Baseball Idioms

B

ballpark

Ballpark, in the ballpark, ballpark figure, and out of the ballpark — “Ballpark” has been used to mean a broad area of approximation or similarity, or a range within which comparison is possible; this usage the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1960. Another meaning, “sphere of activity or influence”, is cited in 1963. “In the (right) ballpark”, meaning “within reasonable bounds” dates to 1968. A “ballpark figure” or “ballpark estimate”, one that is reasonably accurate, dates to 1967. The meaning of “out of the ball park” is to hit a home run; its non-baseball equivalent is to do something well or exactly as it should be done.

“‘They said Itanium would never be their fastest 32-bit processor, but it would be in the ballpark. The original x86 hardware execution mechanism was not in the ballpark. It was barely in the parking lot around the ballpark,’ Brookwood said.”

“Patrick said the ‘ballpark figure’ for prime vineyard land on the North Fork is $50,000 to $60,000 an acre”

batting 1000

Also batting a thousand. Getting everything in a series of items right. In baseball, someone with a batting average of one thousand (written as 1.000) has had a hit for every at bat in the relevant time period (e.g., in a game).  May also be used sarcastically when someone is getting everything wrong.

“‘… needs to hope that a rare event does not become magnified,’ he said. ‘It has to be pretty much batting a thousand for a time,’ he said”.

beanball or throw a beanball

To attack an opponent by aiming at their head. In baseball, a beanball is a pitch intentionally thrown at a batter’s head. In politics, it can be a verbal assault or a policy that is targeted to seriously hurt a particular opponent or group.

“But Brown and Whitman didn’t swing at the questions, instead choosing to stick to a game of political beanball — trading jabs on Whitman’s housekeeper, a Brown aide’s “whore” remark and even verbal miscues. – Steven Luo, California Beat, 13 October 2010.

big hitter(s)

At the highest level; used as a noun (“He is a big hitter”).

big league(s)/bigly

At the highest level; used as a noun (“You’re in the big leagues now”) or an adjective (“big-league lawyer”).  Synonym: major league. Contrast bush league, below.

“For a listener who last heard the New Haven Symphony in the mid-60’s, in a game but scrappy performance of Britten’s War Requiem, its concert on Friday evening was a happy surprise. Under its music director, Michael Palmer, it sounded for the most part like a big-league band, at home in a big-league setting”. — James Oestreich, The New York Times, 25 January 1994.

brand new ballgame

In baseball, when a team that has been behind in runs ties up the game, it’s sometimes said to be a brand new ballgame. This does not mean that the game starts over from the first inning; it means only that neither team is ahead, and the game continues. In other realms the term is used to connote a change in tactics or in who is ahead in a competition.

“It’s a Brand New Ballgame for Outsourcing Real Estate” — John C. Maher, National Real Estate Investor, 1 July 2005.

brush back

To subvert or threaten verbally. In baseball, a nickname for any pitch intended to establish a pitcher’s command of the inside portion of the strike zone, usually involving throwing a pitch at or near a hitter who may be covering that portion of the strike zone. Its baseball usage is cited in many dictionaries, but its transition to the vernacular has yet to be dated.

bush-league

Amateur, unsophisticated, unprofessional. From the baseball term for a second-rate baseball league and therefore its players (as in bush-league pitcher etc.).  Contrast big league, above.

C

Charley horse

Sudden stiffness or a cramp in the leg. Of unknown etymology; CDS cites its first use c. 1887 as baseball slang; OED states such cramps occur “especially in baseball players” and cites this usage to 1888.

cleanup hitter

Someone who comes in to solve a problem or lead a team. In baseball a cleanup hitter is the fourth man in the batting order, typically a slugger who is expected to clear the bases by driving other runners home to score runs.

Referring to President George W. Bush: “There is a reason he is the current president and it is not just because of his Daddy or money — I think he makes a pretty solid cleanup hitter for the Republican Party and brought home the points made during the previous 4 days of the convention”.

closer

In baseball, a closing pitcher brought in to finish the game. In business, the person brought in to close the deal, get things done.

cover one’s bases

Also cover all the bases. To ensure safety. In baseball, a defensive player covers a base by standing close to it, ensuring a runner can not reach it safely. In business, covering one’s bases means being prepared for every contingency. Mentioned but not dated by Oxford University Press.

“Cisco’s FastHub 400 series has the bases covered“.

curve, curveball

As in “He really threw me a curveball”. A surprise, often completely and totally unexpected, and usually unpleasant. The curveball is a pitch in baseball designed to fool the batter by curving unexpectedly. AHDI dates this usage to the mid-20th century.

D

double header

Two contests (or similar events) held on the same day with the same participants.

“The city’s three mayoral candidates finished Wednesday’s political double header with a debate at First Congregational United Church for Christ. …The evening debate did not differ greatly from the luncheon forum that local Rotarians and Kiwanians hosted earlier in the day” — Andrew Edwards, Contra Costa Times, 21 October 2009

down to the last out

To have just one last chance, to be near the end of the competition. Also sometimes expressed as “down to the last strike”.

“Hillary Clinton is now down to her last out”.

ducks on a pond

In baseball, having runners in scoring position, ready for a batter to drive them home. In business, “a situation with a good chance to succeed”.

E

extra innings

To extend the original time allotted in order to break a tie or settle an issue. In major league baseball, this means going beyond the standard 9-inning length of a game.

F

first base

In baseball, a hitter hopes to reach first base and then continue around second and third bases until he reaches home. In interpersonal relations, an individual who can’t get to first base with another person is unable to achieve some initial goal or to establish a relationship. A kiss might be first base in a romantic relationship. Getting an appointment with a potential customer might be first base in a business transaction or negotiation.

Also a sexual metaphor: first base/second base/third base/home run are widely used to describe certain stages of making out/having intercourse, though precisely which acts fall under which base appear to be regional idiom. First base can be simple kissing.

first inning or early innings

A game of baseball typically lasts 9 innings, so the first inning or the early innings (first three innings) do not determine the outcome of the game. The competition has only just begun. Also see “Ninth inning” (below).

foot in the bucket

To act timidly or cowardly. A batter who steps away from home plate with his leading foot (usually in fear of being struck by a pitched ball) instead of a straight-ahead stride is said to “step in the bucket”.

four-bagger

In baseball, “four-bagger” is a euphemism for a home run, since the batter who hits a home run touches all four bags or bases, including home plate.

G

grand slam

Any sudden sweeping victory. A batter who hits a home run with bases loaded has hit a four-run “grand slam”, a term originally borrowed from contract bridge for winning thirteen tricks. Aside from baseball, the term now refers to a situation which may or may not end badly for the protagonist but from which he emerges as an obvious winner. The term also can refer to anything good which comes in four parts, such as a “grand slam breakfast”. The term is also used for the major tournaments in golf and tennis.

grandstanding

In baseball, a player who shows off or showboats to win the favor of the fans (in the grandstand) is said to be grandstanding. In other contexts, including politics, playing to the crowd, the audience, or the media might be described as grandstanding.

ground ball

A prosaic or ordinary accomplishment, beneath higher hopes or expectations. In baseball, a ground ball is a batted ball that bounces or rolls on the ground, perhaps for a base hit, perhaps for an out.

“Sony once hit home runs, but now it’s lost its touch,” said Akihiko Jojima, an analyst and author of the book Sony’s Sickness. “Sony still makes competent products but they’re all just boring ground balls.” — Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, 28 March 2010.

H

hardball, play hardball

To be or act tough, aggressive. Refers to the comparison between balls in baseball and softball. As a synonym for baseball, OED dates this use of “hardball” to 1883; its non-baseball use appears in 1973.

heavy hitter

A powerful or commanding person, a leader. In baseball a heavy hitter is a slugger, someone who hits a lot of extra base hits or home runs. In business, the heavy hitters may be those who draw the most clients or make the most sales, or who lead the organization. In politics a heavy hitter draws crowds or has a lot of power or influence.

hit it out of the park

Also knock it out of the park. To achieve complete or even a spectacular success; compare home run, below. A home run is automatically scored when a batter strikes the ball with such force as to hit it out of the stadium or playing field.

hit or miss

To either achieve success or completely fail. Referencing a baseball batter’s swing at a pitched ball.

hit singles

See “singles”.

home run

A complete success (opposite of strike out); often used in the verb phrase “hit a home run”.

“HGTV caught on quickly, and is now carried in 90 million homes. The Food Network has been a home run as well, luring viewers interested in cooking”. — Geraldine Fabrikant, The New York Times, 14 August 2006.

I

inside baseball

Within the sport, “inside baseball” refers to the stratagems that managers use to get their team to score runs, perhaps not as obvious as simply getting players to hit home runs or to catch the ball, but to do the little things that move runners towards home plate. Akin to the idea of small ball. Outside the game, “inside baseball” may refer to the behind-the-scenes machinations of politicians, bankers, or other professionals.

“I once had to hire a writer to create my firm’s brochure, because what I did was far too “inside baseball.” Meaning, too focused on the details only an insider could love and not enough on what the audience wanted to know”.

“It ain’t over till it’s over!”

A famous quotation from baseball player Yogi Berra. In sports, it means that a game is not over until time expires, the final out is registered, etc., and that the players need to stay mentally focused until the game is officially over. The term comes into play when a team has a large lead but then starts to let their guard down, especially when there is time left for the losing team to rally (and possibly win the game). The original and self-evident adage, misstated by Berra, is “The game is not over until the last man is out”.

“In spite of last winter’s nice snowpack and a wet summer, here’s the bad news about New Mexico’s drought: It ain’t over till it’s over, and it ain’t over”. — Staci Matlock, The New Mexican, 9 October 2005.

“It’s like déjà vu all over again!”

Another famous (attributed) yogiism. It’s a redundant way of saying “Here we go again!” It has come into general circulation in the language to describe any situation that seems to be observably repeating itself.

” ‘It’s déjà vu all over again,’ Kay said”

K

knock it out of the park

See hit it out of the park.

knock the cover off the ball

To succeed beyond expectation. Derived from the act of hitting the ball exceptionally hard, so as to make the leather covering come off. Tearing the cover off the ball was possible in the early days of baseball, since a single ball was often used for the entire game (as is the case in the game of cricket). Possibly derived from the poem Casey at the Bat, which features the verse, “And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball”.

“In the last two quarters, we knocked the cover off the ball. . . . We exceeded analysts’ expectations on Wall Street and our own guidance in both quarters”.

L

late innings

See “ninth inning”. The late innings in a professional baseball game are the last three innings (the 7th, 8th, and 9th).

leadoff hitter

In baseball, a leadoff hitter is a player who bats first in the lineup. It can also refer to any batter who bats first in an inning. In other fields of endeavor the leadoff hitter is the one who goes first in a series.

left field

As in “that insult really came out of left field”. Unusual, unexpected, or irrational. In baseball, the fielders are focused on home plate, which is the place from which they expect balls to be hit to them. If a ball (e.g. one that was previously hit into the stands) or some other object is thrown at the fielder or onto the field from the outfield seats behind them, it is unexpected and surprising. This may be the origin of the expression, “out of left field.”

M

major league

At the top or highest rank. Synonym: big league.

“When you’ve landed a tenure-track position at that university, you’re playing in the major leagues.”

N

ninth inning

An expression that an event or process is near the end – in the last of a nine-inning game. Referring to a trend in market expansion, a financial analyst may say “We’re in the eighth or ninth inning”. During a seemingly never-ending crisis, an analyst might remark “No Ninth Inning for Credit Crisis”. The president of an academic association may title his farewell column to the members “A Ninth-Inning Farewell”.

O

o-fer

Also oh-fer. If a baseball batter gets 0 hits in any number of at-bats in a game, he’s said to go “oh for” that number (as in 0-3, said as “Oh for three”), or perhaps even more colloquially, to “have an o-fer”. In business, an example of an “o-fer” would be to try repeatedly and fail to make any sales.

off base

Unawares or by surprise, usually in the phrase “caught off base”; OED dates to 1935. Meaning misguided, mistaken, or working on faulty assumptions, this usage dates to 1940. Both of these uses derive from the situation of a runner being away from a base and thus in a position to being put out (1872).

“Lotte Ulbricht replied that Madame Yang was way off base.” — Time, 5 July 1963.

on deck

Next in line to face a particular challenge. In baseball, a batter emerges from the dugout and loosens up “on deck” just before his turn to face the pitcher. OED mentions usage of “on deck” first in 1867 in the context of baseball (“on deck fig. [orig. U.S.]: at hand; ready for action; alive; in Baseball, next at the bat, with the right or privilege of batting next”.)

one base at a time

In baseball a manager may adopt a strategy of moving runners along one base at a time rather than emphasizing power hitting and high scoring innings. In other walks of life, such a step-by-step approach may also be referred to as a one-base-at-a-time approach:

“Organizations instead need a deep bench of players with varying capabilities and a clear strategy for advancing ideas one base at a time. That’s what puts runs on the scoreboard and delivers value to members or customers”.

out of left field

See left field.

P

pinch hit

To act as a substitute or stand-in for someone when in a “pinch”, especially in an emergency. In baseball, sometimes a substitute batter would be brought in, especially at a crucial point in the game. OED gives the first possible non-baseball use in 1931, and the first definitive non-sport use in 1957.

“In April 2005 as the program was then known, to be treated for lung cancer, Mr. Gibson was one of several anchors who pinch-hit for him until his death in August 2005, and then continued to rotate in and out of Mr. Jennings’s empty chair for four months”. — Bill Carter and Jacques Steinberg, The New York Times, 1 March 2007.

pitch a shutout

To not allow an opponent any wins. In baseball, a shutout occurs when a pitcher does not allow the opponent any runs.

“The Republican Party pitched a shutout in the South in 2000 and 2004”.

play ball

To get going, or to start. Before every baseball game, and after a dead ball situation such as a foul ball or a time-out, the umpire traditionally shouts “play ball” in order to (re-)start the game.

“‘Eight U.S. attorneys who did not play ball with the political agenda of this administration were dropped from the team,’ said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois”.

play softball

To ask easy questions. Perhaps the opposite of playing hardball (baseball) or throwing difficult or probing questions at a respondent.

R

rain-check

A ticket given to a spectator at an outdoor event providing for admission at a later date (in lieu of a refund of entrance money), should the event be interrupted by rain; an assurance of a deferred extension of an offer, especially an assurance that a customer can take advantage of a sale later if the item or service offered is not available (as by being sold out); or a (sometimes vague) promise to accept a social offer at an unnamed later date.

rally cap

In baseball, a rally cap is a baseball cap worn while inside-out and/or backwards or in another unconventional manner by players or fans, in order to will a team into a come-from-behind rally late in the game. The rally cap is primarily a baseball superstition. The term may also be used by other groups, such as stock market traders.

relief pitcher

In baseball a relief pitcher comes in as a replacement for the starting pitcher or another relief pitcher. A relief pitcher in other realms of activity also comes in as a substitute or replacement for the initial or regular occupant of a role.

rhubarb

A heated argument or noisy dispute; especially, between players on a playing field. Originally the word traditionally muttered by actors in a play to provide background noise. Online Etymology Dictionary attributes the “loud squabble on the field” usage to broadcaster Garry Schumacher in 1938, while OED and CDS both credit sportscaster Red Barber at a baseball game in 1943.

right off the bat

Immediately; without any delay. The Oxford English Dictionary dates this term to 1914 in Maclean’s, a Canadian magazine. An older term, “hot from the bat” dates to the 1888 play Meisterschaft by Mark Twain.

S

“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

An expression of disbelief. A reference to the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when several members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to lose the World Series on purpose. When Shoeless Joe Jackson was implicated in the scandal, an apocryphal story says that a young fan approached him and said, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

screwball

Eccentric, zany, or crazy; OED dates this usage to 1933. The screwball is a rarely used pitch (because of its effect on the arm) that is intended to behave erratically — it “breaks” in the opposite direction a curveball would break.

shutout

See “pitch a shutout”.

singles or hit singles

To seek modest, or step-by-step gains instead of large ones. In baseball, hitting singles or playing small ball instead of seeking to hit home runs is sometimes a good strategy for teams that do not have many power hitters.

small ball

In modern baseball play and analysis (sabermetrics), small ball refers to a strategy that focuses on gaining a small or step-by-step edge on the opponent not by trying to knock the ball out of the ballpark but instead by getting singles, stealing bases, and moving runners along one base at a time. In other endeavors, a similar focus on the details, winning a few points at a time rather than trying for large gains, may also be described as small ball.

softball

See “play softball”.

step up to the plate

Often shortened to step up. To rise to an occasion in life. Refers to when a player must approach home plate to take a turn at batting. OED cites baseball usage in 1875, general usage in 1919.

strike

As in “strike out”, “three strikes, you’re out”, “a strike against you”, “he was born with two strikes against him”. In baseball, a strike is when the batter swings at and misses a pitch, or when the pitch crosses the strike zone without the batter swinging. A batter with three strikes is out and must stop batting.
The word strike has crept into common English usage to mean a failure or a shortcoming or a loss. When a person has “gotten three strikes” and “struck out”, they have failed completely. The three strikes laws refer to more severe punishments for criminals with a third conviction. Someone seeking romance with another person may “strike out” and fail to impress on a first meeting. Also A swing and a miss.
Having “two strikes against you” means that you have just one remaining chance to succeed at something, or that you are given little chance to succeed, perhaps because you have been prejudged.

strike out swinging

To fail while giving it your best effort.

strike out looking

To fail by being passive, without even making an effort.

swing and miss

To try but fail, like swinging a bat and missing the ball. Also see “whiff.

“I’ve swung and missed a lot in my hunt for vintage Levis”.

Referring to the disappointing purchase of a living-room couch, “Todd: Hey batter, hey batter, sometimes when you’re looking for the rainbow curve away, you get the heater down the middle. Maybe that’s why you swung and missed”.

swing for the fences

To try for a substantial gain; to make a big score. In baseball, to swing for the fences is to try to hit a home run, rather than trying to hit singles or play small ball.

“These are opportunities that traders look for every day. That many of them noticed it and swung for the fences all at once is not collusion, it’s just the sign of a huge softball coming right down the line”.

switch-hitter

Refers to baseball players who are capable of hitting as a left-handed or right-handed batter (OED, 1948). More broadly, “switch-hitting” can refer to an ability to perform double functions or roles.

An article titled “Hatteras Plans Switch-Hitting Ethernet” discusses a network switch that can operate either on fiber optic or copper wiring.

T

take cuts at someone

In baseball, a batter swinging the bat at a ball is sometimes said to “take cuts” at the ball. A person who “takes cuts” at somebody else may be taking a verbal swing or striking a blow at the person’s reputation.

headline: “Ex-teammates take cuts at A-Rod”.

headline: “Opponents Sure to Take Cuts at Stadium Votes in Anaheim Political Game”

three strikes law

See Strike.

took the collar

From the phrase for failing to get any hits, it can be used to indicate failure at something. Referring to the competition between two newspapers, the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News:

“The News, you recall, took the collar as the ‘failing newspaper’ when the two sought Justice Department approval in 2000 to merge their business operations”.

touch base

As in “we will touch base at the meeting”. To make contact with someone, to inform someone of one’s plans or activities, perhaps in anticipation of an event. In baseball, a player who is touching a base is not in danger of being put out. Another explanation is that a player must briefly touch each of the bases in order after hitting a home run. It may also refer to the fact that after a fly ball has been caught for an out, a runner on base who has taken a lead or is standing off his base towards the next base, must go back to touch or tag that base (“tag up”) before he can advance to the next one.

“Robert, it’s been a while. I’d like to touch base with you next week to discuss our quarterly sales targets.”

triple play

In baseball a triple play is the rare act of making three outs during the same continuous play. The OED attributes the original usage of “triple play” to the American game of baseball as early as 1869.

W

wheelhouse

From the term for a batter’s power zone, usually waist high and over the middle of the plate.

whiff

In general usage, the word “whiff” may refer to the movement or sound of air or wind, perhaps as an object moves through it. In baseball a whiff is when a batter swings and misses a pitch. Such usage in baseball is attributed by the OED to 1913. Perhaps derived from this, the term “whiff” has also come to mean trying and failing at something. Also see “swing and miss”.

“After Richardson whiffed on the question, Joe parked it”.

whole new ball game

Also brand new ball game; whole ‘nother ball game. In common usage, a “whole new ball game” or “brand new ball game” signifies a drastic turn of events, a completely altered situation. In baseball, an announcer says “it’s a whole new ball game” when the trailing team ties the score or takes the lead, usually after being behind by several runs. AHDI traces this to the 1960s. A “whole ‘nother ball game” signifies something completely unrelated, different, or irrelevant. Also said extensively and out of context in the world of selling ads for trade mags.

“In fact, on-demand applications are a whole ‘nother ballgame — which is why personally I try to avoid the popular phrase software as a service (SaaS) since I feel it’s a phrase that’s born of the ‘nothing changes’ mindset”. – Phil Wainewright, ZDNet, 16 March 2006.

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