Who’s On First?

Baseball has its own version of English. That’s not unusual; what is out of the ordinary is how much of that “Baseballish” has become part of the common language.

Well-known quotes include Satchel Paige’s famous line “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” and Casey Stengel’s “The trick is growing up without growing old.”

One could write an entire blog (not a post, a whole blog) made of nothing but quips and quotes from Yogi Berra. Come to think of it, somebody probably has written that blog already.

People who never follow baseball use baseball terms without even thinking about it. How often have you heard that a business meeting has gone into extra innings? When was the last time your boss reminded you to cover all your bases or come up with a ballpark figure? Heard a rumor that someone got to second or even third base after a few drinks at last weekend’s party?

Then there are those parts of Baseballish that haven’t made it into common English.

In 1969, Dick Schaap and Paul Zimmerman pointed out that sportscasters habitually omit the word “base” as if it was an obscenity: players don’t “reach base on an error,” they “reach on an error;” they don’t “play second base,” they “man second;” and you’ll never hear “the bases are loaded,” it’ll be “they’re loaded up,” or “they’re juiced”.

Certain phrases are mandatory. Most notably, the infield fly rule is always invoked. Always. I think that’s documented in MLB’s rules of the game. Almost as common is calling an intentional walk an “intentional pass”. I’m not sure what’s behind that; maybe they’re saving the word “walk” for something else?.


What’s really fascinating to me are the phrases that didn’t make it, the phrases that shouldn’t have made it, and sportscasters’ just plain stupid remarks.

What didn’t make it? How about the “walk-off walk”? A walk-off hit is one that scores the winning run for the home team in the last inning. Since there isn’t a possibility for the visiting team to counter, the game is over as soon as the run scores, so both teams walk off the field. “Walk-off hit” and variations such as “walk-off single” and “walk-off grand slam” are common. Suddenly, a couple of years ago, there was a fad for calling a bases-loaded walk that scored the winning run a “walk-off walk”. Every sportscaster used it most of the season, and then it vanished. Why? I suspect it just sounded too cute. Or maybe it just acted as a kind of mental speed bump with the double “walk” bouncing the listeners’ brains off the inside of their skulls.

How about expressions that shouldn’t have made it? My least favorite is “That’s a big out”? Sorry, they’re all big outs. Getting the third out of an inning with nobody on base ends the inning just as well as if the bases are loaded. Getting the second out with a runner on third doesn’t reduce the risk of giving up a run by that much. Please, sportscasters, lose that one.

Almost as bad: “It’s a whole new ballgame.” This one gets trotted out every time the score gets tied. I’ll grind my teeth but ignore it when it’s still early in the game. If I hear it after the third inning, I start to scream and throw things. It’s not a whole new ballgame unless the umpires are going to throw out all of the action that’s already occurred*. A 3-3 tie in the top of the sixth isn’t a new game, it’s a smidgeon more than a third of a game. And the less said about using the expression when the home team ties the game in the bottom of the ninth, the better. Sure, we’re going to extra innings, but the number of games that run to eighteen innings is miniscule. (Even worse, more often than not, a ninth inning tie will also induce an announcer to proclaim “Looks like we get free baseball.” Since when? Attendance is a flat rate. I don’t get a refund if the game gets shortened by rain, and as far as I know, there’s never been a serious attempt to charge extra for extra innings.)

* This will never happen. There’s no provision in the rules for it.

Moving on.

Let’s wrap this up with a selection of my favorite mental lapses by sportscasters. I know they’re under a lot of pressure to fill air time–heaven forbid that the viewers might fill dead air with their own thoughts–but some of the comments are so egregious that they really should get on-air apologies.

I’m going to keep these anonymous, mostly because I was too flabbergasted to take notes about the culprits. Rest assured that they are not limited to any particular team’s announcers. I’ve collected these from radio and TV broadcasts all over MLB.

  • A pitcher has just given up his second hit of the game, and the announcer says “He’s only given up two hits…and the six walks haven’t really hurt him yet.” Say what? Then where did those four runs on the scoreboard come from?
  • The catcher stands up behind home and holds his glove out to the side. That’s the universal signal for giving the batter an intentional walk. Says the announcer, “Let’s see if they give him an intentional pass.”
  • At the start of a night game, the announcer portentiously intones “It’s a brand new day in Houston.” Sorry, buddy. It’s 7 PM there and the sun is about to set. If you’re trying to do some metaphorical thing, you need to establish the metaphor by talking about the previous dark days. You can’t just jump into the middle like that.
  • Finally, from this year’s All-Star Game: “This is the first time the American and National League teams have worn a cap specially designed for the 2014 All-Star Game.” Really? I could have sworn that both teams wore 2014 All-Star Game caps in 1962, 1999, and 2004. It could have been worse, I suppose. At least he didn’t try to tell us that the winning league would get the home field advantage in the 2003 World Series.

8 thoughts on “Who’s On First?

  1. Imagine. You got through the entire piece without mentioning my own, personal favorite: “He flied out to right to end the inning”. Pedant that I am, I can never hear that said without muttering “flew”, under my breath, which makes no sense at all, but does relieve some deep sense of wrongness, deep in my English-loving heart. It’s one of those things where I understand, perfectly well, what the announcer means, but I wish there was some other way of saying it.

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    • It’s amazing how much better you feel after muttering the correction, isn’t it?

      Mostly, I agree with you on that one. But “flew” leaves me with a mental image of, say, David Ortiz flapping his arms furiously and soaring down the first base line before crashing to earth on Ichiro’s head. That being the case, I’m willing to cut the announcer some slack.

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  2. Flied/flew: I go the other way. In my salad days, “flied out” was the standard and invariably-used form, so the first time I heard an announcer say “flew out” I had basically the same reaction as Casey described above. I still mutter over “flew.”

    Beyond that, there are short baseball-related comments that have the power of pieces of music to evoke memories. Someone says “How about that!” and I hear Mel Allen, the old voice of the Yankees, and see Joe DiMaggio glide with apparently no effort to cut off a fly ball in the gap that seemed destined for extra bases. Or “He’s sitting in the catbird seat,” brings in Dodgers legend Red Barber, as Duke Snider takes Ball Three (Strike 0), and swishes his bat back and forth. Best of all, I hear a radio replay of the end of a game long ago, where Giants announcer Russ Hodges is screaming, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant,” and there’s Bobby Thomson, rounding third, Jackie Robinson trailing him to be sure he touches every base, and leaps past Leo Durocher to touch the plate, as the Polo Grounds goes bananas.

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    • Considering the number of seagulls infesting some ballparks these days, visions of flying ballplayers take on disturbing implications. While I can almost handle the idea of [arbitrary player making the league minimum] diving into the stands in pursuit of an abandoned hot dog, I don’t think I can deal with the notion of [arbitrary dissatisfied veteran] demonstrating exactly what he thinks of his teammates, opponents, and/or the fans…

      Hmm. Must do a post one of these days on iconic phrases and the growth of the requirement that every sportscaster develop his own home run call.

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  3. You left out the one that makes me yell at the tv/radio EVERY TIME: “The score is tied at three to three” (or any other number). No, the score is tied at three. Or, the score is three to three. And they all say it.

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    • Ooh, yeah! That’s a good (bad) one!

      An even worse usage: “The s failed to score, so the game remains tied at three to three.” Did you really think we expected the score to change even though they went down 1-2-3?

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      • Okay, you guys. Don’t you think you’re being a leee-tle cranky, here? I appreciate the announcers giving the score every chance they get, which is what they’re doing, here. I frequently tune in in the middle of a game, and sometimes I can’t stay tuned for long, so I’m listening closely for the score, hoping someone will give it before I have to get to the next thing. Any way they can slip it in, no matter how repeatedly redundant, is okay with me.

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      • It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

        I’m fine with them slipping it in as often as they need to; I just object to that repeatedly redundant and duplicative phrasing.

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