Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Baseball Phrases You Unknowingly Use Everyday

A lot of cynical Brits don't trust baseball. I've endured countless referenced to 'glorified rounders,' and grimaced through endless comparisons with cricket, all attempts at diminishing the impact of America's Game. A skeptic majority in Britain seems casually-dismissive of American sport, almost ignorant to its intoxicating history and perpetual excitement. The Wembley Series of NFL games has taken American Football to the mainstream, with many Brits embracing it, but baseball as a mass consumer sport has yet to take-off on this side of the ocean. Many feel uneasy that the manager wears the same attire as his players, or lament its slow-paced nature. However, I'm here to report that baseball has had a powerful impact on each and every one of you...even if you didn't know it.

The game of baseball has its own language; a colourful dictionary of slang and technical vocabulary which enthralls and beguiles. We have dingers and bombs, suicide squeeze bunts and double-steals, sacrifice flies and intentional walks. A baserunner gifted with great speed has wheels, an outfielder with a strong arms possesses a hose. The pitcher may throw a screwball, a splitter, or even a slurve, which may ride up-and-in and result in a hit-by-pitch and bench-clearing rhubarb. In extreme cases, a hitter may escape the chin music to hit a nubber, a blooper, a Texas Leaguer over the infield. He may even get lucky, find a hanger in his wheelhouse, and smack a long four-bagger. A slick infielder may flash the leather, go around the horn, and complete the spectacular twin-killing. The possibilities of baseball language are endless, and it plays an integral part in making the game truly unique.

In time, aspects of this extravagant lingo have trickled into the everyday British dialect. It's deeply ironic that we no longer have baseball broadcasts on terrestrial TV, yet the schtick of every afternoon quiz show host, daytime agony aunt, and evening sports pundit is laden with nuanced fragments of baseball speak! The television personalities, restaurant waitresses, and even bricklayers of this land rely on baseball phrases in their everyday communication. I expect you do, too. Here is a comprehensive list of baseball lexicon which may seem familiar.

  • Step up to the plate – We hear this time-and-time again, in all manner of situations. It's usually meant as an urging for somebody to stand and take responsibility, or to deliver in a time of need. In baseball, a hitter literally steps up to home plate, and is similarly expected to produce for his team, hence the simultaneous usage of this phrase in our everyday dealings.
  • Throw a curveball – When an unexpected event or circumstance presents itself, freezing our thinking, a curveball is said to have been thrown. While you may be familiar with this phrase from the office or school, it is a literal baseball term: an actual curveball is part of the pitchers arsenal which he ues in attempt at getting the hitter out. In a similar regard, the hitter can be caught off-guard and frozen, thus surrendering a strike.
  • Three strikes, your out – The most recognisable of baseball phrases used in everyday terminology, this one is usually associated with poor behaviour, or used to caution an offender. We've all used it. In baseball, a hitter is pronounced out should he receive three strikes, accumulated via foul balls, missed swings, and pitched balls which pass over home plate inside the strike zone. This is the most self-explanatory baseball phrase of all.
  • 'Ballpark' figure/estimate – Every builder providing an estimate deals in the currency of ballpark figures. It's intended to give a general price approximation in a given region. In traditional baseball, there are no stadiums, there are ballparks. Whilst many different theories are suggested for the exact etymology of this phrase, many agree that it is derived from baseball. One argument holds that the dimensions of a baseball field vary from ballpark to ballpark, yet all adhere to rough, unspoken guidelines: no team will set the outfield fences 600 feet from home plate, because they must comply with this round figure or estimation of the accepted norm. Hence, the ballpark estimates you receive in a similar manner from plumbers, gardeners and decorators today.
  • Hit it out of the park – We usually hear this when a performance of some kind, be it on X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, is a great success. The performers are said to have hit it out of the park! Well, this refers to the defining action of any baseball game: the home run. A batter literally hits the ball over the outfield wall and out of the park. It's the hallmark of excellence.
  • Hardball – When negotiations are tense and prolonged, one party is usually playing hardball. In essence, it describes an aggressive, uncompromising approach, typical of David Cameron at the EU. The baseball roots of this phrase are undeniable; hardball being a style of similarly aggressive play, usually featuring lineups of powerful sluggers and home run threats. It's David Cameron as in David Ortiz.
  • Heavy hitters – The executives or people of importance within a company or on a television show are often referred to as the heavy hitters. Again, this phrase is simply transferred from baseball! A manager typically placed his heavy hitters, those most capable of wreaking havoc and producing runs, in the 3-through-6 spots in the batting order. When watching a baseball game, the excitement is tremendous should an announcer inform that your teams heavy hitters are due up in the next half-inning!
  • Right off the bat – A distant cousin to our hit the ground running cliché, this term describes instant success in one pursuit or another. When manager at Sunderland, Paolo Di Canio experience success right off the bat with a memorable victory over Newcastle. In another literal translation from baseball speak, this is self-explanatory: a batted ball flies right off the bat at an impressive speed.
  • Play ball – We use this in a variety of contexts: when arguing, when walking the dog, and, strangely, when actually playing sport. A baseball game can only begin once the home plate umpire is satisfied enough to holler “play ball!”
  • Way off-base – During arguments or heated negotiations, people are often accused of being way off-base, positing a distance between themselves and the true reality. When a baserunner is picked-off during a baseball contest, his mistake is almost always a direct consequence of being way off-base.
  • A whole new ballgame – In sports punditry and politics, a change in circumstances, such as the appointment of a new coach or the use of chemical weapons, produces a whole new ballgame. Again, this is derived from baseball which, in the professional Major Leagues, adopts a mammoth 162-game season. When your team loses a regular game, it's great to look forward to tomorrow, when there will be a whole new ballgame to take part in.


So, now you know: even if you've never watched a baseball game, even if you like to condemn it from a position of football-crazed elitism, even if you dislike America, an essential part of your everyday communication has a flavour of its National Pastime. When you next use one of these phrases, perhaps instinctively and without consideration, just remember this post, and thank baseball for its brilliant, wide-reaching dialect.    

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