Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The language of baseball

In order of approval, my three favorite teams are the Mets, the Red Sox and the White Sox. So most of the baseball language I hear comes from the announcers who work these games.

A favorite is Ken Harrelson, who announces the White Sox games. He was known as Hawk Harrelson when he was a player. How can you not like a guy who begins every show with, "So sit back, relax, and strap it down! White Sox baseball coming your way!" You gotta. (But what is he telling us to strap down, exactly? I can't figure that out.)

Harrelson was the first announcer that I heard using a phrase that was entirely new to me. When there's a nice, high fly ball to the outfield and it's easy for the fielder to catch, he says, "Can of corn!" I thought that was so odd. And then I heard Ron Darling, one of the Mets announcers, say the same thing.

What could they mean? The only thing that comes to mind for me is an image of two people in a kitchen and one throws a can of corn to the other in a very slow, deliberate way, knowing it's not a safe thing to toss around and must be handled gently. So it's like a baby throw, done in a way that almost guarantees the person can catch it. Is that the connection? Chime in if you have another idea.

(And only now will I peek at the Intertubes to see what they say. I found this: "The most accepted theory is that the phrase, 1st used in 1896, makes reference to a long-ago practice where a grocer would use a stick to tip a can off a high shelf, then catch it in his hands or outstretched apron." Well, whoopee. This answer does nothing for me, although it does arrive at the same image: a can or corn easily falling, easily caught. Chime in, readers.)

Moving right along, in a game Hawk Harrelson called last week, a pathetic ball -- a pop-up that didn't pop up much, stayed in the infield and was easy to catch, he said, ". . . a little duck-snort falls in." Dog only knows what the man meant with that one. Do ducks snort gently?

And in another game, a Mets game, I think, the announcer called one hit "a cue shot". And sure enough, if you looked at the field from overhead, you saw the ball do the little bounce like a pool ball hit by a cue, and then head toward the far field with another little bounce. It looked just like a pool shot. I love that they have these highly descriptive phrases for the ball's movement.

And finally, I want to mention the cultural undercurrents in baseball. There is this ironclad idea that a player is straight, youngish, married, and has kids. They love to talk about the wives and what a great father the player is, and that's fine. But they also push a strange, male role-model image.

For instance, Ron Darling was explaining what players were doing during a Spring training exercise. They were showing footage where a pitcher purposely threw the ball in the dirt, right in front of the catchers crotch, to teach him to handle plays where the ball comes in like that. Darling said, "And of course, if you were doing this with your brother, you'd try to hurt him." This was just an idle statement. No one commented on it because that's the way it is. Of course you'd try to hurt your brother if you were the pitcher, he was the catcher, and you were doing this exercise. Almost goes without saying. There's a lot of this in baseball, and usually the values are warped.

Okay, that's it for today's baseball-language post. More coming soon -- throughout the season, in fact.