Watching your language, baseball division

Detroit Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson watches his
Sparky Anderson, who murdered the King’s English now and then but whose baseball lyricism was second to few.

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. Or, you rediscover that you’re a repeat offender who’d better be grateful he doesn’t live in a state with a three-strikes law.

The essay in question is Allen Barra’s, from The Atlantic, in June 2012. He took a good, long look at what became of baseball’s language and was not amused. More saddened than infuriated, Barra decided, with apologies to Yogi Berra (whose biographer Barra admires him 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.

I’d love to be able to say much as changed. But then I’d love to be able to say I’m not guilty of failing to pay my syntax, too. Say, regarding runners in scoring position, which bothered Barra as “an ugly and imprecise term, originating mostly with broadcast announcers.” Once we had a runner on second, a runner on third, or runners on second and third, customarily. We’ve had runners in scoring position since the Reagan Administration.

“The new phrase means, of course, a runner in position to score on a single,” Barra 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 someone like, say, Tommy La Stella, the Angels’ new toy, acquired in an offseason deal with the Cubs where he’d made himself into a useful substitute (wait, just wait) but didn’t exactly threaten to become the next Mike Trout. Oops. At this writing La Stella has hit exactly as many home runs this season (ten) as he’d hit in his entire previous major league career. He also has a season’s OPS just 72 points below Trout’s. At the rate he’s going now, La Stella is in scoring position when he merely checks in at the plate.

On the other hand, someone did come up with something other than “the bases loaded” to describe, well, the bases loaded. I could be wrong but I think it was Rex Hudler, then an Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels broadcaster, who went swimming and came up with a beauty: “ducks on the pond.” He didn’t say “ducks in scoring position, either.” One up for Raspasaurus Rex.

Barra had 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?”

Yankee substitutes of the late 1950s-early 1960s had a term for themselves. Tell me scrubeenies doesn’t sound friendlier, and funnier, to the game and to the ear, than “role players.” It won’t cost you an extra syllable, either.

Coaches and managers have roles, too. But let’s not get too technical. I’m pretty sure the announcer who dreamed the term up decided “position players” was a sensible way to distinguish everyday men from not-quite-everyday pitchers. I’m also pretty sure men walked on the moon, women won’t become pregnant from a mere kiss, and children think of only one thing when it comes to their parents. (Divide and conquer, and thank you, Danny Thomas.)

Barra also didn’t like “velocity” for extremely fast fastballs, “location” for what we used to call “pinpoint control” or “excellent control,” or “walkoff hit/home run” for “game-ending hit/home run.” (I’d also like to know just when and just why “home run” became a compound word.) But he didn’t complain about “gas,” “bullets,” “BBs,” or “cheese” for extremely fast fastballs.

Showed him the high cheese, then I punched him out with the yakker—Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. In case you wondered, “yakker” in what was once known as Dial-Eck referred to a curve ball. Curve balls are also known as benders, 12-to-6, and Uncle Charlie. Then Dwight Gooden had to spoil it: his curve ball was so curvy and so deadly when he was on it became known as Lord Charles. Lord, have mercy.

I may be wrong but I think we have legendary Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone to thank for turning pinpoint control into a real estate pitch. It did and does get a little sickening after awhile, listening to pitchers talk about “location, location, location.” Even if they were such Mazzone charges as Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz.

Just once, I’d pay money to hear any pitcher talk about painting, working, climbing, hitting, or using the corners the way Hall of Famer Whitey Ford or anyone speaking and writing about him once did. Let a pitcher speak of his failure to “locate” his pitches, I’d like to ask him when, where, and how he misplaced them. Maybe that was the problem. “Sorry, Skip, I lost that hanger.” We found it for you, kiddo, we retrieved it from behind the ballpark.

(Which reminds me: If there’s one sportswriter question that should earn immediate excommunication, it’s “What were you thinking?” after a hitter’s been humiliated with a called third strike breaking into the zone when he least expected. Or, after a pitcher’s been hit for a ten mile drive. What do you think a hitter was thinking about getting frozen alive? What did you think a pitcher was thinking about getting taken across the state line? In front of 35,000-55,000 in the ballpark and about ten million on television or next to radios? I guarantee it wasn’t, “I thought to myself, what a wonderful world.”)

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,” heaved David Freese after he hit that staggering game-winning, 2011 World Series-tying home run in the bottom of the eleventh of Game Six. “I just got beat up by thirty guys.”

Barra admired 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 they 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. 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.”

And yet. “We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who could have been tried by jury for murdering the King’s English (not to mention the Queens, the Bronx, the Manhattan’s, and the Staten Island’s) now and then, but whose baseball lyricism was second to few. And who never saw men in scoring position sent home on walkoff hits off misplaced pitches. (I think.)

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 Mets broadcaster Bob Murphy, of blessed memory, 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 still don’t sell defenders’ gloves.

“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, 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. In 2012 it introduced the second wild cards. And 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. (The 1957 Braves, the 1986 Mets, and the 1993 Phillies were just a bunch of wild and crazy guys.) How long, now, before baseball’s governors, arbiters, and shepherds introduce not just every team in a division, practically, going to play for a championship with the World Series becoming something with an unrecognisable name?

Hey, it could be worse. At least three major team sports have identifiable championships. We have the World Series, still; not even Rob Manfred 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. They can’t even call it the Naismith Finals, never mind that that’s the trophy the winner wins. How boring, for a sport of perpetual motion, whose championship trophy is named after its founding father.

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.) It beats the hell out of “donnybrook,” which sounds more like naming a soap opera super couple than a rhubarb, anyway. (I wonder: did the couple have themselves a donnybrook over the rhubarb?)

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, unless the rest of the shelf’s contents came down upon his head first. Name me one football, basketball, or hockey term that was born in the A&P. (Oops! Today we’d say Wal-Mart.)

I once promised to send every last gasp of gibberish in my baseball writing out (at the plate and otherwise) to the best of my ability. And I know I broke that promise so liberally so often you could mistake me for an elected official. Or, decide to run me for office in the first place. William F. Buckley, Jr., wherever you are, may I borrow your immediate response to the question of the first thing you’d have done if you’d been elected? (It wasn’t, “I’m going to Disneyland,” either.)

I’ve sent more than my share of men in scoring position home on misplaced pitches turned into walkoff hits, and I didn’t even show them the high cheese, never mind that I couldn’t punch them out with the yakker. (Guilty, Judge Robinson: I’ve used “punchout” for strikeout. Yes, I know it wasn’t Muhammad Ali throwing one at Joe Frazier. I throw myself upon the mercy of the court, Your Honour.)

I plead no contest. But as Michael Corleone once said to his wife—when she reminded him it was seven years since he promised the Family would be completely legitimate in five years—“I’m trying, darling, I’m trying.” As James Thurber once said, you could look it up. But I’d rather you take my words for it.

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