I love baseball and played on the varsity teams in high school and college. OK, they were small schools, but I also played in a summer league in rural Pennsylvania, back in the days when many small villages had a team. I also went to a couple of training camps for a day each time and had one scout tell me “Go home and drink lots of milk” because I was pretty small at the time.

I knew the names and “stats” of the players on the Phillies and Cardinals teams and kept up with what was happening in the major leagues. For a youngster like me, baseball was my life and I waited for each spring like an eagle watches for rabbits. When the snow started to melt, I could actually smell baseball in the air. Sometimes I would also smell a skunk but that didn’t diminish my enthusiasm for baseball.

The clichés and idioms that accompany baseball have also fascinated me, long before I became a linguist. Of course I played “hardball”, meaning that statistics measured success and I didn’t want to fail, to “strike out.” I thought softball was for girls and sissies until I played it one summer in a church league in Detroit. I didn’t even see the pitched ball—coming at a whirl underhand—for the first two games. I learned that it takes a lot of skill to play softball, unless it is “slow pitch.” What I had expected from playing baseball was not there in softball—it was as if someone had thrown me a “curve ball” and I couldn’t “hit a home run” (succeed).

I learned early that there was a “strike zone,” kind of like a war zone and that the man on the “mound” was not a particularly nice guy. In fact, he would like to “retire” me and had a “split finger”[1] that cause the ball to do odd things. His meanness extended to anyone who got “on base.” He would try to “hold the runner on” so that he, poor fellow, would be “left on base,” not a good place to be. So he would “mix up the pitches,” kind of like a salad and, in the old days, use a “wind-up” to confuse the hitter. The hitter was willing to “lay down a bunt” to get on base or a “suicide squeeze”[2] to bring a comrade home from third. If the batsman was lucky, he could “sit on a pitch” with his “lumber”[3] and try to “touch all the bases” (with his feet, of course), in other words, get a “four bagger.” Some hitters were “spray hitters”[4] so the pitcher would try to “mix up” his pitches, maybe even throwing a “knuckleball” (but with his hand helping the knuckles). I know of a guy that got “beaned” by a “laser”[5] in a game.

I remember my coach in college telling me he would “touch base” with me later in the day and I learned it meant we were having a brief encounter. When he talked I was “on the ball,” staying very attentive and pretending to be knowledgeable. The coach wanted me to “step up to the plate” and take some responsibility as captain of the team. I knew “right off the bat” that I couldn’t “take my bat and ball and go home.” I was in for the “long haul.”

I would have to be a “team player” and be careful not to be caught “off-base” or “out in left field” or the coach would know immediately that I was “out of my league” with a “low batting average.” We hadn’t talked very long when he said he would give me a “rain check,” which I thought was some money that had gotten wet, but was really an indication that “the bases were loaded”[6] and I could very easily “drop the ball,[7]” so we would talk about it later.

I got hit by a pitch once and the “man in blue” told me to “take first base.” I looked at him and said “Where am I going to take it?” He didn’t think that was funny and threatened to “throw me out of the ball game.” We actually had a bit of a “rhubarb”[8] before the smoke cleared. But think about it—now that I had first base I could be accused of “stealing a base” and that would definitely be “way off base.” I could easily get “hung up” in a “run-down.”[9] Well, at least I made no attempt to “cover the base” and, at the end of the inning I was “left on base,” which is like being stranded at the airport with no one to pick you up. I would be like “Casey at the bat” and I gathered I could never “bat a thousand” or “hit a home run” with the coach, so I got “on the ball” and “stole home.” Still, I’d rather “strike out swinging” than hit a “single” and then get “caught in a double play” or have the “plate blocked” coming home.

When I went from playing high school ball to college I saw right away that it “was a whole new ball game” and I could end up as a “pinch hitter” unless I really “kept my eyes on the ball.” Can you imagine a baseball with eyes plastered all over it? Or a hitter that has to be pinched before he grabs his bat and gets “behind in the count”? Some of the really bad ‘banjo hitters”[10] were useless when the bases were “loaded.” Their team was never out of the “basement.”[11]

I’ve played baseball in cow pastures that weren’t level but if you are “on deck”[12] you really aren’t that high up. And I have seen some tall men play shortstop. The best part is when they “zip the ball around the horn.”[13] They can’t do that if the ball takes a “bad hop,” but the runner still has to “beat out” the hit. Those poor hits are sometimes called “bleeders”[14] but at least you don’t need a “circus catch”[15] to get them.

Now that I am old it, is important to “step up to the plate” and assume more responsibility than I did in college. We have moved to Waco and I have met some “big hitters” in our church. Some of them limp like they have a “Charley horse” but there is one who is “cleanup hitter”[16] and plays the piano during the offerings each Sunday. I thought he was the “closer” but we go right “down to the last out” with handshakes all around. We stand there like “ducks on a pond”[17] and go into “extra innings.”

If a hitter had a bad day and struck out four times, he had a “Golden Sombrero.” [18] When I went “o-fer” and had the “collar”, even though I “fought off”[19] a couple of pitches, it was not a good day. But I have never had an “Olympic Ringer”, although I have been “caught looking” and had to “go quietly.” When I analyzed what happened I could see that the pitcher was “climbing the ladder”[20] and was also “crowding” me on the inside. His “cut fastballs”[21] made me think that he was actually “doctoring the ball”[22] and resorting to “dusters” so that I couldn’t “get a piece of it.” There was no doubt in my mind that the umpire had “expanded the strike zone” to make sure I didn’t get a “fat pitch.”[23] I sure didn’t want to eat no “forkball” (see footnote 1).

The coach had given me the “green light” and I wouldn’t even have minded a “fluke hit” or a “Texas leaguer”[24] because I knew I couldn’t “hit a bullet”[25] because of a “hitch in my swing.”[26] If I got on base I didn’t like the idea of someone “holding me on base” anyway. I am somewhat awkward at times and act like my “foot is in the bucket”[27] while others are “grandstanding” and hitting “four baggers.[28]” Learning to take “one base at a time” is the secret—it isn’t possible to “pitch a shutout” every time the umpire says “play ball.”

If a hitter is having a good day the ball will look as “big as a grapefruit,” but if the pitcher is really fast, the ball will look small, like an “aspirin.” That may happen at “the top of the inning” or at “the bottom of the inning.” Depending on who is watching you from a “box” seat and keeping a “box score,” they may implement a “Bronx cheer”[29] if the pitcher tries a “brushback”[30] on me. A new or “relief” pitcher comes in from the “bullpen”[31] and the team hopes he has a “cannon” or “bazooka”[32] and, unless he does, “Captain Hook”[33] may soon “yank” him.

Some batters are good at “drawing a walk,” not with a pencil or pen, but getting four balls and a “free ticket” to first base. Another hitter might be “in a slump,” still upright in his “batting stance” but one who gets “in a hole” quickly, an easy “out.”

The manager gives “signs” or signals, telling the base runner what to expect—perhaps a “hit and run,” a “double-steal,[34]” or simply to “take a pitch.”[35] The opposing team will try to “steal signals,” so the manager will tip his hat, rub his elbow, brush his chest, and make all kinds of signs to confuse the other team. If the pitcher makes a mistake and throws the ball “down the middle”[36] it could result in a “walk-off.”[37]

There could be more said, but I want to “stay ahead in the count”[38] and not be a “hot dog.” (showoff) Someone may decide to “go to bat for me” and, if they do, I hope they are not “out on three pitches.” So I’m done with that—I’m “out of the baseline,” which is illegal.

[Game over]

[1] Take your index and middle finger and spread them apart—you have now “split” them and are ready to put those two fingers on the seam of the baseball and throw it so that it can do strange things. It is something like a “fork ball,” which I mention later, but not like a “knuckle” ball, which is thrown by grasping the ball with the first row of knuckles of your hand. When the knuckle ball is thrown properly it will bob and weave like a hummingbird.

[2] Some baseball players will die for their team, but a “suicide squeeze” will not result in death. With a runner on third base the batter who “executes” the squeeze actually puts down (or “lays down”) a bunt just as the runner “breaks” for home. If you want to try a “bunt” is, hit a pitched ball with your bat without swinging at it.

[3] The bat is made of wood, which is “lumber” and a good hitter wants his lumber just the right size and weight for his “time at the plate.” If you don’t know what the “plate” is, don’t try eating off one on a baseball field.

[4] When you spray for mosquitoes, you want the stuff to go out in multiple directions, not a straight line. A spray hitter is one who can “hit to any field.” If you don’t know what the “field” is, don’t try farming.

[5] A good pitcher throws a ball very fast, not quite like a laser beam, although it might seem so to the hitter, who when he is hitting well, the baseball will seem as big as a grapefruit: when he isn’t, it seems as small as an “aspirin.”

[6] Loaded with what?, you might ask. The phrase simply means that there was a man “on” each base, although he should not have been standing on the “bag.”

[7] Of course I didn’t have a ball in my hand when I was talking to my coach, but I could have spoiled the whole conversation, like a baseball player dropping the ball at the wrong time in a game.

[8] Rhubarb is sour and makes you twist your mouth and tongue—it isn’t pleasant and neither is an argument with an umpire, the “man in blue.”

[9] Obviously a baseball player who is “running the bases” (like running a horse?} doesn’t want to “get caught” or “hung up” between the bases. So he darts back and forth, trying to get to a base, but he is soon run-down when one of the opposing players “tags” him with the ball. He is now out.

[10] A banjo makes a twanging sound and a “banjo hitter” lacks power, with his hit ball sounding weak.

[11] Which means they were never able to “climb” in the “standings,” perhaps because there was no stairs.

[12] Maybe the expression came from baseball being played on a ship somewhere in the ocean, but now it is simply the next guy to bat and he stands “on deck,” which is actually a circle near the “dugout,” which is below the surface and may have been level at one time.

[13] The bases form a “diamond” shape and the three away from “home plate” form a triangle. Imagine that the lines are curved from third base to second to first and you will have a kind of horn to throw the ball around and in.

[14] “Bleeders” are slow “grounders,” which remind one of a small wound that bleeds very slowly

[15] Clever acrobats at a circus throw things into the air, juggling them and making “circus catches.”

[16] Like someone who needs to eat all their food on their plate, the batter is expected to bat well enough to send his mates along to the next base or two.

[17] Have you notice how ducks like to swim in a line? There is a lead duck and the rest follow—the coach is the head duck and the players are supposed to follow him.

[18] When a batter has a bad day and doesn’t get a hit, he is “o-fer” and the “o” resembles a collar with nothing in it; or a “Golden Sombrero,” if he strikes out four times. The really awful no-good day is when he “whiffs” (misses) five times—an “Olympic Ringer.” You can imagine what a “platinum sombrero” or “titanium sombrero” might be!

[19] “Fighting off” pitches is like a soldier fighting off the enemy when he gets too close in battle. You don’t want him to “crowd” you on the “inside or outside of the plate” (or trench).

[20] A pitcher “climbs the ladder” when he starts with a low pitch and then successively goes higher in the “strike zone” and gets the batter to swing at a “high pitch.”

[21] If you are a batter and see a “cut fastball” coming it is best to avoid it, like you would a knife.

[22] Some pitchers have been known to put sticky stuff on a ball so that it behaves oddly. It he uses spit, it is a “spitter,” but a dab of pine tar works just as well. Sometimes sharp finger nails or tobacco juice will do the trick. A baseball rotates 20 times a second and anything on the surface of the ball will disrupt its normal air flow.

[23] I am talking here about the pitch, not the pitcher. A “fat pitch” is one the hitter wants to eat the ball (hit it)—with his lumber of course. A fat pitcher needs to do more “flat-bench dumbbell presses.”

[24] A “Texas leaguer” is a “pop fly” that lands between the infield and the outfield and results in a “base hit.’ The phrase probably dates from when the Texas minor league fields did not have fences around them and the “outfielders” had to “play deep.”

[25] Imagine a ball going as fast as a bullet or one that goes straight like a “clothes line.”

[26] If you have a “hitch in your swing” you need to see a chiropractor. If it is in your porch swing, you should get “hitch” out of it as soon as possible.

[27] A batter who has his “foot in the bucket” is timid and unsure of himself and puts his front foot away from home plate because he is afraid of getting “drilled” by the pitch.

[28] “Four-baggers” bear no relation to “carpet baggers,” who may have been baseball players from the northern states. Nor is it like a “bagger” at a supermarket. In fact, “four-baggers” have lots of other names: bomb, circuit clout, dinger, downtown, gopher ball, long ball, moon shot, over the wall, and round tripper are a few.

[29] A “Bronx cheer” is a really nasty way of cheering against someone. You purse your lips and blow through them as you exhale and say whatever is on your mind—usually not nice things. Umpires receive a lot of “Bronx cheers.” The use began in the Bronx, a borough of New York City when the Brooklyn Dodgers played there.

[30] Think of using a hairbrush and brushing your hair straight back. Now think of pitcher throwing at the head of the batter and you will imagine what a “brushback” looks like.

[31] This is an area outside the baseball diamond but inside the park where pitchers “warm up” before they come into the game. It is shaped like a pen and only males can be present there, hence it is a “bull pen.”

[32] Cannons and bazookas shoot shells very rapidly, and pitchers with a “good arm” throw the ball at speeds of up to and over 100 mph, not as fast as a cannon ball or bullet, but very fast.

[33] The “captain” is the team manager and if he doesn’t like the way a pitcher is performing, he will hook him by taking him out of the game, much like pirates used their hooked arms to fight enemies. Also called “yanking” the pitcher. If the relief pitcher is a southpaw fireman (left handed, and able to put the other team’s “fire” out), hopefully he has a “rubber arm” and can be the “closer.”

[34] In a “double steal” the runners on first and second steal bases at the same time, a terrible crime.

[35] He doesn’t take it anywhere, he just lets the ball go by him without swinging at it.

[36] Sometimes such a ball is right over the “heart of the plate,” must above its kidney.

[37] Everyone leaves because the game is over—the batter has “knocked in” a run in the “bottom of the ninth.”

[38] Sometimes ballplayers “lose track of the count” and are confused. The count is how many “balls and strikes” there are and, with three, they are “out.” So they need to “stay ahead” of three, which is two!