Thus Spoke Baseball: Another Look at the Language of the Game

Would bunting be as bad a strategy if it were called “tenderizing”? (via Dirk Hansen)

It says in some places that numbers are the language of baseball, but it says here, in plain language, that language is the language of baseball. Just look at that lexicon! It’s peppered with pepper and seasoned with seasons of grand salamis and Baltimore chops, each produced in the place where a starter begets a meatball that somehow becomes a can of corn. What if, however, we could refresh that lexicon?

What terms would we change? What words would we keep?

In the end, would a snow cone by any name be just as sweet?

THE FUNDAMENTALS

Strike

In a word: Strike seems a misnomer. To strike is to hit, not to not hit. It is to make contact, predatory contact, and bloody successful. It is not to swing and miss, nor is it to watch a pitch go by as if witness to whatever it is that enchants the eye but subdues the animal passions, whatever it is that causes a carnivore to whiff on a kill.

Alternatives: Peaceful protest; passive resistance; nonviolent demonstration.

Winner: Strike. If you can’t beat ’em, repeat ’em.

Ball

In a word: Ball isn’t a misnomer, per se, but does it really make sense? The ball is the object itself, so why muddle matters by using the same term for a consequence of its use? It’s like calling a touchdown a pigskin.

Alternatives: Vagrant; hobo; nomad; outsider.

Winner: Outsider. Vagrant and hobo are pejorative, unromantic. Nomad is noble but, for our purposes, misguided, suggestive of wanderlust in pursuit of enlightenment. Outsider calls to mind the maverick who refuses to play by society’s rules. It rides a Harley.

Strikeout

In a word: If we accept that strike is the appropriate word for strike, then we accept that strikeout is a candidate for the term that describes the automatic dismissal of any batsman who does what is necessary to…uh…strike out.

Alternatives: Expatriation; ol’ heave-ho; inglorious U-turn.

Winner: Inglorious U-turn. Go-to synonym: ignoble U-ey.

Walk

In a word: Does anyone really walk to first base? Even Robinson Cano, known for his luxuriating pace, doesn’t walk to first base.

Alternatives: Complimentary trot; freebie BB; OBPhun Run.

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It's that time of year again, folks -- time to tell Santa what you really, really want.

Winner: Freebie BB. What, you were thinking 90-foot land grant?

Out

In a word: If nothing else, baseball is a seasonal expression of a respect for tradition, a recurrent demonstration that whatever it is that got us here is good enough to acknowledge and perhaps to sustain, whether in original or altered form. Rooted in that respect is not only the guardianship of rules that control the game’s action but also of the language that codifies its’ rules.

And in the Knickerbocker Rules–baseball’s founding document, adopted in 1845–the word out, in one form or another, is the term that describes whatever we call an “out” today. Per the 11th paragraph: “Three balls being struck at and missed and the last one caught is a hand-out.” Per the 12th: “If a ball be struck, or tipped, and caught, either flying or on the first bound, it is a hand out.” Per the 13th: “A player running the bases shall be out if the ball is in the hands of an adversary on the base, or the runner is touched with it before he makes his base…” Them’s the rules, pal. And out, you could say, is still in.

Alternatives: Extinguished (adj.); snuffed (adj.); la petite mort (noun).

Winner: Out. If it’s “little death” you want, get thee to a separate playground.

Safe

In a word: Safe, on the other hand, is absent from the Knickerbocker Rules.

Alternatives: Secure; protected; out of harm’s way.

Winner: Safe. Knickerbocker Rules or no Knickerbocker Rules, safe is secure from the forces of lexical gentrification.

THE CLASSICS: ACTS & OUTCOMES

Bunt

In a word: It’s nearly an onomatopoeia. Bunt. The word itself sounds like the sound a bat and ball make whenever the batter deadens the blow in the deliberate execution of small ball. Bunt. Intrinsic to the phoneme is a softening of whatever sonance arises from the impact of a hot four-seamer against a Louisville Slugger, yet even amid this quick diminuendo–even before it!–the initial sound is one of sharpness and rebound, of a hard B and harder T. Bunt! What else could bunt have been, then, but bunt? Oddly, bunt derives from butt–“a push with the head or horns.” That’s a term of aggression–like strike, predatory–but its opposite lingers.

Alternatives: Tenderize (verb); tenderizer (noun); McCormick Non-Seasoned Meat Tenderizer (proper noun).

Winner: Bunt. By whatever name, it’s bad strategy.

Home Run

In a word: Ever actually thought about this one? It’s odd: home run. It sounds like a Google Translate rendering of the original Klingon term, spelled out for monolingual researchers primed for a narrative edge. An analogous term, for a field goal in basketball, would be a “net passage” or “rim through.”

Alternatives: Plateward promenade; pointward progress; tally ho!

Winner: Home run. Let’s get real: Homer has a billion synonyms already, from round-tripper to four-bagger to tater, so why fix what ain’t baroque? Home run sounds right, as if Google Translate stumbled into a sort of folk-art expression of aesthetic perfection in whose idiomatic province a dying quail is a duck snort.

Grand slam

In a word: To the baseball ear, grand slam sounds as suitable as its less theatrical kin, the humble home run. Unlike home run, however, it could have been anything. Synonyms and descriptors were there for the taking and in any number of potential arrangements: amazing wallop; stupendous clout; colossal thwack. Yet on second thought…could it have been anything? In truth, the term is borrowed from contract bridge, that high-brow card game wherein a grand slam describes the taking of each possible trick. It means winner take all.

Alternatives: Amazing wallop; stupendous clout; colossal thwack; comprehensive clobber.

Winner: Colossal thwack. Admit it: You wish “colossal thwack” had leapt from the lips of Vin Scully on some balmy Los Angeles night, thick with the thrills of a divisional showdown, but there is still time for it to leap from Joe Davis’.

Safety squeeze

In a word: Both the play and the term used to describe it are said to have originated with Clark Griffith, the player, player-manager, and manager known as The Old Fox. An April 25, 1905 Chicago Tribune article stated, “(New York Highlanders) manager Griffith says he has a new one called the ‘squeeze play,’ which is working wonders.” Five days earlier, a separate Tribune article had stated, “(Ducky) Holmes tried to ‘squeeze’ in the run which would have won the game with a bunt, but it went foul.” Squeeze, indeed, described the action it inspired: a batter-turned-bunter attempting to squeeeeeeeeze a run from a tight situation, and safety made it less than suicidal.

Alternatives: Cautious thrift; restrained parsimony; judicious efficiency; the Griffith.

Winner: The Griffith. It’ll never be Ruthian.

THE CLASSICS: PLACES & POSITIONS

Bullpen

In a word: In its Pastime context, the word bullpen is as mysterious in origin as it is familiar in usage. Genesis stories abound. None are gospel. Some say bullpen began in Civil War prison camps, others in World War II relocation camps. Some say it started in the stockyards, others that it began in the jail cells, but all that it ended in the pitchers’ part of the ballyard. Back in the day, Bull Durham tobacco ads adorned outfield fences, and relievers warmed up nearby, and so, a question: Did the space become the bullpen? Some say yes. Casey Stengel said no, that instead it came from the place where annoyed skippers sent off-day pitchers who’d been shooting the bull.

Alternatives: Pitcher ditcher; reliever receiver; relief core.

Winner: Bullpen. Who cares where it came from? Who cares which origin story, amidst all this Pastime apocrypha, is the one true tale? It’s here, and it works.

Dugout

In a word: To modern sensibilities, the word dugout makes little sense. This contemporary workspace, wherein present-day ballplayers scan state-of-the-art iPads, is about as “dug out” as the VIP room at the finest gentlemen’s club in Chicago. To 21st-century ears, the word dugout brings to mind a natural history museum and its dual displays on 18th-century earth lodges and log-boats. It’s true that early baseball dugouts were, indeed, “dug out,” in the sense that they occupied a space slightly below field level so that fans seated behind them could see the action, but by now it’s anachronistic.

Alternatives: Jock stock; player stayer; antechamber; The Salon.

Winner: Antechamber. It sounds both dignified and portentous: a room before the greater room wherein players produce what they’ve waited for.

Warning track

In a word: Warning! Prior to July 12, 1949, there was no warning track. By whatever name, and in whatever configuration, today’s strip of dirt and/or discoloration had no place between the wall and the outer bounds of the outfield grass. That began to change when teams took notice of Yankee Stadium’s inadvertent warning track: an actual running track in the outfield where footraces and bike races took place, where fans exited the stadium grounds and where outfielders had begun to understand that one sole on that new surface meant the outfield’s notorious incline lay near. On that midsummer day in 1949, the warning track at last became a thing when major league owners agreed to install them in front of outfield fences.

Alternatives: Dirt alert; soil signal; terra firma tipoff.

Winner: Dirt alert. Farm alarm is too much at liberty with the language.

Shortstop

In a word: Regarding the origin of shortstop as both a position and a descriptor, a definitive answer is lost to time, but what appears likely is that the position filled a need–in the way that nature abhors a vacuum–by securing a man to the spot where right-handed batters routinely struck not-lively balls through thick grass and thereby advanced to first base. The word itself may have had its inspiration in the sport of cricket’s long stop.

Alternatives: Tweener; middle-management type; Jeets.

Winner: Shortstop: Middle-management type is a loser, for sure, and Jeets is an absolute winner, no doubt–the mod archetype for that most glamorous of quarterback-like positions, but c’mon! If we did away with shortstop, what would we call the little convenience store out on Route 2?–the Wag-a-Bag?

Hot corner

In a word: When a batted ball travels at 65 mph to the corner considered hot, the ball reaches the third baseman in 950 milliseconds. In turn, the third baseman generates a reaction time of roughly 150 milliseconds, plus 50 milliseconds to move his glove into position. In a word, that’s quick. It’s hella quick. And that’s on a ball batted at just 65 mph, roughly half the pace of an Aaron Judge screamer.

It is in this everyday scenario that hot corner has both its muse and its home, at third base, where response time is so elemental to survival that only thermodynamics can supply the appropriate term. Hot! Unlike shortstop, hot corner does rank closer to slang, but bear in mind that language, like a good third baseman, is fluid. Indeed, the Knickerbocker Rules cited the shortstop as the short-fielder. Things change, and with them labels, sometimes in the semantic equivalent of milliseconds.

Alternatives: Torrid fork; sizzling intersection; thermogenic crossing.

Winner: Torrid fork. True, torrid fork sounds like the latest hipster cookbook full of recipes for ancient grains du jour, but Nolan Arenado could use the lift.

NONSTANDARD SLANG

Baltimore chop

In a word: Simply put, a Baltimore chop is a chopper that takes a high bounce in front of home plate. Its city-specific origin dates to the Baltimore of the Orioles of the late 19th century. So dead had their Dead Ball-era offense become that they instructed groundskeepers to pack the dirt around home plate–pack it hard, like marble-hard!–so that speedsters Wee Willie Keeler and John McGraw could slap down on the pitch and thus become valued members of the base running community.

Alternatives: B’more bang; Maryland mash; Old Line State slap.

Winner: Baltimore chop. You can take the chop out of Baltimore, but you can’t take Baltimore out of the chop. It would be like taking Denver out of the omelette or Miami out of the Sound Machine. We also would accept Charm City chop.

Banjo hitter

In a word: Earl Scruggs was once the finest banjo player on Earth. Today, Bela Fleck is his stylistic heir, so gifted that he joins jazz to bluegrass and makes it more symphonic than a Saturday-night hoedown. Still, no matter their musical chops, it’s likely that neither Scruggs nor Fleck could have hit a Nolan Ryan four-seamer with any sort of authority, especially if using a standard five-string banjo. Boing! Cluuuuuunk. They certainly wouldn’t have produced a hit! And that’s how banjo hitter emerged, as a graphic illustration of a weak hitter making weak contact.

Alternatives: Punch and Judy hitter; slap hitter; Duane Kuiper.

Winner: Duane Kuiper. C’mon, nobody says “banjo hitter” anymore. Like Alabaster blast, it’s waaaaaaaay passe. So, yeah, Duane Kuiper it is, in honor of the man who in 3,379 major league at-bats managed just one tater.

Butcher boy

In a word: No word on who invented the play, but Casey Stengel invented the word. Alliterative, brief and evocative, butcher boy describes in keen Stengelese the play in which a batter squares to bunt but then pulls back and executes a sharp downward swing as the infielders charge forward. Why butcher boy? A “cleaver” wordsmith if ever there was one, the Old Professor thought the batter’s action resembled the motion a boy in a butcher shop would use to cleave meat. Thwump! These days, you don’t hear it much because you don’t see it much, but it is still on the a la carte.

Alternatives: The ol’ bat-’n-switch; fugazzi.

Winner: Fugazzi. In the hippest way available, fugazzi means fake. And considering Stengel managed Italian-American ballplayers like Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra, it seems a fitting lexical tribute.

STANDARD SLANG

Blooper

In a word: If ever a word were coined to coax superior synonyms, it’s blooper. Foremost in its Baseball Thesaurus entry are dying quail and duck snort, and if the phylum Chordata gave us quails and ducks to hunt and eat, well…it also gave us the aforementioned fowl as the foremost referents for the dinky fly ball that settles between an infielder and an outfielder for an undeserved hit. Doink! Dink! Still, blooper is the keynote term here, the morphemic anchorage around which other terms bob and dazzle, and nothing should ever supplant it as the glorious antecedent–the bloop that gave rise to our BABIP-begotten bounty of bird-related terms.

Alternatives: Dying quail; duck snort; Texas Leaguer.

Winner: Blooper. There are no losers here, but blooper always come first.

Bleeder

In a word: Bleeder, to these ears, is one great word. Why? It works two ways. First, that little ground ball just bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeds between the fielders; and second, it just bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeds a pitcher dry, as if party to death by a thousand cuts.

Alternatives: Seeing-eye single; 99-hopper; scratch hit.

Winner: Bleeder. Sorry, ace, but bleeder’s in our blood.

Beanball

In a word: A ball is a ball and a head is a bean, and so a ball thrown at the bean is not a seedsphere, a Fabaceaeball or a frijolepelote. It’s a beanball.

Alternatives: Seedsphere; Fabaceaeball; frijolepelote; legumeglobe.

Winner: Beanball. Call it a Drysdale if you must, or a Maglie or a Gibson, but a beanball by any surname is just as unsweet.

Can of corn

In a word: Back in the day, grocers would use a long pole to dislodge a can of vegetables from the top shelf and then let it fall for an easy catch in the security of their aprons. In time, an equally easy outfield catch became–quote–a “can of corn.” Red Barber said it. Phil Rizzuto said it. Bob Prince, the Pirates guy, would say, “A No. 8 can of Golden Bantam,” thus becoming a pioneer of product placement.

Alternatives: Failed Soviet-era satellite launch; trebuchet dud; skadunkel.

Winner: Skadunkel. Hey, nobody said a neologism is off-base! At one time or another, every word is made up. And thus has come skadunkel’s time. These days, can of corn is too lightly used to qualify as a stylish descriptor yet too heavily used, and unironically so, to pass muster as a quaint anachronism.

Chin music

In a word: Chin music, hereby positioned as baseball’s best term, is Handelian melody and Dylanesque lyric at once, a composition so thick with graphic conjuration and cheeky humor that no remodeling should ever be visited upon its ageless arrangement. Weirdly, though, chin music emerged not as a descriptor of a pitch near the batter’s visage–the faster the pitch, the clearer its message–but, rather, as that of the razzing from assembled fans. Only upon the World War II years did chin music become the humming accompaniment of the brushback pitch.

Alternatives: None.

Winner: Chin music. Disagree and I’ll buzz your tower.

Tater

In a word: Once upon a time, they called a baseball a potato. Cute, right? At some point, somebody hit that tuber over the fence and turned it into a tater. Decades hence, it remains the consummate term for what it describes, a home run.

Alternatives: Uber tuber; Scud spud; wham yam.

Winner: Tater! No pepper necessary–it’s ideal as is.

Frozen rope

In a word: Frozen rope, describing so screaming a screamer that its trajectory appears iced in midair, is the first idiomatic expression I personally embraced. As a kid, I adored it. Taking batting practice with my older brother, Scott, I’d call out “Frozen rope!” with every aluminum-dinged liner to the summertime outfield. No matter that it was 104 degrees outside–those ropes were frozen, I’m telling you!

Alternatives: Arctic drive; Siberian liner; ice-covered overland cable.

Winner: Frozen rope. This time it’s personal.

AND LASTLY…

Snow cone

In a word: A snow cone, of course, is the catch made with the ball barely clinging to the edge of the webbing. As such, it’s the most fitting demonstration of those twin linchpins of baseball, skill and luck, skill enough for the fielder to have sprinted for, reached for, leapt for or otherwise snatched that airborne ball, and luck enough for it to have stuck.

The luck goes both ways, of course, rotten or good, depending on what colors you wear, but notwithstanding the partisan implications of the snow cone, aka ice cream cone, its execution is wholly illustrative of one key truth: Baseball is so distinctive a sport that it demands a distinctive language to explain it. True, numbers might be the latest idiom of baseball, inspiring all sorts of John Nash-type scholars to stare at cluttered whiteboards while symbols and ciphers drift about their heads, but language, it says here, is best to explain the snow cone catch of the frozen rope.

Alternatives: Ice cream cone; yogurt cup; fro-yo cup or cone.

Winner: Snow cone. However sweet it is, there’s no better ending.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.

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7 Comments on "Thus Spoke Baseball: Another Look at the Language of the Game"

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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Wild Pitch. There is something altogether visceral about this phrase. An uncontrolled release of energy that turns even the best hurlers into little league laughingstocks. Alternative? There is and can be none.

hopbitters
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hopbitters

Good stuff. I always liked “Summer Breeze” for a swinging strike. Not to get all Seals and Crofts, but it makes the pitcher feel fine.

adam.zylstra
Member
adam.zylstra

Baseball needs some new knuckleball pitchers. Then we need to adopt and translate the French word for knuckleball, papillon, and start calling them butterflys.