Former Boston Red Sox slugger George Scott, piqued at being kept out of key games, once complained the club's manager was keeping "a lot of taters on the vine."
Years later, a pitcher for the California Angels who had just tossed a perfect game told a television interviewer he worried toward the end of the game about throwing the other team any "cookies."The true baseball fan knew Scott felt his talents for hitting home runs - or "taters," short for potatoes - was being squandered as he sat on the bench.
Just as surely, the afficionado knew the Angels' pitcher worried about getting careless and throwing balls that were easy to hit.
But what about the rest of us?
To the rescue, just in time for the playoffs and the World Series, comes Patrick Ercalano, a Baltimore journalist, who has compiled a lexicon of some 1,500 baseball terms that make up the most colorful language in American sports.
The roots of baseball talk lie in the origins of the game, its pastoral setting and the nature of the game itself, Ercalano, a lifelong fan of the Baltimore Orioles, told Reuters.
Baseball is largely about waiting - waiting to play and waiting for the few brief flurries of action that decide a game in seconds.
The game - the only major U.S. team sport played without a clock - resides largely outside the bounds of time. Each team carries 24 players, but only nine play the field and one bats at any one time.
All this allows a lot of time for the players, fans and the press to sit and talk, Ercalano said.
The by-product appears in Ercalano's "Fungoes, Floaters and Fork Balls: A Colorful Baseball Dictionary" (Prentice Hall).
Fungoes are balls hit during fielding practice with a special bat. Floaters refer to the knuckleball pitches that float much like a feather on air, and fork balls are pitches thrown with the index and middle finger spread apart.
Early baseball talk evolved from the sport's forerunners, the English games of cricket and rounders.
But the game, which was codified in its modern form in the mid-1840s, soon developed its own lexicon. Some of its expressions are associated with foods:
- Can of Corn: An easily caught fly ball. Ercalano traces the term to turn-of-the-century grocers, who stored canned goods on upper shelves and used a stick to knock the can into their outstretched hands.
- Apple: Another term for the baseball.
- And pretzel: A curve ball that twists in flight.
Other terms come from military images.
- Rifle, gun, bazooka, cannon: All coinage for a particularly strong throwing arm, commonly among outfielders who throw the ball a long way to keep a runner from scoring.
- And battery: The team's pitcher-catcher combination.
"It's like any living language, it's always expanding," said Ercalano. Among his personal favorites are:
- Frozen rope: A straight and sharply hit line drive.
- Humpback liner: A line drive that sails upward before abruptly dipping down.
- Paint the black: A verbal phrase meaning to throw strikes over the narrow black edges of the plate.
"I wonder sometimes if these guys are naturally poetic or whether they just pick it up from the older guys or from the press," Ercalano said.
To track down the terms, Ercalano spent hours in the Library of Congress, the world's largest library, poring over old baseball writing. He also interviewed veteran radio commentators and sports reporters.
Some terms resisted the effort, including Uncle Charlie, a well-thrown curve ball. Ercalano said its origin is uncertain but suggested the "c" from curve might have given birth to the usage.
The fungo practice began in the 1860s, but its roots remain obscure. Some point to "fung," and old Scottish verb meaning to toss, while others say fungo recalls a rhyme once recited during the drill consisting of the words "run and go."
The lingo of baseball, the oldest U.S. game, has left its mark on the daily speech of Americans.
Such terms as "play hardball" (aggressively pursue a goal), "strike out" (fail) and "touch base" (communicate or contact) are common.
Ercalano says the heavy borrowing reflects the depth at which baseball touches the American spirit.
It is a democratic game - anyone, any size can play. It is associated with long summer days, with youth and with the good old days.
Baseball has another endearing quality well-suited for the emergence of a rich and colorful language - its methodical nature. This allows, even begs for, the recording of every statistic, every fact - and the words to explain them - for future study.
Legendary manager and baseball philosopher Casey Stengel captured that spirit with the five immortal words Ercalano uses for his book's epigram and its final entry:
"You can look it up."