Ink Soup: BALLTALK
by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
SEATTLE, Wash. -- I like baseball talk, especially during the season, when it is fresh. But I like it at any time, even during the dreary months from November to April, when the only baseball talk available is in the so-called "hot stove league," which refers to the forlorn conversation about the game in barbershops and general stores. H.L. Mencken said that marriage is largely talk, but during the winter baseball is nothing but talk.
By baseball talk, I don't mean the colorful terms like "can of corn" (a high pop-up that allows a fielder to stand under it catch it almost in spite of himself), or "worm burner" (a hard hit line drive that zips along the field just at the height of the blades of grass).
Nor do I refer to the colorful utterances of men like Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel. Strictly speaking, of course, Yogi's "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," is not baseball talk at all. It is metaphysics.
I mean the ordinary talk that can seem strange to outsiders but is not even noticed by its natural speakers.
Take the past tense of the verb "fly" as in he "he flied out to end the inning."
There is the story of a junior editor who corrected this usage to "flew out" and was thereafter the butt of endless jokes in the newsroom, usually accompanied by energetic flapping motions with the arms.
Actually there was a time in the late 19th Century (according to Paul Dickson's splendid "Baseball Dictionary,") when "flew out to" or "flew to" was the norm, but the standard for a hundred years at least has been "flied."
I am also intrigued by a usage that I have never seen described anywhere. This is the widespread use of the present tense to express an idea normally conveyed by the auxiliary "would" or "would have."
Example of normal usage: "If he'd tried to run home, Ichiro would have easily thrown him out."
In the stark clarity of print, the Baseball translation of this looks like the simple report of what did happen: "He tries to run home and Ichiro easily throws him out."
Whether this is true of all announcers I cannot say, but it strikes me that the vocabulary of Dave Niehaus has ejected the word "would" and indeed every form of the conditional for the balance of the season. You say "would" to Dave and he smiles politely, wondering what you might mean.
When it comes to baseball, Niehaus, the long-time announcer for the Seattle Mariners, is letter-perfect. But he is less sure of himself in other areas. Yesterday I took down this beaut. Speaking of a player whose career was on the skids, he said: "He became a bit disenfranchised [sic] with the game and thought of quitting."
His sidekick Ron Fairly obviously had a stern English teacher who punished him for saying things like, "His slider was more effective than John Rocker" when he should have said "...than that of John Rocker."
The result is that Ron can never utter a comparison of any kind without throwing in "than that of." This is known technically as "hyperurbanism," in case you were wondering, and can produce truly lurid sentences, e.g., "Davis can steal second much more easily than that of Edgar."
Hyperurbanism means overcorrection. The kid pounced on for saying "Bud and me went skiing" grows up thinking that "Bud and I" is the only correct sequence, and produces the current barbarism that I detest above all others: "He signed the ball for Bud and I."
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.