Words and Phrases Only True Baseball Fans Understand
Every sport has its own unique jargon and slang. Perhaps no sport has a vocabulary as odd and colorful as baseball. Broadcasters, writers and players pioneered a lot of terminology. And for more than 150 years, fans have delighted — and struggled — to learn the lexicon.
You may already know what a can of corn, a dying quail, or a frozen rope is. Or not. Yes, those are just a few of the baseball words and slang we'll cover.
Here are 16 such baseball words and phrases that were spawned for America’s favorite pastime and do make sense once you wrap your head around them.
Forget about World War I flyboys or the best card you can get while playing poker. A baseball ace is the top pitcher on your team.
He’s the No. 1 starter, the guy who will get the ball in the big game or at the beginning of a playoff series.
Like Roger Clemens, Jim Palmer or Sandy Koufax, an ace’s cheese (read on) is the toughest to hit, and you’ll rue the at-bat in which he throws some chin music (read on) at you.
Nope, this baseball word has nothing to do with an AAA-sized Duracell or the Energizer Bunny. The battery is a term that describes a pitcher-catcher combination. They’re also referred to as batterymen or batterymates.
Together, they work to foil the other team’s batters. Historically, the word derived from descriptions of the firepower of artillery batteries.
On the New York Yankees of the 1950s, for example, pitcher Whitey Ford and catcher Yogi Berra won a multitude of World Series games together among their 212 battery gigs.
The origin of the term’s use in baseball is uncertain, but this ain’t a rodeo, and the bullpen is not where bulls wait for their turn to buck a cowboy off their back.
While most reserve players sit in the dugout during a game, the relief pitchers cool their heels in a separate spot known as the bullpen.
If the starting pitcher — or even the ace — gets in trouble and gives up too many runs, the manager will signal to the bullpen for relievers to get up and get their arms warm in anticipation of coming into the game.
Before the beginning of the regular season, baseball teams go through a month of spring training. There are 15 teams that play in western cities in the United States, and those teams all go to facilities in Arizona for spring training.
They all play practice games against each other for the month in what is nicknamed the Cactus League.
Major League Baseball’s Cactus League participants include the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers.
Can of Corn
This is one of the most colorful and oddest bits of word jargon to have found its way onto the baseball diamond. It refers to a fielder making an easy catch of a batted pop fly.
The most accepted origin of the phrase comes from the 1890s, when grocers would make a practice of using a stick to tip a can of vegetables off the top shelf. They’d catch it by hand or in an outstretched apron.
Woe be it to the outfielder — or an old-timey grocer — who drops an easy can of corn.
Forget your Camembert, Havarti or Mozzarella. If you please, the baseball word 'cheese' refers to a pitcher’s fastball, and sometimes may be used in a derogatory manner if the hurler isn’t bringing it at a high velocity.
A fastball thrown up in the strike zone is called high cheese. A low fastball can be labeled cheese at the knees.
In 2018, St. Louis Cardinals right-handed pitcher Jordan Hicks was tossing his very respectable and unhittable cheese at more than 100 miles per hour.
The definition of chin music took a turn from its original meaning, which in the late 1800s was used to describe heckling from fans. After World War II, the term switched to refer to the practice of a pitcher throwing a brushback pitch near a batter’s face.
A brushback is intended to frighten or intimidate a batter, to back him off the plate for the next pitch. An intention by a pitcher to throw chin music may sometimes lead to hitting the batter.
Too much chin music — whether it hits batters or not — may lead to an umpire ejecting the pitcher from the game.
Tom Hanks told us in "A League of Their Own" that there’s no crying in baseball. And there’s a minimum of personal feelings displayed, as well.
Choking up has nothing to do with your emotional state. It’s when a batter slides their hands up higher on a bat when they’re up to the plate.
Why? The physics of choking up allows a batter to swing faster, particularly when a pitcher is tossing some unhittable cheese.
Choking up is far less common in the now-muscled major leagues than it was a century ago.
Plain and simple, a dinger is one of many baseball words and phrases that refer to a home run.
The origin stems from the (real or imaginary) act of ringing a bell when a batter hits the ball out of the park. The name of the mascot for the Colorado Rockies also happens to be Dinger, but don’t confuse that purple-hued dude with all the other words baseball players use to describe a home run, including homer, tater, round-tripper, four-bagger, going yard, bomb and blast.
By the way, a dinger that’s hit with the runners on first, second and third base is called a grand slam, or sometimes a grand salami.
Ducks on the Pond
When your team is at bat, it’s good to have ducks on the pond. The baseball term refers to having players on base.
Typically, ducks on the pond means having more than one runner on base and in scoring position (second or third base). When there are ducks on the pond, you want the batter who’s at the plate to hit the ball and score those ducks, er, runners.
The origin of the phrase traces back to Washington Senators announcer Arch McDonald, who was quacking listeners up back in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.
Don’t confuse a duck on the pond with a dying quail. The latter is a batted ball, not hit very hard, that drops in front of an outfielder for a hit. It’s a lucky hit for the batter.
A dying quail is synonymous with a blooper, looper, chinker, bleeder or a gork. According to "Crash Davis" (played by Kevin Costner) in the seminal baseball movie "Bull Durham," dying quails are the difference between playing in the minor league and getting a shot in The Show (the major leagues).
"Just one more dying quail a week, and you’re in Yankee Stadium," he opines.
The opposite of a dying quail is a frozen rope. As mentioned, a dying quail is a weak effort by the batter. A frozen rope is a legit hit — it’s a ball sharply struck by a hitter that seems to leave the bat in a straight line.
When you really get some muscle behind a frozen rope, it might go all the way out of the ballpark and quickly become a dinger.
And just to keep things confusing, some people refer to a frozen rope as a hard, fast, straight throw made by a fielder in an attempt to gun down a runner attempting to advance from one base to another. In this context, you might note that a fielder who tosses frozen ropes has a "cannon" for an arm.
Remember chin music? Well, if a pitcher is trying to throw a brushback but gets too close and hits the batter, that’s called a plunking. When a batter is plunked, he is automatically awarded first base.
For that reason, it’s not good to hit a batter. However, baseball is notorious for seeking revenge on an opposing team by plunking batters. There’s an unwritten rule: If they plunk us, we’ll plunk them back. And a pitcher who feels intimidated by a batter who hits too many dingers may be urged to plunk him during his next at-bat.
The biggest cause of bench-clearing brawls in baseball is plunking gone amok.
Current Major League Baseball southpaws include the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and the San Francisco Giants' Madison Bumgarner. Give up? Here's a hint: Hall of Famer Robert Moses "Lefty" Grove also was a southpaw.
It’s the baseball word given to players who are left-handed.
Lefty boxers were first referred to as southpaws as early as 1860. In baseball, it's commonly believed that beat writers dubbed left-handed pitchers southpaws because diamonds were primarily built so that batters faced east (to avoid afternoon sun in their eyes). Ergo, a lefty's arm delivery would come from the south.
That origin is debatable, but the fact that the term has expanded to describe any lefty on the field is not.
Sounds dangerous, right? Well, it's a risky play but not exactly deadly in a life-or-death way.
A team that's up to bat can execute a suicide squeeze when a runner is on third base. When the batter squares up to lay down a bunt, the runner on third takes off for home plate — as soon as the pitcher goes into his windup. If the batter connects and successfully dinks the ball into the infield, there's no way a fielder will be able to make a play at home.
However, if the batter fails to make contact with the pitched ball, the runner from third will be dead to rights and tagged out by the catcher.
A walk-off play is the most exciting in baseball. It occurs in the bottom half of the last inning when the home team gets a hit that immediately ends the game. This would occur if the home team is losing (or tied) going into its potentially last at-bat.
A single might score the run that causes a walk-off, which would cause fans to cheer wildly and induce players to jump up and down and rush the field. Even more exciting than a walk-off single is a walk-off dinger.
And even more exciting than that would be a walk-off grand salami (yup, that's a few too many baseball words).