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OCTOBER 16 , 2003

A Futility Infielder Vocabulary Lesson

This article was written for my weblog on October 16, 2003 as I tried to kill time before Game Seven of the Ameican League Championship Series between the Red Sox and the Yankees.

My friends and I have watched enough baseball (and other sports), lived and died through so many rallies together, that we've come up with our own unique vocabulary to describe certain events. The name of this website comes from one such phrase, and this postseason has offered several examples of these terms in action, so now seems an opportune time to reiterate them. Special thanks to my nearest and dearest friends and family for their contributions to this over the course of our fan-addled lives together.

First off, there's a Futility Infielder, a good fielder versatile enough to play several infield positions but a nearly automatic out with the bat — somebody who spends a lot of time South of the Mendoza Line. Enrique Wilson is the Yanks' current Futilityman, but he's sitting next to the king of the Futility Infielders on the Yankee bench, the man whose big hit in the deciding game of the 2000 World Series inspired this site in the first place, Luis Sojo. Futility Infielders are usually scrappy, fiesty guys who spend so much time in the dugouts that they become adept at bench-jockeying, and as they age they generally make decent managers; even more often, they end up as coaches. Don Zimmer, I'm pointing in your direction.

"Don't hit 'em so hard, Reggie!" is what my father used to tell me when I was learning the game and would complain about how tough it was. This was back in the late '70s, when the Straw That Stirred The Drink was at the height of his charisma and his powers. Today, it generally evokes anybody complaining about how rough the going is getting.

Anytime you've got two blood rivals facing each other in a Game Seven, or a deciding contest that takes an unexpected turn, you know that one of them will be adding a page to The Big Book of Bitter Defeats. Teams who claim to be bearing a curse, such as the Chicago Cubs and the Boson Red Sox, have entire chapters within the Big Book, as do the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians. The Yankees have about half a page, way in the back, devoted to Game Seven of the 2001 World Series. Deciding games of postseason series aren't the only ones in there, however — any game which can potentially turn the momentum of a series or a season is eligible. Such decisive games can keep a Cliche Monkey working overtime, spouting phrases like "all the marbles," "there's no tomorrow," and "this is do or die."

One event which often leads to inscription in the Big Book of Bitter Defeats is a Get Off My Property Home Run, such as the one Trot Nixon hit in Fenway to win Game Three of the ALDS, or the one Derek Jeter hit in Game Four of the 2001 World Series. Once in a rare while, such a hit may be downgraded, as in Robin Ventura's Get Off My Property Grand Single in the '99 NLCS.

Speaking of Jeter, we've got another one which specifically applies only to him. Back in '99, my two pals and I were at a ballgame sitting near a pre-teen girl and her father. Whenever Chuck Knoblauch came to bat, the girl, in a giddy attempt to show her father she was paying attention to the action, would shriek, "Jeter is next!" That was the year, of course, that Derek was unstoppable, hitting .349 with a .990 OPS and making his claim as the elite among the young AL shortstop triumverate. He's been backsliding ever since, but still, the Yankee captain is clutch enough that we still look forward to him batting in key situations.

The Big Book of Bitter Defeats has a twin volume which is sort of a prequel: The Big Book of Bad Ideas. No team can inscribe itself in the former book without having copious entries in the latter. Dusty Baker leaving Mark Prior in during the eighth inning after walking Luis Castillo is straight from the Big Book of Bad Ideas, as is that poor Cubs fan failing to think before reaching for that foul ball. Not every entry in this book corresponds to an on-field action, of course. ESPN's hiring of Rush Limbaugh came straight out of the Big Book of Bad Ideas, not that anybody should spare them an ounce of sympathy for doing so.

Onto the more mundane events which make up a ballgame. When a starting pitcher wobbles through a tough outing with all the grace of an elderly woman on an icy staircase, it's a Granny Gooden, so named for when the latter-day pinstripe-wearing Doc K had lost a few feet on that famous fastball and piled up baserunners aplenty. The Power of Negative Reinforcment often comes in handy in these cases, when you curse at a player in a key situation for failing before he actually does so, in the hopes that it may lead to an opposite result. "Goddamn it, Karim, you can't get a clutch hit to save your life!" or "Okay, Nelson, why don't you just walk the damn run in so we can lose this game!" The Power of Negative Reinforcement is especially useful when you've got The Vein sticking out in your forehead, and is generally a sign that you're criminally insane.

Another negative event is the RBI of Shame, which happens when a run crosses the plate during a double play. It's no RBI at all, officially, and really isn't much to be proud of, but once in awhile those runs do come in handy.

When the opposing clubhouse is in disarray, you might root for them to preserve the Fragile Equilibrium of Unhappiness, so that such negativity may fester. Yankee fans certainly hoped after Pedro's tantrum in Game Three that the team's failure to back him publicly was doing just that. Similarly, the presence of such dislikable players as Pedro and Manny on the same team allows me to Consolidate My Schadenfreude Into One Low Monthly Payment.

The Grim Forksman is the end, either for a player or a ballgame. Derived from the phrase, "Stick a fork in him, he's done," the Forksman arrives a-pokin' to deliver just that message. When Alex "Sea Bass" Gonzalez hit the seventh-inning two-run double to expand the Marlins' lead to 9-5, that was the Grim Forksman telling Dusty Baker it was time to go home. Similarly, when David Cone went on the disabled list with pain in his hip earlier this season, that was just the Forksman telling him it was time to hang up his glove for good. The Grim Forksman is often foreshadowed by other events; in such cases, we might say that the Chickens Are Rounding Third, as in heading home to roost.

On a more positive note is the Rally Totem. This is any object which a fan believes is annointed with the sacred power of delivering runs at a key moment of a ballgame. Hats are the most common, but sometimes it takes more than that to spark an offense into gear. The Anaheim Angels stumbled across their Rally Monkey last year, and I've come across Rally Beers and Rally Children in my time. You may think that stinky, beer-stained sweatshirt is your Rally Totem, and if it's working for you, don't let anybody else tell you otherwise.

So what have we learned? Let us recap thusly: Tonight, two teams and two ace pitchers will face off in the Bronx. The team whose Rally Totems are more powerful than the opposition's or who can summon the Grim Forksman to claim the other's starter will probably win, while the loser will earmark this one in the Big Book of Bitter Defeats. Yankee fans hope Roger Clemens won't suffer through a Granny Gooden night, and they may have to use the Power of Negative Reinforcement if their bullpen becomes a factor. They're certainly hoping that Pedro Martinez's meltdown in Game Three may be an indicator that his Chickens Have Rounded Third. Those wishing further ill may hope that a Sox loss will preserve the Fragile Equilibrium of Unhappiness that Boston fans know all too well. But the game may be decided on the little things; even an RBI of Shame by a Futility Infielder might put the deciding run on the scoreboard. One way or another, we can bet that the Cliche Monkeys will be everywhere tonight, tomorrow, and the rest of the postseason. Now go forth into the world armed with these new terms and enjoy the ballgame!

• • •

Postscript: When I'm right, I'm right. Game Seven was not only a classic ballgame, it was also a fine illustration of this vocabulary in action. Aaron Boone's Get Off My Property and Away From My Pennant home run off of Tim Wakefield put this game into the Big Book of Bitter Defeats for the Red Sox and preserved the Fragile Equilibrium of Unhappiness for an entire New England winter. Boston manager Grady Little's stubborn refusal to go to his bullpen in favor of tiring Pedro Martinez was straight from the Big Book of Bad Ideas, helping the Yanks to overcome a Granny Gooden start from Roger Clemens. As for Pedro, his chickens rounded third back in 2001 when he told reporters to wake up Babe Ruth so he could "drill him in the ass." I didn't invent the Curse of the Bambino, but I do not doubt its existence in the least.