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Max Utsler Goes Pro

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Max Utsler

By Pamela Chozen

This is how Max Utsler ’70 remembers his childhood in Knoxville, Illinois: “I wanted to be great at something, and I chose baseball.” He recalls batting practice against corncobs pitched by his six-year-old sister and honing his fastball by throwing at a target he painted on the side of the family barn. He read every baseball book he could get his hands on. “I studied the great ones, Willie Mays and Ted Williams, and some not-so great ones, such as Bobby Del Greco and Don Blasingame.” And, of course, he played. “Little League, Connie Mack League, American Legion, college, summer collegiate league,” he says. “I was never the best player on any team. But I don’t think I was ever the worst.” While it may have taken longer than he hoped, Utsler finally made it to the big leagues in 2013— as one of the official scorers for the 2015 World Series champion Kansas City Royals. 

The Role of an Official Scorer

Umpires may make the calls on the field, but scorers determine the statistics—and, in baseball, statistics are one of the most important parts of the game. Fans turn to them to argue who the best players of all time were; teams increasingly rely on them to draft players, negotiate contracts, and even dictate game strategy. Until a few years ago, scorers were mostly recruited from the ranks of current and former sports reporters. “Then baseball decided it wanted to start getting away from newspaper writers,” Utsler says. Since he’d been keeping a detailed scorebook ever since his days under legendary Knox athletic director Harley Knosher, he asked the Royals to keep him in mind. After two years of waiting and an exam to confirm that he thoroughly understood the rules of the game, he was hired.

He now works about a quarter of Kansas City’s home games each season, producing the official account of what happens on the field. When a hitter reaches base, for instance, it is Utsler’s responsibility to determine whether he got there because of a hit or a fielding error. “The basic rule of an error is that it’s a play that could have been made with ‘ordinary effort.’ But there’s nothing ordinary about these guys at all—Lorenzo Cain in center field, Alcides Escobar at shortstop, they kind of defy explanation. They make it look so easy that when they do miss a ball, you wonder, ‘Can I really give that guy an error?’ If he can’t make that play, no one can.”

It can be a high-pressure position. “Baseball is a big-money business, and a lot of player contracts have incentives that are built around numbers like batting average, earned run average (ERA), and runs batted in (RBIs). I’m very mindful that my decisions can have a significant impact on someone’s finances.” In the old days, players sometimes personally visited the press box to protest decisions. Now, their team has to request a review from the league, which determines whether it merits further investigation. While Major League Baseball— Utsler’s official employer, not the Royals—hosts annual training, and scorers can communicate with each other in a private online forum, during the heat of competition, Utsler has only his own instincts. “There’s a DVR at my workstation where I can take another look at a play, see it in slowmotion. Early on, I was going to the DVR a lot, and it was slowing down my decisions. Mike Swanson [an old family friend from Galesburg and currently the vice president of communications and broadcasting for the Royals] told me, ‘Trust your eyes; trust your baseball judgment.’”

From Coach to Professor

And there’s no doubt that Utsler has developed plenty of baseball judgment over the years. The sport has been a critically important part of his life, and a factor in many of his major life decisions, since he was a kid. At Knox, where he played on both the baseball and football teams all four years, it helped him pick a major. He chose American studies because the degree qualified him to teach either English or social studies, and he thought that would make it easier to find a coaching position. After he moved to Minneapolis and discovered that he needed certification in physical education to coach at the junior high or high school level, he took a volunteer position with the University of Minnesota baseball team instead.

For a time, it looked like coaching college baseball would be his career. Though he soon decided to pursue a master’s degree in journalism at University of Missouri, it was mostly because he’d been told he needed a graduate degree to become a head coach. In fact, he says that one of the main benefits of his graduate assistantship supervising a local morning news program was that it left him plenty of time to work with the baseball team in the afternoons. He only fell back into teaching by accident, after a faculty member in his program quit midsemester and Utsler took over one of his classes. Missouri hired him to teach full-time after he graduated.

Even then, he kept coaching for another two years, until he says, “I reached a crossroads in my career. I decided I’d be happier as a full-time journalism professor than as a full-time coach. I didn’t enjoy recruiting, as it turns out—too cutthroat. In journalism, so long as you keep your doors open, great students show up every year.” He completed a Ph.D. and was eventually appointed chair of the broadcast department.

And then he quit.

In search of fresh challenges, he moved to St. Louis to become assistant news director at the local NBC affiliate, which was in the midst of a major transition. The position offered everything that attracted Utsler to broadcast journalism in the first place. “When the clock strikes 10, the news is on, and you either have it done or there’s going to be a blank screen. It’s fast-paced; it’s competitive. You’re going head to head against other stations for ratings. It’s a lot like sports.” But, within a year, that excitement had already begun to ebb. “It started to feel like Groundhog Day. We finally got all the pieces in place, and then my job became steering the ship rather than getting out there and doing stuff.” When University of Kansas asked him to interview for an opening at its journalism school, he was intrigued. Like the news station he had joined, the school was in the process of remaking itself. “I thought, I’ll stay here five years, and then I’ll move on.” He has been there for 32 years now. 

Winning the Long Game

“The reason I didn’t stick with broadcast news was that I loved the peaks, when the story is changing minute by minute, but not the valleys. Most days, you start at nine in the morning and are scrambling to get something ready for the five o’clock news.” As a professor, he still gets to experience those peaks vicariously—in December, he watched as one of his former students, a news photographer in Los Angeles, posted live updates from the scene of the San Bernardino terrorist attack. He also has time to pursue his other interests. In addition to his work with the Royals, he occasionally serves as statistician for the Kansas City Chiefs and plays ice hockey with the Opossums.

Baseball, obviously, also remains a priority. “I love it. I play two nights a week in the Kansas City Men’s Senior Baseball League; I also keep score for the Kansas City T-Bones [an independent league team] when I can. One of the perks of being a scorer is that I get the MLB.TV package, so the nights I’m not working, I watch every Cardinals game.”

So while he may never have become truly great at baseball, it does seem as though baseball led him to greatness all the same: a long, rich, and varied career that keeps him engaged semester after semester, season after season. “A lot of my Knox classmates have retired, and people have started to wonder when I will. But, look—as a professor, I read, I write, and I talk. If I retired, I’d have more time to...read, write, and talk? So I guess I’ll just keep doing this for a while longer.” 

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Printed on Tuesday, November 21, 2017

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