You Shall Not Crucify Baseball’s Lingo on a Tower of Babble

There are times—in cyberspace or otherwise—when stumbling upon something you missed when it first arrived can sting rather than charm. Especially if it’s a fine essay on baseball jargon, and you discover you’re just as guilty as everyone else of making mincemeat out of it.

The essay in question is Allen Barra’s, from The Atlantic, in June. He took a good, long look at what’s become of baseball’s language and was not amused. More saddened than infuriated, Barra decided, with apologies to Yogi Berra (whom Barra admires for his syntax as much as his baseball virtuosity), that he wished baseball people really hadn’t said half the things they’ve said since, oh, around 1980.

Runners in scoring position bothered Barra as “an ugly and imprecise term,” originating mostly with broadcast announcers. ” Once we had, customarily, a runner on second, a runner on third, or runners on second and third. Since the Reagan Administration we’ve had runners in scoring position. (Considering how some teams flunk at hitting with men in scoring position—oops! men on base—that isn’t exactly too much of an exaggeration.)

Allen Barra, who does not want to see baseball’s language crucified upon a tower of babble . . .

“The new phrase means, of course, a runner in position to score on a single,” he wrote, “which is true only if the base runner is not Jason Giambi, who generally needs a double to have a break-even chance of scoring from second. Used indiscriminately. . . it is not merely vague and confusing, it’s incorrect. You can just as easily call the batter’s box a ‘scoring position’.” Especially if the batter is, say, Adrian Gonzalez. He thanked the Los Angeles Dodgers Saturday, for liberating him from the dissipating Boston Red Sox, by squaring up the second pitch he saw as a Dodger and driving it around the right field foul pole.

With runners on first and third. Not “runners in scoring position,” no matter that you might respect Gonzalez’s power enough to think the man on first (Matt Kemp) would be in scoring position with such a hitter at the plate.

On the other hand, somebody had to come up with something other than “the bases loaded” to describe, well, the bases loaded. Rex Hudler, then an Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels broadcaster, came up with a beauty: “ducks on the pond.” He didn’t say “ducks in scoring position,” either. One up for raspy Rex.

Barra has no great love for pitchers versus position players, either. Hard to blame him. “When I played Babe Ruth League ball we had pitchers and regulars, the latter term referring to players who play every day,” he wrote. “Now we’ve got something called ‘position players,’ which takes up two more syllables than ‘regulars’ and is misleading, since pitcher is as much of a position as the other eight spots. We also have ‘role players,’ which says nothing and takes up two more syllables than ‘subs,’ short for substitutes. ‘Role players,’ too, is inaccurate; doesn’t every player on the team have a role?”

(Substitutes on the New York Yankees of the late 1950s-early 1960s had a term for themselves. Tell me scrubeenies doesn’t sound friendlier, to the game and the ear, than “role players.” It doesn’t cost an extra syllable, either.)

Come to think of it, the coaches and the manager have roles on the team, too. But let’s not get too technical. I’m pretty sure the 1980s announcer responsible for forming the term decided “position players” was a sensible way to distinguish the everyday men from the not-quite-everyday pitchers. I’m also pretty sure that men walked on the moon, women won’t become pregnant from a mere kiss, and there’s no such thing as strike four, too.

Nor does Barra hold with such terms as these: “velocity” for extremely fast fastballs; “location” for what we used to call “pinpoint control” or “excellent control”; and, “walkoff home run” for “game-ending home run.” (Come to think of it, I’d like to know just when the hell “home run” became a single, compound word.) I notice he didn’t complain much about such terms as “gas,” “bullets,” “BBs,” or “cheese” for extremely fast fastballs. (Showed him the high cheese, then I punched him out with the yakker—Dennis Eckersley, Hall of Fame reliever. In case you wondered, “yakker” in Eckspeak, also known once as Dial-Eck, referred to a curve ball.)

I could be wrong but I think we actually have Leo Mazzone, the legendary Atlanta pitching coach, to thank for turning pinpoint control into a real estate discussion. It did get a little sickening after awhile, listening to his pitchers—including a trio of prospective Hall of Famers (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz)—talk about “location, location, location.” I’d have paid money to hear, just once, any of the three speak about painting the corners, the way Whitey Ford or those speaking and writing about him once did. Whenever I hear a pitcher speak now about his failure to “locate” his pitches, I’d like to ask him when he lost them. But maybe that was the problem with the performance in question.

Ring Lardner, arguably baseball’s founding (and non-nonsensical) linguist . . .

The game-winning home run gave the winner great praise, Barra wrote, referencing Bobby Thomson and Bill Mazeroski specifically. The walkoff home run, he frowned, is “a term that thumbs its nose at the loser since the team in the field begins to walk off as soon as the ball clears the fence, while the batter is still circling the bases.” And, while the winning team pours out of dugout and bullpen at once, and en masse, the better to commemorate the blast by turning the blaster into game-winning hamburger. (I’m just about out of breath. I just got beat up by thirty guys.—David Freese, hitter of the game-winning home run, Game Six, 2011 World Series.)

Barra cites with applause Virginia Woolf’s admiration for Ring Lardner, whose best stories and articles were “about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner’s interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problem of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a center, a meeting place for the diverse activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gave his English brother.” In other words, Barra continued, “millions of immigrants, no matter what language hey spoke when they came here, came together around baseball. And that happened because even if you knew just a little English you could, by listening to the broadcasts, learn baseball.

“Baseball language once drew newcomers into the game,” he continued. “Now, it’s becoming a language that shuts many people out, one that makes them feel as if what’s happening on the field is something a little more complicated than they thought. The ultimate result is that we all end up knowing less—particularly about baseball.”

But I’m getting a little ahead in the count. (In baseball, that’s a good thing. In writing, it isn’t.) To Barra, turning fielding into defense and hitting into offense is, well, offensive. “When, exactly, did ‘fielding’ become ‘defense’? The word fielding perfectly described what a baseball team in the field was doing. Defense was the term common to basketball.” I have one answer: I can remember Bob Murphy, of blessed memory, a New York Mets broadcaster, opening a 1960s home game broadcast by “setting up the dee-fense for the New York Mets.” Little by little I heard more people doing it. Defense was also a term common to football and hockey, too. The last I looked, sporting goods stores weren’t selling defenders’ gloves.

Bob Murphy, who first set up the dee-fense for the New York Mets . . .

“For that matter, when did hitting and base-running get lumped together under the leaden term ‘offense’?” Barra added. “Were ‘batting’ and ‘hitting’ and ‘base running’ too quaint for an audience that also watched football and basketball? When did we decide that because football and basketball had offense and defense that baseball had to have them, too?”

Unfortunately, people who ought to know better decided long enough ago that baseball itself had to have things football and basketball had, too. Things like diluted championships, specialty players (oops!—“role players”), salary caps, and other cancers. When baseball first went to divisional play, it didn’t have “playoffs”—it had League Championship Series. Then, baseball introduced the wild cards. This year, it’s introducing the second wild cards. (Speaking of wild cards, leave it to baseball—which makes gambling Original Sin—to describe a batter hitting with two balls, two strikes, two out and two men on, as “deuces wild.” That one’s aces in my book.)

Once upon a time, baseball’s only known wild Cards were the Gas House Gang, that bunch of particularly randy, rowdy 1934-35 St. Louis Cardinals. How long, now, before baseball’s governors introduce not just every team in a division, practically, going to play for a championship, but the World Series becoming something with an unrecognisable name? Bad enough they’ve done so much to turn the game’s best of the best into a consolation prize offering. Do they have to turn baseball’s singular language further into gobbledegook?

Vin Scully, who first discovered a can of corn dropping into an outfielder’s glove . . .

Hey, it could be worse. At least three major team sports have identifiable championships. We have the World Series, still; not even Bud Selig is willing to throw that one out of the game. The National Football League has the Super Bowl, and they’re welcome to it, never mind that it sounds more like something—in hand with the scrambled brains of football play—you’d see involving a wrestling title. The National Hockey League has had the Stanley Cup Finals to itself since the folding of the original World Hockey League in 1926, after the Montreal Maroons defeated the Victoria Cougars. The National Basketball Association has . . . the NBA Finals. How boring, for a sport of perpetual motion, whose championship trophy is named after its founding father. What would be terrible about calling it the Naismith Series?

Once upon a time, if the occasional fight broke out on the baseball field, we had Red Barber to thank for telling us we had quite a rhubarb going there. Wouldn’t you rather have a rhubarb than a bench-clearing brawl? (We once had Barber to thank, too, for describing the bases loaded as “FOB”—full of Brooklyns.) We have Barber’s disciple and successor, Vin Scully, to thank for the can of corn—the easy outfield fly. The can of corn probably originated in the old-time grocer picking off a high-mounted can of food with a hook stick, prompting it to drop almost lazily into his apron. Name me one football, basketball, or hockey term that was born in the A&P. (Oops! Today we’d say Wal-Mart.)

I hereby vow to send every last gasp of gibberish in my baseball writing out (at the plate and otherwise) to the best of my ability. God (and His servant Casey Stengel) knows how often I’ve been guilty of sending men in scoring position home on a badly located pitch turned into a walkoff hit. As James Thurber once said, you could look it up. But I’d rather you just take my word for it.

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