To understand America, Jacques Barzun said, you must understand baseball.
Great, you're thinking, with my luck, this Barzun guy starts in accounting today, and I've got to put up with somebody else standing around the water cooler yakking about baseball.
Don't worry. Barzun has this academic and writing gig going, so he probably doesn't need the work. And maybe we can help you get through conversations with all the baseball nuts in your office.
You see, the Orioles are playing the Toronto Blue Jays for the next three nights at Camden Yards. Not too long ago, this was regarded as a "crucial series." The Orioles were close to overtaking the Blue Jays for first place in the "AL East." These games at Oriole Park were among the most important in the "stretch run." Now, however, the Blue Jays' "magic number" is less than 10.
If the words in quotation marks hold no mystery for you, you're a hard-core sports fan. So what are doing looking at this story? pTC Scat! Flip to the comics and see what's with Brenda Starr and that quarterback.
No, we're addressing you, the baseball innocent. When everybody starts talking about the national pastime, you try to steer the topic to, say, the nihilistic underpinnings of the supporting cast on "Seinfeld." It won't work for the next few days, though. But we're here to get you through.
The key, you see, is that no one really knows anything about baseball. Those experts talking strategy between bites of chocolate doughnuts and sips of coffee could no more fill out a lineup card than they could fix the copier. Come on, you can do it, too. (Talk baseball, that is. No one can fix the copier.)
* Mr. or Ms. Baseball: "You know what? I think the Orioles got in trouble when they stopped playing good, fundamental baseball." This has nothing to do with Pat Robertson. The speaker probably is referring to sacrifice bunts. And one of the last things you want is to hear a harangue on the lost art of bunting. So . . . You say: "I know what you mean. They aren't staying within themselves." You might feel silly saying that. After all, unless you're an amoeba, it's usually pretty easy to stay within yourself. But forget your instincts. This is baseball.
* Expert: "I think we still have a chance. I think we can catch the Blow Jays." Maybe this fan should switch to decaf. The "Blow Jays" refer to the Toronto team's late-season collapses in previous years. Many of the players on those teams are no longer on the Toronto roster. No matter. Baseball logic holds that even not-so-instant karma's gonna get you. You: "I don't think so. We're too many down in the AILC." That's All-Important Loss Column. Never mind what it means.
* Diamond maven: "Man, did you see that tater Devereaux hit last night?" A tater has nothing to do with food; it's one of the many synonyms for home run. (However, legend has it that a zealous copy editor once changed "tater" in a baseball story to "potato.") Some other synonyms include: dinger, round-tripper, Ruthian clout, homeric hoist, four-ply wallop. You: "Yeah, it was right in his wheelhouse." The wheelhouse reference, of course, comes from baseball's traditional reliance on trains for transportation. A baseball in a wheelhouse is likely to be run over by a locomotive. It would be crushed. And "crushed" is yet another term to describe a hard-hit baseball. This makes perfect sense. Except that wheelhouse is a nautical term.
* Basebaldini: "Cal should stop trying to pull everything." If you hear "pull," the subject is hitting. And any time the subject is hitting, have we got a response for you: "He should hit the ball where it's pitched." Be careful, however. This might elicit another response. And not the one you might think, about how it's pretty hard to hit the ball anywhere else but where it's pitched. Jean-Paul Ballmundo: "I agree. He should go to right field more." You're panicked now. What is it that's in right field, and why should this Cal fellow go out there to get it? Isn't he a short
stop? You need an escape. You: "Olson stinks." Whew. Introducing the subject of Gregg Olson, the Orioles relief pitcher who succeeds at his job about 90 percent of the time and is therefore considered a failure, should set off your baseball-mad comrades for the rest of the coffee break.
* Baseballasaurus Rex: "I really like Arthur Rhodes. He has a live arm." And how fortunate that his live arm is the one he uses to throw baseballs, you're thinking. You: "He can really bring it." The "it," in this case, is the baseball. "Bringing it" does not mean carrying the equipment to the ballpark; the phrase is praise for a pitcher's fastball -- otherwise known as "heat" or "cheese." Thus we have the ballpark staple, nachos, smothered in melted cheese -- i.e., heated cheese -- a metaphor for the hard-throwing pitcher. (Top that, George Will.)
* Basebaloney: "They need to be more aggressive, take the extra base." This is not as ill-advised as it may sound. There is more than one extra base, so if one is taken, the Orioles have some more. You: "That's just heads-up baseball." In heads-down baseball, you find more spare change in the outfield grass, but most players don't really need the money.
* Basebalzac: "Remember how Frank Robinson used to take out the second baseman?" It's not that Frank couldn't have afforded to take out the whole infield (though feeding Boog Powell might have proven expensive), this is nostalgia for "hard-nosed" ballplayers. The assumption, then, is that major-leaguers now are soft-nosed, except for those who ignore fans' requests for autographs. Such players are snub-nosed. You: "Today's players are just overpaid sissies." Remember this response. You can use it at any point in a baseball conversation.
Even if Barzun ends up one cubicle over.