How Baseball Jargon Became Nonsense

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Announcers once used simple, straightforward language. Now they rely on terms like "walk-off home run." What happened?

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Sometime around the mid-1970s or early 1980s—it's difficult to pin this down—baseball language took a turn for the worse. It became obscure, ostentatious, and to the uninitiated, impenetrable. I knew something was wrong when in 1980, as I recall, my mother who lived in Alabama and became a rabid Cubs fan watching them on a Chicago cable station asked me, "What do they mean by 'runners in scoring position?'" This from a woman who has been listening to and watching baseball games for nearly half a century.

The word "jargon" has some bad connotations; at least one of its many definitions is "gibberish." But 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 Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, Leo Durocher, and Tommy Lasorda. That's good 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.

Unfortunately, so does Cal Ripken, Jr. I recently 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." The reason they called it fielding was because the team catching and throwing the ball was in the field.

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.

For that matter, when did hitting and base-running get lumped together under the leaden term "offense"? 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?

For more than a century, baseball terminology—did I just say "terminology" when I meant "slang"?—has dominated the American sports lexicon, and from there permeated American speech. 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 idea," "double play," "bush league," "let's take a rain check," "right off the bat, "hard ball," "swinging for the fences," 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?

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." Sometime 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 reason that eludes me, some of my friends argue with me that "runners in scoring position" is a good term because it applies to all three situations regarding runners on second and third. But why would you want one term when there are already three good terms to describe all three situations?

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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