game things slowed down considerably as the teams traded 1-2-3 innings, and I found myself only needing to change the yellow 0 into a white 0 after each half-inning ended, while Hancock also had minimal work changing the game totals. Hancock, who is usually a busy man because he works the scoreboard by himself, said “You’re coming back tomorrow, right?”
By the bottom of the fifth it had been a while since the game totals had to be changed and we weren’t sure what they were. They need a mirror on a stick back there so the operators can stick it through an opening and see what the scoreboard reads.
In the top of the ninth Eugene’s Najee Gaskins was called safe on a close play at first, drawing boos from the crowd. By then I was sitting under the game totals and handling of those, and I was slow to react. Once I finally did, I initially started to add the hit for Everett instead of Eugene. “They’re booing you, Nick,” Hancock quipped.
The game ended with Everett losing 6-1, the game played in a crisp 2 hours, 20 minutes and far more drama free than I expected.
The inside of the scoreboard is covered with signatures as previous operators left their names for posterity. After the game Herald photographer Ryan Berry and I hastily added our names to the ledger before skedaddling to take cover from the postgame fireworks that were about to be launched from behind the scoreboard. Check that one off the sportswriting bucket list.
But I’ll tell you what. If the AquaSox ever ask me to do that again, count me in. And next time I want to try it solo.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.