Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The Mysterious Jargon of Baseball

This is for my readers abroad, and for readers here in the U.S. who find the metaphors of baseball a little mystifying.

I should say that I've been a bit of a baseball fan since high school, when my family sometimes went to Baltimore to watch the Baltimore Orioles play in their old stadium. Imagine a Sikh family timidly hanging out at one of these events with all the tobacco-chewing, beer-drinking fans. Parents look confused, kids are trying to act like all of the random events actually make any sense. Well, that was us, eating hot dogs up in the cheap seats.

I even briefly played baseball in high school. It was just for a year, on the Junior Varsity, and I was so bad that the Quaker coach -- who normally espoused a philosophy of "everyone gets to play, even if we lose to St. Albans by 20 runs" -- barely ever let me do anything. I later went on to do sports like Cross-Country, where my badness was a non-factor.

I've been listening to some of these playoff games on WCBS radio, partly because I've been driving a lot, but also because I get pretty poor reception at the place where I stay in Bethlehem. The experience of just listening to the game is interesting. The fact that you can't see means you have to pay more attention to how the game is narrated. It's renewed my interest in the language, especially since radio announcers are allowed to get a little more carried away with jargon than the TV guys. It also probably doesn't hurt that the same guys have apparently been announcing these teams for decades, so their announcing patterns are reflexive, like the chanting of veteran Buddhist monks or American academics reading scholarly papers.

Some interesting jargon (and the rules that make the terms meaningful):

Sac fly: Sacrifice fly. The batter is out on a fly ball, but if there are fewer than two outs, runners may advance after tagging the base.

(Batter) takes: The batter refuses to swing. This is oddly intransitive.

(Pitcher) deals: Again, intransitive. An odd turn of phrase; it suggests that pitching is a little like playing cards.

Breaking ball: As far as I can tell, this is the same thing as a curve ball. "Breaking" is a little more descriptive than "curve," as it tells you a little about the nature (and shape) of the curve.

Slider: I never really knew what this was, so I looked it up, and found the following fascinating (but vague) definition):

A slider is a pitch in baseball, sort of halfway between a curveball and a fastball, with less break but more speed than the curve. It will tend to drop less and move toward or away from the batter more than a curve. The extra speed can fool the hitter into thinking it is a fastball, until too late. Some pitchers also use a cut fastball (or cutter) which is one step closer than the slider to the fastball on the spectrum between fastballs and curves. A pitch that has movement similar to both a slider and a curveball is sometimes called a slurve.

The slider is also sometimes called "the great equalizer", as its development caused pitchers to regain some dominance over hitters. The slider also causes great stress and wear on a pitcher's arm.

Getting behind (a batter): If the pitcher throws more strikes than balls to an individual batter, he is "ahead" of the batter. If not, he is "behind" in the count. Sometimes the announcers simply say "The pitcher has to watch out about getting behind this guy."

Action in the bullpen: If the pitcher is doing poorly and is likely to be replaced, the back-up pitcher needs to warm up for 20-30 minutes in the "bullpen." Action in the bullpen is thus a sure sign that the current pitcher is soon going to be replaced.

2-hole: The second spot in the batting line-up. I don't know why this is (sometimes) called a "hole."

Contact hitter: A hitter who often connects with the ball, even if he doesn't always get on base.

(Hitter is) jammed: The pitcher gets the batter to hit a pitch off-center. Usually leads to a fly ball and an easy out.

Fielder's Choice: The act of a fielder who handles a fair grounder and, instead of throwing to first base to put out the batter runner, throws to another base in an attempt to put out a preceding runner.

So there you have it, some strange baseball phrases for your entertainment. Go Red Sox!


Kathleen said...

Living as I do with a born-and-bred Red Sox fan, I've gotten quite the education myself this month. And I've done more listening than watching, too, because I'm knitting a pair of (embarrassed sigh) Red Sox socks, so my face was down and my ears up while we lounged on the couch and Andy muttered, "My Red Sox sense is tingling...they're going to do something to lose this..." I'm fascinated when the pitcher shakes off the catcher's calls, the hitter connects, and the catcher dashes up to the mound to bop the pitcher upside the head. But that's probably the Bull Durham fan in me.

Kathleen said...

And because I'm a BIG pain in the resident baseball addict has explained it to me this way:

All curve balls are breaking balls, but not all breaking balls are curve balls. A breaking ball is any ball that does not move in a straight line. In addition to curves that includes knuckleballs (ball wobbles all over the place), spitballs (ball takes sudden, unexpected last-minute deviation due to foreign substance), sliders ("really fast curves"), and sinkers (ball drops precipitously as it nears plate).

Rob Breymaier said...

While you're right about contact hitter that phrase also infers that the batter does not hit for power (that he doesn't hit a lot of home runs).

Amardeep said...

Thanks for the corrections, guys.

And a big hello to Kathleen, fellow high school cross-country runner. Also: props on the homemade, fair-weather, red socks!

Colleen Clemens said...

From my Parkland Youth League experience, I think the second batter is never the strongest (as opposed to the fourth), leading possibly to the name "hole." Not much expected. I don't watch much ball anymore, so I could be wrong.