Words and Phrases from America’s Pastime

Yogi BerraThe game of baseball has so permeated the psyche of America that many of our most popular idiomatic phrases come from the game. Just stop a moment and think of a few terms from the game – you will readily come up with several. No other sport provides such a wealth of commonly understood terms and phrases.

Here are just a few of those phrases and words for which we can thank the old ballpark.

  • Ballpark. All kinds of reference involve the playing field and the ballpark. Have you ever “hit one out of the park?” We all want to at least be “in the ballpark” when we estimate any number. These terms have been attributed to baseball since the 1960s.
  • Batting a thousand. Since ballplayer statistics are based on their percentages, anyone that bats a thousand is hitting every time they are at the plate. Of course, this is a mythical goal in baseball over an entire season. It can, however, indicate a particularly successful game, going “four-for-four” as and example.
  • Bush league. This refers to a second-rate league or performance. Its roots come from some of the early, less professional baseball leagues.
  • Cleanup hitter. The fourth man in the batting order, this is the hitter expected to capitalize on the efforts of the first three players and produce a score.
  • Closer. The pitcher used to protect a lead and end the game brings us this term. We find it used in everyday language to indicated someone who can get things done and close a deal.
  • Cover your bases. Primarily a defensive term, players in the field have to balance playing their positions for errant hits and remaining close enough to cover the bases they are assigned.
  • Curveball. The idea that someone put you in a difficult situation comes from the idea of throwing a curveball, a particularly deceptive pitch.
  • Ducks on a pond. As this means to have players in scoring positions, it implies any situation where there is a high probability of success.
  • Extra innings. When any effort goes beyond the prescribed or expected length, it is referred to as going into extra innings.
  • Early innings. Players think of a game as having three parts. They approach the early innings as not necessarily indicative of how the game will end. The beginning of any project can be referred to in this manner.
  • Getting to first or second base. From teenagers to project managers, these terms are used to indicate progress towards a goal. They can be used in both a humorous and serious context.
  • Grand slam/Home run. Of course, everyone has used one of these at one time or another. They represent the pinnacle of success and personal performance.
  • Ground ball. While a ground ball can be important in play, it has come to mean barely getting by in non-baseball use, such as “all he is hitting these days is ground balls.”
  • “It ain’t over till it’s over!” Yogi Berra gave baseball many colorful phrases and sayings, this is one that has become a symbol of encouragement to never give up until the last effort is made and the last strike is recorded.
  • Knock it out of the park. Another reference to the idea of a home run, this usage implies that someone did very well and accomplished what they set out to do.
  • Left field, out of left field. As most players are right-handed, the left field play is the most unexpected and difficult. Coming from the left field reflects a confusing or irrational position by someone.
  • Leadoff hitter. While this is the first batter in a baseball lineup, expected to have a good chance to get on base or score, it now means anyone who is at the front of a project or effort, putting one of the better players in a position to get things going.
  • Ninth inning. Being in the ninth inning puts everyone on alert that this is the last chance to get the job done and win the game or complete the project.
  • On deck. When a player is next to bat, they move to the on deck circle. Everyone understands this term to mean that you are next in line to perform or be called to do your job.
  • Shutout. When the opponent is kept scoreless, the game is a shutout. The same word can be used to indicate a stunning or overwhelming victory over a competitor.
  • Step up top to the plate. This deals with the time the player moves from on deck to being the batter. Also used as simply “step up,” everyone knows this as a call to take your turn, to be ready to perform and do your job.
  • Strike/three strikes/strikeout. Perhaps right up there with home run as one of the most commonly used baseball terms, this means, of course, missing the mark. When you strikeout, you are at the opposite end of the performance cycle of hitting a home run.
  • Zero for or “o-fer.” If a player comes to the plate several times and does not get on base, they are zero or “0-fer” for that game. This can represent the frustration of trying repeatedly to accomplish a task yet failing every time.

These, of course, are just a sampling of the way baseball has affected how we refer to some common life situations. What is fun is that even those who don’t follow the sport know most of these phrases, probably using some of them regularly. If you choose to use a good baseball term, you won’t be “whiffing” the meaning.