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Play ball! Looking at the language of baseball

In spring, as the saying goes, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to love.” Who first penned that immortal mush, anyway? You well-read literary types probably know it was Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Locksley Hall,” and I suppose that was romantic of him, but the way I see it, when love becomes a seasonal commodity, we’re all in trouble. Perhaps I fail to be engaged by the sentiment of the great poet because in spring my own fancy turns to only one thing: baseball.

When I told a friend I was tipping my cap to the new MLB season by writing an OxfordWords piece about baseball, he wondered what baseball has to do with words. Gasp! Baseball, I was quick to inform, has enriched our language in ways that no other American institution, pursuit, or activity has or ever will. (I’m not prepared to back that up with even a modicum of technical certainty, but it sounds good when you’re trying to make an enthusiastic point.)

The craft (that is, needlecraft) of the game

Long before words became the framework of my livelihood, I was enamored of the language of baseball. It is as poetic and entertaining as the sport itself. Many years ago, inspired by the game’s colorful lingo, I designed an appliquéd quilt, which got halted in the design stage. I never found the time to craft the quilt, but I enjoyed drafting it on paper, and once in a while I come across the specs, folded up and tucked in a drawer.

From A to Z, I’ve got all the bases covered

My design is a pattern of thirty blocks (5 x 6). Each of the four corners has a baseball symbol: a bat, a ball, a cap, a glove. The remaining blocks are for the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, each one represented by a baseball word or phrase. Once I came up with the general idea, I thought that finding enough delightful baseball vocabulary would be the hard part. In fact, the challenge was deciding on just one word or expression per letter. I’ve revised it a bit over the years, and at present my quilt-to-be reads something like this (translations included here FYI):

Annie Oakley (a free ticket to a ball game, or a walk—that is, a “free pass” to first base).

Blowser (a closer with more blown saves than saves).

Can of Corn (an easily caught high fly ball).

Dungeon (last place in the standings).

Egg Fest (a game in which the scoreboard is full of zeroes, as in “goose eggs).

FDR Pitch (a wild pitch: “Fire, Duck, and Run”).

Golden Sombrero (the so-called award “earned” by a batter with four strikeouts in one game).

High Cheese (a fastball that comes in high in the strike zone).

Ice Cream Cone (a ball [the “scoop of ice cream”] caught at the tip of a clenched glove [the “cone”]).

Jesse James Single (a base hit awarded after the batted ball hits an umpire).

Keep Your Skirts Down (instruction to a fielder to stay close to the ground so a grounder won’t roll between his feet).

Lady Godiva Pitch (a pitch with “nothing on it”).

Man Overboard (a runner who has overshot the base by running or sliding past it).

Northpaw (a right-handed pitcher).

Orchard (the outfield).

Pearl (a brand new baseball).

Quack! Quack! (how players beckon their trainer).

Room Service (a ball hit so directly to a fielder that it’s as if it were “delivered” right into his glove).

Squibber (a batted ball with an awkward sidespin that is troublesome for an infielder).

Three Blind Mice (derogatory term for a group of three umpires).

Uncle Charlie (a curveball).

Vulture (a relief pitcher who “steals” the win from the starter).

Wally Pipp (a player whose mistake is taking a day off, only to be replaced by a better player—as Pipp was replaced by Lou Gehrig).

X-Ray Vision (presumed “ability” of an umpire who suspects a corked bat).

Yodeler (a third-base coach).

Zurdo (Spanish term for a left-handed pitcher).

Perhaps by the Fall Classic . . .

Now that I revisit my ABCs of baseball, I really want that darn quilt. Maybe if I work on it for just 15 minutes every time Joe Mauer belts a frozen rope or Josh Hamilton goes yard or Justin Verlander posts another K, I’ll have myself a quilt by October. Batter up!

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