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Scorekeeper at Wrigley practices dying art

Published: Wednesday, April 23, 2014 8:39 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Kiichiro Sato)
In this April 10, 2014 photo, scoreboard operator Darryl Wilson looks out to the field from inside Wrigley Fieldís iconic scoreboard as during a baseball game between Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs, in Chicago. Wilson mans the two top floors, little more than scaffolding of the three-level scoreboard, tracking scores from around baseball and changing scores and the uniform numbers of pitchers as managers in those games bring in relievers. With Bostonís Fenway Park and Wrigley the only two stadiums in the majors with primary manual scoreboards, it has been a job largely shrouded in mystery until the Cubs allowed The Associated Press climb the steel ladder through the steel floor of the scoreboard for a rare visit to mark Wrigleyís 100-year anniversary. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Caption
(Kiichiro Sato)
In this April 10, 2014 photo, scoreboard operator Darryl Wilson talks on the phone as he looks out to the field from inside Wrigley Fieldís iconic scoreboard as during a baseball game between Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs, in Chicago. Wilson mans the two top floors, little more than scaffolding of the three-level scoreboard, tracking scores from around baseball and changing scores and the uniform numbers of pitchers as managers in those games bring in relievers. With Bostonís Fenway Park and Wrigley the only two stadiums in the majors with primary manual scoreboards, it has been a job largely shrouded in mystery until the Cubs allowed The Associated Press climb the steel ladder through the steel floor of the scoreboard for a rare visit to mark Wrigleyís 100-year anniversary. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

CHICAGO – Inside a dusty, dimly lit chamber of steel catwalks, Darryl Wilson peers out a square hole and into one of baseball's most revered shrines.

For 23 years, Wilson has been a scoreboard operator at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. Running the tall, green manual scoreboard is one of the most unique jobs in baseball — or anywhere — and it's a symphony of the senses.

Each run and every inning, there is a flurry of activity and cacophony of noise inside as scoreboard operators yank metal plates with numbers on them out of the scoreboard and slam others into place. The room suddenly fills with what sounds like a thousand angry bees. This is the result of a finger pressing a button in the far-off press box behind home plate that sends an electrical charge into a panel of half ball-shaped "targets," causing specific ones to flip so that they add up to form the number of the batter, and the number of balls, strikes and outs.

About the only thing that's changed — besides the green paint to cover what was a white scoreboard when it was erected in 1937 — is that the scores coming in from, say, Baltimore or St. Louis no longer arrive via a tickertape machine that once spat out reams of paper. They now pop up on the screen of a laptop computer that's a bit out of place atop a dusty counter near Wilson's duct-taped seat.

"I feel unique," said Wilson, who works the upper reaches of the scoreboard, tracking games around the majors and changing scores and pitchers' uniform numbers when managers in those games bring in relievers. "When they made it a (historic) landmark, I'm like, I guess I'm a landmark, too."

With Boston's Fenway Park and Wrigley the only stadiums in the majors with manual scoreboards, Wilson's job is all but extinct. It's a job largely shrouded in mystery, but the Cubs allowed The Associated Press a rare visit to mark the 100th anniversary of Wrigley's first game.

From his small window, Wilson has watched some of baseball's greatest sluggers step into the batter's box, which explains why things occasionally things back up a bit. He saw Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa's home run duel, for example.

"No scores would go up when those guys come up to bat because you knew there was going to be some monster home runs coming," he said, smiling.

He also had a clear view of perhaps Wrigley's most infamous moment when a fan deflected a foul ball that seemed destined for left fielder Moises Alou's glove in the 2003 playoffs. Wilson won't say if he thought Alou would have caught the ball or whether Steve Bartman changed the course of history.

But he does speak of the collective shudder that went through the stands as everyone seemed to understand that the Cubs' World Series drought would continue.

"It took the air right out of us," he said.

Wilson has occasionally put a number where it didn't belong, though he said his biggest blunder came after he raised the American flag and got a call from a friend wondering if the country was in distress.

"I looked up and the flag was upside down," he said.

The job can be exhausting, particularly on hot days when temperatures are 10-15 degrees higher inside the scoreboard. But he loves the job he's had for 23 of his 48 years and has no plans to give it up.

"Just to hear the crowd and all that, it kind of gives you an excited feeling," he said.

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