Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Batter Chatter Book Review: BIG HAIR AND PLASTIC GRASS

I recently finished reading Big Hair and Plastic Grass, Dan Epstein's fun account of our national pastime (uh, baseball, that is) during the 1970s. Hair, in fact, plays a large role in the book, from Oscar Gamble's prodigious afro to Mark "The Bird" Fidrych's flowing blond mane; both are featured on the cover.

Joe Pepitone's hairpiece, meanwhile, qualifies both as big hair and plastic grass.

Epstein is an accomplished music writer--his author bio mentions his work appearing in Rolling Stone and Revolver, among other music publications--and he frequently works the music of the times into his writing of a certain period. He notes the clash between disco and classic rock (then known simply as "rock") in the mid '70s, and has an interesting bit on Bill Veeck's ill-conceived Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, which attracted a reported 92,000 to the ballpark for a bonfire fueled by disco records to be held in between games of a double header.

A riot occurred on the field, resulting in 39 arrests and the cancellation of the second game of the 'header, which was declared a 9-0 forfeit win for visiting Detroit.

The book, published by Thomas Dunne books, is full of moments where you realize something that occurred in the '70s would simply never happen now, such as Ted Turner's wet t-shirt promotions at Braves games, the 10-cent beer night at Cleveland's old Municipal Stadium (65,000 cups of Stroh's were sold), a pair of Yankee pitchers trading wives, and Billy Martin's bottomless bad behavior.

But fans of the game will probably have heard of most of the old stories that Epstein trots out. He offers an endless list of baseball books that informed his reporting in Big Hair, but one might wish that Epstein had spent more time talking with the great characters from the '70s, such as Dock Ellis and Bill "Spaceman" Lee, to dig up great stories, instead of retelling the old ones.

Each year in the '70s gets its own chapter, and each chapter ends with a workmanlike account of how the National and American League playoffs played out, a play by play of the World Series, and an accounting of whose individual performance stood out that year. You may find yourself breezing through those parts, in search of more fun stories.

And there are lots of fun stories, such as the genesis of the '73 Mets' "Ya Gotta Believe" rallying cry (it came from Tug McGraw making fun of Mets chairman Donald Grant's cliche-filled team pep talk, and a teen named Stanley Burrell who used to dance in the A's parking lot for change, but ended up being the team's bat boy and later, "executive vice president" and unofficial clubhouse spy for owner Charley Finley. The players called the boy "Hammer", as he looked like Henry Aaron. Years later, the world would know Stanley Burrell as "MC Hammer."

Epstein, whose author photo shows some big hair too, also has some fun with '70s uniforms, such as the garish all-red get-ups in Cleveland, the "pupil-gouging horror" of the Astros' "tequila sunrise" jerseys, and of course the White Sox' short lived short-pants uni's.

Fun anecdotes, well told. Big Hair and Plastic Grass will help shorten the time between now and when pitchers and catchers first turn up for spring training.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reynolds, Pena Claim Super 'Mario' Award

Forget about all this talk about whether or not Derek Jeter deserves his Gold Glove and if so and so deserves MVP or Cy Young or Rookie of the Year.

Let's get down to the truly unique honors stemming from the 2010 season: Who finished below the storied Mendoza Line?

The Mendoza Line, as most fans know, is the .200 batting average, named for Mario Mendoza. Mendoza was a slick-fielding shortstop who hit for a lifetime .215 average with the Pirates, Mariners and Rangers. If you're hitting below .200, you are below the ignominious Mendoza Line, and your teammates--and history--will mock you for the rest of your life.

The term was reportedly hatched out of Kansas City, pertaining to George Brett (George was certainly no slouch in the batter's box). As is the case with most newish sports catchphrases, it was the mighty trumpet of ESPN's SportsCenter that send the phrase national.

From Wikipedia:

"My teammates Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte used it to make fun of me," Mendoza said in 2010. "Then they were giving George Brett a hard time because he had a slow start that year, so they told him, 'Hey, man, you're going to sink down below the Mendoza Line if you're not careful.' And then Brett mentioned it to Chris Berman from ESPN, and eventually it spread and became a part of the game."

Berman deflects credit back to Brett in popularizing the term. "Mario Mendoza — it's all George Brett," Berman said. "We used it all the time in those 1980s 'SportsCenters.' It was just a humorous way to describe how someone was hitting."

So who finished below the Mendoza Line this year? Among players with 350-plus at-bats, Arizona third-sacker Mark Reynolds finished at .198 after 596 plate appearances--lowest in the National League.
Other bottom feeders from the Senior League: Reynolds' D-Backs teammate Chris Snynder at .207, and Cardinal Pedro Feliz at .218.

Over in the American League, Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Pena hit .196. If we expand the paltry pool to include those with 300-plus at-bats, then Cleveland second baseman Luis Valbuena wins the Withered Wiffle (opposite of the Silver Slugger) with a .193 clip.

So how the heck to Reynolds and Pena continue to compel their managers to send them to the batter's box? Surprise, surprise, they hit for prodigious power. Reynolds clocked 32 homers and delivered 85 rib-eye steaks in 2010.

For his part, Pena was good for 28 taters and 84 RBIs.

Of all the significant accomplishments reached in 2010--Bautista's 54 homers, Halladay/Sabathia's 21 wins--hitting below the Mendoza Line continues to be one of the most difficult things to do in baseball.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Aubrey in a Huff, Gets Panties into a Twist, Covers His A** With Correction

The goofy--and ultimately very successful--San Francisco Giants thrived on a loose clubhouse culture that included Brian Wilson's peculiar performance art and Aubrey Huff's famed "rally thong."

Huff famously donned the thong to bust out of a slump in September, and kept it in place as the Giants rolled through the autumn en route to the World North American Championship. Huff waved his proverbial freak flag, a bright red number, during the Giants' victory parade two weeks ago.

But just to be clear, it's technically men's lingerie.

In fact, here's the greatest New York Times correction you'll read all week:

An article on Nov. 4 about the San Francisco Giants’ victory parade referred incorrectly to the type of underwear shown to the crowd by first baseman Aubrey Huff. His “rally thong,” which he said he wore for luck during the Giants’ run to the World Series title, was designed for men, not for women.

So, if I'm reading this correctly, Huff and his Giants are freaky, but they're not that freaky.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Recalling the 'Designated Runner'

I tend to read a baseball book each November, in an effort to stretch the season out just a little more. Currently I'm reading the ode to 1970s baseball and all its odd cultural trappings, Big Hair and Plastic Grass. It's fun. I'll provide a full-on review when I finished it in the next week or so.

One thing of note: the "designated runner" was a real thing in the '70s. Teams would keep a speedster on the roster--one who often could not hit and would never be put in a position to hit--for the sole purpose of pinch-running and stealing a key base now and then.

So established was the practice that the A's (and I swear, half of Big Hair and Plastic Grass is about the A's, between their excellence on the field and their crazy owner, Charley Finley) had a skinny sprinter named Herb Washington whose Topps baseball card listed his position on the front as "Pinch Run.".

It's like a hockey goon having his position listed as "Fighter."

Washington was a college sprinter who appeared in 92 games in 1974--yet did not hit or play the field once. A designated runner, indeed. A's management figured Washington's speed would help the team win an extra 10 games per season.

Alas, Washington wasn't much of a baserunner, caught stealing 16 times in 45 attempts and picked off in a crucial spot in the World Series. "Hurricane Herb's" ineptitude on the paths proved what every baseball fan knows--running the bases well isn't simply a matter of being fast.

The A's may have given up on Washington, but they stuck with the philosophy. In 1976, Larry Lintz was the designated runner. Lintz had just three plate appearances all season.

These days, a player has to do more than run to earn a roster spot. But the basic philosophy hasn't disappeared--who can forget Dave Roberts coming into the game for the Red Sox in the 9th inning to steal second in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yanks? (Roberts of course came around to score the tying run, keeping the Sox alive. The rest is, of course, history. The swipe was named #2 all time stolen base by SI.com.)

Roberts was listed as an outfielder in the 2004 post-season, but his role was clearly designated runner.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Three True Outcomes a 'Dunn' Deal

I'm not much of a fan of the so-called sabremetric movement--the new school of baseball thinking that involves weird metrics like VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm). It's interesting to look at the timeless game of baseball in a fresh way, but outside of Moneyball, saber-speak doesn't usually make for fun baseball reading.

But here's a fun little taste of baseball research analysis lingo: Three True Outcomes. Today's NY Times, talking about who's dancing around on the hot stove along with Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford, mentions big Will Ferrell lookalike Adam Dunn as being the ultimate practicioner of the Three True Outcomes (TTO).
A groundout? Don't bet on it!

The NY Times describes the TTOs as the three batter events that do not involve the defense at all: strikeouts (Dunn had 199 last year. 199! That's even more than David Wright and his Golden Sombrero!), walks (he had 77), and home runs (Dunn walloped 38).

Those three potential outcomes accounted for a whopping 48.5% of Dunn's at bats last year.

The coming weeks will reveal which team grabs Dunn--and his knack for true outcomes.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What to Call the 2010 Fall Classic

The World Series could be over in 12 hours, and I still haven't heard a good nickname depicting the two teams in the 2010 Series.

A decade ago--and 13 times before 2000, in fact--we had the Subway Series. In 1989, we had the Bay Bridge Series between the A's and the Giants (also known as the BART Series and, sadly, the Earthquake Series). In 1985, we had the Show Me Series, which pitted the Royals against the Cardinals. (Missouri is of course the Show Me State, for reasons I don't understand and don't care to dig up on Wikipedia. I vaguely remember, as a teen at the time, Newsday asking readers to suggest a name for the '85 set, and someone suggesting "World Beeries."  I liked that better than Show Me Series.)

Even last year's affair, between the Yankees and the Phillies, was dubbed the Liberty Series (Philly's got the bell, New York's got the belle) and the Turnpike Series (the Jersey Turnpike of course links New York and Philly, though the Snooki State did not technically have a team in the Series).

But what about Rangers-Giants? I'm sure Archie Bunker is yelling "Steers vs. Queers!" from the grave out in Queens, but we're not going to dignify that slur.

But it being Election Day and all tomorrow (surely you've noticed a few political ads on the telly?), you truly couldn't have a better case of Red State vs. Blue State in Rangers-Giants--a point only reinforced by a pair of ex-president George Bush's rolling onto the Arlington field in a golf cart, before Bush the Younger fired a pretty nifty strike to Nolan Ryan.

I hate to throw a stereotyping blanket over an entire region--after all, some Germans are funny, and some New Yorkers move slowly--but surely lots of people out there see the 2010 Series as the right-leaning cowpokes versus the tree-hugging, pot smoking (and pot voting!) libs from Berkeley. An otherwise intelligent friend with a habit of turning everything into a culture war battle posted this on Facebook after the Yankees were offed in Arlington:

...would rather be in nyc than be a redneck guntotin' ranger fan scarfing down nachos in a bright red gabe kapler jersey.

Of course, Gabe Kapler is Jewish, which just reminds us of the folly in broad geographical stereotypes.  
As coincidence would have it, I played company softball a few times against that same Facebook friend who disapproves of guntotin' ranger fans and Gabe Kapler. He worked/played for a book publisher, and I for the Bad News Bunnies of Playboy (Yes, I'm serious).
The nickname of our annual softball showdown? Bookies vs. Nookies, of course.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cain's Pitching Weighs 'Heavy' on Giants

The expertly-coiffed Eric Karros was effusive in his praise of Giants starter Matt Cain before last night's World Series contest.

"He throws a very heavy fastball," said Karros. "I mean heavy. If you're a hitter and you don't hit it on the barrel, it legitimately hurts your hands."

No, Cain was not throwing the shot put last night, though his line--four hits over 7 2/3rds innings--makes it sound like the Rangers were trying to hit one.

He ain't heavy...wait, yes he is.

The official Major League baseball weighs around 5 ounces, and pitchers don't get to choose more gravitationally enhanced spheres.

Throwing a heavy ball is one of the ultimate compliments for a pitcher. It often is used to describe a sinkerballer, who gets batters to hit the ball on the not-so-sweet part of the bat.

Says Rotosynthesis.com:
"We had Jimmy Rollins on our XM show, and I asked him if there were any young pitchers he thought were particularly tough that people should know about. He mentioned Jimenez, saying, that he throws a 'heavy sinker and you really have work to get the ball in the air with him.'"

Baseball Digest has what has to be the definitive essay, which dates back to 2004, on the "heavy ball" phenomenon. An excerpt reads:

It's the sinker that's usually the culprit. According to one-time Giants catcher and former Arizona manager Bob Brenly, "A sinker is the heaviest ball, especially if it breaks late. You don't catch it cleanly in the pocket, but lower, and it wobbles and vibrates all the way up your arm. It does the same to a batter who makes contact with it.

It is with heavy hearts that the Rangers return to the Lone Star State down 2-0.

Hooman Giant Steps Up For St. Loo

We visit the world of football, because we know that baseball players are not allowed to "make plays", for two terrific cliches in one sentence:

From my Yahoo Sports fantasy football guide:

Hoomanawanui was one of rookie QB Sam Bradford's favorite targets during the preseason and so his return from a high ankle sprain has been a positive for a Rams' club looking for a receiver or two to step up and make plays.

I mean, a lot of guys out there can step up.

And a good number of them can make plays.

But few, regrettably few, can actually step up and make plays.

It takes a big man to do both, and Michael Hoomanawanui, at 6 5" and 270 pounds, with broad shoulders and a long name, is just that man.

Monday, October 25, 2010

'Crooked' Rangers Have Yanks' 'Number'

Late in the fateful Rangers-Yankees game (Did the Rangers really beat the Yanks? I'm still processing this.), announcer Ron Darling spoke about the Texans' ability to put a "crooked number" on the board in a hurry--turning a hint of a rally into a full-blown smack attack that involved posting a 2, 3, 4 or more up on the scoreboard.

A crooked number.

An hour later, a somber Joe Girardi used the same phrase in his post-game post-mortem, saying how the Rangers' many innovative ways to advance on the basepaths led to some critical "crooked numbers" on the board for the boys from the Lone Star State.

(Another interesting description from a pinstriper in the post-mortem: Reggie Jackson telling the NY Times' George Vecsey the Yankees were "woodshedded", as in, taken back behind the woodshed and, you know, something violent, in the series.)

Wikipedia's Glossary of Baseball offers this for crooked number:
A number other than a zero or a one, referring to the appearance of the actual number. A team which is able to score two or more runs in an inning is said to "hang a crooked number" on the scoreboard or on the pitcher.

Crooked Number is also a Missouri band with a taste for Wilco's rootsy rhythms
I'm not sure how the phrase was originated; a true lexicon reporter like Ben Zimmer would probably do the legwork to find out, but I'm just too lazy. 
One online pundit notes that it dates at least back to the Buzz Bissinger book on Tony LaRussa, "Three Nights in August. "
Crooked number might have spawned from "crooked letter," which is street slang for the letter S. Surely you remember an old episode of Alice, when her son Tommy had a spelling test and someone (Alice? Mel? Dingbat Vera?) got him to remember the proper spelling of Mississippi by saying, "M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I." 
More recently, that old ditty was tweaked into something off-color by the Florida rapper Case.
Next up for the Yankees--seeing how much Derek Jeter wants for a crooked number contract.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Yanks Have 'Snowball's' Chance in Hell

Every so often a geniune inside-baseball phrase pops up in the newspaper, straight from the mouths of the ballplayers. Such as "swinging at the rosin bag"--a term for a batter swinging at every last pitch, location be damned--which I'd never heard in, oh, almost four decades of following baseball, until Jerry Manuel said it over the summer.

And the way Lance Berkman described the Rangers' Little League-esque comedy of throwing errors in the 2nd inning of their game in the Bronx Wednesday. It went Francoeur to Young to Wilson to Treanor, if you're scoring at home, with assists from the grass, the dirt, and the backstop. (Speaking of swinging at the rosin bag--can a team that sends Jeff Francoeur to the dish four-plus times a game truly expect to make the World Series?)

“That’s what we call a snowball fight in the industry,” Berkman told our pal George "Cable Swag" Vecsey of the Rangers' spasmodic defense on the play. “It can deteriorate on you in a hurry. I’ve been on the other end of that. You’re trying to get an out desperately, and the ball’s flying around, and you end up making a throw that’s ill-advised.”

Little white balls flying around the yard...A snowball fight. Brilliant.

Berkman has emerged as a mensch in the Yankees clubhouse, despite a mostly middling performance on the field. The reporters gravitate to Fat Elvis (If you haven't read about how Berkman got his "Fat Elvis" nickname, it's funny) for his veteran perspective and humor.

A hunk o' burning glove

Fat Elvis's quote is interesting for a few reasons. I like the juxtaposition of the kids-at-play with the corporate jargon of "the industry." We've written a lot about the intrusion of corporate-speak into Major League Baseball--no great surprise, I guess, when guys are making $15 mil a year and "diversifying their portfolios" with stakes in bottled water, financial services, race horses, or whatever widget draws their attention.

The Yanks will of course be all business when they face the Rangers tonight.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Having a Think on 'Having a Catch'

When we were kids, we played catch.

We played catch, we traded baseball cards, we rode our bikes to Cumberland Farms for Suzie Q's and soda, and we played more catch.

I caught up on the season finale of Mad Men last night after being victimized by a number of Facebook spoilers (is that any way to treat a Friend?), and saw Don Draper and his bespoke boys pitch the anti-smoking folks an ad campaign that featured timeless father-and-son stuff like "playing catch."
(Speaking of great Mad Men moments involved fathers and sons playing catch, remember that hospital scene with Don and some strange guy who was waiting on the birth of his son? The man quizzed Don about fatherhood and asked, "You and your boy throw the ball around?" Don, perpetual short-lister for Worst Father Ever, replied, "Not enough.")

So the notion of "playing catch" is timeless, right? Not so much.

No, I'm not talking about videgaming's methodical takeover of all things outdoorsy.

Some time, ago, "playing catch" turned into "having a catch." It's almost as if the activity was so mundane, so bereft of drama or passion, that people simply stripped the "play" out of it and rebranded it with the passive verb.

I've noticed a trend with people turning a verb into a noun and adding a "have a" before the former verb in an effort to sound trendy or smart or European, or all of the above. Let me illustrate, because that previous sentence is a bit confusing. You and I think. But a boss I used to have would say "Let me have a think" about something. (Mind you, he's not my boss anymore. I guess he didn't have a think enough.)

Or, you and I look at something. A pretentious person might have a look at that same thing.

Maybe that was a factor in playing catch turning into having a catch.

"Play catch" kicks up 128 million links on Google, including a WikiHow video link for the really-not-too bright called "How to Play Catch: 4 Steps" (As I noted in a Metro NY column a few years ago, "Catch" is one of the few games out there where the instructions are right there in the name. Are there really four steps to it? I count two--catch it and throw it. Maybe they're counting the bike ride to Cumberland Farms and Suzie Qs too.)

There's also a quote from Field of Dreams: "Could you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father."

"Have a catch," meanwhile, nearly doubles "play catch" on Google--306 million links (Granted, not all refer to throwing a ball back and forth, such as "The New Taliban Tactics Have a Catch"). There was a Wrigley Field event last year, promoted on Facebook, called "Hey Dad, Wanna Have a Catch?"--a 50 minute, open to the public, ball-throwing session for charity.

Whether you play catch or have a catch, the game is the same, and will be as long as there are fathers and sons, or fathers and daughters, or mothers and sons, or friends, or those Pitchbacks for people with no friends.

Cooling temps and fading summer sun be damned--I know what I--and my kids--will be doing when Daddy gets home from work today.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wagner-ian Opera Comes to End; No 'Cupcakes' For Braves

We're sad to see the Braves' season end, because it brings Billy Wagner's career to a close. Wagner was a frequent, if unwitting, contributor to Batter Chatter, his outspokeness and dopey homespun manner always good for a memorable phrase or two.

It was Wagner, of course, who accused then-Mets teammate Lastings Milledge of "big-leaguin' it"--a serious charge in the big leagues.

And after the NY Times Magazine ran something on Francisco Rodriguez losing it after his common-law wife's father told him to "man up," we had a little email convo with the author of the column, Ben Zimmer. Zimmer told Batter Chatter he enjoyed the bit we did on Wagner and "big-leaguin' it", and said Wagner was also responsible for one of his favorite baseball expressions: "cupcakin' it" (Formula for a Wagner-ism: take a noun, turn it into a verb by pasting an -ing suffix on it, drop the g, and add "it.")

Cupcakin' it means taking it easy, handling with kid gloves, that sort of thing. There's no cupcakin' it in baseball, Wagner told then-Mets manager Willie Randolph back in 2006, after Randolph threw Wagner into a tight game to start the season.

"Might as well get thrown right into the fire," said Wagner. "No use cupcakin' it."

Wrote Zimmer:

I had never come across this use of the verb cupcake before, but its meaning was immediately obvious from the context. Wagner meant there was no point in trying to breeze through his assignment or get by with little exertion. There's a long tradition of similar dessert-related metaphors in American slang: piece of cake, cakewalk, pudding (meaning 'something easy'), easy as pie, etc. A little searching on Usenet newsgroups and other forums for sports talk turned up various uses of the verb cupcake, very often in reference to a team building up a deceptively good win-loss record thanks to an easy competitive schedule.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Thinking Outside the 'Bandbox'

The Twins' new ballpark, on national TV for all to see tonight when the Minnesotans host the fearsome Yankees, is no bandbox.

Yet those homer-happy Blue Jays made Target Field feel like one earlier this summer.

“They made the place look like a little bandbox,” Twins outfielder Denard Span told the NY Times yesterday. “It’s hard to believe. We complain all year about the place, and they come here and hit like 10 home runs."

UPDATE: Today's NY Times!: "The Twins’ new Target Field is not the bandbox the Metrodome was, and the Twins, accordingly, scored 36 fewer runs in 2010..."

A bandbox.

Any time someone needs a metaphor for a small baseball stadium, they opt for bandbox. The Phillies newish stadium? Definitely a bandbox. "The Phillies raised the left-field fence at Citizens Bank Park 2 1/2 feet and moved it back five feet following the 2005 season, less than two years after it opened," wrote MLB.com earlier this year. "Pitchers at Citizens Bank Park had complained that the ballpark played like a bandbox."

Yankee Stadium? Was a bandbox last year, short porch and all. "New Yankee Stadium is a bandbox," wrote Ohio's Times-Reporter.

Not so much this year...maybe it's the wind.

Of course, Denard Span's usage--"a little bandbox"--is redundant. A bandbox is, by definition, little.

But what the heck is a bandbox when it's not a baseball metaphor? I'd guess it's like an orchestra pit--a small box that sees several musicians jammed into it to provide music for theater. Or maybe something like a bandshell--another tight performance space for musicians.

I'd be wrong.

Merriam Webster's calls it a "cylindrical box of paperboard or thin wood for holding light articles of attire."

MW's second definition references the diamond. "A structure (as a baseball park) having relatively small interior dimentions.)

Wikipedia offers a few different uses for bandbox, including a novel by Thomas Mallon about a '20s men's magazine called, yup, "Bandbox," and the 1712 attempt on the Earl of Oxford's life that's known as "the Bandbox Plot."

WikiAnswers.com says the first usage of bandbox in the baseball context came from John Updike in The New Yorker in 1960.

"Fenway Park is a little lyrical bandbox of a ballpark," wrote J.U.

It's very strange that such an archaic word is still called upon as the metaphor of choice for small ballparks. Think about how many types of boxes are more current than the bandbox. The cigar box. The tackle box. The jewelry box, the music box. The glove box.

And it doesn't necessarily have to be a word ending in "box", does it? I mean, a small ballpark could be likened to a "cookie jar" or a "bread basket." (Wait, "breadbasket" is already in use in baseball slanguage.)

OK, enough on the topic. I have to hit the cleaners before they close and grab my new bandbox.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Batter Chatter's 2010 Name Hall of Fame

We hereby give out the inaugural 2010 season-end Batter Chatter Great Names in Baseball awards.

Player Whose Last Name Sounds Most Like a Corporation:
(tie) Jason Varitek (Red Sox) and Paul Konerko (White Sox)
Honorable Mention: Kelly Shoppach (Rays)

The Pirates '80s Third Baseman Jim Morrison Award for Best Rock Star Name:
(tie) Carlos Santana (Indians), Brian Wilson (Giants), Corey Hart (Brewers)

Names You Can't Make Fun of Anymore Because They've Been Too Funny For Too Long:
(tie) Milton Bradley (Mariners), Coco Crisp (Athletics)
Honorable Mention: Albert Pujols (Cardinals)

Player Who Sounds Like a Flavor of Cheese:
Tom Gorzelanny (Pirates)

Most Animals Mentioned in a Name:
Marlon Byrd, Cubs (2)

Most Body Parts Mentioned in a Name:
Tony Armas, Ret. (4)

The 'Dad Was Probably a Dentist' Award:
(tie) Chad Moeller (Yankees), John Buck (Blue Jays)

The 'Mom and Dad Don't Spell So Hot' Award:
Jhonny Peralta (Indians)

The 'Guy Who I Don't Like Even Though I Haven't Met Him Because of His Name' Award:
Madison Bumgarner (Giants)

Most Poetic Name:
(tie) Buster Posey (Giants) and Daniel Bard (Red Sox)

The Vanna White 'I'd Like to Buy a Vowel' Award:
Marc Rzepczynski (Blue Jays)

Player Most Likely to Be Related to Busta Rhymes:
Will Rhymes (Tigers)

The World Leader Name Award:
(tie) Chris Carter (Mets), Adam Kennedy (Nats), Ramon Castro (White Sox), Joe Thatcher (Padres)

And The Only Player in Major League Baseball to Have His Team Name on the Front and Back of His Jersey...
Jason Castro (Astros)

Monday, October 4, 2010

'Bonus Baseball' in October

The 2010 regular season didn't go down without a fight.

The Red Sox and Yanks engaged in two--two--extra inning games on Saturday, logging some eight-hours plus of baseball at Fenway.

The Rays and Royals went 12 innings yesterday, even though the Yankees had lost, thus giving the division title to the Tampa-ites.

And the Metsies, oh those Metsies, went 14 before losing in the most ignominious of ways. It's the stuff late-night comic monologues thrive on--what could make the Mets' dismal season worse than five innings of extra baseball that ends in a loss?

"Bonus Baseball," went the headline from our friends over at Baseball Musings. (Well, we're sort of friends...we're on each other's blogrolls and they ran a nice item on Batter Chatter not long after we launched.)

There aren't many synonyms for extra innings. Some wiseguys call it "overtime", the phrase every clock-based sport uses. Some say "extras."

Earlier this season, the surprisingly good MLB.com writeups referred to "bonus baseball in the desert" after the Yankees and D-Backs went very long in an inter-league game.

Coincidentally, "bonus baseball" also refers to the one-game playoff to see who gets into the post-season when there's a tie--a game that would've been played today, if we'd been in such a situation.

"Playoff Watch: Another year of bonus baseball?" mused Sporting News yesterday, before all the races played out before the finish line.

Oddly, and against all logic, I had considerable interest in yesterday's 14-inning Met game. I'd gone to my first game at CitiField all season Saturday. Mets against Nats, October, there could not have been less on the line.
Let's call it the Fall Spastic. 
The view from the right-field terrace.
The place had about 13,000 people and me and Tommy T took in the game from a number of vantage points, including the glass-walled restaurant and the standing terrace beyond right field. (Lower-level ushers were oddly protective of the good seats, all things considered.) And boy, what a gorgeous day it was.

David Wright had a little Dave Matthews playing when he stepped up to the plate in the 7th, but the peace-and-love vibes were gone in seconds. Tyler Clippard through one under Wright's chin, and DW responded with a long three-run, tie-breaking home run, and a very slow and purposeful trip around the bases.

CitiField went wild. All 13,000 of us.

I truly wanted the Mets to end on a posititve note, just as I eagerly went to Sandbox.com this morning to see how my last place Luckless Pedestrians did in their fantasy league final. (Sandbox down and I don't know if I held on for the win against Weaver's Beavers. Nice one, Sandbox.)

[UPDATE: Luckless Pedestrians took down the Beavers, 183-76. AJ Burnett even contrib'd some points this week, for once.]

Silly, I know. But I'd rather watch last-place baseball than football. That's just me.

I also had to mow the lawn, and set the DVR to record the last few innings. I tape the last game every year in case I suffer some sort of Mets withdrawal sickness in the dead of winter. I don't ever actually watch it -- it's more like the aspirins you through in your toiletry kit before going on vacation. It's good to have them, just in case.

I had the Blackberry in my back pocket and checked the game update every time the mower bag was full. The game went on, the 12th, the 13th. I ran inside when the lawn was finished, ignoring a neighbor and his angry dog who wanted to make small talk about taxes and the president.

Ollie Perez was in for the first time in weeks. Ollie Perez, who became pitcher non grata--at $12 mil a year--after refusing to go to the minors to figure out his woeful control issues. A ghost in the clubhouse, say the beat reporters.

Bad Ollie walked three and hit a batter in a third of an inning. Yeah, you're right, Ollie -- you don't need a tuneup in the minors. You're fine.

Game over. Season over.

On one hand, I appreciated the Metsies bringing me one hour closer to pitchers and catchers reporting in February. On the other hand, I'd just dedicated my weekend time and my emotional investment to a meaningless game that ended badly. (Badly doesn't quite describe it. Grotesquely?)

Had the Mets pulled out yet another walk-off win yesterday (they'd had two in the past week), a tiny hint of optimism would've buried itself in my brain for those cold winter months.

Instead, I just felt cold.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Enjoying a Little 'Yard' Work

A decade ago, Mike Piazza divulged that his true wish in life was to create a baseball cliche that would live on well after his hitting records did. Hitting 427 homers in the major leagues is tough, but creating a baseball expression that lasts in perpetuity may be even tougher.

You need a clever phrase, for starters, and a gigantic media platform from which to send your new phrase into millions of pairs of eyes and ears.

Batter Chatter, unfortunately, is not that media platform. (Yet?)

ESPN, on the other hand, is.

Take "going yard," for instance, which everyone who knows a walk from a balk knows means hitting a home run.

That came from SportsCenter...I mean, it had to, right? I can't seem to find proof online, but I think it's got to have come from SportsCenter, same as "cooler than the other side of the pillow" and "Boo-Ya!" and other trademark catchphrases.

Wikipedia's Glossary of Baseball says the phrase has roots in Baltimore, where the park is of course called Camden Yards, and plenty of balls have "gone yard" since the park opened in 1993.

Writes the Glossary:
To "go yard" is to hit a home run, i.e., to hit the ball the length of the baseball field or "ball yard".
A discussion on LonelyPlanet.com on, of all things, the movie Inglourious Basterds, centers around a  character exclaiming "Teddy Ballgame goes yard!" while beating a Nazi with a baseball bat.

One excerpt reads:

In 2005, William Safire [former writer of the "On Language" column in the NYT] said he couldn't find the origin. The speculation is Camden or the fact that playing fields were often called "ball yards." Someone found a reference to Comiskey being called "The Yard."

The post also notes that Dickson Baseball Dictionary author Paul Dickson says a home run was occasionally called a "yardbird"--which may have helped spark "going yard."

All I know is, "going yard" is a widely used--and perhaps overused--baseball expression. Not only does every local TV sports guy in America use, it, but "Going Yard" is the name of a baseball blog, a baseball camp, and even a real estate firm in Kissimmee, Florida ("We hit it out of the park everytime!"), among many, many other outfits.

So much a part of the modern baseball vernacular is going yard that SI ESPN writer extraordinaire Rick Reilly introduced a variation of it in June, noting that Jamie Moyer had tied former Phillie Robin Roberts for allowing the most home runs in MLB history.

Wrote RR:

The Phillies now have the two greatest yard salesmen in MLB history -- Moyer and Hall of Famer Robin Roberts.

Alas, I don't think that one really caught on.

I'll check in with Dickson and with ESPN and see if anyone can confirm the origin of "going yard." If anyone out there has any insights, it would be cooler than the other side of the pillow if you could share them.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ahhhhh, Wipeout Slider! (Cue the Surf Music!)

The slider has become the most multi-faceted pitch in recent years. There's the back-door slider, sneaking into the far end of the strike zone like the neighborhood tomcat stealing into the house to visit a cuckolding missus.

Earlier this season, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer spoke of Justin Masterson's "lefty slider," as the righty hurler calls his devastating pitch.

Wrote the PD over the summer:

Masterson also mixes in a four-seam fastball and changeup -- and, for good measure, a pitch he calls "the lefty slider." It is a pitch Red Sox slugger David Ortiz thought he could hit until the ball ran so far down and away that he ended up coming nowhere close.

And don't even get us started on the "slurve." (Speaking of the slurve, is there a less euphonious mash-up known to man, barring, perhaps "jeggings"?)

Anyway, we digress. The slider has lots of offshoots. And add to it the "wipeout slider," as baseball wiz Kevin Towers describes Padres late bloomer Luke Gregerson. Actually, the term comes from former Padres outfielder John Vander Wal:

“[Vander Wal] said he had a wipeout slider for righties and lefties and was ready now,” Towers told the NY Times. “When I hear that from a guy who made his living as a pinch-hitter against the top relievers in baseball, that’s music to my ears. I’m going to take a chance on that guy.”

UPDATE: The NY Times had it again in Tuesday's paper, talking about CC Sabathia. Obviously scribe Tyler Kepner liked the phrase so much after hearing it from Towers that he used it again.

Twice [Sabathia] humbled the major league home run leader, Jose Bautista, with his signature wipeout slider.

Ihave no idea what a "wipeout slider" is--if it cuts, darts, dives or tumbles. I can only assume a wipeout slider is a very good one.

Keep in mind everyone involved in the above excerpt has San Diego roots, so I'll assume it's some surfer thing.

Yet Google shows that the term pops up a handful of times around the country, dating back at least a few years. Over three years ago, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story on Pirates draftee Daniel Moskos reported:

He has a "wipeout" slider, according to one evaluator, that he throws at 85-87 mph.

And Baseball America described ballyhooed Cardinal farmhand Mitch Boggs thusly:

He has ditched his curveball and developed a wipeout slider that ranks as one of the best in the system

Sounds like scout-speak--or a true inside-baseball--term to me.

Monday, September 27, 2010

I Spy, With My Little Eye, a Hit for Kyle Kendrick

Phils pitcher Kyle Kendrick was up against the Mets Saturday, and squirted a ground ball past a diving David Wright, then, a split second later, past Jose Reyes and into left.

"A seeing-eye single!" hollered Mets announcer Gary Cohen.

We watched the replay and saw just how perfectly the ball was placed.

"That one really did have eyes," added Ron Darling.

The seeing-eye single. The heretofore unknown MLB.com "Lingo" page offers this for the SES:
A soft ground ball that finds its way between infielders for a base hit. 

Wikipedia's "Baseball Glossary" prefers "seeing-eye ball" and defines it thusly:

A batted ground ball that just eludes capture by an infielder, just out of infielder's range, as if it could "see" where it needed to go. Less commonly used for a ball that takes an unusual lateral bounce to elude an infielder.

Many years ago, when Tim McCarver was announcing for the Metsies, he used to refer to such Manny Trillo-ian swats as "38-hoppers."

The seeing-eye single of course lends the term's creation to seeing-eye dogs, as if one of those wondrous labradors was out there on the field, guiding the ball through a narrow channel of defenders and into safe ground.

Ironically, seeing-eye single may have outlived its creator; I believe seeing-eye dogs are now called "guide dogs", perhaps a victim of political correctness centered around the handicapped handicapable in recent years.

"Seeing Eye Single" kicks up 6.8 million links on Google, but surprisingly, just a handful relating to baseball.

Wrote the Denver Post way back in April:

The proper way to act after reaching safely on a seeing-eye single? A sheepish smile and half-hearted fist-bump with the first-base coach, of course. After all, as the old baseball saying goes, it looks like a line drive in the box score.

Friday, September 24, 2010

There is No Clever Play on Words for 'Eephus'

With Dodgers pitcher Vicente Padilla currently on the shelf with back trouble, I don't know that we'll have the pleasure of seeing any more eephus pitches this season.

The eephus pitch is, of course, the cartoon-slow lob that pitchers sometimes try to sneak by hitters.

According to the book Big Hair and Plastic Grass, the eephus dates back to 1930s pitcher Rip Sewell.

Padilla would rely on the pitch now and then, prompting broadcaster extraordinaire Vin Scully to call the pitch the "soap bubble."

So where does "eephus" come from? From Hebrew--and the 1940s Pirates, apparently. Writes Wikipedia:

According to [Pirates] manager Frankie Frisch, the pitch was named by outfielder Maurice Van Robays. When asked what it meant, Van Robays replied, "'Eephus ain't nothing, and that's a nothing pitch." Although the origin is not known for certain, Eephus may come from the Hebrew word "efes" (pronounced "EFF-ess"), meaning "nothing."

The cool thing about the eephus, at least for those who are obsessed with the language of baseball, is that each practicioner of the funky slowball gets his own nickname for it, courtesy of, presumably, the local beat writers.

Bill "Spaceman" Lee threw one in the 1975 World Series, the pitch dubbed the "Leephus." (Big Hair and Plastic Grass calls the Leephus "a psychedelic variation" on Sewell's original Eephus.)

Says Wikipedia, Casey Fossum owns the "Fossum Flip," Dave LaRoche famously threw the "LaLob," and Dave Stieb had the "Dead Fish."

Wikipedia says Mark Buehrle is among the increasingly short list of current guys with an eephus. Whether Mark throws a Buehrle Bleeder at the Red Sox Monday will be determined.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Fighting Phils Play 'Dirty'

As we know, pitchers with truly devastating stuff--Halladay, Lincecum, A.J. Burnett when he's not in a horrible funk--are filthy.

What do you call a pitcher who's not quite in the filthy category?

He's dirty, of course.

Like Brad Lidge.

“Watching from center field, he looks like he’s back to the stuff he had in ’08 — same slider action,” Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino told the NY Times over the weekend. “And we need that out of him. I get the best view of all the pitchers, and when he’s got his stuff, the guy’s dirty.”

You don't hear dirty much in baseball. Football players are dirty, and basketball players can be dirty too.

But not so much baseball guys, even if Nyjer Morgan has been pushing the envelope a bit of late.

Of course, Shane the Pain is not like other guys. He's Hawaiian, he looks a bit like Kazoo from Flintstones in that giant batting helmet, and he gave fellow Hawaiian President Obama a container of macadamias--and a big ol' soul hug--when El Hefe visited the National League locker room at the 2009 Mid-Summer Classic, even though the players were under strict orders not to give the president gifts. (Disobeying the Secret Service? Now that's dirty! Video here.)

Lidge is getting better as the season goes on, and is certainly way better than his dismal (and injured) 2009. But he blew five saves in 28 chances as of Sunday--and still isn't near his fireballing form from his perfect 2008.

But if he continues the momentum through the end of the regular season, Lidge might just elevate his game from dirty to filthy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Texeira Brings Unique 'Rep' to Baseball

It's hard to feel bad for guys making several million a year, but this time of year, when most teams are simply playing out the string and sports fans' passions turn to football, one feels a slight pang of sorrow for the guys plodding around the ballfield. Baseball can suddenly seem slow and boring.

And it seems fans aren't the only ones thinking of football. Reading into a Mark Texeira quote in the NY Post yesterday, Big Tex--who's built more like a tight end than a first baseman--has pigskin on the brain too.

With several of the aging/aching Yankees getting some pine time in these dog days of summer, Texeira said it allowed the scrubs to get vital in-game action.

"What the injuries have done is create depth for us," he told the Post, "it has allowed guys to get reps."

Reps. A football term! A quarterback gets reps--short for repetitions, of course--in practice. He grabs the snap from the center and, well, does something with the ball. A lineman gets reps to get his timing down at the line of scrimmage.


Tubby tackle Albert Haynesworth looked forward to getting reps as the pre-season drew to a close.
Haynesworth expected to get reps in final exhibition, wrote the Sporting News.

Some Cowboys still got reps even as a few key starters came back from injury.
As Starters Return, Backup Line Get Reps Too, said DallasCowboys.com.

We've noted in this cyber-space how baseball players, unlike their football counterparts, are not permitted to make plays. But now they can at least get reps.

UPDATE: Perhaps it's a trend, as an MLB.com writeup of last night's Rays-Yanks game said the struggling A.J. Burnett "could have used the reps as he continues to claw back from an awful August." (By the way, MLB.com's game reports, which offer separate summaries for both teams in the game, are excellent.)

Texeira of course has a rep as a stand-up guy: Plays the game, stays out of trouble, good teammate.

Yet he's not the player rep on the Bombers--that honor goes to Curtis Granderson, whose reps in the cage with hitting coach Kevin Long led to two dingers against the Rays last night.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Screwball 'Fades' Away

I enjoyed the Babe Ruth bio The Big Bam, and some of the baseball anachronisms that it offered up. One is a pitch called the "fadeaway."

A young pitcher called Hub "Shucks" Pruett--apparently, "Hub" wasn't enough of a nickname, so the boys called Hub "Shucks"--could throw a pretty mean fadeaway, which did the opposite of a curveball, breaking in toward a righty batter's hands from a righty pitcher, and vice versa.

Writes Big Bam author Leigh Montville:

As a kid, Shucks had idolized Christy Mathewson, the master of the fadeaway. The pitch, later known as the screwball, was basically a curve in reverse, thrown with an unnatural twist of the wrist and elbow.

So the fadeway, at least in name, disappeared in favor of the screwball. These days, the fadeaway pops up in basketball--a jumpshot where you fade away from your defender. (Not to get all Pop-Up Video on you or anything, but "Not Fade Away" is a 1957 single from Buddy Holly employing Bo Didley's trademark riff. It was later covered by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Rolling Stones to Bruce Springsteen.)

But what the heck ever happened to the screwball or, as it was known on the street, the "scroogie"?

Who do you think of when you think of the scroogie? I think of Fernando Valenzuela, eyes to the skies as he twisted, turned and then dealt his nasty scroogie toward the plate. That was, of course, the early '80s.

I honestly don't know that I've heard of anyone throwing a screwball since then, the pitch losing favor to new-fangled offerings such as the sinker and the splitter and the circle change.

Wikipedia spells scroogie "screwgie." I don't know that either of us are right or wrong, seeing as it's a made up word, but I think Batter Chatter is more correct, as "scroogie" coughs up 45,000 links on Google, and "screwgie" just 2,000.

Wikipedia too offers up Christy Mathewson as the master of the screwball--and its fading predecessor.

One of the first great screwball pitchers was Christy Mathewson (1900–1916), whose pitch was then labeled as the 'fadeaway'.

The online resource offers up more modern names regarding the screwball, including John Franco, Pedro Martinez, Jamie Moyer and Dallas "Stay the F*** Off My Mound" Braden.

But clearly the art of the screwball has been lost; perhaps the peculiar throwing motion--remember, author Montville called it "unnatural"--meant it was a grave arm injury waiting to happen.

Indeed, closer inspection of Dallas Braden's repetoire indicates that he's largely abandoned the screwball for health reasons--though he did throw one during his perfect game, when he'd tried just about everything else to get Gabe Kapler out.

Quotes HardballTimes.com:
"I was thinking maybe the knuckleball, the gyroball, the behind-the-back pitch, because I'd tried everything else," Braden said. "I threw him a 64 mph screwball and he fouled it off. I threw him one more pitch and it was the correct location."

Web tutorial outfit E-How, not to be confused with former Mets skipper Art Howe, shows how to throw one. E-How also warns of its dangers to young, impressionable arms:

You don't have to be a screwball to throw this pitch, but not knowing how to do it properly may screw up an otherwise perfect arm.

These days, "screwball" is used more to describe a crazy person or the latest Farrelly brothers movie (a "screwball" comedy!) than a pitch. Here are a few synonyms from Answers.com: blockhead, bonehead, bozo, character, crackpot, dingbat, dumbbell, eccentric, fanatic, goof, kook, lunkhead, numbskull, nut, saphead.  

Those put-downs are just a taste of what screwballing screwball Pedro Martinez would hear when venturing into Yankee Stadium a few short years ago.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Batter Chatter Word of the Day

I'm going to CitiField tonight, thanks to birthday tix from The Missus. I will not bring an umbrella, because I didn't check the forecast of thunderstorms. Neither will I bring my mitt, because I am a grown man.

With that, your inaugural "Batter Chatter" Word of the Day:

OPTIMITTS: Grown-ups who still bring baseball gloves to the ballgame, despite the infinitesimal chance of actually being in a position to catch a game ball.

If Laurel and Hardy Were Around in the Era of the Relief Pitcher

My mother was talking to my father the other night, as they are prone to do.

They were talking about baseball, as they are prone to do. In light of K-Rod's recent legal/physical issues, Mom asked Dad who the Mets' new closer is.

"Committee," Dad answered.

"What's his first name?" Mom asked.


First of all, full props to M and D for still following our beloved Metsies as the Mets play out the string and fail to play "meaningful games" in late summer once again. Further indicating their fan-tastic fanaticism, they follow the games on the internet since retiring out of the Gotham market.

Back to closer-by-committee.

What we've learned from doing Batter Chatter blog for the past four months: if a baseball term doesn't come from the food world, it probably comes from the business world, and "committee" very definitely has its roots in the corporate culture.

Closer-by-committee of course refers to a gaggle of relief pitchers aiming to get those crucial last 3...or 4, 5 or even 6...outs, managers going with specific matchups based on which side of the body you arm is on in relation to which side of the plate the batter stands on, and a pitcher's statistical record against a given batter.

Closer-by-committee usually results after the closer has been injured. The hope is that one of the three or four guys in the closer rotation will rise above, show he can get righties and lefties alike out, and claim the job outright.

The Twins tried it at the beginning of the season, with Joe Nathan on the shelf.

"We are a committee," manager Ron Gardenhire told MLB.com. "Our closer role is a committee."

The Orioles did it for a bit, then gave the job to Koji Uehara recently

The strategy worked pretty well for much of last year for the Rays and the Braves, writes SI.com:

Two contending teams are closing games by committee, and no one has cried heresy

Alas, the strategy never seems to work for long. The Twins opted for Jon Rauch just after the season started, then acquired Matt Capps when Rauch proved to be less than Nathanesque. The Braves have Billy "Know Your Place Rook" Wagner at the tail end, and the Rays have Rafael Soriano, who shut the Yanks down last night to preserve a tight win.

Over in Camp Flushing, Hisanori Takahashi seems to have chosen committee chairman. Despite lacking the mid-90s fastball and peculiar facial hair/haircut of typical closers, Takahashi shut down those pesky Pirates last night (OK, they're not really all that pesky) to tally his seventh save.

A few more lights-out closes, and my mother might even remember his name.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Food For Thought--Where Baseball and Noshing Intersect

Just how much does baseball terminology borrow from the world of food? Consider this fictitious account of a Yankees-Twins game we dreamed up today. (My dreams don't usually feature home runs from A-Rod...not sure what happened here.)

Bases loaded, Swisher steps to the dish for the Yankees. Swisher already has three rib-eye steaks on the day against the Twinkies, he’d love to make it four.

Mauer sets up inside, and Pavano unleashes some cheese.

Swisher ducks out of the way.

“He got in Swisher’s bread basket,” says Michael Kay. "That was some serious cheddar."

“Pavano’s fastball has some mustard on it today,” says Ken Singleton. “Bet the Yanks would’ve liked to see that when they were paying Pavano’s salary.”

Swisher steps back into the box and sets.

Pavano looks in for a sign.

Kay munched peanuts. Singleton had Cracker Jacks.

“He’s been attacking the hitters,” says Kay, “not his usual nibbling approach. Which is fine with Swish; fastballs are his bread and butter.”

The pitch comes. Swish swings. He hits a pea to right. Jason Kubel is in pursuit, and makes a nifty snow-cone catch in the gap.

“That was a seed,” says Kay.

“Indeed,” says Singleton. “It was hit too hard for Granderson to score.”

Up steps Texeira. Pavano starts him off with a fastball, high and tight. Texeira steps out of the way.

“Pavano got in Tex’s kitchen that time,” says Kay.

Pavano sets, deals. It’s an off-speed pitch. Texeira swings feebly and pops it up to second. Hudson grabs it easily.

Can of corn,” says Kay.

Two down, bases still loaded. Up steps Alex Rodriguez.

Pavano looks in and deals.

The pitch comes in, straight and catching too much of the plate. A-Rod swings mightily.

"SEEE YAAAA!." says Kay as the ball flies over the right-centerfield fence.

Oppo taco!” says Singleton.

“He threw A-Rod a cookie," says Kay. "Catchers don't catch too many of those."

A-Rod rounds the bases. The Twins fans boo.

“A-Rod’s first tater since August 28th,” says Kay. “A grand salami, no less.”

The boos get louder as A-Rod flips his helmet away and jumps onto the plate.

“Twins fans have no love lost for A-Rod,” says Singleton. “They think he’s a hot dog.”

Monday, September 13, 2010

I'm 'Locked-In'--And I've Never Been Happier!

Generally speaking, "locked-in" is not really a situation one wants to be in.

Locked in a subway car.

Locked in a closet.

If you were in a '70s sitcom, surely you were "locked in" a meat locker at some point, and it was probably the end of a workday on a Friday, with the shop closed for the weekend. Thank God Sam the Butcher left his bowling ball at the shop, and came back to find you -- cold and cranky, but otherwise fine.

Locked-In Syndrome is an actual medical condition that sounds like how you'd feel if no one found you in the meat locker for a whole weekend. Wikipedia describe LIS as "a condition in which a patient is aware and awake but cannot move or communicate due to complete paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles in the body except for the eyes. Total locked-in syndrome is a version of locked-in syndrome where the eyes are paralyzed as well."

Yet being locked-in in baseball is a very, very good thing, as evidenced by a New Jersey baseball camp called, yes, Locked In.

A few months ago, Rockies hurler Ubaldo Jimenez looked like a sure thing for the Cy Young. "Ubaldo Jimenez Completely Locked In," wrote Fanhouse.com.

Prior to the trade deadline, the White Sox front office was just short of obsessed with Nats tater-hitter Adam Dunn. "Chicago White Sox Locked In On Adam Dunn," wrote baseballnewsshare.com. (The Sox, of course, ended up with another one-dimensional slugger in Manny Ramirez after being locked out by Dunn.)

Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson told the NY Times last week that, despite his improved hitting and new approach, the key to locking himself in continued to elude him.

The Times wrote:
The topic shifted to Granderson’s offensive surge and whether he felt “locked in” at the plate after adjusting his swing in the second half. “Not at all,” said Granderson, who raised his average to .252.

So who's locked in these days? Well, if it's mid-September, the Rockies, of course. Slugging outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, with 32 home runs and an even 100 rib-eye steaks. Eric Young Jr., hitting at a .462 clip over his last seven games.

Know what else is locked in in Mile-High Denver? Why, the baseballs for the big series against the Padres this week, of course, as they stay moist in a humidor.

Sure beats being locked in a meat cooler.

Friday, September 10, 2010

'Jimmy Jack' Cheese On Your 'Oppo Taco'?

Quick, "Oppo Taco" is:

1. A new limited time offering from Taco Bell.

2. A follow-up to George Harrison's 1982 album "Gone Troppo" from his son, Dhani.

3. An opposite field home run.

You probably guessed #3, seeing as this is a baseball blog and all. If so, you'd be correct.

"Oppo Taco" just crossed the Batter Chatter transom yesterday, thanks to the eagle ears of reader Jon2Rock. It's California slang for an opposite field home run (tacos are presumably to California what the bagel is to New York). He heard it on MLB Network Tuesday night, from the effusive mouth of quintessential California boy Eric Byrnes.

But the phrase goes back a little further, and seems to stem from Los Angeles Angels broadcaster Victor Rojas. How popular is the Oppo Taco? It's got its own Facebook page, in fact.

Oppo Taco is not Rojas's only contribution to baseball slanguage. According to Wikipedia:

Rojas is most known for his invention of the phrase "oppo taco," which is used to a describe an opposite field home run, as well as "Three-Run Jimmy Jack," used whenever the Angels hit a three-run home run.

Various baseball chat rooms feature discussions on Oppo Taco, most commenters appearing as though they don't like the term. But I give Rojas credit--is there another phrase for opposite field home run, other than "opposite field home run"?

Let's not all hate on the Oppo Taco. The phrase just might help some special needs kids get onto the ballfield.

Writes AngelsWin.com:

AngelsWin.com is selling t-shirts featuring the play-by-play man's popular "Oppo Taco" home run call and donating the proceeds to Miracle League of Orange County, a baseball league that pairs special needs children with able-bodied helpers so that every child can experience the joy of playing America's pastime.
Not to be a cynic or anything, but how long before Taco Bell jumps on the Oppo Taco bandwagon and works the phrase into its local SoCal marketing? An angry chihuaha warning a frightened Bobby Abreu to "drop the Oppo Taco"?
I'm just sayin'.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Color is Your 'Parachute Changeup'?

"Tanner Scheppers" might sound more like the kid whose books you used to dump in the junior high school hallway than the potential 2010 MVP and 2011 Cy Young Award winner, but Sports Illustrated says Scheppers might be the missing link the Texas Rangers are looking for as summer turns to fall.

Scheppers features a devastating batch of arrows in his quiver, says SI, including a "parachute changeup."

"With a high-90s fastball, a looping curve and a parachute changeup, the 23-year-old Scheppers has the repertoire to be a dominant starter."

Pitchers are known to "pull the string" on a good changeup, but it appears the "string" is sometimes a ripcord.

Scheppers isn't the only one with a parachute changeup.

Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano used to have one, and may have one again, wrote AaronGleeman.com at the start of the season.

"Even with some of his velocity returning Liriano isn't the unhittable phenom who overpowered the league with a mid-90s fastball, parachute changeup, and high-80s slider of death in 2006."

When you think devastating changeup, you of course think of Liriano's old teammate, Johan Santana.

"He's a power pitcher, just like Randy Johnson...he's got a parachute changeup...he's definitely the best lefty in the league," Mike Sweeney said on baseball-almanac.com.

Then there's Cole Hamels, whom Denver Post described in 2009 as "World Series MVP a year ago with outstanding fastball and a parachute changeup he'll throw on any count."

While "parachute changeup" kicks up a modest 700-plus links in Google, the phrase actually goes back at least a decade. David Cone used the expression to describe the change-of-pace possessed by Pedro Martinez, then of the Red Sox, after a 17 K performance against the Yankees back in 1999.

Coming full circle to its Tanner Scheppers descrip, the Coney quote also comes from Sports Illustrated:

"He had three dominating pitches—an overpowering fastball, a knee-buckling curve and a parachute changeup. I don't think I've ever seen anyone with all three."
Scheppers and his sky-diving sinker may play a key relief role for the Rangers in the playoffs. And with Pedro having more lives than Jason from Friday the 13th, who knows if Martinez--and his paratropping pitch--will end up on the hill for a playoff team in October.
[image: sonsofsamhorn.net]

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's Hip to be 'Square'

First off, sorry for getting Huey Lewis stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

Ted Williams famously described the difficulties of hitting by noting how you're attempting to strike a round ball with a round bat.

But what do you get when you add round to round?

A square, of course.

Increasingly, players talk of "squaring up" on the ball--MLB shorthand for hitting a ball solidly, the bat flat across the plate, its sweet spot hitting the fat part of the ball.

Last week's New York Times had Mets catcher Josh Thole talking about his fascination with Mark McGwire as a kid. McGwire's connection to performance enhancing drugs has not tamped down Thole's respect for Big Mac.

"You’ve still got to square the ball up and hit it,” he said in appreciation of McGwire’s 583 home runs. “So maybe he wouldn’t have hit the ball 550 feet. Maybe it only would have gone 490. He crushed balls, and they still would have been home runs.”

Over the weekend, the Times' baseball guy, Tyler Kepner, wondered if the most elusive of baseball achievements, the Triple Crown, would be won this year.

Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who plays with Triple Crown candidate Joey Votto and sees and awful lot of Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols, says both guys "square up" enough on the ball to hit for average and power.

Arroyo says:
"Joey and Albert can hit the ball out, almost accidentally, to the opposite field. So that’s the first thing. Now, you take that kind of power and add it to a guy who’s disciplined enough at the plate and can square it up enough to hit .300 — that’s where you get this package, that’s where you get the Barry Bondses of the world."

Since a lone "squaring it up" is not enough to describe the awesome power of Votto and Pujols, Arroyo takes another crack.

“If you take that same hitter without the power, you have Tony Gwynn. You add the power, it just doesn’t happen very often. There aren’t that many guys walking the earth who have that much strength, that much discipline at the plate and also square a ball up as much as they do.”

"Square up" appears neither in the Webster's dictionary nor Wikipedia's Glossary of Baseball Terms. Google doesn't reveal much either, at least in terms of baseball. Outside of our beloved pastime, "square up" looks like a knitting term ("squaring up your quilt"), as well as a printed message about social ills (drinking, sex) that would appear at the beginning of an exploitation film back in the '40s or '50s (From Wikipedia: She Shoulda Said No! contained a square-up concerning youth drug abuse, and Child Bride the issue of child marriage.")

The phrase appears to have a place in cricket too--or at least in the nations where cricket is popular. Last Sunday's Bangkok Post proclaims, "Pakistan cricketers square up amid fresh betting claims", while a NY Times last year said "Australians Rout England to Square Up Ashes Series."

We're unsure if it's kosher in cricket to square up on a wicked googly.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

How 'Man Up' Led to 'Man Down!'

Just when we thought we were done with K-Rod for the season--done with him suiting up for the Metsies, done writing about him--Frankie Rodriguez is the star of a smart essay on, of all things, the intersection of language and baseball!

Ben Zimmer, "On Language" successor to the late, great William Safire, tackles the expression "man up" in the NY Times Magazine this week.

In fact, it was that same fateful phrase that Rodriguez's father said to the former Mets closer which precipitated the elder's beat down, according to the Daily News. I did not know that.

Zimmer writes:
The New York Mets lost their closer Francisco Rodriguez, a k a K-Rod, to season-ending surgery on a torn thumb ligament last month. But really the Mets lost him to two simple words: “man up.” According to The New York Daily News, that’s what Carlos Peña, the father of Rodriguez’s girlfriend, told him outside the Mets clubhouse, inciting an altercation that led to K-Rod busting his thumb and getting arrested on third-degree-assault charges for good measure.

The phrase is not a new one, notes Zimmer, but it--unlike K-Rod--seems to be growing in popularity. Guy products such as light beer and energy drinks are peppering their marketing with the phrase.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, a commenter told my four-year-old son to "man up" in an essay I did on parenting for the NY Times!

As we stumble out of Labor Day weekend, it's worth noting that "man up" has its roots in labor. The phrase was an early predecessor to "staff up."

Not too long ago, man up was simply an alternative to the verb man, in the sense of “to supply with adequate manpower.” The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1947 letter to the editor of The Times of London from Henry Strauss, a Conservative member of Parliament, complaining about man up as an insidious Americanism. “Must industries be fully ‘manned up’ rather than ‘manned’?” Strauss asked.

The phrase is more common in football than baseball, where a defense is often commanded to man up, as in, guard your man, and do not let your opposite beat you.

Ben Zimmer also details the country cousin of man up: Kevin Millar and his famous "cowboy up" phrase from 2003.

One notable forerunner of man up as we know it today is cowboy up, a phrase that has been used in rodeo circles for decades. In Douglas Kent Hall’s 1973 book on rodeo life, “Let ’Er Buck!,” an old hand tells a rookie rider, “It looks like we’re going to have to cowboy up a little.” Another rider, in a 1975 article in The Reno Evening Gazette, talked about what it’s like to get clobbered in a bull wreck, with the rodeo instructor “right behind you saying: ‘Cowboy up. Get tough. Get tough.’ ”

Cowboy up wasn’t much known outside of rodeo country until 2003, when it became the rallying cry for the Boston Red Sox, thanks to the players Kevin Millar and Mike Timlin — both Texans, not coincidentally. Millar and Timlin injected this bit of rodeo slang into Red Sox parlance to fire up a team (and a fan base) that had long been ruled by mopey fatalism. As one T-shirt of the time put it, “Are You Gonna Cowboy Up or Just Lay There and Bleed?”

The 2010 Red Sox, plagued by injuries, look as though they've opted for the latter.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Welcome to the Big Leagues, Rook, Just Don't 'Big League' It

Here's a bit of advice for the September call-ups making their first appearance in The Big Show this week: don't be big leaguin' it now that you've made the big leagues.

It's a weird irony: You've made the big leagues, but don't by any means act like it.

What exactly is big leaguin' it? In the unpublished book of unwritten baseball rules, it means acting like a hotshot--every bit the no-no for rookies. (Speaking of the unwritten rules of baseball, the Marlins were not pleased that Washington's Nyjer Morgan stole two bases with his team down by 11. Trying to come back for a win? Here's a fastball in the back, pal. If you click on the link, count how many homerisms you hear from the FS Florida announcers.)

"Big leaguin'" does not appear in Wikipedia's Glossary of Baseball; nor do many links pop up in Google. Here's one from UrbanDictionary.com:

Typically done when a person uses slightly relevant knowledge to demonstrate their superiority over someone. Usually intended to belittle a person and make them feel insignificant or "show them up"

Google also reveals the country singer Toby Keith updating the classic "Mockingbird" in his own inimitable way:

Yeah right, quit big leaguin' me, I said now, everybody have you heard...

This seems like one of the terms that one hears in MLB clubhouses, but hasn't made its way into the media or the modern vernacular. It was in the clubhouse that former Mets farm star Lastings Milledge, currently toiling on the Pirates, was charged with big leaguin' it by the Mets vets--or Billy Wagner, at least--after being brought up at 21 in 2006.

David Lennon listed Milledge's transgressions in a 2008 story in Newsday.

Milledge notoriously showed up only an hour before the game's first pitch during a series in Philadelphia, drawing harsh criticism from Wright at the time. Milledge also celebrated a bit too much when he high-fived fans along the rightfield line after a tying home run at Shea Stadium.

Such behavior may have annoyed the Mets, but Billy Wagner said that none of the players held a grudge against him. It was Wagner who hung a sign in Milledge's locker during a series in DC that read, "Know your place, Rook!" And he insists that was nothing more than the type of rookie hazing that everyone endures.

Here's a weird Milledge-related trade schematic for ya: Apparently tired of his big leaguin' ways and lack of big-leaguin' hitting, the Mets shipped Milledge to Washington for Ryan Church, who was later traded for Jeff Francoeur, who was just this week traded for some guy named Arias and a bag of balls from the Rangers.

In 2008, Milledge told SI.com he was happy to be out of Gotham:

"I can't go through anything worse than I went through in New York. It only gets better from here," Milledge said. "A lot of veterans didn't like the way I play the game. They thought I didn't respect it."

Milledge is now hitting a middling .268 with the Pirates. A more mature 25, he is free to haze the new arrivals to the Pirates clubhouse who he thinks are failing to respect the game.
[image: SI]