Thursday, November 20, 2008

"'English', Please"

Warning: Communication may be not as easy as it appears.

I had a girlfriend once. Terrific in multiple ways, but with a seriously limited understanding of baseball. I got an early tip-off to her constricted orientation to the game. She told me she had played softball a time or two, and I asked her,

“What position do you like to play?”

and she said,


A smile-inducing answer. But, strictly speaking, “batter” is not a position.

So I’m reading the “Sports Section” one morning, a report on the Dodger game of the night before. I announce to her excitedly – I know she had no interest and little understanding, but what can I do, she was the only other person in the room – that the ballgame had ended dramatically with a “Suicide Squeeze.”

And of course she asks me,

“What’s a ‘Suicide Squeeze’?”

I explain to her the intricacies of one of the most exciting plays in baseball, and, being of an inquisitive nature, and also polite enough to listen to the answer to a question she had asked, she takes it in.

Her curiosity is now piqued. When I finish the “Sports Section”, she picks it up, turns to the article I had just been reading, and she begins reading it herself.

She does not get far.

It turns out, that to a person, highly intelligent but a total stranger to baseball terminology, the report on the Dodger game is virtually undecipherable. She might as well have been reading Swahili.

Now let me be clear here. We are not talking about the esoterica of baseball regulations – the “Infield Fly Rule”, and the balk (I barely understand the balk). Nor are we in the area of baseballical poetics – “Chin music” and “the ‘Keystone’ sack.”

It’s a typical, everyday report. A pedestrian “covering of the game.” Children who follow baseball could easily breeze through this article.

Now remember, this is someone who has no knowledge of baseball terminology and has never followed the game.

The woman can barely understand a word, stopping repeatedly to ask for clarification.

“What’s a ‘fielder’s choice’?”

“What’s a ‘screaming liner to the gap’?”

“What’s a ‘message pitch’?”

“What’s a ‘seeing-eye double’?”

“What’s ‘The pitcher was cautioned for going to his mouth.’ What’s wrong with going to your mouth?”

On it went. And on, and on, and on.

“Why would the batter ‘choke up’?”

“What’s ‘a looper to left’?”

‘The infield played in.’ They’re the infield. Don’t they always play in?”

““What’s ‘stepped in the bucket’?”

“What’s ‘taking one for the team...'?”

My hands flew up in mock self-defense. It was raining down confusing clich├ęs.

And ending with a flourish.

Reading from the article…

“‘The closer emerged from the bullpen, administering some high heat to shut the door and put out the fire.’

“The only words I understood in that were ‘the’, ‘from’, ‘some’, ‘and’ and ‘to.’”

I think about this a lot. An article about baseball (or a blog post about show business), generated for public consumption, written in the language we all grew up speaking, can unintentionally be composed in such a way that a regular person, with no mental deficiencies whatsoever, or even somebody really smart, can emerge after reading it with absolutely no idea of what you were talking about.



Anonymous said...

Real communication is an undervalued skill -- so many people think it should happen automatically, like heartbeat. It usually doesn't. Too many variables involved, all of them human.

And I am grateful every day that when people talk sports, I have no idea what they're talking about. I have enough useless information clogging my brain as it is.

Gary Mugford said...

Back in my hometown weekly newspaper days, we usually ended up with an intern or two every summer. One particular year, it was a young lass who's father was a bigwig with a big advertiser. She was just slumming before joining daddy's company, but she was a very pleasant, easy on the eyes, young lady. Nobody complained at all.

As Assistant Sports Editor, covering for a vacationing Sports Editor, that summer, I fired the only other sportswriter on my staff. The only offered solution from the paper's publisher was to take on said lady as his replacement. I gulped, considered the alternative of calling the fired writer back, and then went to work transforming the debutante into a sports reporter.

It went better than can be expected, but nowhere near convincing her to become a full-time member of the newspaper toy department. Not that we would have wanted her full-time anyway. That said, when it came time to send her back to school, unique work experience in hand, we decided we'd take her to a Toronto Blue Jays as a reward.

Her response? "I've always wanted to see a touchdown scored!"

So much for my tenure as a mentor.

Jeff Tompkins said...

What exactly do you mean by "had a girlfriend once"? Yours? Someone else's? (I don't work for TMZ, don't worry.)