on May 1, 2009 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

Parlance is part of sports charm

When you’ve got ducks on the pond, it doesn’t matter if you hit a Texas leaguer, blooper, bleeder, gork, dribbler or a walk-off homer. Everybody likes to see dingers. Heck, you can even get plunked, so long as you plate the winning run. Just don’t whiff at the high cheese that’s got some mustard on it.

Ya got me?

If you do understand that, you’re probably one of those profoundly sick individuals known as baseball fans who have developed what is quite honestly a completely different language. Indeed, one of the endearing characteristics of sports in general is our ability as spectators to apply slang to everyday minutia of the game for our own convenience and humor.

Sports jargon has always been fun. It can also be a headache-inducing endeavor to understand just how the heck some of these phrases came to be.

Jeff Schaus’ April 21 grand slam that gave the Clemson Tigers a 5-3 win over Coastal Carolina was called a ‘walk-off’ home run by nearly every article written about the game. I couldn’t help but chuckle at Larry Williams’ frustration about the rampant overuse of the term as he penned his TigerIllustrated.com blog a few days ago.

“What’s wrong with ‘game-ending’ or something along those lines?” Williams asked. “Didn’t we manage to survive before ‘walk-off’ was first blurted?”

We sure did, Larry. ‘Walk-off’ certainly wasn’t borne of necessity. Baseball zealots just kind of took it, decided they liked it and ran with it, didn’t they?

It’s the funny thing about sports talk – all it takes is one use of a term to start a fire of popular terminology, and that’s a fire that doesn’t even need tending once it’s been sparked.

As I understand it, the term walk-off wasn’t even popularized until the 1990s, and became part of our everyday baseball lexicon by the 2000. An internet search comes up with a plausible explanation that attributes the first written use of the term to San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Lowell Cohn, who said Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley called game-winning dingers “walk-offs.” That article was in 1988. Somewhere along the way, I guess, sportscasters fell in love with the idea.

One of my fondest memories is playing Little League baseball, going up to bat, and listening to my father and grandfather urge me get a base-knock because ‘ducks were on the pond.’

That phrase is commonly attributed to legendary Washington Senators broadcaster Arch McDonald, who called games for more than two decades. The phrase, which is used to describe a situation in which runners are on base, is a clear reference to duck hunting – shooting those blasted birds has got to be easier while they’re floating on the water. It’s an expression of opportunity.

How about a ‘can of corn?’

This golden baseball saying was derived from the old days when small market clerks stored canned goods on the top shelf. Such goods, like corn and other food staples, had to be knocked off the top with a stick or broom handle when customers needed them, permitting the clerk to catch it with ease.

Hence, when a high fly ball falls effortlessly to a waiting outfielder, it’s a can of corn.

A little digging into the Sports Illustrated archives reveals several explanations for the term that long baffled me – ‘Texas leaguer.’

Also called a ‘Texas league base hit,’ or ‘Texas league single,’ this term is used to describe a ball hit in the air that somehow drops in between the infield and outfield. One explanation says the phrase’s roots go all the way back to 1886, when three players who’d made their way from the Texas league to the majors plagued an opposing Syracuse team by getting on base via bloopers. Another interesting explanation somehow involves the Gulf Stream’s effect on balls hit in Texas league games where the stiff Lone-Star wind would knock balls down before fielders could reach them. Baseball terms being coined by ocean currents? You never know.

What’s certain is the popularity of ‘walk-off,’ ‘dialing long distance’ (an apparently cool way of saying home run), and calling the pitcher’s mound a ‘bump,’ sure isn’t going to go away.

Slang is part of baseball’s and athletics’ charm. I’m wondering if it might be better to just submit to the unwavering tide of sports pop-culture, rather than investigate just why in the world we call things what we do.

We’re odd cats, us sports folk. Even when we’ve got reasons, we don’t need em’, do we?