Base­ball play­ers are fa­mous for clichés

Three jour­nal­ists take a hard look at which ones are ac­tu­ally used

The Niagara Falls Review - - Sports -

The cliché-spout­ing base­ball player has be­come ... well, a cliché.

“This is what you work your whole life for,” says Stereo­typ­i­cal Base­ball Su­per­star. “Over the course of this sea­son, we’ve gone through a lot of ad­ver­sity, but we’ve got a spe­cial group of guys up and down the lineup. We are fir­ing on all cylin­ders and look­ing for­ward to tak­ing care of busi­ness. The goal is to win the game, but I’m go­ing to try to stay fo­cused and treat it like any other day.”

Do base­ball folks re­ally talk like that? Yes and no.

No­body said that para­graph. It is a mashup of phrases ut­tered mul­ti­ple times in nearly 7,000 in­ter­views of ma­jor-league play­ers and man­agers be­tween 1997 and 2018. In tran­scripts of those in­ter­views, we found roughly 20,000 phrases (and their vari­a­tions) that oc­curred over and over (in­clud­ing “over and over,” which showed up 113 times). We elim­i­nated nor­mal base­ball ter­mi­nol­ogy, then took a look at what we had.

Here’s what came up big. (Also, “came up big” came up 100 times).

One of the most com­mon word com­bi­na­tions was some ver­sion of “that’s a good ques­tion” (522 times), which is of­ten a ver­bal space filler that gives an in­ter­vie­wee time to think.

Base­ball play­ers may be asked ques­tions al­most daily over a 162-game sea­son, plus play­offs for the lucky few. It’s no won­der ev­ery answer is not “a breath of fresh air” (14) — or that 18 guys men­tioned “sleep­ing in my own bed.”

A clas­sic scene in the 1988 movie “Bull Durham” el­e­vated the in­ter­view cliché to both a crit­i­cal skill and an in­side joke. Af­ter a vet­eran catcher schools a dopey-but-tal­ented mi­nor lea­guer on the best bor­ing phrases to use in me­dia in­ter­views, the pro­tégé gets to the big leagues and rat­tles them off like a sea­soned pro.

The ad­vice was ob­vi­ously time­less. Vari­a­tions of two of those clichés, “I’m just happy to be here” (125) and “we gotta play

’em one day at a time” (485), still rou­tinely show up in the speech of real ma­jor-lea­guers.

We elim­i­nated tech­ni­cal base­ball lan­guage from our count — “down the left field line,” for in­stance, is a de­scrip­tion rather than a cliché — but that still left some quirky phrases that are ei­ther widely used in sports or are spe­cific to “the game of base­ball” (329 times).

Play­ers and man­agers stressed the need to “put the bat on the ball” (50) and “play your game” (185) and “find a way to get it done” (75). Pitch­ers “pound the strike zone” (and at­tack and com­mand it, 87 times to­tal). Twenty-seven noted that “good pitch­ing beats good hit­ting.”

But many of the most com­mon word com­bi­na­tions were not base­bal­lisms but widely used phrases that come up in ev­ery­day English.

For ex­am­ple, the top phrase was some ver­sion of a “heck of a job,” “a tremen­dous job,” “an in­cred­i­ble job,” etc., which ap­peared in more than half the tran­scripts (3,583 times). Reg­u­lar peo­ple also say that all the time. Per­haps the best known in­stance of “heck of a job” was ut­tered not by an ath­lete but by a U.S. pres­i­dent. These phrases aren’t ran­dom. They are cho­sen to com­mu­ni­cate ideas.

Play­ers try to sound truth­ful — “to be hon­est with you” showed up 638 times — and mag­nan­i­mous, as 301 wanted to “tip my hat” to some­one else. And they’re a no­to­ri­ously su­per­sti­tious bunch; “knock on wood” ap­peared 59 times.

Reach­ing for the same words and phrases again and again doesn’t make a per­son inar­tic­u­late or lazy, lan­guage ex­perts say — it just makes them hu­man.

“When we put a sen­tence to­gether, our brains are not just re­triev­ing in­di­vid­ual words from our mem­ory. We are of­ten re­triev­ing larger chunks,” said Nathan Sch­nei­der, a com­pu­ta­tional lin­guist at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. “It’s a good thing. It’s one of the things that helps you come up with a flu­ent sen­tence with­out hav­ing to be com­pletely cre­ative in ev­ery word you use when put­ting the sen­tence to­gether.”

Many of the most com­mon phrases were id­ioms — phrases that mean some­thing dif­fer­ent from the lit­eral mean­ing of their words. “Grab­bing the bull by the horns” (9), for in­stance, nearly al­ways means con­fronting a prob­lem rather than an ac­tual bull. Id­ioms are like code phrases that help us build rap­port with other peo­ple by demon­strat­ing that we are part of the group, Sch­nei­der said. If you’re not “on the same page” (161), they make no sense.

Id­ioms showed up hun­dreds of times, from “bring­ing some­thing to the ta­ble” (125) and “put­ting the cart be­fore the horse” (15) to keep­ing some­thing “on the back burner” (13) and be­ing “all in the same boat” (40).

“If you were to give a com­puter these texts and ask the sys­tem to fig­ure out what base­ball is about based on the words,” Sch­nei­der said, “it might get con­fused and think that base­ball in­volves horses and boats and burn­ers.”

About this story

Our method­ol­ogy was com­pu­ta­tional at the be­gin­ning and sub­jec­tive at the end.

We started with about 7,000 Ma­jor League Base­ball in­ter­view tran­scripts that were com­piled by ASAP Sports, mostly from press con­fer­ences at play­offs and all-star games.

We trans­formed the text into a database con­tain­ing ques­tions, an­swers and meta­data about the an­swers, then ex­tracted four- and five-word phrases and cal­cu­lated a PMI (point­wise mu­tual in­for­ma­tion) score for each. (The higher the PMI score, the more prob­a­ble that the phrase is a cliché.) We elim­i­nated phrases that showed up fewer than seven times and had PMI scores of less than 25. The Python li­brary NLTK was used for the text anal­y­sis.

We grouped phrases that were vari­a­tions of each other to­gether (within a one- or two-word dif­fer­ence) into a list of roughly 20,000 pos­si­ble clichés. Then came the sub­jec­tive part. From that list, we chose the ones that were the most in­ter­est­ing, then grouped those with sim­i­lar mean­ings. And voilà — the phrases we con­sid­ered to be the cream of the cliché crop.


Su­san Saran­don and Kevin Cost­ner are pic­tured in the film Bull Durham.

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