A Futility Infielder Vocabulary Lesson

Back from that job interview, and I think it went well, thanks for asking. Now I find myself with about eight hours to dwell on tonight’s Big Game; as my former roommate likes to whine tremulously, “What… is… going… to… hap-pen?”

Rather than pore over other people’s speculation about the game or the series, I thought I’d kill some time working on a piece I’ve had in mind for ages. 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 Cliché 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.

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 Cliché 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!

• • •

If Game Seven is supposed to bring out the best in the best, that concept certainly holds true online. ESPN’s Rob Neyer has done some research and found that tonight’s ballgame is only the second time that two Hall of Famers have faced each other in a winner-take-all game (the first was Yankee Waite Hoyt vs. Cardinal Jess Haines in the 1926 World Series, but both were Veterans’ Committee inductees), as well as the most combined wins by two deciding-game starters up to that point (476).

Rob’s partner in Royal futility, Baseball Prospectus’ Rany Jazayerli, has some choice words about the differences between Dusty Baker and Jack McKeon:

Here we have a 72-year-old man, who first managed in 1973, making it to the playoffs for the first time. And instead of retreating to the ultraconservative style that is allegedly the hallmark of his age group, McKeon is managing circles around his opponents. It’s as if, after waiting through thousands of regular season games to get to this point, he’s unleashing every aggressive impulse that he’s stored up over the past three decades. McKeon gets the most basic point of the postseason, a notion that’s still lost on so many of his colleagues, Baker included: win today. Hold nothing back for tomorrow.

While Baker is screwing around with Dave Veres in a season-defining moment, McKeon has run his team throughout the playoffs as if he had an eight-man pitching staff. The irony of this is that when McKeon broke in as a manager in the ’70s, most teams relied on just eight or nine men to throw 90% of their innings. Actually, it’s not ironic at all. McKeon’s experience in a time when bullpens were structured differently (back in those Neanderthal times, managers actually had the gall to use their best relievers in key situations before the ninth inning–imagine that!) is one of the reasons he’s so successful.

Rany points out that McKeon has used four of his starters out of the ‘pen in the postseason, an idea that is “state-of-the-art–or at least it was in 1936.” Delicious.

Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan points to a couple of key plays in ALCS Game Six that are the reason there’s a Game Seven, and at the porous middle infield of the Yanks, which is nevertheless continually overrated by the announcers:

With David Ortiz and his piano on first base, Bill Mueller hit a three-hopper past the mound. When the ball was hit, I shouted, “Two!” anticipating a double play that would end the inning. Jeter, however, never got close to the ball, which bounded into center field for a single.

I won’t say it was a routine ground ball, but it was a ball that many shortstops get to, and not just the great ones. Jeter’s inability to make those plays–every…single…day–is what makes him a liability at the position. The illusion that he has range is exacerbated by his constant diving for balls that other shortstops play standing up.

In the eighth inning, Manny Ramirez hit a two-hopper to Soriano at second base, the very definition of a routine ground ball. Joe Buck called it, and I quote, a “tough play.” Perhaps, had the ball been a live grenade, or doused in the Ebola virus. It might have been a tough play had Soriano been forced to use only his feet, or had baserunner Garciaparra just been handed nunchuks and a Dear John letter from Mia.

Sheehan, a Yankee fan, also notes, “Tonight will be the first do-or-die game the Yankees and Red Sox have played since October 1, 1978, when Bucky Dent picked up three RBIs and a middle name with one swing.” Heavy and historic.

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