By Mark Smith
While I was up in DC, we took several trips around the city that were guided by a professor from American University who had lived in DC all of his life. He was kind of a crazy looking man. His white hair was curled upward in a mad scientist kind of way. He wore a jacket in 90+ degree weather. He wore wool socks and sandals. And he was missing quite a few teeth. Despite his rather odd appearance, he was one of the more intelligent people I’ve ever met, and the man can tell you literally anything you would want to know about Washington, DC.
During one of the trips around some important DC sites for the civil rights movement, he was talking about something (I don’t remember what it was; it was 95+ and humid, and my focus was waning as the tour neared 4 hours), and all of a sudden, he yelled, “It doesn’t make any God DAMN sense.” Usually, the emphasis comes on “God”, but he used it on “damn”, with much more emphasis than any of the other words, and the “damn” comes very immediately after “God” to sound more like “godDAMN sense”.
Anyway, I was watching a game the other day, and I started noticing quite a few phrases that often come up in baseball that don’t make any sense if you think about the literal words used. Language is kind of funny that way. The following phrases are just a small part of the ones that we use, but they all came from somewhere and made/make sense depending on the perspective. For people who have been around the game a while, they generally understand what they meant, but they would probably require quite a bit of explanation to novice baseball fans. I thought it would be a fun exercise to go through a few of them.
“Activate the runner”: Usually a 3-2 count with two outs will cause any baserunner with the possibility of being forced to start running before the ball is put in play. The logic is pretty clear. The runner wants a headstart in case the ball is put in place, and the risks are nonexistent as a strikeout ends the inning and a walk gets him to the next base. But the phrase makes it seem like the runner is “inactive” otherwise, despite taking a lead, getting a secondary lead, and watching signs. I just imagine the coaches having to go to the runners and flip a switch.
“Even count”: 1-1 and 2-2 counts are often called even, but they aren’t. They look even because the balls and strikes are the same numbers, so the “count”, the actual act of counting, is even. But the baseball count is not. The batter has fewer strikes than balls remaining and is much closer to an out than getting on base. 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2 counts are actually closer to even.
“Keep your hands inside the baseball”: So if my hands are inside the baseball, A) how can I do anything and B) the ball is now useless. At least, that’s what the phrase indicates. The phrase is used for hitting, but even then, it has another issue. If a batter didn’t keep his hands closer to his body than the ball, thus inside, then there’s no way to hit the ball with the bat. That’s obvious, so what does it mean?
“3/4 Arm Slot”: We know this means an arm slot directly between sidearm and over-the-top, but where does the ¾ come from? Over-the-top isn’t 1, and sidearm isn’t ½. And it’s not ¾ of the way between over-the-top and sidearm. What the hell is it ¾ of?
“He’s in a pickle”: I can’t imagine a more unfortunate situation than being stuck inside of a pickle. Who grows cucumbers that big anyway? And who made a jar and filled it with vinegar? The phrase, of course, means a runner caught between bases, but its origin derives from people imagining people becoming part of the meal like the pickled vegetables. I won’t even try to explain that.
“Squaring up the ball”: How a round bat “squares” up a round ball is beyond me, but we know it to mean putting the barrel to the ball and hitting it hard. It requires hand-eye coordination that I never had, but I always imagined some kids having this ability to see a square where the ball would end up and would swing at that square.
“Hit it on the screws”: Someone please show me where there are screws on a bat or a ball. Thanks. This phrase, as many of you know, means having hit the ball hard.
“Hit it back through the box”: Back through the batter’s box? The press box? Is there another box I should be aware of? Is this like “squaring it up”? No, we know this to mean to hit the ball back through the middle of the infield toward center field. The phrase comes from the very early days of baseball when there was no mound, and pitchers, instead, had to stay within a box to pitch. Thus, a hitter could hit the ball through a box.
“Speed up his bat”: If there is something can literally speed up a bat, it should be more illegal than steroids. I kind of understand what this actually means, but I also don’t. People talk about it meaning having thrown a fastball that the hitter is late on and then backing it up with a secondary pitch, which the batter is on time for. The batter’s bat is “slow”, but the pitcher “speeds” it up by throwing a pitch the batter can hit. It’s a perception thing. Though I don’t know if this really works. If the batter realizes he’s late and then tries to cheat and start early, won’t the batter then be ahead of the pitch? Seems like a weird game theory thing with confirmation bias mixed in.
“Flying Open”: Baseball players can’t fly, and where is “open”? The idea is that a hitter’s hips and/or shoulders clear well before the bat comes through the zone. They need to move together, for the most part, and this leads to bad contact.
“Around the horn”: Again, where is this horn? And why are players throwing a ball around it? We, however, know this to mean throwing the ball around the infield, usually 1B-SS-2B-3B or 3B-2B-SS. But there is still no horn.
“Swing down on the ball”: If you literally swung down on the ball, it would be extremely hard to hit, and you would always hit grounders. The meaning behind this is to get the batter to try to not “lift” the ball with his swing. The initial plane of the swing should be downward, but the entire plane of the swing is not down.
I’m always genuinely intrigued by how things like this develop, and I think they can tell us interesting things. Seven of the 12 phrases, for instance, are about hitting. Is that evidence of people favoring hitters over everyone else? Does it show just how hard hitting is if we have to have all of these phrases to try and describe how to do it properly? And if they aren’t very literal, does that add to the confusion of hitting? I’m not sure what the ultimate answer is, but I do find it an interesting discussion point. Language can be used to clarify, but without proper usage and/or context, it can also be used to obscure.
Feel free to mention others below, and as a side game, try to pick out the times where I use phrases that don’t actually mean what I say.