Baseball players are famous for clichés
Three journalists take a hard look at which ones are actually used
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.