It’s baseball season, and for Detroit Tigers fans, we hope, the Year of the Tiger (yes, after a seven-game losing streak, there is still hope). In honor of the Great American Pastime, I want to talk about some of the words and phrases in (American) English that have come to us courtesy of baseball:
- Out in / out of left field – Out in left field is used to refer to someone whose ideas or actions are, according to Answers.com, “a little crazy.” There are various theories for the origin of this phrase, two of which have to do with the New York Yankees, so I will not discuss them here. (The Yankees get enough attention, most of it undeserved.) One of the other theories is interesting: Before the Chicago Cubs moved to Wrigley Field, they played at Chicago’s second West Side Park, which was later bought by the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Eventually, U of I built its Neuropsychiatric unit on what had been West Park’s left field. You can connect the dots from there. A related phrase means something unexpected happening, as in, “Wow, that came out of left field.” When a runner is traveling from third base trying to score, he may be thrown out at home plate by a ball delivered by the left fielder, whom the runner has his back to and therefore can’t see.
- Drop the ball – OK, so this expression could refer to multiple sports—basketball, football, even dodgeball. Now I’m curious about whether the phrase truly did originate in baseball. Excuse me just a moment while I check … I’m back. There’s no real agreement on the origin of the phrase, probably because it’s so generic. In any case, if you do drop the ball while you’re attempting to catch a fly one, throw a baserunner out, or catch a wild pitch, chances are good it’ll come back to haunt you later. Big-time.
- Three strikes and you’re out – This one is pretty self-explanatory, but let’s give it a positive spin, shall we? If you watch any great match-up between a pitcher and a hitter, you’ll see that the hitter actually gets an unlimited number of chances to hit the ball (not only three), as long as he can “stay alive” by getting a piece of it, or hitting the ball foul. Foul balls only count as strikes up to the second one—strike three must be a swinging strike. So, you’ll hear sports announcers say a hitter has a “great at-bat” if he can extend the number of pitches the pitcher throws him to eight, ten or even a dozen. There’s a life lesson here, so excuse me if I sound like a self-help expert for a moment: In real life, as in baseball, you get more than three chances. Just keep trying to get a piece of the ball. And don’t swing at the really bad pitches.
- Threw me a curveball – We’ve all had the experience of someone hitting us with an unpleasant surprise, whether it takes the shape of a last-minute meeting at work, a late-night phone call or a breakup announcement delivered by that most sensitive of social media, Facebook. Yup, someone just threw us a curveball, and our first response is often to throw the darn thing back, only harder. The trajectory of the curveball is north-to-south (like a rainbow’s arc), so it has the effect of dropping suddenly as it crosses home plate, leaving hitters swinging at the place they thought the ball was going to be. Here’s the thing to remember about curveballs: pitchers don’t throw them to hit batters, but to unbalance them. Maybe that’s true of life’s curveballs, too, even though they do sometimes hurt. (See a video about Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander’s curveball.)
- Hit a home run or Hit it out of the park – People use this as a compliment: “Wow, Joe, you really hit it out of the park with that idea.” If you’re a frequent home run hitter, chances are you’ll be welcome on any team. All home runs aren’t alike in importance, though all are exciting. The more runners there are on base, the more meaningful a home run is; a grand slam garners the hitter’s team four runs. So, while “hitting it out of the park” (that is, hitting the ball over the stands) is a display of a hitter’s power, it’s more significant to hit a home run with runners on base. Another thing about home runs: the more of them a hitter produces, the more strikeouts he is likely to have—case in point, Babe Ruth. He had 714 career home runs and nearly twice as many strikeouts at 1330. The moral of the story has been repeated multiple times, but I’ll restate it here: You have to take a lot of big swings in order to hit home runs. Sometimes you’ll miss, but sometimes you’ll hit it out of the park.
- For you Tigers fans, here’s your very own list of baseball names and words that, taken as a group, are probably only meaningful to you: Mags, Miggy, Cabby, Gibby, Sparky, Ernie, Pudge, JV, DD, Game 163, Jim Joyce, Paws, 1968, Rod & Mario, Jim & Dan, and finally, “near-perfect game.”
I could write about the marketing aspect of baseball, but that gets into unknown (foul?) territory. I just love the game itself, and don’t want to bother myself with all the moneymaking and shaking going on. Now I’m off to see if the Tigers can break their losing streak and head toward first place again!