August 2, 2005
Baseball Buzz Words
Shell-Shocked by Scoring Position
George Carlin used to do a great routine in which he recounted how the term "shell shock" in World War I evolved to "combat fatigue" in World War II, and, finally, by Vietnam, to "post-traumatic stress disorder." What, Carlin wanted to know, was wrong with shell shock? It was a perfectly legitimate term--colorful, concise, and descriptive. It grabbed you on first hearing and told you exactly what it meant. That was the whole point. By the time we reached Vietnam the reality of shell shock had become obscured by the very term that was supposed to describe it. It had become something that the average person could no longer understand without an interpreter.
In baseball, there's good jargon and bad jargon. Like Ozzie Smith on artificial turf, the definition of jargon covers a lot of ground. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, offers one definition: "the language, esp. the vocabulary, peculiar to a trade, profession, or group." Applied to baseball, that definition conjures up images of Ring Lardner, Casey Stengel and Harry Caray--you know, slang. I like that kind of jargon.
Yet another definition reads: "Speech or writing characterized by pretentious terminology and involved syntax." Unfortunately, that definition takes in just about everyone broadcasting or writing about baseball today. I don't like that kind of jargon, and I'll bet you don't either. And like me, I'll bet you use it all the time.
Cal Ripken Jr. for instance. This weekend while watching the Yankees game, I saw a commercial for his baseball videos. One of them is labeled "Defense," as in, "Learn to play defense the Cal Ripken way." When Cal Ripken, Jr., broke into the major leagues, "defense" was called "fielding." It meant not only catching the ball but throwing to the right base, knowing which bases to cover, backing up the play. They called it "fielding" because unlike other sports, only the defense for the team that had the ball was on the field while they were doing it. In other words, it described a situation peculiar to baseball. (And, by the way, when did players like Cal Ripken, Jr. go from playing the middle infield to playing "key defensive positions"?)
When, exactly, did fielding become defense? For that matter, when did hitting and baserunning get lumped together under the leaden term "offense"? Were "batting" and "hitting" and "baserunning" too quaint for an audience that also watched football and basketball? Did we somehow subconsciously decide that because football and basketball had offense and defense that baseball had to have them, too?
For more than a century, baseball terminology has dominated the American sports lexicon. I would bet that if anyone added them all up, there are more terms and phrases from baseball in everyday American English than from all other sports combined. Even people who don't follow baseball regularly use terms like "a whole new ball game," "out of left field," "you threw me a curve," "caught off base," "give me a ballpark estimate," "double play," "bush league," "hard ball," and perhaps a couple hundred more not to be found in Dr. Johnson's dictionary. These are words and terms we use every day, so casually that we may not even regard them as baseball terms anymore. When did baseball need to borrow terms from other sports in order to make itself understood?
When and why, for that matter, did baseball need pretentious terminology? Runners on second used to be referred to as "runners on second," runners on third used to be referred to as "runners on third," and when there were runners on second and third, you said "runners on second and third." Some time in the early '80s or so, the ugly and imprecise term "runners in scoring position" crept into the patter of baseball announcers. The new phrase means, of course, a runner in position to score on a single, 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 for all three of the above situations, it is not merely vague and confusing, it's incorrect. You can just as easily call the batter's box a "scoring position."
For some inexplicable reason, some of my friends argue with me that runners in scoring position is a good term "because it applies to all three possibilities regarding runners on second and third." But why would you want one term to apply to all three when there are three good terms to cover all three situations? And did you know that if you stop to count the syllables, that "runners on second and third" is only seven syllables long, compared to eight for "runners in scoring position"? Think of the number of times in your life that you've said "runners in scoring position" and think of the time you would have saved if you'd said "runners on second and third."
Several other terms have snuck into baseball language that need to be given their unconditional release. When I played Babe Ruth League ball we had pitchers and regulars, the latter term referring to players who play every day. 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 takes up one more syllable than "substitutes" and three more than "subs." It, too, is inaccurate, since every player on the team has a role, if you don't mind saying a couple more syllables, and we shouldn't, if it helps us to clarify matters.
Here are some more current terms I don't like:
I'm sure you can think of a dozen others or hear them used in the game you watched tonight. If you can't, just beam in any game Tim McCarver happens to be calling.
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.
Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and is a contributing writer for Salon.com and American Heritage. Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.