Another baseball season has reached its midpoint, the All-Star break. This means it is surely time for all Americans to cast aside normal English and spend the week talking baseballese. Speakers of this arcane tongue go around saying things such as, "Good pitching stops good hitting," "A game in April counts as much as a game in September," "You can't have too much pitching" and "Baseball is a game of inches" (although in Toronto it's clearly a game of centimeters).
In baseballese, contending teams must be "strong up the middle," and players must "give 110 percent" because "it's a long season," played "one game at a time," and "pennants aren't won on paper." The oldest mandatory comment may be "Baseball is like life." Rabbi Marc Gellman, who appears frequently on TV, worked a nice riff on this remark, pointing out that "Baseball is like life ... most of the time nothing much seems to happen."
It's also mandatory to talk about the mystical aspects of the game known as "intangibles." As the late Orioles scout Jim Russo once mystically observed, "You play 162 games and a lot of intangibles come to the surface." Jerry Brown, former New Age governor of California and now mayor of Oakland, once said something similar about politics. He declared that the Democratic Party must strive to "tangibilitize" itself. My thoughts exactly.
Knowing baseball lingo has its uses. As it happens, two of my three daughters are deeply bored by baseball and want no part of it. But I gave them six phrases to use whenever baseball comes up in conversation. Now friends marvel at their deep knowledge of the game. Here are the six situations in which non-baseball people are called upon to say something sensible in baseballese:
(1) A friend says excitedly, "How 'bout those Marlins!" Do not ask what a Marlin is, or wonder how the late Mr. Brando managed to get a whole team named after him. Simply echo your friend's exultation and say, "How 'bout 'em!" This will be taken as a thoughtful assessment of current Marlin achievements.
(2) Someone wants your analysis of a baseball trade. You have no idea what he's talking about. So you answer: "Looks good for both sides." This is always considered a satisfying response. But if your questioner asks again, it means he thinks his team was snookered. At this point just say, "You have to give up something to get something." He will admire your judgment because he knows that.
(3) The Giants are in town to play the Dodgers. Your friend is greatly excited. You are not entirely sure whether he is talking about the football Giants or the baseball Giants. The friend says, "Who do you like in the first game?" meaning, "Who is going to win tonight?" You have no idea, but you don't need one. Simply say, "When those two teams get together, anything can happen." The whole office will hear about this judicious appraisal.
(4) You are in a sports bar, wishing you were somewhere else. Someone with a beer in each hand names a local player whose name is unfamiliar to you. He wants you to say something appreciative. Do not say, "He's terrific!" The player may not be terrific. He may just be "scrappy," a baseball term meaning mediocre but extremely active and therefore likable. Confusing scrappiness with greatness could destroy your sports credibility forever. What do you do? Easy. Nod knowingly and say, "He can beat you a lot of ways." This may be true, although getting hits and fielding ground balls are probably not among them.
(5) Someone asks, "What do you think of the Cubs this year?" This sad question deserves a response, but remember: Never be cruel. Do not say that Stevie Wonder could easily lead the Cubs in batting, or that the outfielders might think of carrying peach baskets around in hopes of catching an occasional fly ball. The right answer is: "They could surprise a lot of people." If you are aware of Cub tradition, then you know that the only way they could surprise a lot of people would be to win more than once a week.
The beauty of the "surprise" prediction is that it can never be proved wrong. Whatever happens, some people are bound to be surprised. If anyone asks about the team late in the season, when they have won about 40 games and lost 70, a different answer is called for: "Their record speaks for itself."
(6) A friend says, "Did you see what Lefty did today?" Be careful here. The automatic answer ("Wasn't that great?") may be faulty. Lefty may have hit yet another homer with the bases loaded. Or he may have hit another girlfriend while he was loaded. The correct response is sincere, knowing and perfectly neutral. Tighten your lips, slowly wag your head from side to side, and say, "That was really something, wasn't it?" Later there will be plenty of time to find out whether Lefty went 5 for 5, or was once again photographed kneeling on the doorstep of the Betty Ford clinic, demanding his old room back.
Commentary on baseball should be thoughtful, enthusiastic and content-free. Remember, baseball is something like life. Baseballese is something like English.