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?

And here's another thing: Did you know that if you count the syllables "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 just said "runners on second and third." If you put all that time together in one string, you'd probably have been able to watch all of Jean Renoir's films or reread Tolstoy.

Several other terms have snuck into baseball language that should 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 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?

Here are some more current terms I don't like:

–I remember the great power pitchers of my youth—Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson come to mind first—as having great fastballs; they had "speed." Pitchers today bring "great velocity." Speed is two syllables shorter than velocity, and it suggests speed even better, because you can say it faster.

–The great pitchers who seldom walked batters—such as Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, and Juan Marichal—had "control" or, even better, "pinpoint control." Now they have "location" or "outstanding location." "Location" is great when describing real estate, much less so for baseball.

–There used to be a lovely phrase, "game-ending home run"—Bobby Thomson and Bill Mazeroski hit game-ending home runs. This was a phrase that complimented the winner. It has now been transformed into "walk-off home run," 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.

I'm sure you can think of a dozen others or hear them used in the game you watch tonight. If you can't, just beam in any game Tim McCarver happens to be calling.

As recently as 30 years ago, when many of the pioneer baseball broadcasters such as Ernie Harwell, Mel Allen, Red Barber, Harry Kalas, Harry Caray and Vin Scully were still doing regular baseball broadcasts (or were at least still active in the game), you could hear a rich, colorful and original jargon that took us back to the 1920s when Ring Lardner was preserving this new language on paper. (Thank God Vin Scully is still alive and in the booth.)

Virginia Woolf, certainly the most improbable Lardner fan imaginable, observed in a letter to a friend that the language in Lardner's baseball stories "is not English" but something quintessentially American. "It is no coincidence," she wrote, "that the best of Mr. Lardner's stories are 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."

Let me make Mrs.Woolf's point a different way: 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. 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.

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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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