Just Ask Carter, Just Ask Yogi: Watch What You Say

When Bryce Harper dropped his famous (yes, it’s famous) “That’s a clown question, bro,” the scribes, pundits, Pharisees, and even a few politicians pounced. For all anyone knows, by the time Harper finishes his baseball career he may well prove to have sent “clown question” into the dictionary. He’ll have no further to look for precedent than the late Gary Carter.

Even the distinctly non-profane, clean living Hall of Fame catcher had his scattered moments. Famously enough, he was quoted as telling his Mets first base coach, Bill Robinson, upon pulling up at first on the two-out single that launched the Mets’ transdimensional Game Six (1986 World Series) comeback, “There’s no f-bombing way I’m making the last f-bombing out of this f-bombing World Series.”

Carter didn’t exactly say “f-bomb” to his coach. But he did say it to Newsday‘s Steve Marcus, in 1988.

Carter rarely uses profanity, so he was taken aback when umpire Greg Bonin leveled some on him in the seventh inning Monday night in Pittsburgh. Carter was called out on strikes and told Bonin he thought the pitch was outside. “He started cursing me and said I accused him of being a liar,” Carter said. “After he started cursing, I walked away and I said, ‘Why are you cursing at me?’ He said, ‘I talk like that.’ I said, ‘OK, guttermouth.’ “Carter said he has been thrown out only twice in the majors, both times by Eric Gregg. “That was when I used to use the F-bomb.”

Well, now. As Newsday itself writes, commemorating Carter’s immortalising in Merriam-Webster’s new edition, “Now watch what you say—you may change the dictionary one day.” At least, after the shock wears off on the memory that you actually got thrown out of a couple of games. Considering his image, the idea of Gary Carter being thrown out of a game for arguing with an umpire is only slightly less believable than the idea of the 1962 Mets on the giving, as opposed to receiving, end of a no-hitter.

Gary Carter and Yogi Berra—game-changers, language-changers . . .

When Harper was asked whether he’d go quaff a beer to celebrate a mammoth home run he hit against the Blue Jays in interleague play, since Ontario’s drinking age is Harper’s age, he replied, “That’s a clown question, bro.” The phrase went about as viral, on and offline, as viral could be. The phrase actually originated with a friend of Harper and his older brother, Bryan, from hometown Las Vegas. Who’s to say Merriam-Webster, or any other dictionary of repute, won’t add it to the formal language? Major league baseball added it to a line of T-shirts. Never at a loss, apparently, Harper has even trademarked the phrase.

God (and His servant Casey Stengel) only knows how much baseball terminology has entered common discourse, rhetoric, and even dictionaries over the decades. (Is it now safe to say “centuries?”) It didn’t begin when The Faster Times, alluding to U.S. Senator Jim Bunning’s previous life (as a Hall of Fame pitcher, with two-no hitters, lots of strikeouts, and a reputation for tenacious competitiveness on the mound), chose to zap Bunning’s 2010 bid to put the Senate in recess rather than vote hastily on an unemployment-extension bill: “Senator Jim Bunning Throws Beanball at America’s Unemployed.”

Bunning, however, wasn’t afraid to throw a brushback pitch when needed; say, to push a plate-crowding hitter back off the plate enough to afford himself (Bunning, that is) a freer path to the inside part of the strike zone. Neither, it seems, was Gerald A. Reynolds, then an assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Dept. of Education. In 2003—we have this from the Washington Times—Reynolds ” has sent a long overdue brushback letter to college and university officials concerning their odious and oppressive campus speech codes.” There are those of us who think those speech codes needed not a brushback but a knockdown pitch, if not a beanball.

In case you wondered: Bunning retired with 160 hit batsmen on his resume. He led the National League in that category four consecutive seasons. Yet he averaged a measly ten plunks per 162 games. That doesn’t exactly qualify him as one of baseball’s all-time headhunters. For about three decades and counting, however, headhunting means high-level corporate recruiting at least as often as it means a pitcher (say, Vicente Padilla) with an apparent predilection for trying to unite baseballs with brains in the physical, not the intellectual sense.

Ballpark figures are practically as old as ballparks. And don’t even think about it, football fans. They’ve never talked about a day of football as a day at the ballpark. By the way, if Hank Aaron actually had hit one home run for every time some politician, motivational speaker, actor, or musical virtuoso was said to have hit one out of the park, the Hall of Famer would probably have about a million home runs on his stat sheet.

Once upon a time, when I was employed as a trade journalist, I got an in-house phone call from my publisher, asking about a particular breaking story. When I told him I’d had that story about ten minutes before he called to ask, he put me on hold, checked and double checked, then came back: “Home run!!!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the last time I’d actually hit a bona fide home run was when I was in my final year of summer camp, pushing fifteen years old.

In that summer’s camp, a can of corn was usually opened to help take the sting out of what seemed, for a long enough period, a steady diet of chicken, which became an in-joke among us campers. Thanks to baseball, however, I can’t open a can of corn without thinking of a fly ball to the outfield.

Ideas out of left field are unusual, unexpected, or irrational. So is the screwball, as a pitch and as a character indicator. But you should only know what’s brought in from the left field bullpen as often as not. Or, the right field bullpen, for that matter. Some of them are screwballs whether or not they actually throw that pitch. The late Tug McGraw, relief pitcher extraordinaire, threw a screwball and happened to be one. (Asked once how he compared grass to Astroturf, McGraw replied, “I don’t know, I’ve never smoked Astroturf.”) Hardly the first, unlikely the last.

On the other hand, going into the right field bleachers can be the epitome of achievement for more than just power hitters. Just ask George F. Will, notorious baseball addict, when he once described, retrospectively, the Apollo moon landing, happening just about at the deadline John F. Kennedy once imposed rhetorically: “It was like Babe Ruth’s ‘called shot’ in the 1932 World Series. America audaciously pointed its bat to the right field bleachers and hit the ball to the spot.”

Maybe the moon-faced Babe did call his shot, maybe he didn’t. Who the hell was he to let the facts get in the way of a good story? Or a great metaphor?

Thanks to Yogi Berra hitting a few to—and from—some unusual spots (it only began with his having been one of the great bad-ball hitters of his or any time), our non-baseball language has been enriched beyond measure. By the way, “yogiism” happens to be in the dictionary, too. Specifically, Webster’s Online Dictionary. Yogi didn’t have to put a word or a phrase in there. He put in an entire lexicon. As he did behind the plate, the Hall of Famer outranks all catchers in language. Which is pretty damn good for the man who once said he didn’t say half the things he said.

(I hope to God he wasn’t referring to the afternoon when, arriving at a clubhouse room where American League All-Star pitchers were kicking around how to pitch to Stan Musial, Berra—as if according to a script—interjected, “Forget it. You guys are trying to figure out in fifteen minutes what nobody’s figured out in fifteen years.”)

Show me someone who thinks certain situations or acts have begun repeating themselves, and I’ll show you someone calling it deja vu all over again. Now, show me enough Americans who only wish they could say of Congress, or the White House, what Berra once said of a certain restaurant (for the record: Ruggeri’s, an eatery in Berra’s native St. Louis), whose obscurity today probably says something about their lack of inspiration then: “Nobody goes there anymore—it’s too crowded.”

The problem there, alas, is that too many Americans can look their Congressmen, or their Presidents, right in the eyes and tell them, with no fear of being contradicted with any credibility, that it seems their idea of doing their jobs compels, when they come to a fork in the road, that they take it. How much longer can Americans take it? Don’t ask.  It ain’t over until it’s over.

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