A Literalist Tries to Understand the Game Called Baseball—and Gets Some Help

By Mike Feinsilber

I sometimes say, “I like everything about baseball, except the game itself.” Actually, I like the game itself but when I go to see the Washington Nationals play, I get wrapped up in everything else. Somebody makes an exciting catch and I will have been watching an umpire or a beer vendor. The scoreboard provides endless entertainment (and, thank heavens, instant replays). The espirit de corps of the crowd, decked out in red shirts, is a thing of beauty. The cheers, the jeers, the announcer—all fun.

But I’m hardly an informed spectator. From what I read, I know a lot of strategizing is going on, a duel between pitcher and batter, a choreography involving everyone on the field. But most of it passes over me. I just don’t know enough about baseball.

So this summer I vowed to educate myself: For the first time in my life, I’d read the Washington Post sports pages and follow the Nats.

And dutifully, I read. Until, inevitably, I’d hit the wall of baseball’s secret rhetoric. I have a literalist streak and I like to understand what I’m reading. What to do?

What I did was turn to my good friend, Bill Mead, author of eight books about baseball, for translations of what I’d read. I’d email Bill a phrase that stumped me; he’d email a translation. To make my point, I invite you to eavesdrop on a week’s worth of our conversation:

Mike to Bill, July 4:

Happy 4th. A few mystery phrases for you to translate in today’s Adam Kilgore story about the Nats’ collapse:

“The drive died on the warning track, and roars turned to groans.”

Kilgore uses “warning track” three times and I think I figured it out: It must be a zone inside the field’s walls that’s somehow differentiated to warn fielders that they are running toward the wall. Zat it?

Here’s another, from a Davey Johnson quote: “It was hit pretty hard,” Johnson said. “It could have been knuckling, you never know.”

Does he mean it was a knuckle ball that Harper hit?

And another: “In the fourth, Harper roped a line drive to left center, a likely double until Gomez streaked across the outfield and snared it.”

Roped? What means roped?

Bill to Mike:

Exactly re “warning track.” Also, outfield walls now are padded. None of this sissy stuff in the good ol’ days.

“Knuckling,” moving erratically like a knuckle ball. “Roped” means hit on a line, like a straight rope.  Hard hit.

(For further clarification on the warning track, I turned to another friend, Paul Dickson, author of the 957-page Dickson Baseball Dictionary, Third Edition, who offers this: “An ungrassed area about 10-15 feet wide, made of dirt, cinders, or rubber, encircling the field just inside the wall that alerts a fielder that he is approaching the wall. Its purposes to protect the fielder from crashing into the wall as he backs up to catch a ball. With his eyes fixed on the ball, the fielder knows he is nearing the wall as he senses the granular texture of the warning track with his feet.”)

Mike to Bill, July 6:

Yesterday’s head scratcher from Adam Kilgore’s story in Friday’s Post: “Kurt Suzuki hit .214 with a .255 on-base percentage and a .275 slugging percentage.”

What’s a “slugging percentage”? If he slugs 27.5% of the times he is at bat, how can he get a hit only 21.4% of the times he is at bat?

Bill to Mike:

Slugging percentage is total bases divided by at-bats.  Say you batted 10 times (walks aren’t counted) and hit 1 home run, 1 double, and 1 single.  That’s 7 total bases.  Slugging percentage: .700.  That’s very good, even though you made 7 outs.  So you batted .300—3 hits in 10 at-bats—with a slugging percentage of .700.  You’re a big star.  An even more useful stat takes walks into account, because walks are valuable.  This stat is called your on-base percentage plus your slugging percentage (I think it’s called OBPS).  Say our player who registered 10 at-bats also walked twice.  So he’s on base 5 times in 12 at-bats–homer, double, single, 2 walks.  His OBP (on-base percentage) is 5 divided by 12–.417.  Add to that his slugging percentage of .700 and you get an OBPS of 1.117.  You want this guy in the middle of your lineup.  An all-star.

Interesting piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the other day about unwritten rules within the playing fraternity about what rookies should not do.  The clubhouses—they used to be called locker rooms—now are super luxurious.  A rookie Cardinal pitcher sat down on a sofa. A vet, John Jay, came by. “You don’t want to sit there,” he said—quietly, not in a mean fashion.  Jay pointed to the chair in front of the rookie’s locker. He didn’t need to say more—rookies sit in the chairs in front of their lockers.  Sofas and easy chairs are for veterans.  On the team’s charter airplane, same rookie got up and headed for the bathroom at the back of the plane. A vet stopped him, didn’t say a word, pointed to the front of the plane. Rookies use the front bathroom.

It’s quite a world.  Under baseball’s contract with the player’s union, the minimum salary is just under $500,000. So a young man who’s been sharing an apartment in, say, Scranton or Las Vegas with two teammates, and eating at Denny’s, is suddenly catapulted into a life of luxury.  Private rooms at the best hotels.  Plenty of meal money.  Big salary. The Cards’ best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, recently signed a contract for five years, $90 million.  He gets all of that even if an injury ends his baseball career.

Mike to Bill, July 8:

This one is from Saturday’s Post, recounting the Nats’ splendid 8-5 victory over the San Diego Padres:

“Friday night, the Nationals struck after a sputtering start. Gonzalez surrendered an RBI double to Chase Headley in the first inning, and Padres’ right-hander Andrew Cashner followed with a 1-2-3 first.”

What’s a 1-2-3 first? Does that mean Cashner struck out the first three Nationals to face him?

And this: “In his toughest spot Friday night, Gonzalez leaned on his curve. He whiffed Yasmani Grandal swinging at one in the dirt. Chasner whiffed gazing at one. Everth Cabrera flailed at another curve buried in the box.

Based on context, my guess is that to whiff is to go down swinging?

I got everything in Sunday’s story (another splendid Nats performance) and got almost to the end of Monday’s (again a Nats win) when I came upon this: “Despite some command issues, Strasburg’s stuff was filthy, as he matched a season high with nine strikeouts.”

Filthy? What does that mean? Is it a common term or one coined by Post writer James Wagner?

Bill to Mike:

1-2-3 just means retired 3 batters–no walks, hits, etc.

Yep, “whiff” is strike out.

“Filthy stuff” means pitches, or a pitch, that is excellent, very hard to hit.  It’s common usage, though of relatively recent vintage.

Mike to Bill, July 10:

Today’s puzzlements: About Tuesday night’s 4-2 humiliation by the Phillies, the Post’s Adam Kilgore writes: “Once Lannan exited, the Nationals bullied closer Jonathan Papelbon, whom they had twice come back on during their June series in Philadelphia.” What does he mean by “come back on”?

And: “The Nationals entered the eighth inning trailing by three, but finally showed some fight against (Philadelphia pitcher Cole) Hamels. Harper drew a hard-earned walk…” What does he mean by “hard-earned”? How does a batter earn a walk?

Later, Kilgore writes: “The crowd was already frenzied as Werth came to the plate. Werth took a fastball for strike one, then a curve at the top of the strike zone for strike two. He fouled away one pitch. He laid off a fastball outside, spit on a change-up in the dirt, and took a fastball outside. Hamels would not give in, and neither would Werth.”

He “laid off” I’m guessing that means he ignored a pitch that was outside the strike zone. But what’s “spit on a change-up in the dirt”? Does Kilgore mean he ignored another ball? And “took a fastball outside” means the same?

Then Kilgore writes: “LaRoche fielded the ball on a high hop and whipped a sidearm throw to Desmond at second. At worst, it seemed, the Nationals would still be tied at 1 with two runners on base and one out. And then Rollins veered into the line of LaRoche’s low throw, and it deflected off Rollins and rolled into shallow left field.”

Does that mean Rollins deliberately got into the way of a first baseman’s throw to second base? Isn’t that dangerous? Is it legit?

Bill to Mike:

“Come back on”:  Papelbon is a relief pitcher. He entered the game with his team ahead. The Nats came back, scoring. This is a poor choice of words because it leaves you hanging. Did the Nats win those games after coming back?  Donno.

“Hard earned walk” probably means the batter fouled off several pitches before finally getting ball 4.  Useless cliche, in my opinion. Why not just say he fouled off (number) pitches and finally walked?

“Spit on a curve…” He took a low pitch. The writer is trying to win a cliche contest.

The runner isn’t supposed to get in the way of a throw, but if he’s in the baseline he usually can get away with it. Not really dangerous unless he’s beaned.

With a runner on first base and less than two outs, “the double play is in order,” to use another cliche. If the batter hits a ground ball, it’s the base runner’s duty to try to break up the double play. Say the grounder goes to the second baseman. He flips the ball to the shortstop, covering second. It’s an easy force play on the runner, whose duty then is to slide hard into the shortstop, knocking him down and rendering him unable to complete the double play by throwing to first base.

An unspoken part of this ritual is that if the runner stays on his feet rather than sliding, the fielder—in our example, the shortstop—is not required to throw around him. In other words, stay erect at your own risk. So runners slide. Always.

Except in the fourth game of the 1934 World Series, when the base runner was Dizzy Dean, the great pitcher of the St. Louis Cardinals’ legendary “Gashouse Gang.” Diz had been inserted as a pinch runner. When Pepper Martin hit a grounder to second, Diz, instead of sliding, deliberately jumped into the path of shortstop Billy Rogell’s throw to first. The ball hit Dean on the forehead, knocking him cold. He was carried off the field on a stretcher. The next morning a St. Louis sports page carried this headline: “X-RAYS OF DEAN’S HEAD SHOW NOTHING.”  Dean came back to shut out the Tigers, 13-0, in the decisive seventh game.

Mike to you, dear reader:

Well, it’s a dilemma. I can’t be the only confused reader of the sports pages. If baseball writers wrote in a straight, clear, uncliched language that didn’t use baseball’s terms of art (Paul Dickson’s third edition has 18,000 definitions), people like me would be able to follow everything that happened on the field. But true followers of the sport would be bored.

On the other hand, how are kids supposed to become fans if they can’t decipher what they read about last night’s game in this morning’s paper? Baseball needs those kids to become fans; newspapers need those kids to become readers. Maybe the Post ought to run a straightforward three-paragraph story about last night’s game on the wonderful “KidsPost” page— a page in the Style section which does an occasional good job translating page one news into language a kid can understand. I’d read it.

Here’s my to-be-sure graf. To be sure, the Post sportswriters that I’ve read do a terrific job. Every story offers information the casual reader wouldn’t know. The writers know that the reader knows (or that the headline has told him) who won the game and by what score. So while that information is essential, it can be tucked into a lower graf. Even Post accounts of games that are humdrum—and some games are, I warrant—have been interesting, with leads that lure, doing what a good lead does. I like these stories, even if I don’t completely understand them.

 

 

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