Baseball and the parts of speech

Opening day of baseball should be declared a national holiday. Today’s the big day. In our area we’ve experienced snow flurries, rhubarbs of hail, and sleet, wind, and everyday rain this past week. But now the sun is supposed to make an appearance. Yet we know everything remains imperfect. We know the sun will not shine on every game. And we’ll let Malcolm Gladwell worry about baseball and drugs. We’re concerned about baseball and the parts of speech.  

E. B. White encourages us to write with nouns and verbs: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (p. 71). William Zinsser agrees, admonishing, “Most adverbs are unnecessary” (p. 69); and “Most adjectives are also unnecessary” (p. 70). But sage advice can mislead. Francis Christensen, in his book “Notes Toward a New Rhetoric,” views the game differently, quoting from John Erskine’s “The Craft of Writing”: “‘When you write, you make a point, not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding.’ We have all been told that the formula for good writing is the concrete noun and the active verb. Yet Erskine says, ‘What you say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun…The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as the base on which meaning will rise…The modifier is the essential part of any sentence’“ (p. 4). 

We may not catch the parts of speech as they fly over our head or roll between our legs, yet they are always visibly in play. From most seats, a fan can’t tell if a pitch, upon delivery, is a fastball, a curve, a slider, a splitter, a cutter, a knuckler, a screwball, or a changeup, not until we see what the batter does with it, and even then we’re often unsure. Yet knowing the pitches and observing how the pitcher-catcher battery mixes them up against the batter is the best way to watch a game. Pitches are like words. There’s hardly time for a sentence from the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand to crossing the plate, but from windup to swing is a complete thought.  

We had the opportunity a couple of years ago to speak with Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Mariners. We wondered how he was able to call each pitch: “Freddy taking his time, now ready, shakes off a sign from Wilson, reads another, gets set, and here’s the pitch – fastball on the outside corner for call strike one.” Or it could have been a slider, or any of the other eight basic pitches of baseball. Niehaus delivered his answer in an anecdote: when he was broadcasting with the Angels, he said, owner Gene Autry came into the box one night after the game. “You called a great game tonight, Dave,” Gene Autry said; “I’m just not sure it was the same game that I saw.” 

Another time we were invited to watch an inning up in the broadcast booth. We sat next to Ron Fairly, LA Dodger first baseman of the 1960’s, who was keeping box score with a pencil, in a thick, oversized scorebook. There was a laptop in the booth, and a stats expert who worked it, feeding Niehaus and his sidekick Rick Rizzs notes and numbers they might fit into their commentary, but Fairly was keeping score the old-fashioned way, one pitch at a time, marking essentially the effects of each pitch. The broadcast booth framed a particular view of the game. The open window framed the field like a camera, directly behind and up from home plate, omitting the fans down the first and third base lines, thus forcing a sharpened focus onto the field of play. The broadcast booth afforded an enhanced view of the field, a very different view from any other seat we’ve occupied in the ballpark. 

We write for an audience, even if imaginary, but if you are going to call a game, you must block out the game the fans are watching, and call your own. Some coaches encourage pitchers to stick to the fastball and curve. Others admonish avoiding screwballs and changeups. Most pitchers specialize in only a few pitches they use repeatedly, mixing the rotation so the ball comes at the batter with surprise, and modifying with location and speed, depending on the age and condition of their arm – fastballs often lose their pizzazz as the arm ages.  

In the 1960s, in Los Angeles, roofed in blue, Dodgers fans often took their transistor radios to games to listen to the play by play by Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett. One learned some of the tricks of the game. A homerun flies quickly out of a ballpark. “Homerun” adequately describes the hit, in the time it takes the ball to clear the fence, yet Vin Scully knew, as Christensen and Erskine did, that writing is “essentially a process of addition” (p. 4). For Vin Scully could be heard on the radio still talking about a long fly ball to deep right center field, Mays going back, way back, to the wall, it’s gone! – the ball having flown over the fence some time ago, the slugging Dodger already rounding second base. So it goes with writing as with baseball. There are tricks built into the skills. But now it’s time to call it quits for the day, quit writing, that is, because there’s a whiffle ball game starting up out on the block, and we don’t want to miss the first cut – it’s opening day!    

2 thoughts on “Baseball and the parts of speech

  1. The Toads Goes to The Movies: “Moneyball” and “Theatreball” | The Coming of the Toads

  2. Baseball Poem with Hidden Asterisk | The Coming of the Toads

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