ANALYTICS OF THE CLICHÉ
Baseball players are famous for those familiar phrases we hear all the time — here are the ones they actually use
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 mash-up 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 162game 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 protege 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.”
Here are some of the most common and most interesting phrases from our data. “Please take a look” (101).
All the confidence in the world Look forward to the challenge Glad to be here Sleep in my own bed No question in my mind
Off to a good start
It’s supposed to be fun Been around a long time Way to get it done
It’s an honour
Going about our business
It is what it is
Nothing we can do about it See what happens tomorrow Learned a long time ago Done a heck of a job
Came up big
Took it for granted Healthiest frame of mind Ridiculous question Afirmbeliever
Stay in the moment Quality group of guys Little bit of everything
Go out there and do my thing To be completely honest with you
Can guarantee you
Take our chances
Law of averages
Have a lot of respect for
Look at the big picture Pick your poison
Keep your head up Nature of the beast Double-edged sword Roller-coaster ride
I’ve got my hands full
The cream of the crop
Rise to the occasion
Pick up the slack Nothing to lose
Cart before the horse
I’ve got my work cut out for me Firing on all cylinders
Get our butt kicked
In the driver’s seat
Put your best foot forward In the same boat
On the back burner
On the same page
Years down the road
No rhyme or reason Bring something to the table Breath of fresh air
Light at the end of the tunnel Knock on wood
Trust your instinct
The bull by the horns Taking care of business Cross that bridge when we come to it
Tip your hats
Best fans in baseball
Went through a lot of issues One year at a time
Good pitching beats good hitting Give ____ a shot
Knows how to win
Play as hard as you can
The best arms in baseball A great baseball town
In front of the home crowd Up and down the lineup Pound the strike zone
In the game of baseball
A true competitor
He’s a baseball player
Our goal is to win
Set the table
In the heat of battle
Put us on the board
Once ever in the history of baseball
It’s all about winning today This is what we play for
Put the bat on the ball Over the course of the year Play my game
Big win for us
Banged up a little
The way it’s supposed to be Treat it like any other game It comes down to honouring
Many of the most common word combinations were not baseballisms but widely used phrases that come up in everyday English.
Tim Robbins, left, and Kevin Costner in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham, which featured a long list of clichés.