The next time you’re at a Durham Bulls game, take a moment away from your Dippin’ Dots and peer toward the left field wall. Take in the ballpark: the green of the freshly mown grass, the crisp chalk baselines, and downtown Durham silhouetted against the night sky. Keep going, past the Sumo Wrestlers, beyond Wool E. Bull shaking his tail on top of the dugout. Look just below the “Hit Bull, Win Steak (Hit Grass, Win Salad)” sign and the glow of the Jumbo-tron. If you look closely, you’ll find him somewhere between the 9th and 10th innings. No, not in time, but rather in space: His name is Chris Ivy, and he is the Keeper of the Durham Bulls Scoreboard.
When the Bulls play at home, Ivy finishes work at Durham County Social Services, grabs dinner and arrives at the park by 6:30 p.m. Armed with a radio, walkie-talkie, notebooks, pens, peanuts and two fulls cups of ice, Ivy takes his place behind the board, greeting his fellow “teammates” along the way: ushers, food vendors and PR reps, who, he is quick to point out, are essential for a successful park experience.
“My first game that I worked the scoreboard alone was against Scranton,” Ivy explains as he sets up his work space, a dusty platform covered in orderly piles of Plexiglas numbers. “And they ended up having 16 runs and 21 hits!” He pauses. “And our numbers only go up to 20!” Using some tape and a 12 and an 11, he was able to craft the required number. “There was also a game against Louisville with only two runs in the first and I ran out of zeroes, so that took a little quick thinking,” he adds.
Chris Ivy: Baseball’s MacGyver? No, simply a man with a love of the game and the numbers that go with it.
Ivy has followed the Bulls for years and decided to apply for a job with the team this past year; the scoreboard position opened up. “What do you say in an interview for a job like this? I’m familiar with the numbers 1 through 9?” he jokes. His job, as he describes it, is to pay attention to the stats of the game, but from his fly-on-the-wall view he can observe more than the average fan. “You get to see the player’s superstitions, the left fielder talking to other outfielders. You see who bites their fingernails, who eats seeds, who’s real twitchy between pitches,” he says. Strangely, when the national anthem plays, the players all seem to be saluting him, though it is simply because the flag “flies” on the screen above him.
Ivy has full reign over his space. He has decorated the walls with newspaper clippings of actions shots from the games, including one of a left fielder catching a deep hit while leaping right up against the scoreboard. When he first arrived, the Plexiglas numbers were caked in dirt, and Ivy took matters into his own hands. “I’m just compulsive enough that I bought my own Windex and started cleaning them during games, starting with the 1s and 2s and other numbers I use first,” he said. “But then I was worried that I would get in trouble for washing away 10 years of sacred Durham Bulls dirt!”
The job is a solitary one, with mostly a few moths and peanut shells to keep him company, though he does get plenty of visitors. During rain delays he brings kids behind the scoreboard, and fairly often an excited adult as well. He follows the game in his scorebook, using two different-colored pens. He knows who’s been hitting well, who’s in a slump, who has family visiting, who’s moving up in the league and who’s moving down, and can quote the stats to prove it. But he is always ready for action behind the board when activity happens on the other side of it.
“Home runs can be tricky because you have to change the numbers of hits, the final score and the inning score. Back-to-back home runs can be especially challenging,” he says. Since he can’t hear the game well through the walls and roof, he uses a Magnavox radio to listen to the action, and therefore gets the calls of the official scorekeeper. He knows all the commercials by heart by now, and sometimes the reception ebbs and flows, but he has a walkie-talkie on standby to check in with the press box.
“The 8th inning is the worst,” he says, referring to the square between 7th and 9th. “The numbers get stuck and you just have to fiddle and push with it a lot.”
So far, Ivy’s rookie season with the Bulls is going well. He admits that during a recent 25-day stretch with 22 home games he got a little weary, especially when the heat hit the 90s. His hardest game so far was against Rochester, when the Bulls were up 6-1 in the 9th. Ivy had packed his bag in preparation to go home when the Bulls gave up 6 runs. The Bulls scored one run in the final inning of regulation to tie it, but ended up losing 8-7 in the 13th inning. Ivy didn’t get home until nearly midnight. “It was the most deflating game of the year,” he says. “It’s always better when they’re winning.”
After the completion of each game, Ivy resets the scoreboard for the next one, wiping the slate clean for the Bulls and their opponents. He collects his bag and his radios and walks out into the nearly empty stadium, turning around to check his handiwork. “You’ve always got to look back one last time and make sure it’s right.”
Correction (Aug. 25, 2008): Chris Ivy’s name was misspelled.